Friday, February 18, 2011

The Scientific Reality of Race vs. Its Sociopolitical Reality

Last week I made a couple comments on the blog in defense of conservationism. It seemed clear to me at the time that while conservationism may not be as “intellectually responsible” as eliminativism, it was the more practical option. In other words, knowing that the idea of race still has enormous effects on daily life, I could not see the benefit in simply denying its existence. How would that do anything to solve the problems of racism in our society?

After discussing Appiah yesterday, however, my views have changed somewhat. Appiah demonstrates convincingly that any attempt to keep the idea of race for social and political purposes, but to redefine it without the old anthropological criteria, is bound to revert back to the anthropological notion. As Appiah demonstrates in his deconstruction of Du Bois’ definition of race, in order to realign the notion of race on a common historical background, for instance, requires that we first have the notion of a specific group identity to which shared historical events can be traced to throughout time. And where do we find this identity? In the idea of race as skin color or other “gross morphology,” i.e. in the anthropological notion of race.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong in noting differences in gross morphology between people, as has been pointed out many times on this blog and in class. The problems arise when we attempt to speak of race as indicative of special contributions or characteristics, because there is essentially no correlation between gross morphology and degree of genetic difference, between gross morphology and “special contributions.” Skin color does not determine a common history. The two are related, but not all blacks share a common African history, American history, Caribbean history, etc.

I understand this, but I still struggle with how this knowledge is to be applied practically. I recognize that in order to be a conservationist, one must support the continued use of a notion which cannot be divorced from its inherently flawed pseudoscientific history. I now see that this is the hidden foundation of conservationism, and this is not the correct path to take. But still, I sympathize with conservationism’s attempt to solve the real problem of racism through use of common vocabulary and conceptions. True, this goal is structurally unsound, and thus cannot be fully completed, but what are we to do otherwise? Skin color may have no correlation with genetic difference, but every day people are oppressed and stereotyped because of skin color. How do we reconcile the scientific reality of race with its social and political reality? Please let me know what you guys think, because I have no idea where to go from here.

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