Arguing Against Racism

by Paul Bloomfield

ScreenHunter_2280 Oct. 10 09.55Back in August, in Reno, Hillary Clinton described the “alt-right” ideology as one that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism, and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity”. The alt-right movement owes a great deal to Jared Taylor, who founded the American Renaissance website 25 years ago.

Taylor is a self-described “race realist”, by which he means that race is a biologically legitimate category and from which he infers that because the races are scientifically real, “the races are not equal and equivalent”. He says, “The races are different. Some are better at some things than others.” Call this “Taylor's inference”.

The most common response to this argument is to deny “race realism”, accepting the now common view that race is “socially constructed”, thereby blocking Taylor's inference to racism. This strategy is a mistake, however, as it concedes too much.

Let's begin by asking, “How is it best to argue against racism?” Consider how the biologist Richard Lewontin argued against Jensenism in the late 1960s. Arthur Jensen, an educational psychologist, argued that the education gap between blacks and whites was due to the fact that blacks are less intelligent than whites. Lewontin is not a realist about race, but his argument against Jensenism was nevertheless based on the fact that Jensen conflated the heritability of an evolved trait within a population with the heritability of that trait across two populations. He writes, “the genetic basis of the difference between two populations bears no logical or empirical relation to the heritability within populations and cannot be inferred from it”.[1]

So, Lewontin accepted the fact that the races count as “different populations” and argued from there, based on science alone. He did not attack Jensen's racist ideology. The lesson is that the soundest way to defeat racism is not on ideological grounds but on purely factual ones. Unfortunately, mainstream academic thinking about race cannot really adopt this strategy.

Why? Because the vast majority of people who work on race have rejected the idea that race is a biological category and accepted the idea that race is socially constructed. There are “facts” about race as there are about, say, what counts as “polite behavior”, but these are not empirical, scientific facts; they are “facts” based on convention and culture. There are at least two basic reasons why the social construction of race went mainstream.

The first is that race has played an unfortunate role in the history of evolutionary theory. Race has been taken to be evidence of evolution by racists who wanted to use evolutionary theory to support the superiority of whites over the rest of humanity by arguing that non-white races are genetic intermediaries between whites and non-human apes.[2] Realism about race has long been embraced by scientifically-minded racists. And second, advancements in understanding genes seemed to show that there was no “gene for race”, no genetic basis for race. So, it has seemed like race is best explained as the result of social decisions and hegemonic political movements.

But whether or not race is a biological category is a factual matter for scientists to determine, not an ideological matter to be determined by politics. The problem for arguing with racists is that if race is a social construction, a product of socio-political ideology, then defeating racism becomes a matter of defeating an ideology. Given social construction, there is no fact about the falsehood of racism because there are no facts about the races whatsoever.

So, instead of a fact-based scientific dispute, we have one between racist ideology and anti-racist ideology. Given the social construction of race, arguing with racists becomes more like arguing against religious fundamentalists and less like arguing against people who claim the earth is flat. Granted, it may be impossible to change the minds of dedicated members of the Flat Earth Society. Nevertheless, the rest of us who know the world is round can point to the cold, hard facts and justifiably maintain that those who claim the world is flat are making flat-footed empirical mistakes. In general, it is easier to defeat false factual claims than pernicious ideological ones.

So, accepting the social construction of race makes it harder to argue against racism.

It is easier and better to argue against racism by agreeing with racists that the races are distinct biological populations and then argue, based on the science alone, that no one race is superior to any other. Human nature is the same for all humans. It becomes a plain fact that racist beliefs are just false.

The mostly-neglected news is that recent advances in gene sequencing have led to new results in population genetics that seem to vindicate a genetic basis for race.[3] The issues are complicated and controversial: consensus has not been reached among population geneticists. But the data indicates that 1.53% of human genetic variation is due to race, when “race” refers to the differences obtaining between Africans, Caucasians, Asians, Native Americans, and Pacific Oceanians. Crucially, 1.53% is not a large number. So, the data indicates that race is real but trivial, which is exactly the result which enemies of racism should both expect and hope for. Race is real, but this fact does not support the existence of any deep or important differences between the races. Racial differences are superficial: race is skin deep.

Let's now return to Taylor's inference from the biological reality of race to racism. Unfortunately, overt racists are not alone in accepting the inference, as many people who reject racism nevertheless think that, hypothetically, if race realism were true, then racism wins the debate. Realism about race has been linked to racism for so long that it has become almost impossible to mentally prise them apart. The problem is that racism is built-into Taylor's inference.

It is racist to think realism about race supports racism.

Take the analogous case of eye color. Imagine someone tried to argue that blue-eyed people are morally superior to green or brown-eyed people. One could not argue simply from the biological reality of different eye-colors to the superiority of people with blue eyes without also presupposing a prejudicial blue-eyed ideology. The inference from “there is a difference” to “this one is superior” is simply invalid. And the same holds true for race and racism.

The facts do not support the inference from realism about race to racism. From phrenology to the Bell Curve, from “failure” to “failure”, scientifically-minded racists searched but none have ever found good data to support the inherent superiority of whites. It shall not be honestly forthcoming.

The idea that race is biologically real does not support racism without the added presumption of a prejudicial ideology.

However, if one fully accepts the equality of the races, then accepting the biological reality of them does not vindicate racism in the least.

The claim here is not that everyone who has ever had the thought “realism about race supports racism” is a racist. Rather, it is that racist ideology has so deeply and implicitly infected how we conceive of race that it is difficult to think clearly about it in factual, non-ideological terms.

It is important to get this right. It is important that we argue as effectively as possible against racists like Jared Taylor, and this means rejecting his ideology from the start. “Race realism”, as he calls it, does not support in any way, shape, or form the racist ideology he spews. Thinking it does is itself racist. But, of course, he is wrong, wrong, wrong and not only for ideological reasons. Rather, he is factually wrong, given science and the truth about human nature.

[1] Lewontin, “Race and Intelligence”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists vol. 26: 2-8 (1970), p. 7; Jensen, “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?”,Harvard Educational Review vol. 39, no. 1: 1-123 (1968).

[2] Jonathan Marks, “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism, and the Roots of Anthropology”, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology vol. 55: 95-104 (2012).

[3] N. Rosenberg, J. Pritchard, J. Weber, H. Cann, K. Kidd, L. Zhivotovsky, and M. Feldman. “Genetic Structure of Human Populations”, Science 298: 2381– 85 (2002); N. Rosenberg, S. Mahajan, S. Ramachandran, C. Zhao, J. Pritchard, and M. Feldman. “Clines, Clusters, and the Effect of Study Design on the Inference of Human Population Structure”, PLoS Genetics vol. 1:660–71 (2005); Li, Jun, et al. “Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation”, Science vol. 319:1100–1104 (2008); B. McEvoy, J. Lind, E. Wang, R. Moyzis, P. Visscher, S. van Holst Pellekaan, and A. Wilton, “Whole-Genome Genetic Diversity in a Sample of Australians with Deep Aboriginal Ancestry”, American Journal of Human Genetics 87:297–305 (2010); T. Pemberton, M. DeGiorgio, and N. Rosenberg, “Population Structure in a Comprehensive Genomic Data Set on Human Microsatellite Variation”, in G3: Genes, Genomes, Geneticsvol. 3:891–907 (2013).

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Paul Bloomfield is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut (Storrs) and the author of Moral Reality (Oxford University Press, 2001) and The Virtues of Happiness (Oxford University Press, 2014).