Is racism just a skin condition?

Of course most people would answer that question in the negative. But people often discuss racism as if it is only a question of pigment.

So, is skin irrelevant?

Clearly not. Because we have selected skin pigmentation as a marker of a given social construct, that skin pigmentation (and a host of other features: hair texture, nose and eye shape, make your own list) do carry significance. People impute all of the other consequences of being a given race, on the basis of skin colour. For that not to be the case, skin colour would have to cease to signify anything about a person’s background.

So let’s take that proposition seriously for a moment.

Let’s imagine that skin colour is randomly distributed at birth (and let’s maybe use skin colour as synecdoche for a range of phenotypical features) so that appearance doesn’t give the casual observer any information about an individual’s ethnic background.

In that situation would racism still persevere? Well a sizeable segment of it probably would. We might see that on the street confrontations feature far fewer racial epithets.

But would the statistics on police stops become more proportional? While our first instinct might be to say yes, on reflection the question of proportionality becomes a bit more complicated.

How do we judge proportionality in a world where any necessary connection between ethnic background and skin colour has been broken? Simplifying massively, we might say: the statistics should show that the number of people with a given natural occurence of melanin that are stopped by the police, roughly equals their proportion in the population. Let’s assume that everyone gets one of three possible proportions of melanin: X means your skin is what we would call white, Y means its what we call black, and Z means it is some version of what we might call brown which is in between them. So the stop and search stats should show that roughly 33% of all stops are carried out populations that have X,Y and Z skin tones.

But, there are still areas where people of a given ethnicity predominate, police still devote large amounts of often aggressive policing to them and this still has a hugely detrimental effect on their relationship to the police, is still linked to a range of other negative outcomes not limited to the criminal justice system and so on.

A random distribution of X,Y and Z skin types could result in many more people of a given ethnicity being stopped, while the statistics on searches by skin tone remain proportional. Just looking at the stop and search stats by skin pigmentation wouldn’t alert us to this. In fact it might obscure it and cause us to become complacent.

This crude thought-experiment should give us a clue that the harmful effects of racism do not rely simply on reacting to skin colour. In fact, that is often the least of it. It is the large, systemic forces that can operate without anyone every seeing your face that can often dominate the course of a person’s life.

The fact that members of ethnic minorities might be sequestered in poor quality housing for instance, has a huge impact on their future life chances. The impact of overcrowded housing on schooling means that it is harder for children from these communities to find the employment opportunities that would allow them to leave, so future generations are likely to face similar disadvantages to their parents.

There is substantial evidence that having a non-white English name on your CV is a significant disadvantage when applying for work. People do not ever have to see your skin, to racially discriminate against you.

Given that communities different skin tone, and much of the discrimination they face would remain. Because even with different pigmentation the power dynamic would be much the same.