Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What We Mean When We Say 'Race Is a Social Construct'


I like Coates's work a lot, and there's stuff to like even about this piece. But it comes down to basically the same fallacious arguments that always populate attempts to convince people that race is "socially constructed."

First, of course, "socially constructed" is a disaster as a term/concept. At best its ambiguous as between almost opposite meanings, at worst it's not even clear enough to be determinately ambiguous. "x is socially constructed" is sometimes used, very roughly, to mean we made x, and sometimes used to mean we made x up...but more often it's used by people who don't quite mean either thing, but slide back and forth between the meanings--indiscriminately or tactically...

Second, there's the some people who believe that race is real also believe racist things argument. This is obviously fallacious, so there's no need to discuss it.

Third, there's a cluster of arguments about vagueness, continuua and changing beliefs. Are the Jews a race? Are the white? Are the Irish a race? Or what?  But the fact that opinions about race have changed is no more an argument for the unreality of race than is the fact that ideas about species have changed an argument for the unreality of species. Arguments from difference of opinion are always weak arguments (though sometimes not entirely weightless). And frequently a bad strategy to try to extrapolate from borderline cases. Look at the clearest cases first--that's sound advice.

To cut to the chase: Are there any real, physical, racial distinctions?

The answer is obvious when the question is asked correctly. Of course there are real, physical differences between Norwegians and Nigerians, Jews and Japanese. It should tell you something about the contemporary left that they are willing to deny a plain fact that everyone knows on the basis of an abstruse theory that barely makes sense. It's a very bad sign when a group is willing to deny plain facts for political ends...

Anyone who denies that there are such differences is welcome to take this bet: take 100 randomly-selected Swedes. Call this group A. Take 100 randomly-selected Sudanese. Call this group B. An average person will be able to tell, at a rate better than chance, which group is from where.

It is utter madness that anyone is having this discussion at all.

The core problem, to my mind, however, is the first problem, the radical, debilitating unclarity of "socially constructed." Begin with a defective concept, and the rest of the conversation will be infected, and defective.

Coates tries to deal with the obvious objection, but, sadly, ends up simply falling into confusion again, writing:
Race clearly has a biological element -- because we have awarded it one.
This may be begging the question by covertly asserting that biology, too, is "socially constructed," or it may be some other kind of's almost impossible to tell. But it couldn't be clearer that this response to the biology objection does not work. The differences between groups we are talking about has nothing to do with anything we "awarded" them. They were there before anyone ever thought of them or discussed them. And if you wiped out all our history and all our memories, it wouldn't be long before we noticed them again. If Martians contact us tomorrow, it won't be long before they notice the differences. And that is because the differences in question are real.

There are some real, physical, biological differences between groups of humans. These differences typically correspond to the differences we call racial ones. Humans think a lot of crazy things about race, but nobody is trying to say that everything anyone has ever thought about race is true. All sorts of beliefs about race have been false, and not a few have been pernicious.

But none of that means that there are no real, physical differences between groups of humans.

So: is race "socially constructed"? The question makes little sense because "socially constructed" makes little sense. But, to the extent that the question does make sense, the answer is clearly no.


Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

There's only one human race. As long as everyone can intermingle their genes we are "the same". As was said of Joe Louis, he's a credit to his race - the human race.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, it's a nice thought, and it would certainly make a lot of things easier...but it isn't true.

I mean, of course there *is* one human race...but there are also lots of human races. Pretending otherwise is trying to wish our problems away.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

The scientific term is populations, Winston.

To use the word race is like talking about fire as a release of phlogiston.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Not analogous, actually.

You're pushing a merely semantic point, not a substantive point.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Yes, like the difference between saying that heat rises, and that heated air rises.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

So it's a merely semantic difference, and there are populations, then there are races.

If you can defend any of the terrible arguments against the reality of race, by all means, do so!

I'd be interested in seeing the arguments...

6:06 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Sure thing:

Montagu's papers on race in the late 1930s, culminating in his book "Man's Most Dangerous Myth; The Fallacy of Race" (1942a) and followed by a series of works (including Montagu 1951; 1964; 1975), had the effect of upsetting the traditional concept of race accepted by most anthropologists in that it challenged the reality of anything corresponding to that notion. Montagu emphasized that gene-frequency analysis of traits would tell us more about the evolution of human populations, arguing that the omelet conception of racial mixing was totally artificial and did nothing to explain the origins and consequences of the differences between populations. Since men were all originally gatherer-hunters, wherever they were, the environmental challenges faced by different populations tended to be very similar; hence, one would not expect mental differences. This theory, as set forth in an article coauthored with the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1947), subsequently became generally accepted by anthropologists. Montagu was also asked to draw up the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations Statement on Race (1951) in 1950.

So, let's put it this way: The idea that there are intellectual differences between the different populations of H. sapiens is not based on science.

The problem is, that using race as a term tends to perpetuate that concept among the racists/xenophobes, which I know isn't your intent. It's a bug, and one that all the good intentions cannot will away.

Now, can one be a racist without the concept of race, or does getting rid of the term cure the problem? I don't really know, but I'm on the side of precision, not defaulting to the popular term, you might say.

