The “race” delusion in American politics and society.

By Lorenzo

Ron Unz has produced two pieces of statistical analysis on ethnicity and crime in the US providing evidence that there is no distinctive tendency among Hispanics to have a higher crime rate, once other factors are controlled for, while there is clearly a much higher crime rate among African-Americans.

This being an American piece, anything to do with African-Americans is treated as a “race” issue, a “black” and “white” issue. Which is precisely where the whole debate goes wrong right from the beginning.

African-Americans are not, in any useful sense, a “racial” group. They are a cultural group: better labelled in a more distinctive way, such as Ebonic-Americans, so as to be distinguished from recent African migrants or even Afro-Caribbean migrants, who are culturally distinct groups with distinctively different histories and cultural legacies. Ebonic-Americans are group born out of the experience of mass slavery and the consequent trajectory of the descendants of those slaves in the US. That is precisely the distinctive social trajectory that creates an ethnic group and identity.

Those called “white” Americans are, in fact, European-Americans or Euro-Americans, an amalgam of ethnic groups who can reasonably be identified as a series of separate “American nations”, as was famously done by historian David Hackett Fisher in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America and more broadly by journalist Colin Woodward in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. (See summary article here.) The wave of European settlement created an amalgam population distinct from the indigenous inhabitants and those imported from Africa as slaves. The obvious way to distinguish them was by skin colour, hence the “white” and “black” appellations.

But skin colour does not act in social affairs (though reactions to skin colour can do so). It is an easy marker of (entirely unearned) status (for good or ill), but not an analytically useful term. Thus the contemporary use of “white” in academic and progressivist circles is typically a misdirecting technique wiping out any notion of cultural heritage or civilisational achievement.

Humans are primed to notice ethnic cues. Small children will generally befriend someone of a different race who speaks the same dialect before they will do so (pdf) to someone of the same race who speaks a different dialect. This is hardly surprising: our hominid ancestors were forming ethnic groups deep in our prehistory: it allowed us, the cultural species, to cooperate beyond the foraging band (the Biblical story of shibboleth is all about ethnic cues.)

We began to systematically interact across the continent-wide groups we call races much more recently: far too recently and intermittently for it to be “hard-wired” into our cognitive architecture. Attempts to use implicit bias to show some deep racist cognitive programming suffers from the problem that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) has consistently failed to show the reliability (consistency across measurement) or the validity (connection to behaviour/social outcomes) to justify such use. Other attempts to make much of similarity bias have also failed to reach those benchmarks. Evidence suggests it is also relatively easy to (pdf) make other group markers trump race among adults.

Origins of racism

Due to our evolutionary history, we do have a deep tendency to tribalism or groupism. But this is a potentially “free-floating” tendency which can attach itself to all sorts of groups (such as, for example, political parties).

Racism as such was originally a product of the combination of mass slavery and universalising morality. In all its forms, racism originated as a justificatory explanation for what people were doing for other reasons. So, the first racist discourses grew up in the context of the mass slaving of sub-Saharan Africans and only appeared after the development of universalising morality (specifically, Christianity and Islam) because only a universalising morality is likely to have any problem with the systematic enslaving of others.

There was no moral problem about slavery for Romans–slaves were losers, Romans were winners, slavery was just a mark of losing. Indeed, there was so little problem that Romans ran one of the most open slave systems (pdf) in history, as freed slaves became full citizens. So much so, that people would sometimes use slavery as a path to Roman citizenship. Aristotle‘s attempt to provide a moral justification for slavery (as his ethical system did have a universalising tendency: hence its later incorporation into monotheist thought) just struck the Romans as Greek nonsense.

Once folk are all “children of God”, then slavery causes a moral problem–why are you treating children of God as property? While there are some glimmers of racist discourse in the Roman Empire after the adoption of Christianity, the first significant racist discourse (that is, a systematic denigration by race) comes out of Islam. For example, in a C11th book of geography by geographer Said al-Andalusi (1029-1070) Al‐tarif bi-tabaqat al-umam (Book of the Categories of Nations):

Chapter 3: Nations having no interest in science

The rest of this [category], which showed no interest in science, resembles animals more than human beings. Those among them who live in the extreme North, between the last of the seven regions and the end of the populated world to the north, suffered from being too far from the sun; their air is cold and their skies are cloudy. As a result, their temperament is cool and their behavior is rude. Consequently, their bodies become enormous, their color turned white, and their hair drooped down. They have lost keenness of understanding and sharpness of perception. They were overcome by ignorance and laziness, infested by fatigue and stupidity. Such as the Slavonians, Bulgarians and neighboring people.

