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