Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation

“Note that this does not mean that the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Arabs, and so on didn’t face discrimination, hostility, assertions of inferiority and occasionally even violence. They did. But historically, they were also considered white.” —David Bernstein

“Our civilization is built on two foundations. One of them is awareness of the individual human being’s absolute value independent of race, religion, and social background. The other is the freedom to think and express one’s thoughts.” —Bruce Bawer

There is no such thing as biological race. That populations share genes with greater or lesser frequency is explained by a mundane fact: people tend to mate with people they live around. As a result, their offspring will generally look more like them than they will the parents of unrelated or less related offspring. The further apart the families, the more dissimilar the offspring will appear. Yet, even in migration, people tend to reproduce with those who look like the people from the places they left. Because of this, the appearance of so-called racial types enjoys stability over time and space. The same is true with language and dialect. People who live around each other will tend to sound like each other. They will also carry themselves similarly. And so on. But that does not mean they are a racial type.

As was obvious in my recent entry about the impact Kenan Malik’s 1996 The Meaning of Race (“Kenan Malik: Assimilation, Multiculturalism, and Immigration”) had on me, awareness that there is no such thing as biological race is not a recent development. At the same time, this good news has still a ways to travel. For the definitive demolition of race as a biological entity, I urge readers to pick up Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza’s The History and Geography of Human Genes, also published in 1996. History and Geography appeared shortly after the appearance of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life and J. Philippe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, both published in 1994, and knocked down the premise these books share: that human variation can be explained by the three-races-of-man model (the model taken for granted in my 1970 World Book Encyclopedia). Compiling decades of population genetics research and devising a clock to date the natural history of our species, Cavalli-Sforza and associates reconstruct the origins of human populations and the routes people took to spread the genome across the planet. Consequently, they show that race is confused with ancestry.

The work of Cavalli-Sforza and associates was buttressed that same year by the publication of an expanded edition of The Mismeasure of Man (originally published in 1981), a classic work of debunking by evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould taking on the position that “the social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology,” what is often referred to by proponents as “race realism.” The Mismeasure of Man was expanded to directly rebut the arguments advanced in The Bell Curve. Readers interested in this topic should also check out Richard Lewontin’s 2006 article “Confusion About Human Races,” as well as his 1984 Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (along with Steven Rose and Leon Kamin) and his 1991 Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA for more in-depth treatments of the topic. (Gould and Lewontin were colleagues at Harvard and widely regarded as pioneers in their respective fields in evolutionary biology.)

This wave of debunking held for a while, but, as Angela Saini discusses in “The Disturbing Return of Scientific Racism,” published recently in WIRED UK, those who wish race were an actual biological reality keep trying to make their wishes appear as reality. It’s hard to let a useful ideology go.

I do hope readers of this blog will take some time out of their day and read Saini’s piece even if they don’t check out the other materials. Debunking race is one of the more important projects of the rational left. I have personally been involved for a number of years in thinking about the problems of scientific racism and sociobiology (see, for example, my essay “The Myth of Extraordinary Evil: A Challenge to Evolutionary Theories of Genocide and Xenophobia,” based on a paper I presented at the Mid-South Sociological Meetings in 2009). It is vital that we stay on top of this problem. Race realism is a project of the contemporary political right, espoused by members of what Eric Weinstein tagged the Intellectual Dark Web, the offspring of secular elements of neoconservatism, a stealth repackaging of the Progressive Era Anglo-Saxon racialism that inspired the lethal pseudoscience advanced by ethnic Germans during the National Socialist period in Central Europe. Social media algorithms homogenizing content have provided not only easy access to race realist discourse, but a mechanism for virtually trapping regular visitors in that universe. (See The New York Times story on Caleb Kane and Jimmy Dore’s conversation with Kane about the article.)

Debunking helps combat not only the race essentialism of the right, but also the race essentialism of the left, whose antiracism reifies assumptions about racially exclusive identities (see Adolphe Reed Jr.’s . “Antiracism: a Neoliberal Alternative to a Left”). The paradox of the postmodern left, which has abandoned class politics for identity, is to accept the premise that racial groups are an organic basis for collective action, that grouped averages stand in place of concrete individuals. While race essentialism has proven successful for rightwing politics, which effectively exploits race resentment to build popular support, it is, for leftwing politics, a disorganizing ideology, as it fractures consciousness about the material basis of a genuine emancipatory politics: social class and class struggle. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the core principle of fascism is to give the people not their right, which is democratic control over the forces of production, but racial and ethnical aesthetics. It is, therefore, strange to see the left embracing identity in this way, and it explains the rise of authoritarianism on the left, seen in mobbing and violence, as well as censorious desire. The task of the left is to expose the false dogma of identity, not put it central to its praxis.

In a forthcoming blog entry, I will explore further the difference between contesting concepts for increasing their validity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the practice of making concepts slippery for ideological purposes in thinking about sex and gender. That essay will be a deep epistemological critique of third wave feminism. The current entry reflects on arguments I have made recently to clarify the concepts of race, ethnicity, and religion in order to gain rational separation from popular understandings of these notions, on the one hand, and rigorous scientific delineation of concepts, on the other. I explain how sociologists understand race as socially constructed—a human invention that is culturally-historically produced, situated, and transformed. I emphasize that my discipline of sociology endeavors to develop theories and methods that resist reification. Reification is defined as the problem of treating concepts representing things as the things themselves. It is the error of treating as real abstractions used to explain and understand concrete things. However, for some political types, contesting concepts has an ideological purpose: to make concepts slippery for ideological projects. The latter is at work on variants of the right and the left.

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Applied to categories of living things, the term race first occurs in the late sixteenth century and refers to breeding stocks of animals (and plants). Thus, at its inception, it refers to biology and increasingly applied to people with the development of scientific rationalism. By the seventeenth century, we find race being used to refer to physical or phenotypical traits, as well as associated capacities and proclivities, as a core concept in the developing science of evolutionary biology. As theory, albeit informally today, the discourse of natural history conceptualizes the various species as naturally sorting into biological categories lying between subspecies and strains, varieties, or subraces. Just as different races or breeds of dogs have different capacities and propensities (hunting dogs differ from herding dogs not only in appearance), so do people possess different capacities and propensities depending on their racial classification, which is based on appearance. Both the terms describing this view applied to people, racism and racialism, appear in the early twentieth century. Race is thus a product of the practical science of animal husbandry caught up in the context of the modern scientific revolution and used by bourgeois elites to fracture the proletariat for economic and political advantage.

The application of the concept of race with respect to Homo sapiens fell away from mainstream science following the eugenical horrors of Nazi-style fascism, but remained lurking at its periphery. As a reaction to the evolution of the West towards social democracy and possibly democratic socialism in the post-war period, racialism enjoyed something of a renaissance on the political right. In the 1970s, psychologists Arthur Jensen (UC-Berkeley) and Richard Herrnstein (Harvard) used their reputations to push the argument that race was real and that racial groups were differentiated among other things by intelligence, which they held was largely innate and heritable.

By the 1990s, racialism was finding its way into mainstream thought. