There’s no such thing as race so what’s going on with racists?

Last week I read an article in the New York Times about white nationalists and DNA test results.  I’d say that I was amused by their discomfort but, as we’ve been reading all week, “send them back” is all too hurtful and dangerous.

When the results indicate that they’re not as purely “white” as they think or hope they are,

… their fellow white nationalists tend to console them by offering potential reasons the results can’t be trusted. Among them: skepticism about the tests’ interpretations of the science or statistics, conspiracy theories about Jewish-owned genetic testing companies’ multicultural agendas, and reminders about alternative ways of measuring whiteness.

They never question their underlying assumption that race or whiteness is a biological fact that provides a coherent way to identify themselves and distinguish themselves from others.

When I say that “there’s no such thing as race,” I mean that there’s no scientific validity to the concept of “race.”  Unfortunately, “race” does exist as an all-too-real social construct that has enormous consequences in the lives of people around the world.  To answer my question, what’s going on with racists is that they create and use this construct to frame and justify their claims to be superior to other people, and therefore to deserve better lives than their so-called inferiors, even at the cost of hurting them. The concept of “race” is the product of racists, starting with the Eurocentric pseudo-science of eugenics.

In this I am using Ibram X. Kendi’s definition of a “racist idea” in his book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”  I also recommend the NPR interview with Angela Saini, the author of Superior: The Return of Race Science.  After World War II showed the terrible implications of eugenic racism, scientists around the world rejected “race” as a scientifically valid term.  Saini warns, however, that

even to this day, there are still scientists who, despite knowing better and despite being mainstream, good-hearted, well-intentioned scientists, still sometimes invoke race in scientific research, particularly medical research, when it’s inappropriate.

Radiolab’s series on general intelligence provides a helpful exploration of the pitfalls of using racial groupings in scientific research, and one surprising payoff in the research that led to the ban on lead paint.

This little blog post does not aim to exhaust all the ramifications of the current turmoil over who does or does not have “a racist bone in his body.”  I just want to recall a warning that I’ve made repeatedly in this blog.  (See one of my first posts on the dangers of nouns and adjectives.  Also, my post on why I’m working on an essay about the dangers of reification.)

Warning: Don’t turn relations among people into things like “race.”  Remember what people are doing to other people, and for themselves, when they speak in racist terms.  That same caveat applies to calling people “racist.”  Focus on what they’re doing and how they’re hurting other people.  If we think that affixing the label “racist” on them settles the issues, we’re just providing those who are hurting others with a way to distract from what they’re doing and change the topic to names and name-calling.  That’s why I like the meme at the head of this post.  It focuses on what people do and did.



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