Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Race as a Social Construct

From Steve Hsu. Apparently it was:

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu [who] advanced the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Does this mean that racial differences are imaginary? Not really. Steve has some details, but that's not exactly what I want to discuss. All of our concepts are ultimately social constructs, including the notions of table, energy, black hole, nation, and language. By that I mean they were invented by societies of humans and that these social constructs may reflect underlying realities more or less imperfectly. How, exactly, is a table different from a stool, to take one example? Well we sit at tables and on stools, but sometimes we sit on a table or use a stool as a table.

Race, like racism, is a social construct, but there are physical differences in appearance, for example, which are correlated with ancestry. Racism is, among other things, using ancestry or differences in appearance correlated with ancestry as a basis for discrimination.

Ever since large agricultural societies developed there seems to have been systematic discrimination based on some kind of class, often, but not always, partly based on ancestry. American racism, consequently, had plenty of ancient precedent, but it's real development began with the systematic enslavement of Africans in the Eighteenth Century or so. Before that, slavery had largely died out in much of Europe, but sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations wanted cheap labor, and Native Americans were too vulnerable to European diseases to be usefully enslaved.

European slaves and indentured servants were experimented with for labor, but their ease of escape and blending with the population was a disadvantage, as were developing notions of human rights.

Slaves from Africa, though, looked different and didn't have the usual European cultural traits and languages. The remaining problem was that pesky notion of human rights, which was dealt with by demoting blacks to a less human status. In that sense, slavery gave birth to racism, rather than vice versa. Other ancestral groups suffered similar, if usually considerably less severe, exploitation, including Asians, Irish and numerous other disadvantaged groups.

The more general point is that racism is less a cause than a consequence of exploitation.