RACE AND TOWN: There's no such thing, the doctor said!

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2021

Do you belong to a "race?": Long ago and far away, we heard it on Democracy Now.

The date was December 30, 2020. Donald J. Trump was still our nation's commander-in-chief, with three more weeks to go.

One of the guests on Democracy Now was Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, an ob/gyn who currently serves as president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative.

Much of the discussion that night struck us as highly flawed. In part for that reason, we were struck by something Crear-Perry said at the end of this discussion.

It almost sounded like she was saying that no one really belongs to a race. It almost sounded like she was saying there's no such thing as "race:"

CREAR-PERRY (12/30/20): If I was taught in medical school, as I was—I was taught that there were three biological races—that’s racism. 

Racism was not created by God. Racism was not created by medicine. Those things have been—racism was created by people who wanted to hold power and wealth. And so, our job is to fight for equality and justice and joy, and to say, “How do we undo all these places inside of medicine where we say that Black people have different lungs or different kidney capacity or different pelvis shapes?” 

All this talk that we have a different shape of our pelvis, how could that possibly be, when it’s just melanin production that makes us different? That’s the only one difference. Our pelvis and our melanin have nothing to do with each other. So, really undoing those racist ideas that we were all taught inside of medicine  so that we can have antiracism.

With that, the discussion came to an end. We were struck by what Crear-Perry had said.

Obviously, we don't know what Crear-Perry was taught in medical school. She seemed to say that she was taught that there are three "biological races"—and she seemed to say that isn't true.

She seemed to say that it's melanin production, and nothing else, which differs between people who are thought of as black and people who are thought of as white. We don't know if that is true, but we'll assume that, even there, we're talking about differences on average—difference which, in particular cases, may be very slight, or may not exist at all.

We were surprised by what Crear-Perry seemed to be saying, largely because the view we took her to be expressing has largely gone out of favor. 

We took her to be making a statement which once lay at the heart of liberal understanding. The leading authority on the concept of "race" defines that concept as shown:

A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society. The term was first used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations. By the 17th century the term began to refer to physical (phenotypical) traits. Modern science regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning.

Modern science regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society? Race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning?

This is another way of saying that there's no such thing as race. Or at least, that there's no such thing as biological race, the term Crear-Perry used. 

So-called race is a social construct? Race doesn't have any inherent biological meaning? As we've noted once or twice in the past, such notions once lay at the very heart of liberal understanding. 

There was a time when many liberals were very strong on such basic ideas. It was once the norm to write in "None," or even to write in "Human," when asked to identify race on a government form.

Sometimes, liberals would simply leave the line blank when asked to state their race on a government form. Based on the understandings highlighted above, this was once fairly common liberal / progressive behavior.

If there's no such thing as (biological) race, then no one belongs to a (biological) race! For better or worse, that doesn't necessarily mean that no one belongs to a "race" at all. Consider this additional statement by the leading authority:

"A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society."

Alas! Even if the claim that some person belongs to a race may lack "an inherent biological meaning," it's also true that "society" may (strongly) believe in such "groupings." Almost surely, our society will have assigned that person a race.

Within our society, pretty much everyone gets assigned to a "race!" This has been our society's central organizing principle since the very beginning. Today, when you get assigned a race, you will even likely be told that this assignment defines your "identity!"

Why were we surprised to hear Crear-Perry's closing statement? In part, we were surprised because the idea that there are no (biological) races has largely dropped out of favor. You don't hear it that much any more!

Today, we liberals are much more likely to focus on society's racial assignments. We're much more likely to accept these assignments and definitions as expressions of some sort of unchallenged truth.

We're inclined to accept the idea that these racial assignments also define our identities. We're inclined to accept these assignments of race without recalling something else we all know:

Within our society's noxious racial culture, our basic notions of race were,  in Crear-Perry's words, "created by people who wanted to hold power and wealth." Putting it slightly differently, our fundamental notions of race are, inevitably, part of "the world the slaveholders made."

We were surprised by Crear-Perry's closing statement because it expressed a set of understandings which have retreated into the background within our liberal world. Also, we were surprised because so much of the preceding discussion had struck us as so deeply flawed, in such familiar ways.

The notion that people belong to a race has played a deeply destructive role in our American history. That said, we in the streets of Our Town often seem to traffic in the slaveholders' basic beliefs.

Our discussions of "race" tend to be lazy and deeply unwise. We work from scripts which have come to us from the world the slaveholders made.

