Monday, July 07, 2008

Race is not a "Social Construct"

Yesterday it occurred to me that despite the constant repetition that race is a "social construct" that this is in fact not true. Or it is only true if one is using the term "social construct" as a code word. In point of fact race is a legal category created and enforced by state violence. It does not matter what "society" thinks about race. What matters is what the people who control the guns think and do. Absent the coercive power of the state, the enforcement of racial boundaries is impossible in the long term. There are no cases of "society" without the backing of the state being able to enforce systems of racial exclusion such as existed in the American South of Jim Crow, Apartheid South Africa or Israel today.


FLG said...

I think they mean social construct as opposed to a biological distinction, such as a difference between species for example. In this light, legal distinctions are social constructs because they are not based upon huge biological differences.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Since race is usually based on cultural essentialism claiming it is not biological is just stating the obvious. Except for a brief period in the late 19th and early 20th century nobody has claimed race is biological. Even "Separate development" in South Africa was justified on the basis that various Black groups and Whites had different cultures. Likewise culture, civilization and even religion have been used far more often historically than genetics to justify racial discrimination.

So I do not buy you explaination. The lack of emphasis on the role of the state in both defining race and enforcing its boundries in most literature on race is very telling. I believe it might be one of the reasons there is lot about White racism against Blacks, but very little on Soviet or Israeli racism. In the latter two cases the role of the state is impossible to ignore. You can not often tell a Volga German from a Russian or a Jew from an Arab without state issued ID cards.

Withywindle said...

Nonsense. The state has only had effective coercive power in modern times, and its still patchy. The Pakistanis in Brighton who butcher their sisters and daughters when they marry outside the community are the norm of "socially-constructed racism"--"socially-constructed community boundaries of any sort" being more accurate, whether religion, ethne, or simply "us, dammit, and not anyone else." Family, clan, village, faith--the state matters, but only interwoven with these alternate sources of power. The USSR was, to put it mildly, atypical. Your bugaboo about Israel is massively distorting even in modern times: Indonesians killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese without needing identity cards to help them; Hutu murdered Tutsi on a similar scale, etc., etc., where to say "the state" was responsible is to misread history massively.

Bensch the Mensch said...

LOL but Otto the three examples you used (Israel, South Africa, USA) were all systems that existed in capitalist social democracies. So weren't the racist policies of the state somehow reflective of society and the underlying economic system?

You might have a stronger case with the Stalinists but at the end of the day if the state itself is a social construct then so are its racial policies.

As as aside I was recently the unwitting subject of an experiment by the university psychology department here that was designed to determine whether people of one ethnicity could more or less easily distinguish between individuals of another racial background. I think the psychologists would make the case that the tendency to group others by race is at least partially the result of our evolutionary history, even though the actual biological differences between the races are very small.

- Ben

J. Otto Pohl said...


I normally do not respond to people too cowardly to use their own real names. But, your example of Rwanda is so riddled with errors I feel the need to point them out. Most notably that both the state and state issued ID cards were essential for conducting the Hutu genocide against Tutsis.

The genocide in Rwanda was carried out by the state and the population did have ID cards distinguishing Hutu from Tutsi. So that example is clearly wrong. In Rwanda the state going back to Belgian colonial rule played a major role in defining the boundries between Tutsis and Hutus. The Belgians first introduced ID cards to distinguish the two groups. According to Prevent Genocide International the existence of state issued ID cards distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus greatly facilitated the 1994 genocide. Both by allowing quick determination of who was Hutu and by historically reinforcing the differences between the groups as a legal matter.

Absent state organization it would have been impossible to carry out the genocide. According to BBC the first killings of Tutsis in 1994 were by the Presidential Guard itself. Acording to Human Rights Watch the military and national police organized and participated in the slaughter at the highest levels. The military and national police are state organizations. Likewise political leaders and ministers in the government used their positions to carry out the genocide. They further note the important role of the state administration at all levels in mobilizing the population to particpate in the genocide. So the role of the state in organizing the genocide in Rwanda is indisputable.

