The Dialectics of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott is the politician who best exemplifies the very different conversations about race that go on in the country even among people who profess similar values and beliefs. Consider the two statements below:

Diane Abbott has had a bad election. She’s conducted a couple of car-crash interviews that may or may not have been influenced by the illness that has caused her to step away from the role of shadow Home Secretary. Any politician who had performed so badly should  expect mockery, especially in the run up to an election.

Diane Abbott has been the recipient of a campaign of misogyny and racism that long predates the election but was ramped up in the run up to polling day. Racist and misogynistic attitudes (misogynoir) have absolutely affected the way she has been treated.

How can we square one these two attitudes?

It is telling that we even feel we need to. I have spent the day having conversations with a number of people with whom I share differing degrees of political territory. None of whom are radically right wing and none of whom have ever given me any indication they hold any genuine racist or misogynistic attitudes. To be clear, on the off chance any of them read this, I still believe that today.

Nonetheless I still believe they are wrong when they express only a version of the first statement and dismiss some version of the second. Several times someone has pointed out to me that Diane Abbott has simply been picked on because she is the weak link in the cabinet. That’s why Boris kept trying to crowbar her into his interview on the Today Program.

Thats why she features so prominently in Tory literature despite their being a number of other MPs that also make good RW character-assassination fodder.

But mockery of John McDonnell doesn’t cut through the same way.

Well that maybe, but that is not simply because she has made some gaffs. It’s because those gaffs feed into a well established narrative that has portrayed Abbott as stupid, lazy, uncouth and unreliable. Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Damien Green and even the notoriously camera shy Theresa May have all had shocking interviews this election. None have been picked up and amplified in anything like the way that Diane Abbott’s have.

In between Abbott’s now notorious interviews Jeremy Corbyn had a car-crash interview in which he flubbed the details of his own childcare policy. The story got nothing like the coverage that Abbott’s did.

In the day she stepped aside, an hour after the announcement George Osborne proudly tweeted an Evening Standard cartoon mocking Abbott for cancelling engagements  due to  ill-health.

In February David Davis tried to kiss Diane Abbott in the Commons bar. Much of the press the next day was full of stories about Abbott telling him to fuck-off. Not about Davis being an entitled, boorish, creep.

I’m not saying no other politicians get mocked, or get caricatured, or get unfair reporting, but Abbott gets all of it. And it is notable that while I haven’t had to debate this with all my white, male friends, all the friends I’ve had to debate this with have been white and male.

In 2012 Diane Abbott tweeted “White people love playing divide and rule, we should not let them. #tacticasoldascolonialism”. The result was an outcry. Whether or not she should’ve said is not the key issue here. (FWIW given the limits of twitter I don’t think it was a good idea). What was stark to me was how completely separate the conversations it sparked where, and how ethnically divided.

I frequently found myself encountering the same questions when discussing it:

Why was she tarring all white people with that brush? Wasn’t that racism? Why bring up the empire it was so long ago? Surely they couldn’t be held responsible for what happened before they were born? Why divide white people from ethnic minorities? Wasn’t that needlessly divisive?

Abbott’s comments were in keeping with many I’ve heard from BME people of hers and my  dad’s generation. “White people”is a fairly common stand-in for the empire when time or space make brevity an advantage, and colonialism is a common touch stone in discussion of race and politics. White people is also a description of people at the  top of an ethnically stratified power dynamic, and doesn’t refer to absolutely all people of that ethnicity, colonialism is the basis and driving force behind that dynamic. It’s really not that long ago.

Again, not every conversation with a white interlocutor involved explaining this background, but all conversations that required it, where with a white interlocutor.

Similarly, in conversations about Abbott’s treatment over the election, BME friends and colleagues automatically place it in a wider context. This context treats it as axiomatic that politicians who are Black, and politicians who are women will get punished for being in the public eye, in a way that politicians who are male or white will not. It’s not that no white people I’ve discussed it with have seen this context, but the clear majority of BME people I’ve spoken to have. There is a feeling that you can’t play the sort of role that Diane Abbott has played, as a Black woman and not get treated this way.

I would reiterate I think it’s perfectly possible to be critical of Diane Abbott’s performance without being racist or misogynistic, and I don’t think any of the people I’ve been debating with today are either of those things.

There have been, already a slew of articles debating this point so perhaps this one is extraneous. But it strikes me as telling that even people who seem to agree on race, often dont seem to be speaking the same language.

Big Mouth Strikes Again (obvs).

With depressing predictability Morrissey has decided to offer his contribution to a conversation that was in no sense crying out for it. As a rule, my policy on Morrissey is to ignore him and hope he’ll go away. But for whatever reason, this one particularly irked me. And as this blog is largely an outlet for things that irk me about race stuff, and at the risk of adding one more extraneous opinion to the pile, here is one.

In the past, Morrissey has tended to release his most offensive pronouncements to coincide with tours and new albums. But, that doesn’t appear to be the case on this occasion so I guess we have to take him at his word.  After all, he has form.

In 2007 he declared that he would never return to the UK because immigration had destroyed English identity. In 2010 he declared the Chinese were a sub-species because of their treatment of animals. Long before this his songs and statements had enough to make people uncomfortable – telling the “Bengali in Platforms” that he didn’t belong. Declaring that reggae was vile, much of this was then passed off as wit.

Alongside the obvious offensive nature of the comments, and the strong whiff of cynicism that accompanies many of his later outbursts; what really hits you in the face is his thudding lack of irony. For a man often hailed as an arch ironist, Morrissey apparently did not hesitate to lecture the English on losing their identity to foreign immigration – from his home in Italy.

The man who has written whole songs about the impact of British colonialism in Ireland, and castigated the English for not abandoning the memory of Oliver Cromwell is apparently completely blind to the role of British colonialism on immigration to the UK. The same forces that took Cromwell to Ireland generated the process that brought the Bengali in platforms to the UK to face Morrissey’s disdain. Instead, the son of Irish immigrants to the UK declares that immigration is the problem, and links it explicitly to terrorism…

Finally he declares that politicians are complacent because they are never at risk, within 12 months of a politician’s murder and an attempted attack on Parliament.

In the 1980s and 90s he mainly stuck to nostalgia for an imagined, lost-England cobbled together from Kenneth Williams and Eaton comedies. While this often strayed into dubious territory he normally managed to keep just (just) on the right side of the line separating provocative from openly bigoted. For years now, he’s no longer seemed to bother.

Maybe, he just meant to highlight the way politicians rarely seem to bear the brunt of their decisions. That’s a reasonable point to make. In the past, maybe he just meant to raise the issue of animal cruelty in China, that’s certainly worth addressing. But for a man who’s built his reputation on a stiletto precision with words, he certainly chose a clumsy crass way of expressing these views. So let’s take him at his word, maybe he’s just an aging chauvinist, who knew exactly what he wanted to say? Maybe.

What do I mean “Race is a process”?

Last week I got drunk with (among others) my friend Rob and we talked about what I mean by “Race is a process”.  I’ve been thinking it through for a week now and so I’d like to try and put down what I think I mean by it.

What is a process?

When we call something a process we mean that it requires a series of actions, that can be repeated for the same outcome and all of which are necessary for the given outcome to take place.

What if race wasn’t a process?

In order to get some clarity, it might be useful to think about what it would mean if race wasn’t a process. What could it be instead?

One way we often talk and think about race as a scientific phenomena. So we think about biological traits or markers, perhaps a result of genetics that demarcate identifiable and fixed groups within the species homo sapiens. I think this model underlies the crudest scientific racism: discussion of bell curves and genetic superiority of Aryan races.