In fairness, no topic is ever discussed in a competent way within our clown-car national discourse. You'd think we might try to make an extra effort when it comes to discussions of race, but we rarely show any such impulse here n the streets of Our Town.

We discuss so-called race all day and all night, generally in lazy, incompetent ways. No topic is ever discussed in a capable way, but should we perhaps try a bit harder here?

How helpful are our discussion of race? How careful are we when we hold such discussions?

We think you're asking two very good questions. In the careless, self-impressed streets of Our Town, we rarely engage with your questions.

Tomorrow: The gist of that prior discussion


16 comments:

  1. Lately, Somerby has taken to referring to Wikipedia as "the leading authority". That is a mistaken term. Wikipedia is handy as a quick-and-dirty summary of some topic, but it is not "leading" or any kind of "authority," it is merely a place to start looking something up, much like an encyclopedia used to be. Why? First, Wikipedia is crowd-sourced knowledge, not expert knowledge. It is good enough for most purposes but it has not grappled with details, nuances or subtleties, because it seeks consensus (where such things are glossed over). Second, because it is not expert, it tends to leave opaque the controversies, holes, and other deficiencies in what is known. Third, because it relies on what the general populace knows, there are huge gaps in what is reported, areas where no one has devoted time to filling in information, which is a time-consuming process and largely done for free.

    Somerby is perhaps being tongue-in-cheek, but no one will know that, as he tosses off this latest snotty remark. He mostly doesn't want to grapple with actually finding out anything about race, so he doesn't read anything important on the topic. It is a form of disrespect that Somerby engages in frequently.

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  2. "Modern science regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society? Race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning?

    This is another way of saying that there's no such thing as race. "

    Somerby's conclusion, that there is no such thing as race, is not justified by the description of race that precedes it. Time is a social construct too. Is there no such thing as time? All of mathematics is a social construct, is there no such thing as math? Gender, of course, is a social construct. Is there no such thing as gender? Love is a social construct, peace and freedom and honor are all social constructs. Nationality is a social construct, as are laws and money and history. All social constructs. Music is a social construct. Does it not exist? Sound is constructed by our mind too. Do we not hear and our minds make sense out of sound, so that is a social construct too. Nearly everything that is important to people is socially constructed. Do those things not exist?

    Somerby has no clue what is meant by the term "socially constructed". Beyond that, Somerby has no idea how to think about human individual differences. He wants to say that if there are no differences between groups, then there must be only small differences between individuals. That is not true. Somerby's mistake is in not understanding variability within groups and the fact that the mean of a group says nothing whatsoever about what the variability within that group may be. Different groups can have very different variability. So his conclusion here is wrong:

    "We don't know if that is true, but we'll assume that, even there, we're talking about differences on average—difference which, in particular cases, may be very slight, or may not exist at all."

    Human variability is described by the normal curve. That means that within groups formed by people with white or black skin, two people may have very different characteristics or similar ones, depending on where they fall on that curve. Someone drawn from the high end will be extremely different from someone else drawn from the low end of the curve, with respect to some characteristic. You cannot conclude at all that they will be substantially the same -- only that their underlying populations will have the same distribution.

    That's why it is mistaken, wrong, to generalize about any given individual based on his or her membership in a larger group. Further, even if disaggregate and divide people into subcategories, variability is such that individual differences between people are larger than the difference in the means across groups. The tallest woman and the shortest man are more different than the mean heights for men and women.

    Somerby should have learned this stuff at Harvard. He should have learned it as a teacher in Baltimore schools. He would have learned it, had he ever taken a psychology course. It would be nice to think that racial bigotry rests on ignorance, but Somerby picks and chooses the "facts" that fit his preconceptions, his desired beliefs, such as the quote by the doctor above, who is also somewhat confused in her conclusion that there are no differences between African American and white patients, when public health studies show considerable differences in the incidences of certain health problems (diabetes, high blood pressure for example, sickle cell anemia, childhood asthma) or blood type. Melanin is not the only difference. The scientific difficulty is that these biological characteristics also occur in other groups and because of that overlap do not define a "race" biologically.

    In our culture, the concept of race encodes not solely physical differences in appearance but also social class, caste, and subculture membership. That's why "passing" is a phenomenon. These things are real, not imaginary. This is why diversity needs to be understood and respected in our increasingly multicultural society.

