Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Race, ethnicity and social history

People often talk past each other because they ascribe different meanings to the same word. Sometimes they don't realize they are doing this, sometimes they ought to know better. For example, I knew a guy who insisted that the concept of "organic food" was nonsensical because "organic" means carbon compounds, and all food consists of carbon compounds. He could not be made to see that the word was being used in a different sense. (You could also say that all food is organic because it comes from organisms. Same mistake.)

Here in the U.S. we use "white people" as a shorthand term, but most people, most of the time, are not at all precise about what they mean by it. Most broadly, it refers to descendants of the people who came to occupy most of Europe during the bronze age, and who ultimately came to constitute an identifiable cultural regime under the Catholic church. They of course spoke many different languages and there were cultural differences among the regions of Europe, but they also underwent a common process of politico-cultural evolution, from feudalism to the emergence of the increasingly secular and eventually democratic nation-state.

Europe also developed some technologies, including firearms, pelagic sailing vessels and domesticated horses that enabled Europeans to conquer faraway lands, including the Americas. What is today the United States developed from English settler states. In most of the Americas, substantial numbers of indigenous peoples survived. Some intermarried with European settlers creating the so-called mestizo people of Mexico. But the English settlers largely exterminated the natives. They imported African slaves, who even after the abolition of slavery following a bloody war remained second class citizens. So the country was ruled by people of a particular dominant English settler culture.

As people from other European countries arrived in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they also for the most part were second class citizens for a generation or two, though not nearly as stigmatized as African Americans. Think of the Irish, Italians, and Poles, among others. However, since they weren't color coded the distinctions among European-Americans eroded. For a long time English Protestantism was a mark of privilege, but eventually Catholicism gained equal status. So we had a dominant culture that was originally a descended from English Protestant culture but absorbed some others.

We use the term "white" to refer to these people but it's a social category, not a racial category. Notice that people who have a strong tribal identification with this category often look down on contemporary Europeans for their collectivism and irreligion, even though those people have fair skins and are in that sense "white." It is perfectly logically possible to present critiques of this heretofore dominant U.S. culture, including its political and social aspects, without being guilty of racism or racialism. For example, one might argue that this dominant culture is characterized by racism; by individualism and materialism; has had a history of unexamined imperialism and conquest;  and so on. Of course not everyone who was born into a white American family has these personal characteristics or approves of this history. These are generalizations.

One can also discuss African-American, Chinese-American and Mexican-American culture, perhaps finding positive and negative elements, though one must do so with a basis in evidence and ought to look for explanations. People who pertain to these categories have an easier time being critical, of course, but it isn't forbidden for others to join the discussion. Apparently it takes a certain capacity for critical and nuanced thinking to understand the difference between cultural anthropology and social history, and racism. But if you don't have the wit to understand this, you don't get to comment on this blog.

Update: Another logical fallacy is called the Argument from Authority, which probably needs no explanation. That the U.S. Census labels "White" as a "race" classification is not evidence that it is real. On the contrary, it is an artifact of the historical construction of race in America. According to the Census Bureau, Semitic Arabs and Jews are "white," as are Pashtuns if they are in Afghanistan. If they step over the border into Pakistan, they become Asian, just like Japanese and Filipinos. Oddly, Filipinos are Asians, not Pacific Islanders, although the Philippines are obviously Islands in the Pacific, and they don't have a whole lot in common with Tamils, as far as I know. Anyway, if you want more of my thinking on this you can read about it here. Don't take it from me just because I'm an authority, but do get that I have probably been thinking about this a lot longer and harder than you have.

Also, too:  It's not exactly a logical fallacy, but another form of inappropriate argument is the total non-sequitur, e.g. "It's wrong for you to condemn X because you aren't simultaneously condemning Y." It is permissible to talk about one subject at a time.


Don Quixote said...

Excellent, excellent post today. I want to comment here that I saw Amanda Seales the other night doing a comedy show, and she differentiated between so-called "white people" and "people who happen to be white"--the main difference being that the former uses their color-coded status to assume privilege that is somehow "self-evident," and the latter realizes that this status is contrived and totally bogus.

I was thinking, afterward, about those mentally-inferior people like Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, Jesse Owens, Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Smokey Robinson, John Birks Gillespie, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Pryor ... and many thousands of other great African-Americans. You get the idea (those of you who possess at least a half-keen sense of irony--not you, "Anonymous," because my breath is wasted on you).

I do reject the use of the terms "black" and "white" to describe people; I'd prefer to use African-American and Caucasian, and then to do away with the distinctions entirely as we intermarry (or not) and acknowledge there's only one "race"--the human race! I reject the term "racism" on these grounds, using something like "skin color-based prejudice" instead.

But Amanda Seales did a great job (as did Richard Pryor) of effectively using that simple black-and-white nomenclature to illustrate her razor-sharp social commentary. She is nothing short of brilliant.

mojrim said...

Your third paragraph, DQ, describes my own views into my late 20's, an idealism I couldn't maintain after having my nose rubbed in it repeatedly by liberal Seattle.

The most important point is that racism isn't the same thing as prejudice or bigotry. The latter two are individual characteristics while the former is a society wide system of oppression which uses myriad tools, from round filing certain resumes to murder by police, to carry out its function. Using and understanding that term is crucial; without it federal judges demanding evidence of individual racial animus rather than looking at disproportionate effects.

NB: The best definition of "evidence of racism" I've heard is "Rates of premature mortality within a population."

Don Quixote said...

I see the concept you're describing here as a real thing that happens because of the unreality we've created, mojrim--the illusion that lighter skin is superior and all the hatred and violence that comes out of that completely bogus, corrupt premise.

mojrim said...

Identifying a thing as a social construct does not, by itself, deprive it of power, nor does refusing to mention it. Race, like money, exists, and for largely the same reasons.

Cervantes said...

Yes, this is a concept some people have difficulty grasping. Social facts are facts, but they are a particular kind of fact. Race is not a valid biological category, but we still need to talk about it.

Cervantes said...

Oh, one more thing. Premature mortality is certainly a consequence of racism. The causal mechanisms are complex, so many people have difficulty seeing why this is true.

mojrim said...

The author's point, I recall, was that premature mortality was the best quantitative measure of racism. The idea has stuck with me since. In general I have found that shoving stats at people just puts them to sleep. Humans communicate ideas through stories, which is why we have such a wealth of mythologies around the world.* Show them pictures of congenital defects in an area, of dispoiled lakes that people once fished for subsistence. The deaths from lack of medical care (or just doctors ignoring POC symptoms) are harder to show in story but I think someone more clever than me can manage.

*Which leads me to ponder how much social damage hath been wrought by the Empire of The Mouse.