Also in this category are the people who live close to the equinoctial line and behind it to the populated world to the south. Because the sun remain close to their heads for long periods, their air and their climate has become hot: they are of hot temperament and fiery behavior. Their color turned black and their hair turned kinky. As a result, they have lost the value of patience and firmness of perception. They are overcome by foolishness and ignorance. These are the people of Sudan who inhabited the far reaches of Ethiopia, Nubia, the Zini, and others.

Chapter 5: Science in India

The Indians, as known to all nations for many centuries, are the metal [essence] of wisdom, the source of fairness and objectivity. They are peoples of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions. In spite of the fact that their colour is in the first stage of blackness, which puts them in the same category as the blacks, Allah in His glory, did not give them the low characters, the poor manners, or the inferior principles, associated with this group and ranked them above a large number of white and brown peoples.

Why were Slavs and sub-Saharan Africans being systematically enslaved rather than being conquered and/or converted to Islam (which would make them no longer able to be enslaved)? Because, the explanatory justification of racism went, slavery was what they were fit for.

Catholics were not supposed to enslave folk: so said Pope Paul III (r.1534-1549) in his 1537 encyclical Sublimus Dei. But they (and Christians generally) could trade and own slaves that other people had enslaved, so there was still a moral problem of owning fellow children of God. Add in Enlightenment notions about the rights of man and an even more serious moral dilemma was created, leading to a fairly intense racist discourse of explanation and justification–hence the Antebellum South running one of the most closed systems of slavery in human history: especially as freeing the slaves en masse would, in system based on citizen election of officials, create a serious political issue for the existing voters. Hence also the Constitution of the Confederate States of America absolutely entrenched slavery while the Jim Crow system tried to insulate Euro-Americans in the South from the political and employment implications of the end of slavery.

Western racist discourses also arose out of the cleanliness of the blood laws in Reconquista Spain, blocking the children of Jewish converts from various positions and social benefits, creating a social cartel for the “Old Christians” and their descendants in Iberia and then in Spain and Portugal’s American colonies. This language of inherited contempt, independent of religion, was then extended elsewhere in Europe to create specifically anti-Jewish (rather than anti-Judaic) discourses as a response to the disturbing social flux of modernisation and the creation of mass nationalisms.

European empires at their maximum extent.

The last source of Western racism grew out of noticing that by the C19th Europeans dominated the globe, and trying to find language to both justify and explain it. It is not the case that racism caused slavery or imperialism or social cartelisation: racism was created to justify and explain the slavery, imperialism and social cartelisation that people were already doing for other reasons. (It is worth noting that the problem with Jim Crow was not that it was racist, but that it was oppressive–“race” was simply the dimension across which oppression was organised.)

As any sort of explanation for any of this, race is truly awful. Imperialism was just what states do when they can and when there is a return in it. Europe created particularly effective states, so particularly effective imperialism (much of which was directed against fellow Europeans).

Slavery is a response to control of people being more valuable than control of land (see economist Evsey Domar’s classic essay on the subject) and there not being sufficient local population to bind to the land (if there is, some form of serfdom typically arises).

People can form social cartels on all sort of bases. (The current debates about the increasing lack of cognitive diversity in Western academe is precisely about a form of social cartelisation.)

As a way of creating unearned status and effortless virtue, and justifying treating other people badly, however, racism works very well. The modern innovation is to discover that discourses of anti-racism can work just as well as techniques for moral and political exclusion: we can ignore and despise them, they’re racists! (Or even a basket of deplorables.)

Illusions of race

But racist discourses of justificatory explanation left a legacy of seeing people, and talking of people, in terms of race rather than ethnicity or meta-ethnicity. Such race-talk turns out to be very useful if you want to strip away any notion of cultural heritage or civilisational achievement. Which is really useful if you want to maximise your despite of fellow citizens–you just “explain” any bad social outcome on the basis of the presumption of malice: default explanation of differentiated social outcomes in terms of the malice (i.e., racism, misogyny, various phobic views) of fellow citizens (or civilisation members). It is an excellent basis for assertion of superior status: though much less useful for serious analysis as it relies on ignoring, explaining away or otherwise discounting differences between groups that lead to variable social outcomes.

Such talk has the great virtue of simplicity—you do not have to know the details, merely what are the correct signals. (And there is no more powerful contemporary signal than hostility to racism, defined so as to function as a social signal, not for careful analysis.) In an information-dense society, where displaying cognitive competence is at a premium, such [piety display] allows massive economising on information as well as providing reputation protection and expectation convergence. Hence its particular importance for participants in transnational networks and workers in areas with a premium on cognitive competence. It has the wider disadvantage of committing people to social narratives that support such signals and so blocking consideration of contrary facts or concerns.

The two unspeakable truths of “race” in the US are:

(1) If African-Americans had the same average IQ and the same crime rates as other Americans, the “race” issue would disappear (as the experience of Asian-Americans and recent African immigrants demonstrates); and

(2) it is not a “race” issue but an ethnic one–Ebonic-Americans are a distinct ethnic group while “white” Americans are Euro-Americans, an amalgam of ethnic groups.

IQ but not genes

The moment one talks of differences in average IQ between groups, the automatic assumption is that one is “really” talking about genes (and so “race”). Not so, as the evidence strongly suggests that the role of genes in inter-group differences in IQ is relatively small. For example, urbanisation had its normal effect (after a lag) in significantly raising (pdf) the average IQ of Ebonic-Americans. Moreover, children of an Ebonic-American father and Euro-American mother have significantly higher average IQ than Ebonic-Americans generally and are not significantly distinguishable in average social outcomes (pdf) than other Americans while, in the case of reverse pairings, children of an Euro-American father and Ebonic-American mothers have much the same patterns as Ebonic-Americans in average IQ and social outcomes.

It is very unlikely that these results have a genetic explanation: it is very likely that there is a cultural-experiential explanation for the first result and a cultural explanation for the last two results–likely due to the experience of slavery being highly adverse to the development of social or human capital, or mechanisms for generating the same, as well as mothering practices, given that sub-Saharan parenting patterns are very distinctive (pdf).

Indeed, sub-Saharan parenting patterns, particularly the reliance on siblings to raise younger siblings and the very limited role of fathers in parenting and the unusually low levels of maternal attention, seems somewhat programmed to, in the right circumstances, generate gang culture, which fulfil a somewhat similar role (albeit rather pathologically) to that ritual societies perform in their origin cultures.

So, Barack Hussein Obama is not Ebonic-American (his father was a, temporary, Kenyan immigrant, his mother was Euro-American). Indeed, culturally, he had a Euro-American upbringing. Hence, the US has not yet had an Ebonic-American President. Instead, from 2009-2017, the US had a two-term culturally Euro-American President of partly African descent; which fits right in with the results from the studies cited above.

If the social outcomes of African-Americans continue to be discussed in racial terms, then the debate will continue to be deeply dysfunctional, as it will direct attention to all the wrong places.

Culture as a basis for friendship and social combination, or social friction, is much more rational than skin colour. The “it’s all about race” presumes “people are identical except for race” (that being only skin deep). But they are not culturally identical, with all the implications of that.

A comment by Malcolm Gladwell is apposite:

Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.

And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.

Gladwell is talking here of people of common African descent, but who come from very different experiences because of distinct historical legacies that go with, and help create, culture. For good or ill.

If we talked about race a lot less, and talked about social capital, human capital, family formation, parenting practices, and other features of culture, much more, there might actually be some progress. But the story would also become more complex, and not create an easy basis for despising fellow citizens or setting up linguistic trip-wires (micro-aggressions anyone?) in the service of moralised status games. Moreover, a people who wait for others to redeem them will wait forever. But the primary role of the modern secular religion of antiracism is not to solve problems, it is to been seen to care and play the consequent games of moralised status and despite.

Note that nothing I write above implies that oppression is not a key part of that historical trajectory of Ebonic-American culture: on the contrary, it is crucial to understanding that legacy—hence “the weight” that Gladwell speaks of. But a legacy where the multi-dimensional burden of slavery and the social exclusions of Jim Crow are crucial, with racism as justificatory overlay.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    If you look at clustering based on genetic variation, then you do end up with something that is not terribly far from many people’s beliefs. (e.g., So white is not a terrible term even genetically and nor is Asian. The category African is hopeless because there is more genetic diversity in Africa than the rest of the world combined (For all I know, African-Americans may have lost genetic diversity due to most now having part white European heritage). I agree with you, however, that the important distinctions= in terms of what people do are based on social constructions not genetics, except at the extreme (e.g., top sports people in some sports).

  2. Posted July 25, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Just to be clear, I was not trying to claim that nothing corresponding to the colloquial idea of race exists — that would be pretty silly, as folk are pretty consistent in their allocations of individuals to race. Merely that, in terms of what structures human actions, it has very low relevance.

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