January 8, 2003

· Sociology

I’m supposed to be drafting a paper, but Kevin Drum keeps writing things I want to respond to. Talking about a bit of posturing by John Derbyshire he says

Here is [Derbyshire’s] explanation:

The principal non-respectable ingredients of my views about this topic are my convictions that race is (a) real, and (b) important. It is a measure of the height to which the waters of hypocrisy have risen that these beliefs are, by themselves, sufficient to put me beyond the pale of polite discourse. That applies even here in the world of conservative punditry, where the ruling dogmas are: There is no such thing as race! …

If anything, this surprises me more than the first statement. The idea that race is “socially constructed” and has no intrinsic meaning is something I associate with academic lefties, not with very many people from the real world. I’m rather surprised to hear that this contention is more widespread than I thought, even among conservatives.

I agree with Derbyshire here: race is real and it is important. It’s physically real for blacks because it’s the result of the all too physically real slave trade that brought them here over the course of two centuries and then caused the bloodiest war in American history. If that isn’t real, I don’t know what is.

Slow down there! Sloppy or equivocating use of the word “real” can, um, really, really mess up an argument. First point: since when does “socially constructed” equal “has no intrinsic meaning” or “has no effect” or “is unreal”? Some examples of things that are socially constructed—- that is, produced by the joint action of human beings in social groups: Microsoft, the Fed’s Prime Lending Rate, Congress, the Judicial System, Families, Ford Explorers, the Bush Tax Cut, Marketing Companies, magazines like the National Review… well, I could go on at some length. Suffice to say that we can all agree these things are socially constructed and can have quite substantial effects.

Second, when critics say “race is not real” they mean it’s not something that can be found in biology in the way that our standard concept of race implies. That’s what studies like this one set out to investigate: is race a defensible biological concept like, say, “species”? Does it make biological sense to talk casually about “The Races”? The answer appears to be No. So race is not real in the sense that most self-conscious racists believe it to be real.

Third, if race has no “real” biological basis, does that mean it has no real effects? Of course not. As W.I. Thomas said long ago, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” If you think the term “social construct” implies that something won’t have consequences, check your bank balance and think again. Kevin provides his own list of a few of the social consequences of the socially-constructed complex of beliefs and institutions centered on race.

Last, if a “ruling dogma” in Conservative punditry is that there’s no such thing as race, then that’s probably the result of some other project within conservative ideology—- just as it’s convenient sometimes to deny, as Margaret Thatcher once did, that there’s any such thing as society. As I’m sure Kevin knows, saying “there’s no such thing as race” for that sort of reason is very different from saying it when the dominant belief of a bunch of people is that “the Races” are as real and unchangeable as the sun and the moon and given to us by God or nature or whatever. The discovery that racial classifications have social origins disabuses us of a false belief. It doesn’t imply race has no effect, any more than the discovery that the sun is a giant ball of gas implies that it’s about to stop shining.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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