Wednesday, July 25, 2012

strange fruit: biology interpreted in the service of dominant social interests...,

kenanmalik | How did society become racialized? This is the most complex of the questions Malik tackles.

For most of human history, the concept of race simply did not exist, at least in the way we think of race today. Malik turns to Ivan Hannaford and his exhaustive study Race: The History of an Idea in the West to demonstrate this historical contrast. While the Greeks classified peoples of the world by skin color, they rejected a racial worldview in favor of a political and civic one, Hannaford asserts. For the Greeks, the key social distinction was between citizens and 'barbarians'. Even in the Middle Ages, Hannaford emphasizes, the main issue with regard to strangers was, 'Do they possess a rule of law', 'Do they act like us?' What defined a person was his or her relationship to law and to faith, not biology or history.

Hannaford’s conclusion is not cited by Malik, but is worth noting. He emphasizes that racial and political thought are two opposed approaches to social organization. He goes further to characterize political thinking as 'inherently and logically resistant to the idea of race as we understand it.' He states that race is 'inimical to Western civilization in the strict sense of the word', and that ethnicity is an idea introduced in modern times that gained importance only in proportion to the decline in political thought (emphasis in the original). Both writers concur that the word 'race' may have been in use for a long time, but its modern meaning has not. As man’s social organization has evolved, the imputed content of 'race' has taken on very different significance, a point often not understood.

Like Hannaford, Malik provides a survey of the development of racial categorization, tracing the role of various schools of thought from romanticism to positivism and postmodernism, as well as a whole range of thinkers from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder through the founder of cultural anthropology, Franz Boas.

However, Malik takes strong issue with Hannaford, and many postmodernists, when they blame both the Enlightenment in general and its adherents among more modern scientists such as Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin for creating and perpetuating racism through taxonomy. Malik does not dispute the rise of such trends as 'scientific racism', as developed by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, but he emphasizes that the Enlightenment’s attitude toward human difference was permeated by the revolutionary ideas of social equality and the perfectibility of man. The predominant view of that revolutionary period was that human variation, physical or cultural, represented differences not in kind but in degree.

Darwin and the majority of the scientists of his age embodied this spirit. In fact, the fundamental philosophical orientation of racial theory - which assumes the fixity of characteristics- ran entirely counter to natural selection, as Malik notes. For the misnamed 'social Darwinists', struggle eliminated the impure specimens of the race to perpetuate the ideal type. Darwin, on the other hand, dismissed the idea of an ideal type of a species as nonsense.

However, when the Enlightenment’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were not realized following the French Revolution, when social inequality continued and worsened despite the developments of science, the tendency developed to explain poverty and other social ills in racial terms, as though they were somehow natural.

As for the common theory that racism, at least in the New World, evolved directly from slavery, Malik notes, 'As a biological theory, 19th century racial thought was shaped less by the attempts of a reactionary slave-owning class to justify privileges than by the growing pessimism among liberals about the possibilities of equality and social progress.' C. Vann Woodward argues similarly in his groundbreaking book The Strange Career of Jim Crow in which he points to the loss of support for Radical Reconstruction by Northern liberals as a decisive factor in the rise of Jim Crow segregation.

Malik also states that in Victorian England 'race' was considered a description of social distinctions rather than a skin color. With social degradation developing alongside intensified exploitation in British industry, the existence of classes began to be interpreted as hereditary.

Malik concludes that race did not cause inequality, but that the persistence and growth of inequality provided the basis for the growth of racial thinking. This profound point, well worth emphasizing, is at the center of his prior volume, The Meaning of Race. This truth needs to be firmly grounded in historical analysis, and both Malik’s and Hannaford’s summaries tend to give heavy weight to the views of a long series of intellectuals without fully connecting this history of ideas with the social relations and the class struggle. At times, this line of argument conflates the na├»ve fears of those at the bottom of society with deliberate state policy decisions at the top.

In The Meaning of Race, Malik says that the preoccupation with race at the turn of the 20th century reflected the concern for social stability, the fear of working class unrest, the growth of national rivalries and the emergence of imperialism. Unfortunately, he does not return to this point in Strange Fruit.

While there are many complex intellectual strands that influence the rise of ideas, at bottom they reflect the movement of social forces. At critical historical junctures, certain ideas are “selected,” or found to express the interests of social forces, particularly those of the dominant class. 'The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class', said Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

As a book emphasizing the implications of racial thought for science, Strange Fruit lays less emphasis on this relationship between rise of ideologies and class forces than Malik’s prior work. Nevertheless, the growth of racism historically did not reflect the state of biology. It was the reverse - biology was often interpreted in the service of prevailing social interests, a point he himself refers to.

5 comments:

Dale Asberry said...

The Indian caste system has apparently viewed superiority somewhat this way. Of course, it was changed by the Aryans because... the darker skinned Indians significantly outnumbered them, maybe? A good friend of mine says that regardless of caste, the lighter color your skin, the higher your prestige (the fewer bribes you have to pay, the better the wife you can have...).

CNu said...

The indian caste system is racist to the bone. All the mumbo jumbo associated with it reminds me of all the prr gibberish spewing out of a particular northwestern point source...,

Dale Asberry said...

Just drawing out details... as the article was speaking to Western racial attitudes, this Eastern attitude has been around much longer. Also pointing out how the significant minority, the Caucasians/Aryans use their visible phenotype coupled with their extreme brutality to subdue the majority population. I would also say that the whole India/Kashmir/Pakistan conflict is just as much racial tension as it is religious. Those Caucasians are a significant origin/point-source for psychopathic brutality in these killer apes.

CNu said...

What are you suggesting here Dale? Is this caucasian syndrome cultural, genetic, or both? Can you identify an historical pattern of it's proliferation up/down - outside the obvious? What about the Frankish/Catholic imposition of feudalism on europe beginning about the 10th century?

Are there any other groups consistently and repeatedly exhibiting this behavioral syndrome? Do you find there a primarily a cultural or genetic modus operandi?

Does it have anything to do with this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionarily_stable_strategy and in particular the Hawk/Dove game?

Dale Asberry said...

Lots of different kinds of arrows pointing that direction suggesting causation rather than correlation. E.g., recent discoveries of brain structures and relation to psychopathy, the (loose) heritability of psychopathy, the success of herding "hawks" vs. farming "doves", the impact of environment pushing herders from cold climes into crowded warm climes and the resulting social stress, the large migration and success of Caucasians as they moved north,... I would say that the "caucasian syndrome" is a result of first environmental, then cultural, and lastly genetic forces.