The problem with this model is that the races identified don’t map very well on to the genetic markers we are told mark the boundaries of one race or another. Firstly, because evidence indicates that genetic variation can be greater between individuals within the same race, than between two individuals of different races.  Secondly, because the markers that identify people as one race or another are socially determined. This means that race is socially rather than biologically constructed. 

There is another, softer model that often operates in practice. This model views races as the equivalent of a breeds among animals. This model at least has space for an acknowledgement that the lines of demarcation are  the result of human action. Nonetheless it produces a model that is highly deterministic. In practice racial categorisation is a result of social and historical contingencies that render the kind of calculations of that produce dog breeds (for example) generally nonsensical.

So how is race a process?

What I mean by that is that race requires specific actions and theories to be in operation for it to manifest within society.  These processes involve (but aren’t necessarily limited to) ideas about skin colour, the heritability of traits through genetics, the role of parentage and the importance of phenotype in identifying a members of particular population. Also there are historical and political process that create and attach meanings and power relations to these various processes in order to fashion a race out of them, and define what it means to be a part of that race at any given time or place.

But race isn’t just a discourse

So far I’ve been implicitly contrasting race as a process with race as an ontology.  I think that works as a corrective to overly determinative views of race. But it’s possible to go too far and miss something important when we just think about race as a discourse, and I think I often do so.

Race is a process because processes can be physical in a way that isn’t necessarily captured by a “discourse”.

Other people’s perception of our race can impact on our bodies. Racism does not simply operate as an abstract discourse, the impact of which we must trace through studies and statistics. It also often operates as an extremely physical experience one that can beat and break bodies because of the physical traits they display.

It is easy to write as if we can wave the theory wand and dismiss race as a discourse. But that would ignore one of the most important things about how the process of race operates. In order to function the process of race also requires physical bodies to demonstrate whichever trait history and society have selected as a marker. More importantly, people’s experience their race is embodied. My conception of my race involves the physical sensation of the body which possesses the relevant traits, the skin of a certain tone, the nose of a given shape etc. The fact that those traits mark out a racial identity might be because of historical and social forces, the fact have them is because of an extremely physical process and I can’t escape the fact that they are felt, not just conceptualised.

The statement “race is a process”  doesn’t mean it is just a process.

Nb. I’ve edited this blog after some really helpful comments from Thomas Neumark. Huge thanks to Rob Waters for prompting me to think more clearly about this, and especially his thoughts on how race is actually experienced.

 

How race affects perception: Implicit Bias, and stop and search

I attended two events last night (I’m like that) that made me think about how race affects our perception, but also how perception affects the social construction of race.

The first event was a talk by an academic who uses neuroscience to investigate prejudice and dehumanisation. The talk explored the ways that the structure of the brain leads to implicit bias. (NB. what follows will vastly over-simplify a complexes process so apologies to any neuroscientist who may accidentally stumble on to this blog).

The second was the launch of a book of poetry by my friend Raymond Antrobus (That’s right, my friends have book launches, it ain’t no thing).

People are evolutionarily disposed to engage in social cognition in the company of others. We automatically imbue them with an inner-life and make assumptions and guesses about how others think about us. This process is automatic, but it is also flexible. We can extend it to inanimate objects in certain circumstances, like when we watch a puppet show, or a cartoon and temporarily credit the puppet or the coloured shapes with some (limited) personhood for the duration.

However, we can also withdraw it, in order to dehumanise someone, in a situation when it is socially advantageous. This process is in play, for instance, when we walk past a homeless person, but allow ourselves not to consider their experience in order to avoid giving them any money. While it seems heartless, there is an evolutionary mechanism at work here, an inability to turn off, or at least turn down social cognition would be mentally exhausting and render us less able to function particularly in situations where resources are limited and we may need an element of ruthlessness to survive. The fact that it served a purpose at one time, however does not mean it does not need to be resisted at others.

The flexibility of this process also allows us to employ time-saving heuristics when coming to conclusions about strangers. The largest number of social connections an individual can hold  in their mind is roughly 150. Beyond that, we lose track. This means that we often employ a heuristic to identify people outside of this 150-person social circle, and decide how to react to them.

One of the main heuristics employed, is stereotypes.  Effectively, absent detailed knowledge of another’s personality, we will generally grasp a number of cues and relate them to the dominant model of people who share those characteristics, which we have absorbed – often unconsciously – from our culture. This model allows us to decide how we will act around them, but it in order to turn them into a broad “type” we generally turn down our social cognition, and dehumanise the other.  These models can change over time, in the early 19th century a British person’s instinctive reaction to someone with a french accent would be very different to what it is now. However, at any given moment they are very powerful, and often require either a long time, or a very significant event to shift them.

Again, from an evolutionary perspective, a false positive is far less of a problem than a false negative, especially for something you might perceive as not only an outsider but a threat. Combined with our capacity to turn down social cognition, these stereotypes can produce responses that are not just prejudiced, but often violently so.

So in situations where people are free to operate on the basis of unconscious impressions; or are even encouraged to trust to a nebulous instinct, outcomes will often reflect these socially constructed dynamics. A classic example, of course, is stop and search. Police are meant to have probable cause (for most powers) but in practice it seems that actually there is a significant degree of implicit bias that determines who is stopped and who isn’t.

To indicate just how intimately the physiological and social are connected on this process, there is a theory that the stereotype of African-American men as violent, brutal and ape-like was so strong that police in America automatically perceive them as a greater threat than other men. In a controlled experiment to measure perceptions of threatening behaviour police routinely rated men of predominantly African descent as being a greater threat than men of other ethnicities. Not only this, but they also routinely indicated that they would react with force sooner in a hypothetical interaction.

Perhaps the archetypal example of this process is the airport security line. I have numerous examples of times i have been “randomly” selected for additional security checks. So does every non-white friend I know. Ray travels quite a lot, and in introducing this poem last night he discussed a little of his history of interaction with, particularly US immigration at airports.  He followed it with a poem that neatly encapsulated this experience. (NB. I’ve cut it down for space, but it’s called Miami Airport and it’s taken from a book called To Sweeten Bitter  published by Outspoken press, and you should check it out).

“ID/ Why  didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?/why were you in Africa? / why don’t you look like a teacher? / is this your girlfriend? why doesn’t she look English…

you think you’re going/ to go free? / what did you not hear?

 

I Am Not Your Negro and the construction of Whiteness.

Last night I attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with the director Raul Peck. Its an incredible documentary, and its full of interesting ideas. But the one that really struck me, was Baldwin’s deconstruction of race, and in particular Whiteness.

 

This idea runs through a lot of Baldwin’s speech in the documentary, but in particular when he says that white America created the “Negro-problem” to preserve their purity.

The so-called Negro problem in America  is not a description of an actual situation, it is a psychological device created by white American society to provide a hated population against which they could define themselves.

In someways Baldwin is re-stating a common historical truism: that American racism was forged as a device to prevent the poor white and poor black populations from forming an alliance.  However Baldwin’s insight is deeper than that.  It is not simply a case of divide and rule, white American identity was forged in opposition to Black. In a sense people in America became white when and to the extent that they could differentiate themselves from, and reject and dominate the Black population.

There is a similar discussion in Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me , with the refrain “People who believe themselves to be white”.

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation

The quote above picks up another issue: the absolute brutality with which the distinctions have to be enforced. The idea of purity perhaps helps to understand the obscene, excessive violence that marked slavery and later lynchings and the sickening frivolity that accompanied the events – postcards, picnics and souvenirs( See P. Wolfe, Traces of History for more on this).

Lynching was not simply a device to keep the black population of the South politically disenfranchised ( though it was that too)  it was an emotional response to perceived pollution.

