Race and Republicanism

Race and Republicanism

Books & Ideas
2015-02-23 (Originally published in laviedesidees.fr on February 17, 2014.)

Dominique Schnapper, Director of Studies
École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, France

Translated by (with the support of the Florence Gould Foundation):

Michael C. Behrent

Though race is socially constructed, it nonetheless really exists: consequently, Magali Bessone argues, the concept of race must be taken into consideration when fighting racism. But what positive content can be given to the “critical republicanism” she advocates?

Reviewed: Magali Bessone, Sans distinction de race ? Une analyse critique du concept de race et de ses effets pratiques, [Without Race Distinctions? A Critical Analysis of the Concept of Race and its Practical Effects] Paris, Vrin, “Philosophie concrète”, 2013. 240 p., 24 €.

On a topic that might seem rather overdone, Magali Bessone has written a remarkable book, one that sparkles with intelligence and culture. She seeks to deconstruct a concept that has become taboo in France, though it is commonly used by English-speaking scholars and statisticians. With great flair, she proposes an analysis that can be summed up in several propositions encompassing the very core of her arguments.

  1. Biologists have now established that racial categories (not to be confused with racism, despite complex affinities with it), which became systematic following the encounter with the Other during the Age of Discovery and the eighteenth-century attempt to classify species, do not exist. There are no homogeneous populations groups that can be defined once and for all, and which are different from and unequal to others. Skin color, which for a long time was used to distinguish human races (depending on the author, there were four, five, or seven races, thus proving that race is not self-evident), is but one marker of geographic and historical affiliation among others. Essentialist ways of thinking, which attribute specific and final characteristics to particular population groups, have no biological basis. Differences between individuals are greater than differences between groups, and the boundaries between human groups are porous. “There is no racial essence that can be defined coherently from a biological point of view” (p. 71).
  2. As a result of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of certain races’ claims to superiority, the French have generally replaced the term “race” with “ethnicity” or “culture.” Scholars are afraid that they will be accused of believing race exists if they use a term that, as biologists have shown, lacks any scientific basis and, as historians have demonstrated, was used to justify colonialism and genocide. Yet, as Pierre-André Taguieff has already argued, these terms are not immune to the criticisms directed against race, since ethnicity and culture are characterized by permanent and inherited traits. Consequently, this strategy does not lead to the abandonment of essentialist ways of thinking, which are constitutive of racial thinking. This is the reason I proposed getting beyond the American sociological debate over the validity of the concepts of “racial” or “ethnic group” by proposing that of “historical collectivity.”…

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