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    Replies
    1. Race is not a biological construct; or, cannot be defined biologically. It is a social construct. Other things, such as time and math, which you mention, are not social constructs. I don't think that it's helpful to lump everything together.
      Where Somerby is going with this, I believe, is pointing out that our discussion of the "social race" is presented in the same framework as had been laid down by the slaveholders. This claim dovetails somewhat with what I read in Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
      Similarly, when it comes to the medical issues, we should differentiate between genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, which follow certain ethnic groups and diseases that are more connected to access to healthcare. Again, let's not lump everything together.

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    2. "A social construct is something that exists not in objective reality, but as a result of human interaction. It exists because humans agree that it exists."

      Time and math exist because humans agree that they exist.

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  3. Richard Feynman once referred to psychology as a cargo-cult science, thus demonstrating that even someone with a great deal of expertise in physics can be ignorant of other fields. Somerby here accepts a physician, who knows a lot about medicine, as an expert in race because she once heard a comment by one of her instructors that Somerby happens to agree with. Physicians know a lot about physiology and disease, but they are not systematically taught anything about social constructs or race or much else affecting people's lives outside of medicine. They are not even taught much about scientific method or how to evaluate research, unless they get a Ph.D. along with their M.D. That makes Somerby's quoted doctor not much of an expert on race, and certainly not any more of a "leading authority" than Wikipedia, drawing as she does on her own opinions and those of one of her professors (speaking outside his own field of expertise).

    Quoting this doctor, who we are expected to take as some sort of authority, is little different than using the play Our Town to support Somerby's prejudices against family discord or whatever the hell we were supposed to glean from yesterday's essay.

    We need to discuss race, certainly, but not in this kind of bad faith way, where Somerby grabs random quotes to support his views and engages in no thought or analysis whatsoever. Talk about lazy and incompetent, Somerby is a bad model.

    You cannot erase 400 years of slavery by saying that race doesn't exist, because Somerby has decided it is inconvenient to deal with the results of that particular social construct. By Somerby's reasoning, anyone can decide that our social construct of ownership of private property doesn't exist, and prove it by looting stores and homes at will. It has been done in other times and places. Is it the right way to approach a social problem. Depends on whether you own stuff or not. Similarly, Somerby is fine with defining race out of existence because it is his social position that would be threatened by recognition of historic wrongs based on race, his top dog status that might be overturned by a reconsideration of race. Of course he doesn't want to talk about it any more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. tl;dr
    "As we've noted once or twice in the past, such notions once lay at the very heart of liberal understanding."

    Meh. Stories and tales from times past, dear Bob.

    All we know, dear Bob, is that essentializing liberal 'identities' (such as 'race'), and stirring animosity and outright hatred among them is your liberal-hitlerian cult's raison d'etre and its only path to power.

    ...oh well, and of course when that doesn't work, good old ballot-box stuffing is the second-best solution...

    ReplyDelete
  5. “Obviously, we don't know what Crear-Perry was taught in medical school. She seemed to say that she was taught that there are three "biological races"—and she seemed to say that isn't true.”

    She is saying race doesn’t really exist and that the concept was used as a means of oppression.

    But she most certainly affirms that racism exists. For example, when she says ‘And so, our job is to fight for equality and justice and joy, and to say, “How do we undo all these places inside of medicine where we say that Black people have different lungs or different kidney capacity or different pelvis shapes?”’

    Her whole life’s work is to work for better outcomes for black people. The mission statement of her organization is “NBEC creates solutions that optimize Black maternal and infant health through training, policy advocacy, research, and community-centered collaboration.”
    https://birthequity.org/

    The obvious idea is that racism leads to worse outcomes for black people, in this case, for black mothers and infants. Does Somerby want to deny there are different outcomes by race? If so, what was all his endless concern with the “achievement gaps” between black kids and white kids?

    Somerby can chastise liberals all he wants about “race.” But because the “slaveholders” enforced the idea, it created a legacy of racism that still exists. Black people themselves feel a kinship with each other based upon a shared history and a shared set of experiences.

    Neither Somerby nor “progressives” get to pretend racism doesn’t exist simply by questioning the idea of “race.”

    ReplyDelete
  6. Something also to note. It should be obvious, but:

    When liberals talk about integrating schools and other venues, it isn’t because they want to enforce racial differences. It is because society still sees racial differences. Racism is sometimes (or often) the result. Liberals know that the only real solution is to ensure different racial groups interact. That is the only way you reduce racism. Similarly, because there are racial disparities in health, housing, income, etc, you have to pay attention to race in order to address the racial disparities. Again, this should be obvious.

    The argument, that “liberals are trying to define people by their race” is pretty much the conservative idea that “liberals are the real racists.”

    It is false, pernicious, and, typical for Somerby, completely backwards.

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