J. Otto Pohl said...


You might be on to something about capitalist social democracies being prone to racist policies. Although I would not classify either South Africa or the US in the time period under discussion as social democracies. I have certainly seen the Marxist argument regarding capitalist states as using racism as a tool to divide the working class. But, I would argue that socialist states such as the USSR and Israel also use race as an administrative tool.

I have no doubt that people can identify phenotypes associated with race. Van Den Berghe has some very good stuff on the issue. Enforcing racial categories marked by skin color is a lot easier than one marked only by state ID cards. But, the actual definitions of racial categories are still created and enforced by the state. Nobody can see "one drop" of Black blood.

Withywindle said...

JOP: In your obsession with Israel, you imply or state that it (with the USSR) is somehow unique or rare in having state-definitions of race. If Rwanda had ethnic identities on its ID cards--and how many other states around the world?--and this contributed to genocidal slaughter, it 1) makes hash of your factual contention that Israel is somehow special in this regard, and 2) makes equal hash of your moral condemnation of Israel, whose treatment of the Palestinians, on the most unfavorable reading remotely connected to reality, is light-years away from the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu.

As for Rwanda: I am familiar with the scholarly literature you cite. It's garbage, invented by lefty academics who can't stand to recognize the reality of ethnicity. The Tutsi are several feet taller than the Hutu--it's one of the most dramatic signifiers of ethnic difference on record--and the Belgians confirmed a universally recognized reality, they did not create it. (The idea that issuing people identity cards would somehow make people suddenly think "Gosh, I'm Hutu" is grossly ahistorical.) You use the weasel-phrase "reinforcing the differences"--but the "reinforcement" was a weak supplement on the social reality. And indeed, the Hutu in charge of government used government power to foment the genocide. It was also a genuinely popular genocide, effective precisely because popular, and so general enthusiasm could supplement the weak powers of the Rwandan state. The urge by the Hutus in power to exterminate Tutsi cannot be separated from ethnic identities, and hatreds, that long predated the arrival of the Belgians. The state was the tool of the people; the Hutu, not the Rwandan state, were the genociders. Your use of the state as a heuristic tool, here as elsewhere, so grossly overstates the case as to make your framework nearly useless as a tool of historical understanding.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Since you do not have the courage to use your real name I see no point in debating you at length. Needless to say if you think all the scholars on Rwanda are wrong you are in a very small minority. I will also notice that since you support ethnic cleansing in Palestine in Czechoslovakia you are in no position to speak about morality to any one. But, it would help if you at least identified your name and employer so that this was an open fact.

I am hardly obsessed with Israel. I mention it usually in passing on average in one post a month on my blog. It was noted along with South Africa and the US in this post. But, it is obvious that like many hard core Zionists you are obsessed with Israel and any criticism is intolerable. Why as a US citizen were you not outraged by my criticism of Jim Crow? Surely the Nakba was worse than anything to happen in the US after the Civil War. The fact that Israel is not unique, I never claimed it was, and that Rwanda was worse is not a good argument for defending it. Lots of countries were worse than the US under Jim Crow and South Africa under Apartheid too. Is moral condemnation of them wrong as well?

Do not bother replying, I am strictly enforcing a no anonymous comments policy from now on.

Ben said...

It is a social construct, but there is also an underlying biological basis for it (as there is between say labradors & poodles - Geneticists measure genetic diversity within a species by determining the average heterozygosity of the species’ genome, or the likelihood of its having more than one variant of any given gene. Humans have an average heterozygosity of around 0.7, whereas dogs’ is about 0.4.)

Check out the Gene Expression site which discusses this:

"The basis for this assertion comes from a paper (open access) by a different set of researchers at Stanford, who assembled a group of Americans who identified themselves as either African-American, white, East Asian, or Hispanic. They followed a similar protocal as the studies in the first section-- they took DNA from all individuals, looked a hundreds of different DNA variants, and applied a clustering algorithm. They then looked to see if their clusters corresponded to self-reported group. And indeed, in 3631 out of 3636 cases (99.85%), the individuals were clustered by the algorithm into the "correct" racial group.

This result is obviously only valid in America, but presumably it could be repeated in other parts of the world (though there is some evidence that skin color and genetic ancestry are becoming independent in Brazil). But it is certainly the case that knowing someone's race will give you some probabilistic insight into their genetics[1].