Picking up from this point, if the Negro problem was created by white America, to help them fashion themselves then:

Whiteness doesn’t exist.  Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says “The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“.  At this point in the film I felt like Baldwin had casually summarised an idea I have spent years, and now, at least two blog posts trying to express. Race is socially and historically constructed but more than that, race is created by a political dynamic. The Whiteness of white Americans is something they develop as they become established on the continent, and cease to be simply Irish, or Polish or German. Whiteness is not a description of a race, it is rather a position in a power-relationship which builds itself in opposition to all the people who are not-white, and in particular those who are Black.

While this is most starkly seen in the violent dichotomies discussed in  I Am Not Your Negro I think this is the basic structure of race across society. While it may adopt or appropriate the language of science, and may incorporate some elements of genetics, race is always a description of a social, historical and political position.

 

 

 

The racism in Get Out is not the current threat

**Spoiler Warning**  The below discusses Get Out and has some mild spoilers so bear that in mind and maybe see the film first.

Get Out is often held up as a penetrating analysis of the politics of current racial dynamics. But its targets are not the real drivers of the current state of racial politics.  Firstly, a disclaimer – this is not one of those hot takes where someone just picks something popular and explains why you’re all wrong to like it. I loved Get Out, it was great. Genuinely funny, creepy as hell, and incredibly well-observed. I don’t have a word to say against it.

Except, maybe the way it is being discussed as a film that has so much to say about the post-Obama zeitgeist. The film is openly set the post-Obama world, and a couple of characters discuss the fact. Given the subject matter, some scenes consciously evoke the numerous incidents where white Americans – and particularly the police – have inflicted fatal violence on African Americans with impunity.

But the real target of the film’s biting critique is a form of racism that feels – at the moment – as if it has been superseded: the smug, hypocritical Boston brahmins who profess liberal views but secretly view black people as inferior – to a murderous extent in the film. Bradley Whitford’s role in particular, could be summed up as “What if Josh Lyman ran an underground slave trade?”

I’m not claiming that this is no longer a problem or that we should not object to this type of racism.  But the racial animus that has defined the last year or two is not the genteel hypocrisy so brutally exposed in Get Out.

Instead it is  the more open, and violent xenophobia, that labels all Mexicans rapists, brands MPs traitors and murders them, attempts to ban Muslims  or evokes Nazi propaganda in it’s campaign posters.

Explanations of the various political upsets that took place over the last year have been many and varied. But no one can seriously claim that they were marked by the immense confidence; the presumption of natural superiority that underlies the the hypocrisy of the Armitage family. These people are at pains to express their liberal credentials because they view the resentment and bigotry that fuelled Trump’s election campaign as below them. They are the “elite liberals” that have been the target of so much of the populist billionaire posturing we have seen in recent years. The ones so often railed at by the Daily Mail and Spiked. They don’t view the black characters as truly human, but they don’t hate and fear them for it.  Trump’s election and the referendum campaign weren’t characterised by a smug, superior condescension; one that indulges in a creepy fetishism of black bodies. Instead, they were characterised by  a simmering and often open resentment against people of colour. A  belief that society is a racial zero-sum game that whatever progress was made (or perceived to be made) by ethnic minorities came at a cost of white people.

Get Out is sharply observed, laugh out loud funny and genuinely creepy. But, it has little to say about the resentment that is really driving our current politics.

 

 

Why is the working class always white?

One of the most persistent, and frustrating fallacies that has popped up routinely in the last decade or so, is the idea that that class and race are entirely separate categories and that white and working class are natural corollaries. Yet the working class is multi-ethnic group.

This normally takes the form of a commentator, or politician (normally white, normally male, often middle class) declaring or implying that action to address racial inequality is taking place at the expense of action on class inequality, and in particular at the cost of the white working class. What is particularly galling is this lament is often wailed by voices that demonstrate very little other interest in addressing economic injustice.

