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Continuing on Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections" (1994), Charles Mills's "But What Are You Really?, The Metaphysics of Race" (1998), and Neven Sesardic's "Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept" (2010) with guest Coleman Hughes.
Racial breakdowns are different in different places, therefore race is socially constructed. So what does this mean for how we should self-identify? Can we retain the positive aspects of having an identity without this involving hierarchies and what Appiah calls "imperialism of identity"?
Also, more on Sesardic's scientism. Appiah describes our racial concepts as merely remnants of a robust historical account of each race as an "essence," an obviously false claim. Sesardic thinks that this is a straw man: that there's a perfectly coherent biological concept of race that has nothing to do with the history that Appiah presents. But is this "population genetics" idea of race really even what Appiah and Mills are talking about? Can you acknowledge biological facts and still think that what we're really talking about in politics when we say "race" is fundamentally empty?
Here's that Corey Robin editorial about Clarence Thomas that comes up.
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End song: "Tired Skin" by Alejandro Escovedo, as interviewed on Nakedly Examined Music #60.
Image by Solomon Grundy.
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broader point related point from Quentin Skinner on reading political philo texts:
My basic hermeneutic assumption is that we can speak of two complementary but separable dimensions of language. One is concerned with what have traditionally been described as meanings—the meanings of words, statements, texts. The other is concerned with language as a form of social action. I take from Wittgenstein the suggestion that one of the questions to be asked about any utterance is what the speaker or writer is doing in issuing it. We should think, that is, of our concepts and their verbal expression essentially as tools—or perhaps as weapons, as Nietzsche preferred to put it.
During the past generation, many doubts were raised about the difficulty of recovering the meaning of statements. I share these doubts, and I benefited greatly from the deconstructionist moment when it was strongly emphasised that, in Derrida’s fine phrase, language writes itself over any specific intention to communicate, so that textual interpretation is left in effect with the task of managing ambiguities.
Notice, however, that these doubts apply only to the first of the two dimensions into which language can and should be separated. If we are interested in understanding utterances, we also need to treat speech and writing as forms of social action. I argue that this has large implications for the interpretation of all kinds of texts—although I have myself been principally concerned with philosophical and literary texts. To understand any kind of text, we need to be able to recover what is going on in it. Does it constitute a denunciation or a defence of some existing argument? Is something being commended or denounced? Are we being warned or instructed or assured about something? Is something being satirised or parodied or ridiculed? And so on, in a wide range of possible speech acts that may be being performed.
My central claim is that we can hardly be said to understand any text unless we can answer such questions, and that this kind of understanding can only be acquired by placing the texts we are studying within the discursive contexts that enable us to work out what is going on in them. We need to treat the texts we study essentially as interventions in existing discourses and debates, and we need to make it central to the interpretative task to identify what kind of interventions they constitute in any particular case.
Charles Crawford says
I lived in apartheid twilight South Africa from 1987-1991.
Here’s part of a speech I later gave in Bosnia in 1998 about race/ethnicity/identity and all that:
“There is no reference in the Bosnia and Herzegovina Constitution to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s multi-ethnic character. What does it mean? Let me say something about South Africa, unlike Bosnia and Herzegovina a country I know something about.
South Africa had the remarkable apartheid system. So-called Whites, Blacks, Coloureds and Indians were forced to live separate lives within separate constitutional arrangements.
In practice it was usually easy to tell a White person from a Black person. Whites were European and Blacks were African. It was like an elephant: you can’t define an elephant but you know one when you see one.
But the Afrikaners wanted precision. They wanted the system to be logical. They thought that if it was logical it was morally defensible.
Thus we had the Population Registration Act of 1950.
Section One said in effect that a White person was a person who was self-evidently white. Subsequent Sections said that a Black person was a person who was self-evidently not a White person, a Coloured person was someone self-evidently not White or Black, and so on. Manifestly silly and circular definitions.