III. Genotype and Phenotype

Once one accepts that genetic information clusters people together according to geography and that these clusters sometimes correspond to race, the next question is, do these genetic differences add up to phenotypic differences? The answer to this question is slowly emerging, and in the shadows I see the outline of a "YES".

All of the studies I will cite are based on the HapMap, a resource with genetic data as well as cell lines for individuals from four populations-- one of Western European ancestry, an Nigerian population, a Chinese population, and a Japanese population. Does the Nigerian population represent all populations in the African cluster, or the European population represent all the populations in the Eurasian cluster? Of course not, but analyzing them certainly gives an insight as to what makes one population different from any other.

First, the genetic data from the different populations can be analyzed to search for areas of the genome that have been under recent selection-- i.e. that have recently become beneficial for Nigerians, or Chinese, or whichever group. That analysis was done by two groups (both papers are open access), though I will discuss the second one. What they found was that each of the populations (they group the Chinese and Japanese together into a single population) has been under, and probably continues to be under, natural selection. It would be theoretically possible (if remarkable) to find that all humans are undergoing the same selective pressures and responding identically to them, but that is not the case. I've posted on the right a Venn diagram from the paper showing that most of the loci identified as under selection are detected in only one of the three groups, indicating that selection is causing people in different parts of the globe to become more distinct. The precise effects of the genetic variation between populations is unclear, but (as it's under selection) it's certainly phenotypically relevant. And lest you think the genes under selection are related only to "boring" physiological traits, note that one of the papers found that a number of genes involved in "neuronal function" have been under selection.

Even more recently, another group analyzed gene expression in both the Asian HapMap samples and the European HapMap samples and found that around 25% of the genes in the two were differentially expressed, and that this differential expression is due to genetic differences in many cases. The road from genotype to phenotype goes through gene expression, so this is a major step in connecting genetic variation to phenotypic variation.

So it's clear that populations differ genetically and that these differences are relevant phenotypically and informative about race. So, do genetic differences explain racial differences in any given phenotype? I hope that for phenotypes like eye color and skin color people accept the answer as obviously yes; these sorts of things have been convincingly demonstrated. For other phenotypes like IQ or personality, if you're inclined to react negatively, I say wait a few years before you get too confident; the study of human genetic variation is in its infancy, and once it hits adolescence it's going to start becoming a real pain in the ass."

Zach said...

I just wanted to say that I happened upon this blog as I was looking for sources, material, etc. for a paper I am currently writing, and I think that this is a very interesting discussion.

I personally feel from what I have learned, seen, experienced that race is not a biological fact but it is very much a social fact. One could look at race in terms of hair color/type, skin color, etc and make a claim that at least on that level race is a biological fact. However, I think that race is much more of a continium. If one were to travel from say the south pole to the north pole people would progressively get lighter or darker. There would not be a place where one could say 'ok here is where the line exists between where dark skinned people and light skinned people are.'

In terms of genetics, and again what I have found on the topic, more genetic variation can be found within a given population than between different populations. So that genetically speaking two people from the same population can have just as much, if not more,genetic variance between them as two people from seperate populations.

Earlier I mentioned skin color. This is one of the biggest racial markers that is used. However, without a societal significance given to it, it means nothing. It is not until policies and perosnal actions and certain ideas are transmitted, enacted, enforced (all throuch social means) that a significant meaning and frame of referance is given to something such as skin color as a racial marker.

To look at it from a hitorical context within the U.S. look at us gaining our independence juxtaposed with slavery. Our early economy was based largely on a huge labor force of slaves. Yet, early "founding fathers" are claiming that "All men are created equal." This presents a paradox or contradiction. How is this contradiction (which could very easily lead to accusations of hypocrisy at the very least) resolved? Racism, or at least ideas of race. Define the slaves as a sub race to whites, further define them as inferior, and then making laws regarding them as property becomes ok, or at least legally able to be raionalized. Hence the "one-drop rule" comes into being (also known as rule of hypodescent)and countless others such as the Jim Crow laws and such.
Furthermore along with this comes an idea of white superiority which can then be seen through history to result in the opression of other so called "races."