The chart below provides the latest ONS figures (based on the 2011 census) for employment broken down by ethnic group in the UK. Clearly employment is not identical to class. Nonetheless, it calls into question any implication that ethnic minorities are benefiting from a economic system rigged in favour of the non-white population.

Employment % by ethnicity, 2014

ethnic employment %

This is a critique that is also voiced on the left, Simon Jenkins recently castigated the identity-politics obsessed left for failing alienating the white working class and clearing the path to Trump and Brexit.  Ironically those who tend to fret about the splintering effects of “Identity politics” seem to advance a politics that explicitly splits off the interests of the BME working class, in order to create an imagined, snowy white working class whose interests must be addressed independently.

Implicit in this claim is the assumption that people experience only one type of discrimination – class or race based. It is not possible, in this schema for people to be both BME and working class.

In this simplistic formulation, concern for racial injustice is the preserve of the effete metropolitan elite. A boondoggle that allows them to avoid thinking about the uncouth poor.

It is for this reason that we should welcome the latest joint publication from Class and the Runnymede Trust. Minority Report  is a series of essays that pick apart the ways that race and class issues operate in the UK. Importantly, it identifies the way that discussions of one are often used to erase or disguise the other.  As the editors point out “the ‘white working class’ analysis tends to sidestep or even erase the existence of the ‘black working class’”.

We see this effect apply not merely in regard to race, feminism and women’s rights and LGBT rights are also often dismissed as being an elite, liberal distraction. As if the history of the elite in the UK is one of warmhearted embrace of women’s liberation and LGBT rights. The fact is that the working class includes women too, some members of the working class are LGBT, and some are black.

A name I call myself?

Over the course of my life i have struggled to come up with a satisfactory term for my ethnicity. I have an Indian parent and a White English parent, and one of my grandparents was Jewish.

When i was in Primary School I was called half-caste. This was a reflection of the different skin tones present in my ancestry. I think the decisive factor at the time was skin colour, and the term half-caste picked up on the fact that mine was clearly darker than the white kids, but obviously not as dark as people whose parents both came from a sunnier place. The fact that there was some Jewish heritage in there, didn’t really feature at the time.

At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but i was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term i used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages.  Mixed race is obviously more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those who’s parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.

But this very flexibility opens up a range of tensions that we find under the surface of much of our thinking about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. inscribed in census forms and population statistics they present themselves as objective descriptors of an unchanging reality. On reflection though, this reality is clearly fluid, subjective and highly contingent on historical accidents.

People who are ethnically Indian, for instance – are people who were born in, or who’s parents were born in India. But does that include people to the North West of the subcontinent? Prior to 1947 people who lived in Lahore or Karachi would have been ethnically Indian, but now they live in Pakistan. So, are they ethnically Pakistani? Probably we would say they are. But if we do are we basically saying that ethnicity is only a descriptor of the current geopolitical arrangement of the territory of your or your parent’s birth? It feels like we ascribe more meaning to ethnicity and race than that.

What about someone who has one parent from Delhi and one from Lahore? Are they mixed race? It would follow that they are now, but they wouldn’t have been in 1946.  That degree of volatility does not fit very well with the kind of definitional permanence we normally give to these categories.

Alright then, you may say; this is actually just a problem with ethnicity. Someone from Lahore is ethnically Pakistani because ethnicity is a fluffy, shifting changing thing. But Race, race is different. Race has some sort of genetic component, someone from Pakistan and someone from india share the genetic characteristics of the sub-continent, regardless of their ethnicity.

Let’s assume for the moment that there is something genetic about race, that isn’t present in ethnicity. Where does that leave mixed race? As a descriptive category it is surely so broad as to be basically useless. I am mixed race because my dad had a sufficiently different genotype from my mum, in this case, Indian and White (English? Caucasian? the terminology is a nightmare) but this mixture earns me the same categorisation as my neighbour who has one Nigerian parent and one Irish. What kind of racial categorisation can possibly encompass such as disparate group? Clearly when we use the term, we are not really referring to a genetic variance – and that’s before we get into the very shonky basis for assuming that racial classifications describe genetic differences anyway.