Legal problems arose concerning albino Blacks, who were very white indeed, and others of mixed parentage. The courts had to resort to such insanities as trying to measure the curliness of a person’s hair to test so-called racial differences.
Apartheid and communism both finally collapsed in the early 1990s, for related reasons. Both systems had continued long after they had been intellectually discredited in theory and shown not to be viable in practice.
The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa produced much sophisticated analysis on “racial” issues. Careful distinctions were drawn by Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement and others between “multi-racial”, “non-racial”, and “anti-racial” approaches.
MuIti-racial meant that you accepted that there were separate races but tried to devise constitutional arrangements to create a fair political balance between them. This was favoured by the mainly Zulu Inkatha movement and in a sense by the Afrikaners themselves.
Non-racial meant that you accepted that different races existed but refused to take this into account in political or constitutional arrangements – all men are equal, one man one vote etc. This was the policy of the African National Congress and its Communist allies.
Anti-racial meant that you did not accept the very idea of races – there is only one race, the human race. This was the approach taken by the Pan Africanist Congress who tried to mobilize ‘indigenous’ Africans against “European settlers” on an African nationalist platform. They had some good jokes. They were asked about their famous slogan “one settler, one bullet”. “We are a poor organization – we can only afford one bullet for each settler!”
The real-life problems facing South Africa have absolutely nothing in common with those facing Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But on the level of constitutional practice there are some Issues in common. You too have to reconcile different philosophies.
Using the South African terminology, are you multi-ethnic, non-ethnic or anti-ethnic? How if at all is the very idea of ethnicity incorporated into your political and constitutional arrangements?
This is the basic issue for your future – can you build a European Bosnia and Herzegovina only with “multi-ethnic” Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats? Don’t you need “non-ethnic” or “anti-ethnic” Bosnians as well?
Let me quote from an inspiring interview in Ljiljan by Ivan Lovrenovic. He said that the first step in renewing Bosnia and Herzegovina was the “relativisation” of political and national identities: “if we in Bosnia are only Bosniac Muslims, only Serbs, only Croats then we have nothing more to talk about…if you want Bosnia you have to be a Bosnian and if you want to be a Bosnian you can not be ‘only a Bosniac, only a Croat, only a Serb…I am not less a Croat because I am not only a Croat. If all Bosnians from all national identities can say the same for himself we are right on the road towards rebuilding Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
Fine words. What do they mean for politics?
First, they rule out ethnically exclusivist political parties and philosophies. Under the BH Constitution – under your law – all discrimination on ethnic or other grounds is illegal. So what is a Serb or Croat or Bosniac political party fighting for?
Any party organizing itself or campaigning directly or indirectly on an ethnic ticket aims to practise discrimination. “Vote for me not because my policies for everyone are good but because I’m a Serb (or a Croat, or a Bosniac). If I achieve power trust me to look after the ethnic interests of my people first and foremost…”
So, we all agree that apartheid was bad, right?
What is astonishing now is how all these so-called ‘diversity’ and census questions today draw on apartheid-style categories more or less enshrined in law. They are bogus, divisive and specious. They empower the likes of E Warren doing very nicely by her absurd to be a drop of ‘Native American’.
The core issue in ‘race’ and social construction is this.
Yes. there were these odious pseudo-scientific ‘racial’ categories, usually created for oppressive purposes. And yes, many people now identify with these oppressive categories as a sign of pride (“We demand separate dorms for our racial group!”)
But what is the exit strategy? We are heading towards a world of cappuccino-coloured people. Then what?
Insisting on all these legacy ethnno-racial categories risks creating Bosnia 2.0. Don’t do that.
Last word with former BH President Izetbegovic, showing how difficult ‘ethnic disarmament’ is for minorities:
Former President Izetbegovic put this to me in so many words: “we won’t accept ethnic disarmament for fifty years”. His argument was that the Bosniacs at some two million people had to build their strength for many years to come, as they were surrounded by some 15 million dangerous Serbs and Croats…
Fine. But BH is still a basket-case some 20 years later…