Why race still matters
Volume 134, Number 1 (Winter 2005)
Ian Hacking, Professor of Philosphy
University of Toronto
Why has race mattered in so many times and places? Why does it still matter? Put more precisely, why has there been such a pervasive tendency to apply the category of race and to regard people of different races as essentially different kinds of people? Call this the ‘first question.’ Of course there are many more questions that one must also ask: Why has racial oppression been so ubiquitous? Why racial exploitation? Why racial slavery? Perhaps we lend to think of races as essentially different just because we want to excuse or to justify’ the domination of one race by another.
I shall proceed with the first question by canvassing live possible answers to it that variously invoke nature, genealogy (in the sense of Michel Foucault), cognitive science, empire, and pollution rules.
One final preliminary remark is in order. Most parts of this essay could have been written last year or next year, but the discussion of naturalism, medicine, and race could only have been written in November of 2004. and may well be out of date by the time this piece is printed.
Why has the category of race been so pervasive? One answer says that the distinction is just there, in the world for all to see. Superficial differences between races do exist in nature, and these are readily recognized.
The naturalist agrees at once that the distinctions are less in the nature of things than they once were, thanks to interbreeding among people whose ancestors have come from geographically distinct blocks. Racial distinctions are particularly blurred where one population has been translated by force to live in the midst of another population and yet has not been assimilated—slaves taken from West Africa and planted in the Southern United States, for example. The naturalist notes that traditional racial distinctions are less and less viable the more children are born to parents whose geographical origins are very different.
Sensible naturalists stop there. The belief that racial differences are anything more than superficial is a repugnant. John Stuart Mill was the wisest spokesman for this position…
…In the United States, the National Bone Marrow Program maintains the master registry. Most people in existing registries have tended to be middle-aged and white, which means that whites have a good chance of finding a match. Hence there have been racially targeted programs for Asian and African Americans. In the United States and Canada there is also the Aboriginal Bone Marrow Registries Association, and in the United Kingdom there is the African Caribbean Leukemia Trust. Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches has been very successful, especially in the Los Angeles region. The African Americans Uniting for Life campaign has been less successful, for all sorts of historical reasons. An African American with leukemia has a far worse chance of finding a match in time than members of other populations have. That is a social fact, but there is also a biological fact: there is far greater heterogeneity in the human leukemia antigen in persons of African origins than in other populations. (This fact fits well with the hypothesis that all races are descendants of only one of many African populations that existed at the time that human emigration began out of Africa—populations whose characteristics have continued to be distributed among Africans today.)
If you go to the websites for the organizations that maintain the registries, you will see they do not shilly-shally in some dance of euphemistic political correctness about race. For them it is a matter of life and death. Without the Asian registries there would have been many more dead Asian Americans in the past decade. For lack of more African Americans on the registries there will be more dead African Americans in the next few years than there need be…
…How much more powerful pollution and the imperial imperative become when history puts them together! Pollution rules are important for maintaining the imperial group intact. As soon as pollution rules break down, men of the master group sire children with women from subjugated groups, and a new kind of person–the half-breed–emerges. The etymology of words such as ‘Eurasian’ embodies this phenomenon. We learn from the trusty 1911 Encyclopaedia that ‘Eurasian’ was “originally used to denote children born to Hindu mothers and European (especially Portuguese) fathers.” There are pecking orders between conquerors, as well as among the conquered–and this British word was a put-down meant to keep the Portuguese in Goa in their place. Note also the dominance order between the sexes: a Hindu father and a European woman would yield, at least in the official reckoning, a Hindu, not a Eurasian.
The French noun métis, derived from a Portuguese word originally used for Eurasians, dates back to 1615. In French Canada it signified the children of white fathers and native mothers. Early in the nineteenth century it was adopted in English to denote the offspring of French Canadian men, originally trapper/traders, and native women. In other words, ‘Eurasian’ and métis alike meant the children of males from conquering groups of lower status and females from the totally subjugated groups–and then the offspring of any of those children.
For a few generations, one can be precise in measuring degrees of pollution. At that the Spanish and Portuguese Empires excelled. First came ‘mulattoes,’ the children of Spanish or Portuguese men and South American Indian women. With the importation of black slaves from West Africa, the label was transferred to the children of white masters and black slaves, and then to mixed race in general. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] says it all: the English word is derived from Portuguese and Spanish, “mulato, young mule, hence one of mixed race.”
The Spanish cuarteron became the English ‘quadroon,’ the child of a white person and a mulatto. The few quotations given in the OED are a record of colonial history. Here is the first, dated 1707: “The inhabitants of Jamaica are for the most part Europeans … who are the Masters, and Indians, Negroes, Mulatos, Alcatrazes, Mestises, Quarterons, & c. who are the slaves.” The next quotation in the list is from Thomas Jefferson.
And so on: from Spanish the English language acquired ‘quintroon,’ meaning one who is one-sixteenth of Negro descent. The 1797 Encyclopaedia Britannica has it that “The children of a white and a quintroon consider themselves free of all taint of the negro race.” More importantly, from an 1835 OED citation, “‘The child of a Quintroon by a white father is free by law.’ Such was recently the West-Indian slave code.” Better to have a white father than a white mother.
In real life, interbreeding was endemic, so such classifications were bound to become haphazard. Only one option was left. The American solution was definitive. One drop of Negro blood sufficed to make one Negro. Which in turn implied that many Americans could make a cultural choice to be black or not, a choice turned into literature in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and, more recently, in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. The one drop of blood rule perfectly harmonizes the imperial imperative and the preservation of group identity by pollution prohibitions.
Why is there such a widespread tendency to regard people of different races as essentially different kinds of people? That was our first question…
Read the entire article here.