So what do we mean by Mixed Race then? It seems to me, that a common working definition would be: people who’s parents have sufficiently different phenotype that they are not obviously identifiable with one or the other? That seems to cover the definition at play, when I was identified as a half-caste and then later as mixed race at school. The fact that this definition operates would, for example, explain the hesitation we sometimes feel when someone argues that they are mixed race because one parent is Scottish but the other is English.

But there is clearly another in operation: people who’s parental background is sufficiently different, culturally speaking, that they feel that at least two different cultures shaped their outlook. This would cover people who identify as half-Scottish half English. There is a bit of this, in play if I think about the Jewish element of my background. Which, without getting to know a whole side of my family – and their penchant for a certain type of  Jewish joke – you would probably never detect.

When people discuss their background, it seems to me that there is often a tension between which of these definitions is in operation. So should we decide to call one of these being “mixed-race” and another “mixed-ethnicity”?

Which is in play when I think about myself- or have to tick a box on the census form? The answer is both. Neither really seems adequate. Race is socially constructed, and an overly deterministic view of it soon collapses into contradiction. But similarly, the fact the fact that I am visibly identifiable to myself and others as not White British, has impacted on my life in a range of ways i am loathe to deny.

In practice i still generally use the term mixed-race because its one that everyone recognises and that causes no offence. But I am always aware of its limitations and it still strikes me as deficient.

So if I had the choice, what would I call myself? I had hoped to find any answer to this question by the end of this blog, but the truth is I still haven’t

Race isn’t genetics (Why the Bell Curve is still BS.)

In 1994 Charles Murray and Richard J Hernstein published ‘The Bell Curve – Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life‘. The book claimed that economic and social outcomes of differing ethnic groups in the USA are explicable by genetic variations in intelligence. Most notably, it deployed this reasoning to explain socio-economic outcomes for African American communities.

I want to pick apart this claim, the logic behind it and why i think even if one of the premises may hold some validity the rest still doesn’t stand up.

The response to the book often took two forms. One was (reasonably enough) to accuse the authors of racism, and in particular of a sinister, eugenic racism reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century theories that were so popular in the build up to the second world war. The second was to attack the claim that intelligence could have a genetic component.

However,  I want to pick up a different strand that I feel is attached to this debate. One which I have not often seen cited in relation to debates about genetics, intelligence or the bell curve. I would like to talk about how loosely racial divisions map onto genetics and particularly in the west.

In particular i want to talk about it in the light of the essay “Ideology and Race in American History” by Barbara J Fields. When I read this it really clarified what we mean when we say that race is a social construct. Fields focuses on how blackness was constructed in America, and the way laws derived from the period of the Slave Trade created the idea of black heritage as an irremovable taint. Fields argues that these ideas have continued to shape the way that race is conceived in America to this day.She points to the example of

“a child belonging to a different race from one of his parents, or the well- known anomaly of American racial convention that considers a white woman capable of giving birth to a black child but denies that a black woman can give birth to a white child.”

The characteristics that people in America (and elsewhere) instinctively use to identify white and black people are those which they have been conditioned to select. They do not identify separate genetic groups, but social entities. They mark out people who tend to occupy particular socio-economic positions; and one or more of whose parents also did so. They may share some of a wide-range of physical characteristics (type of hair, shape of eyes and nose, skin colour etc…) but they will share them to wildly divergent degrees, and possessing or not possessing any of those characteristics is not a decisive in either direction.

The idea that Murray and Hernstein’s study demonstrated differences between genetically separate groups seems farcical. The basic categories of their study were not different genotypes and so conclusions on the impact of genetics are not justified. Intelligence may well be passed down from your parents, but race isn’t passed on through your genes.