Why Race is Not a “Social Construct”


Why Race is Not a “Social Construct”

Greg Johnson

Translations: CzechFrenchSlovakSpanish


Leonardo da Vinci,Study of a skull, between 1510 and 1511

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Race realism is one of the intellectual foundations of White Nationalism. Race realism is the thesis that racial differences are objective facts of nature, which pre-exist human consciousness, human society, and even the human race itself—since there were different species and subspecies before mankind emerged. 

Nature must be understood in contrast to conventions—like human languages and laws—which do not exist independent of human consciousness and society.

As objective facts of nature, racial differences cannot be safely ignored. Nor can natural racial differences be transformed simply by altering legal or linguistic conventions. Conventions can only alter racial realities by guiding human action to change nature itself. For instance, if we institute eugenic or dysgenic incentives, this will change the genes of future generations.

The opposite of race realism is the idea of the “social construction of race,” which holds that racial differences are not objective facts but rather shared social conventions, which may vary from time to time and from place to place, like languages and table manners.

The social construction of race is one of the intellectual foundations of racial egalitarianism, for if race is socially constructed, then so is racial inequality. This offers the possibility that racial inequality can be replaced with equality simply by altering social conventions, like laws and language.

The Basis of Race Realism 

Negro from a painting attributed to Annibale Carracci, ca. 1580s

The basis of race realism is sense experience. Different races appear different from one another. Different subraces appear different from one another. Racially mixed children appear different from pure specimens. Even races that appear superficially similar—like Australian aborigines and African blacks—appear to be different on closer inspection. Careful observers do not confuse the two. Racial differences are not just a matter of “skin color,” but of morphology and behavior as well, all of which can be observed empirically.[1]

Note that I do not claim that racial realism is based in science. People were aware of racial differences long before the emergence of science. Science comes along only later, to explain observable racial differences. Scientific theories are, moreover, verified or falsified based on their ability to explain observed racial differences. Observable racial differences are, therefore, the Alpha and the Omega of racial science. Thus the foundation of race realism is sense experience, not scientific theorizing.

This is important to understand, because it implies that problems with theories of race do not in any way alter the perceptible differences between races.

It is also important to understand that race realism is the default, common-sense position of all mankind. We observe differences between races, subraces, and hybrids—human and otherwise—before we learn words to communicate and classify them, and before we create theories to explain them.

I vividly remember my first experience of a non-white: a waiter in the dining car of a train. I was 4 or 5 years old. I was especially taken by the contrast in color between the back and the front of the man’s hands. When he went away, I asked my mother what I had seen, and she told me that he was not just a white man turned brown, but a different kind of man called a “Negro.” But I already saw the differences before I was told the name and explanation. Indeed, I asked for an explanation because I saw the differences. My mother and I certainly did not construct the differences that were apparent to all.

Given that race realism is the default, common-sense position, proponents of social constructivism need to offer arguments for their claim. In this essay, I criticize four arguments for the social construction of race, which I characterize as follows: (1) the argument from the social construction of knowledge in general; (2) the argument from changing racial classifications; (3) the argument from continua; and (4) the argument from the silence of science. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is this a “scholarly” survey and critique.[2] I chose these arguments simply because they are commonly used in middle-brow online debates. I conclude by treating the thesis of the social construction of race as a social construct itself, exposing the political agenda and power relations behind social constructivism.

1. The Social Construction of Knowledge in General

Wild Men and Wild Pigs, illustration from, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France 1420

One argument for the social construction of race is a simple deduction from the general thesis that “All knowledge is socially constructed.” This is a philosophical thesis about the relationship between mind and reality, which holds that there is no single correct account of any aspect of reality, but rather a plurality of equally valid accounts which are relative to the contingent circumstances of different communities. For instance, there is the scientific account of the origin of the species, and there is the Biblical account, both of which are products of different communities, and there is no neutral standpoint or criterion that allows us to claim that one approach is better or truer than another.

I believe that this sort of relativism is philosophically incoherent in itself.[3] But it also fails as a justification of the social construction of race because, in a sense, it proves too much. For if everything is a social construct, the concept loses all utility. Social construction only makes sense if there is a contrast term, namely objective natural facts.

But if everything is a social construct, then we have to ask: is the social construct racemore like the social construct money or the social construct gravity? Because it is in society’s power to change money, but it is not in our power to change gravity. A philosopher who defends the idea that gravity is a social construct still leaves the lecture hall by the door rather than the window because he knows that one ignores some social constructs at one’s own risk.

The social constructivist clearly wants race to be like money rather than gravity, but if everything is a social construct, he needs to offer an additional argument to prove that racial inequalities can be abolished by social fiat.

2. Changing Racial Classifications

One of the most common arguments for the social construction of race is along the following lines: (1) If racial differences are real, then racial classification schemes will not vary from time to time and place to place. (2) Racial classification schemes vary from time to time and place to place. For instance, the same mixed race individual might be considered black or white in different places and at different times.[4] Therefore, racial differences are not real. And, since racial differences are either real or social constructs, they must be social constructs.

This argument has two main problems.

The first premise is simply false because it elides the distinction between reality and opinion. Racial differences can be perfectly real, but people’s opinions about racial differences can vary widely. Since human beings are fallible, there can be many opinions about one and the same fact. But that does not make the facts any less objective. It just proves that people frequently fail to be as objective as the facts.

The oft-cited example of varying standards of blackness proves nothing about racial realities. First, the very idea of categorizing mixed-race individuals as black or white is problematic, simply because they are mixed. Given that they are neither black nor white, it is not surprising that people make different decisions if they have to classify them as one or the other. Thus it may be arbitrary social convention to say that Barack Obama is a black man. But it is an objective fact of nature that he had a white mother and a black father and is therefore half white and half black.

3. Cutting the Continuum

Another common argument for the social construction of race, and of knowledge in general, depends on the distinction between differences of degree and differences of kind, and runs as follows. (1) If racial differences are real differences of kind, then there should not be a continuum of intermediate types. (2) There are continuua of intermediate types between races. Therefore, there is only one human race, and distinctions between races are not found in nature but constructed by human beings. We carve up the continuum. Nature does not come separated into different kinds.[5]

There are two major problems with this argument.

The first premise strikes me as highly dubious: just because there are continua in nature does not mean that there are no real distinctions between parts of a given continuum. In terms of color, red may shade off into orange, and different cultures might have different words for colors and make finer or grosser distinctions between them. But does this mean that there are no real, observable differences between, say, red and blue?

Evolutionary theory posits the common origin and evolutionary continuity of all life on earth. Does that continuity mean, therefore, that there are no real differences between mammals and birds, or birds and reptiles, or nematodes and human beings? Is the difference between dinosaurs and humans merely a “social construct”? Did dinosaurs not exist before human beings were around to “socially construct” them?

If race is a social construct, is the human race as a whole a “social construct” too? What then is society? What is society made up of before the social construction of the human race? Is society also a social construct, which would seem to get us into an infinite regress (society is a social construct of a social construct of a social construct . . .)? Or is society not a social construct? Is it just a fact of nature? Is it just here? Then why can’t other things be facts of nature, like human beings and dinosaurs?

The second premise is also problematic. Anthropologists claim that all human races descend from common ancestors. But at different points in time, the five distinct human races—Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid, Capoid, and Australoid—branched off and differentiated themselves from both their common ancestors and one another. After developing in isolation for enough time to attain distinctive traits, these races then came into contact with one another and gave rise to mixed populations.[6] But the existence of racially mixed individuals no more overthrows the real distinction between races than the existence of green paint refutes the existence of blue and yellow paint.[7]

4. The Silence of Science

Another common claim of the social constructivists is to claim that science does not give adequate support to the idea of real racial distinctions, thus social constructivism is true. The argument runs as follows. (1) If there are real racial differences, then science will explain them. (2) Science has not explained racial differences. Therefore, there are no real racial differences. Since racial differences are either real or socially constructed, race is a social construct.

This argument has four grave problems.

First, race realism is based on observed racial differences, not on scientific theories of race. Human beings perceived racial differences long before the emergence of science, and we perceive them still, even those of us who are entirely innocent of racial science (as most social constructivists happen to be). Thus the first premise is simply false: the reality of race does not depend on the success or failure of scientific theoriesof race. Theories may rise and fall, but observable differences remain.

As for the second premise: scientists would beg to differ.[8] We can determine the race of an individual from the morpoholgical or genetic analysis of a single bone or strand of hair.

Of course, the social constructivists are not exactly clear about what constitutes the failure of science to explain race, but they generally insinuate that science has either (1) failed to come up with a single differentiating trait possessed by all members of a race and not possessed by other races,[9] or (2) that no such theory has attained universal acceptance.

But the demand for a single essential differentiating trait for each race is arbitrary. Nature does not have to conform to our demands. And the fact that a theory does not attain universal acceptance has nothing to do with its truth, given the variability and fallibility of human opinions. Frankly, I believe that most social constructivists are intellectually dishonest. Thus no theory of objective racial differences will ever gain universal assent, no matter how well founded it may be.

Another problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that science is a process that unfolds over time. Thus even if the second premise were true, the conclusion does not follow, simply because science might not have come up with the correct account just yet. But wait.

A final problem with this argument is its assumption that in the absence of a scientific explanation of race, the only alternative is social constructivism. In fact, the default position is race realism based on empirical observation, which does not depend upon scientific explanation at all.

Social Constructivism as Social Construct 

Social constructivists typically do not limit their thesis to race. Many claim that all knowledge is a social construct, or even that reality itself is a social construct. Thus it is fair to ask: is social constructivism itself a social construct? If social constructivism is a social construct, this has three important implications:

  1. Like all social constructs, social constructivism is the product of a unique set of historically contingent circumstances.
  2. Since every society is divided into the rulers and the ruled, every social construct will be marked by the agenda of those who hold power.
  3. If social constructivism is a social construct, not a natural fact, its acceptance or rejection is not based on reason and nature but on social incentives: moral and political commitment for the true believers — brainwashing, greed, and fear for the rest.

Social constructivism has a long philosophical pedigree, but today it functions as the metaphysical postulate of egalitarian social engineering projects to equalize the races by revolutionizing European defined and dominated societies. Of course, this revolution cannot produce racial equality, but it can create a new racial hierarchy in which Europeans are subordinate. Social constructivism thus serves the interests of a new emerging social elite, an alliance of rootless plutocrats, non-whites, sexual minorities, and other outsiders, in which the organized Jewish community is the senior and guiding partner. Thus social constructivism is an element of what Kevin MacDonald calls the “culture of critique”: the critique and overthrow of European civilization by Jewish-inspired and dominated intellectual movements like Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, feminism, deconstructionism, and most forms of postmodernism.[10]

These movements are characterized by pseudo-science, obscurantism, and crass ethno-political advocacy. They acquired their influence not through reason and science but through the subversion of the educational, cultural, and political institutions of European societies. They perpetuate their influence though the indoctrination of the impressionable and the suppression of dissent.

Thus social constructivism cannot be defeated merely by criticizing its astonishingly poor arguments, which in large part are merely tools of self-conscious and cynical deception. If you lop off one argument, the hydra just sprouts another.

Instead, social constructivism must be defeated on its own terms: by altering the social conditions that give rise to it; by changing who rules this society; by disempowering and silencing its advocates just as they disempower and silence their critics. In short, social constructivism must be socially deconstructed and replaced by a new cultural and political hegemony that is aligned with reason, reality, and white interests. And we can do that in good conscience, because social constructivism is a false and pernicious ideology, nothing more.

Race realism is the default position of common sense. It is, moreover, supported by the best biological science. There is no good case for the social construction of race. It would be truer to say that society is a racial construct, meaning that society is the creation of human beings, who exist as part of nature and whose biological traits shape and constrain society and culture. But once society is established, social conventions shape the underlying race by instituting eugenic and dysgenic breeding incentives or simply by legislating the extermination of entire groups. Nature comes before culture, but once culture exists, it turns back on and modifies nature.[11] Only in this specific sense can one say that race is a (partial) social “construct,” although it would be better to drop the misleading language of construction altogether.


Notes

1. An excellent basic textbook on race distinguished in terms of observable, morphological features which remains valid to this day is Carleton S. Coon, The Living Races of Man (New York: Random House, 1965). The book is particularly valuable for its many photographs illustrating typical racial, subracial, and hybrid types.

2. For a more comprehensive survey of the case for race realism and against social constructivism, see Richard McCulloch, “Race: Reality and Denial,” The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 2002–2003): 5–26, http://toqonline.com/archives/v2n4/TOQv2n4McCulloch.pdf

3. See Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism(Oxford: Clarendon, 2007).

4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct,’” The Atlantic, May 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/

5. An underlying assumption of this argument is that to truly know objective reality, the mind must be passive and reality must simply inscribe itself upon it. Thus if the mind is in any way active in the process of gaining knowledge, we no longer know objective reality but only human constructs. Ayn Rand offers a reductio ad absurdum of this argument, although she mistakenly applies it to Kant: “[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them” (Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 33.

6. For an accessible account of racial evolution that remains valid today, see Carleton S. Coon, The Origin of Races (New York: Knopf, 1962). See also Coon’s The Living Races of Man.

7. John R. Baker makes this point in his Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 100.

8. For a simple and compelling summary of the science of race, see J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, 2nd special abridged edition (Port Huron, Michigan: Charles Darwin Research Institute, 2000).

9. See Joseph L. Graves, Jr., “The Biological Case against Race,” American Outlook, Spring 2002, p. 31.

10. Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998).

11. For a recent and compelling account of genetic and cultural co-evolution, see Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009).


 

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