Now, here's something to bake your noodle on:

How do you fight the concept of racism while keeping the concept of race as a legitimate term of discussion? Certainly not by imperiling the free speech of racists, which unfortunately is a tendency on the extreme left.

Oh, and about your post above from the Cornell student paper about social justice, I'm reminded of the playwright G.B. Shaw:

Hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

To cut to one issue we can focus on:

Are you willing to admit, DA, that racial anti-realism is largely or primarily a moral/political, anti-racist position and not a scientific/philosophical one?

Because I actually think that that's the heart of the matter...

4:10 PM  
Blogger MACKBOOK123456 said...

All your arguments, Winston, are evidence free. It is clear you have no scientific evidence to back up your fallacious arguments. Laughable.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

What peer-reviewed academic sources do you have to support your moronic claims? (Answer: none. You are making pseudoscientific claims.)

11:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Those are not what we call "arguments" here on Earth...

12:58 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

No sources? What a fucking idiot! I am laughing at how wrong and stupid you are! Academics have refuted every single one of your "arguments" (which are naught but pure fabulation.)

1:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Seriously dude.

You're embarrassing yourself.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

Any sources? No?

1:59 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Man, it must be extremely embarrassing to be you...

I mean, if you don't even realize that (a) the burden of proof is on the antirealist here, nor (b) that the errors in question are logical errors, nor that (c) logical errors cannot be answered by (LOL) "peer-reviewed academic studies"...nor for that matter, that the actual preponderance of the relevant research is *against* the realist position...

Well need to read at least a little bit before trying to discuss things with the adults.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

Still no sources. The race concept has been long debunked. You have no evidence or sources that biological race exists.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Nobody who was even *vaguely* familiar with the literature or the arguments would say that.

You obviously have not even the slightest hint of an idea what you are talking about.

If you don't provide something at least vaguely substantial in your comments, I'll just put you on autodelete.

Stamping your feet and holding your breath and insisting that you are right is not an argument.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

The burden of proof lies on you to prove that biological race exists. In the meanwhile, I will represent the majority view in science if you have any sources. I'm sure you have some, given your certainty.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...



The grownups are talking...


2:22 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

As I thought. Zero evidence. You can cry and throw tantrums all you want. Your arguments are worthless without evidence, of which you have none.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Seriously dude.

You've got one more chance to contribute something...anything...substantive and at least vaguely civil or you're on the banned wagon...

Obviously you don't know much about this issue...but...surely you know *something*?

At least enough, perhaps, to at least ask an interesting question...or maybe make a small point of some kind?

2:35 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

Look. Do you actually have any academic sources to back up your claims, or not?

2:40 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Listen man... Read the post. Make a point or go away.

It's very simple.

You've posted like 8 comments so far, containing exactly 0 content. If you knew anything--anything at all--about the disagreement, you'd realize that the preponderance of empirical evidence supports the view that race is real. *It is not my job to provide you with the links.*

Furthermore, *I'm not interested in the empirical evidence.* I just wait for it to roll in from the biologists and physical anthropologists.

I'm interested in the confused reasoning on the racial antirealism side. To ask for "peer reviewed studies" in support, for example, of the claim that the continuum fallacy is a fallacy is like asking for "peer-reviewed studies" that correlation is not equivalent to causation or that affirming the consequent is invalid.

You've got to at least start off having some inkling that about half of the disagreement is non-empirical or you can't understand the issue at all. want to enter into the discussion of the issue like a civilized person or what?

2:49 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

"If you knew anything--anything at all--about the disagreement, you'd realize that the preponderance of empirical evidence supports the view that race is real."

Burden of proof is on you to prove this. You have thus far proven that you have no evidence whatsoever for your beliefs.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous John Fuerst said...

I regularly read the scientific discourse pertaining to the race debate, and your view on race is a minority one. And it is very clear you don't have substantial, or indeed, any data to back up your creationist like beliefs in the existence of biological race. I have asked a multitude of times for any sources, but you did naught but reaffirm your ignorance of the matter. Weak showing.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous O.G. said...

None of your posts have any actual evidence to back up your views, and you have to hide from people lest your views get exposed for how flimsy they are.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@John Fuerst

Look, you are a fucking idiot. There is an overabundance of evidence for the race-realist side. Just because Winston doesn't have them doesn't mean they don't exist. An example is the critically acclaimed book "A Troublesome Inheritance" by Nicholas Wade.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Wow, lots of really dopey comments showing up today...what's up with that?

John Fuerst:

I'm not going to do your research for you. The evidence is well-known, and easily available.

If you want to offer an argument...any argument...I'll discuss it with you. Otherwise, you can look at my archives. I've explained why the several of the common arguments for race anti-realism are invalid.

If somebody shows up here and they're collegial but not knowledgable, I'll discuss things with them. If someone shows up and is an asshole, but has interesting points to make, I'll usually talk to them, too.

But if someone shows up and is an asshole, and also has nothing to say...well...I don't talk to them.

By all means, offer an argument. Otherwise...shoo.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

And thanks, A...

But...honestly...why provide links? My general view is that, if somebody shows up with nothing to say other than "find links for me!" I'm strongly disinclined to do so...

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again I direct the idiots posting above and Winston Smith to read A Troublesome Inheritance. It is an excellent refutation of the racial antirealists

5:08 PM  

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