Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Race, part 2

The most basic question raised in these two posts about race is whether the term should be used at all and, if so, when. Same for "racial" labels. If I had to tell you how I came to the idea that race was biological, I would be stymied. It seemed to come from the air around me. I do remember, however, when I first started reading in sociology and anthropology texts that science could not support the definition of race as a biological concept--a truly radical moment for me. Another important issue comes up in the third paragraph below--why and when we identify someone's "race." Now there's something to think about.

Race most accurately refers to a category of people perceived by society as being biologically different from others. But despite the perception, it tends to be social status or economic interest, not physical differences, that defines these people. As a scientific category, "race" is a fiction or myth (Montagu 1972, 118); in social usage, it is a metaphor (see Gates 1986,4-13). Since the mid-twentieth century, the term "proliferated to the point of being meaningless in some contemporary critical thought and one that seems frequently to lock readers into rigid, unimaginative structures of analysis." (Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 1993, 9). Its usage is now often taken to imply prejudice.

The Association of American Univer­sity Presses (1995) recommends avoiding the word race itself or, at least, using it with caution. Much earlier, appeals were made by noted naturalists and anthropologists to replace the emotion-laden race with ethnic group (see Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon, We Europeans, 1936; and Ashley Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth, 1942). Although many would argue that the idea of "race" has provided certain minorities with an identity and solidarity, the concept--which has also contributed to the creation and victimization of the minorities in the first place--is far more problematic than useful.

In news stories today, individuals are preferably not identified by race unless that background is pertinent to understanding a psychological involvement in a political demonstration or similar event or an issue that crosses racial lines, or unless the story is biographical or makes an announcement, for example, regard­ing an accomplishment not routinely associated with people of that race (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual 1994).

Among its still-heard earlier uses, race refers to a person's direct descendants by "blood" ("the race of Ruth") and people of common identity and af­filiation ("the Jewish race"). Usage has varied from references to groups of na­tional, ethnic, religious, or linguistic identity; to humankind as a whole ("the human race"); and to such mystical and pernicious concepts as the Nazis' "master race." In the United States, race often implies black or white (or, more accurately, a politicized "black vs. white").

No comments: