Saturday, October 20, 2007
Race and Biology
I have been meaning to write a reaction to the patently racist comments that James Watson made when he described himself to be "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa (because) all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."
In effect, this Nobel prize-winning scientist brought relevance, again, to the preposterous nonsense that race is a scientific category.
James Watson is, however, not your run of the mill racist. He won the Nobel Prize for his work that led to the 'discovery' of DNA.
So when Watson speaks the world listens. And those who want to believe that race is proved in biology are quick to raise his credentials as support for the seriousness of their argument.
But we have been here before. In fact, it is more accurate to say that we never really moved beyond the grounding assumptions that race is a biological category. This being the case even when new research and theorizations impute racial identity to be found along currents of civilization, culture, class, socio-history, and even politics.
What often happens in new theorizations is that the grounding assumptions of biology merely migrate and redeploy to contextualize the concept of race in standing assumptions of biological/binary differences, like the Other and Otherness.
Race as defined by the contemporary emphasis on racialization, for example, is hardly distant from an essentialized view of difference even when the biology thesis is set aside.
Racialization assumes that one can tell the differences between races by preferencing a socio-historical process that deconstructs biology. But what it mostly ends up doing is reconstructing race in socio-biological terms.
So, we end up with theories that deny the biology assertion, and at the same time replicate the biological assumptions that still drive the category of race. This outcome is not too distinct from the evolutionary sociobiology assertion of scientists like Pulitzer Prize author Edward Osborne Wilson who wrote "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" in 1975.
Sociobiologists and biological determinists, like Watson, agree that human behaviour can be determined through science. The US government is even funding research that attempts to ascertain the genetic make-up of homosexuals.
Still, I am not saying that the better way to deal with race is to simply remove it because it does not exist. That is a version of the denialist argument. And it is simplistic despite its popularity in tomes that seek to specify the "where to from here" projects.
Race is not biological but its reality can be found in structure and power. It won't just disappear because race is tied to the manner in which modernization, industry, the nation-state, and capital, function.
Watson is part of the power construct that needs to see race as a matter of genetic competition and prowess. It is the field of rationality, described by Hegel in absolute racist terms, that brings this "commonsense" to Watson.
He knows the science and can't deny the disconnect between science and race. But like Gobineau, he is sceptical about notions of equality among the races. His science is, therefore, set aside as he casts an eye formed in racism to explain the devastation that Africans have endured since slavery and colonialism.
In so doing, Watson like most white people, distances himself from the burden of owning the fact that Europe and its allies inside Africa, and outside, are mostly responsible for its devastation and underdevelopment.
It is easier to blame the victim. To blame the African, Blacks, the African American, the Indian, the Aboriginal, the Moari, and the Others who have endured the viciousness of whiteness.
And even as we think about the implications of those who would want us to see race as biology, there is hardly anyone looking for a genetic explanation for slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and genocide.
Instead, it is assumed that whiteness is a kind of supreme purity. It hunts and gathers in terms that evoke not thievery, but 'discovery'. It brutalizes those whom it dominates and turns the tables not seeking redemption, but rather integration and muliticulturalism.
And all the while these terms tell us more about the enduring and rearranging power of whiteness than it tells us about its decline.
Take, for example, the racist biological determinism that Nike used to develop a shoe for Indians. Nike researchers looked at the feet of 200 Indians, then decided that there was such a thing as an Indian foot.
The supporters of this shoe are quick to point out that Nike is seeking to help Indians. They don't see the biological reductionism that is assumed when Indians are collectivized by the appearance of their feet.
We have not, therefore, strayed too far from the assumptions of biology that drive race. Phrenology is reimposed in IQ testing and market research that develop old theories in new ways.
And that is how we end up with a sick Indian foot and a superior white brain.
I am, therefore, not shocked by Watson's claims. It is good to know that he has been repudiated and suspended by the very Academy and structure that created him and employed him.
I don't expect that he and the theory he now claims to abhor, will disappear. We are, afterall, locked in a battle about power and privilege. In these contexts, race is still an inevitable part of life anywhere, because it is the ruthless pursuit of power and privilege that has brought the structure of racism to be built on our Otherized bodies.
Thank you Mojalefa Murphy for your comments on Watson. Mojalefe writes at Africa Files.
Also, please see a noteworthy reaction piece written by Andru.
This post will also appear at Indigenist Intelligence Review.