When talking about slavery in a discussion in race I think that also becomes valid to look at slavery before slavery in America. Slavery has existed in many different forms for a long time in history. However, slavery existed way before ideas of race. Much older forms of slavery were results of conquest, or war, or debt, but not because of physical charestics or a belief of inherent and natural inferiority. When slavery found its way to the beginning years of the U.S. all of the slaves happened to share the same physical characteristic of skin color, hence making it easy to "construct" ideas of inferiority, race, and racism.
Again I would just like to state my idea or view that race is not a biological fact, but very much still a social fact.

Overall I would again like to say that I enjoyed reading this blog and the comments of discussion that it inspired.

Ben said...

"In terms of genetics, and again what I have found on the topic, more genetic variation can be found within a given population than between different populations. So that genetically speaking two people from the same population can have just as much, if not more,genetic variance between them as two people from seperate populations."


I think that is what is known as 'The Lewontin fallacy'. See AWF Edwards paper (2003)on this. Steve Hsu discusses this on his blog:

"Further technical comment: you may have read the misleading statistic, spread by the intellectually dishonest Lewontin, that 85% percent of all human genetic variation occurs within groups and only 15% between groups. This neglects the correlations in the genetic data that are revealed in a cluster analysis. See here for a simple example which shows that there can be dramatic group differences in phenotypes even if every version of every gene is found in two groups (i.e., 100% of the variation is found within each group) -- as long as the frequency or probability distributions are distinct. Sadly, understanding this point requires just enough mathematical ability that it has eluded all but a small number of experts.)"

"What seems to be true (from preliminary studies) is that the gene variants that were under strong selection (reached fixation) over the last 10k years are different in different clusters. That is, the way that modern people in each cluster differ, due to natural selection, from their own ancestors 10k years ago is not the same in each cluster -- we have been, at least at the genetic level, experiencing divergent evolution.

In fact, recent research suggests that 7% or more of all our genes are mutant versions that replaced earlier variants through natural selection over the last tens of thousands of years. There was little gene flow between continental clusters ("races") during that period, so there is circumstantial evidence for group differences beyond the already established ones (superficial appearance, disease resistance)."

See also Hsu's discussion of the Risch & Tang study at Stanford:

"there are readily identifiable clusters of points, corresponding to traditional continental ethnic groups: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, etc. (See, for example, Risch et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 76:268–275, 2005.) but it is rather obvious that there are identifiable groupings, and as the Risch study shows, they correspond very well to self-identified notions of race.

This clustering is a natural consequence of geographical isolation, inheritance and natural selection operating over the last 50k years since humans left Africa.

We see that there can be dramatic group differences in phenotypes even if there is complete allele overlap between two groups - as long as the frequency or probability distributions are distinct. But it is these distributions that are measured by the metric we defined earlier. Two groups that form distinct clusters are likely to exhibit different frequency distributions over various genes, leading to group differences.

This leads us to two very distinct possibilities in human genetic variation:

Hypothesis 1: (the PC mantra) The only group differences that exist between the clusters (races) are innocuous and superficial, for example related to skin color, hair color, body type, etc.

Hypothesis 2: (the dangerous one) Group differences exist which might affect important (let us say, deep rather than superficial) and measurable characteristics, such as cognitive abilities, personality, athletic prowess, etc.

Note H1 is under constant revision, as new genetically driven group differences (e.g., particularly in disease resistance) are being discovered. According to the mantra of H1 these must all (by definition) be superficial differences.

A standard argument against H2 is that the 50k years during which groups have been separated is not long enough for differential natural selection to cause any group differences in deep characteristics. I find this argument quite naive, given what we know about animal breeding and how evolution has affected the (ever expanding list of) "superficial" characteristics. Many genes are now suspected of having been subject to strong selection over timescales of order 5k years or less. For further discussion of H2 by Steve Pinker, see here.

The predominant view among social scientists is that H1 is obviously correct and H2 obviously false. However, this is mainly wishful thinking. Official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association even endorse the view that race is not a valid biological concept, which is clearly incorrect."

Hsu makes the important point:

"Finally, it is important to note that any group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything about particular individuals. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic make up."