Friday, November 18, 2016

The Meaning of "Race" in the USA: Class Is In Session ....

In his confirmation hearings for attorney general, Trump-appointee Senator Jeff Sessions will be asked to define the word "race." The nation will be listening . . . .

The USA is about to get a national tutorial on the definition of #race"
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When Senator Jeff Sessions goes before the Capitol Hill hearing on his confirmation as attorney general in the administration of President Donald Trump, he will be asked about the time he called a  civil-rights lawyer a "disgrace to his race."

What may surprise some people is the amount of time that will be spent exploring the question, "What does the word 'race' mean?"

I will refrain from guessing what is in Senator Sessions' mind, or how the questions will unfold. That will all come out in the hearing.

Instead, I will explain why I think the process will be important for the rest of us.

What comes first?

A significant part of my past several months were devoted to reading and discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, together with others from my church.

I can attest to the fact that the statement from the book that provoked the most discussion was:

"[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father." (p. 7)

. . . and the discussion that proved the most difficult, and required the most time, involved understanding the difference believing that "race" is biological and understanding that it is a social construct.

What I noticed in those discussions was that people were so nervous about acknowledging an obvious physical fact -- skin that is dark brown or light brown or beige or pink or something in-between -- that they had trouble separating in their minds two distinct phenomena:

* the biological ramifications of those skin colors (very few)

* the ways society has acted over and over again -- with reference to those skins colors -- to impact the realities of those in those skins (very many)

One helpful step was to recognize that a social construct -- once it is constructed -- has real consequences. (You're not imagining that people in the US with dark skin have a very different experience than people with light skin.) A social construct, however, has no claims to being natural or right. And it certainly need not persist.

So 19th century . . . 

Louis Agissiz in 1879
It is fascinating to see how many great (and not-so-great) thinkers in the past took a shot at using biology to posit "racial" differences. You can read the role of (dis)honor in the Wikipedia article on "Scientific Racism."

One example that stands out in my mind -- in part because there are several important buildings at Harvard that bear his name -- is Louis Agissiz. Agissez was the very model of a modern 19th century scientist and public intellectual. He led expeditions all over the world, collected lots and lots of specimens, lectured widely, and published thousands of pages worth of scientific writing.

The only problem: on the biological determination of race (his big topic) he was dead wrong.

Freedom of thought

People are allowed to believe what they want to believe. (It's a free country.)

The challenge before the members of the committee evaluating the Sessions nomination, however, will be whether it matters what the attorney general of the United States thinks "race" means.

Here's an exercise: Read the words of any of the many US laws the attorney general is sworn to uphold -- the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, for instance, or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The protections afforded by such laws against discrimination based on "race" -- are those protections provided in the face of biological differences? Or in the face of socially-caused differences?

What do you think? Does it matter? Why?

Related posts

The heart of the matter, at least as I understand it, is that race is a social construct, and it's concerned with power. "Whiteness" is a condition of power over and against people who get defined as "not white." "Dying to 'whiteness'," then, will involved giving up power, I think.

(See How Might the White Church "Die to 'Whiteness'"?)

The ELCA's presiding bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, has set an example: own the white privilege we've experienced in our lives. Will Lutherans step up?

(See "Personal Success Story"? "White Privilege"? or Both?)

"We need to first acknowledge the genocidal origins of OUR nation’s history of ethnic cleansing and occupation."

(See Native American Rights: Acknowledge the Occupation)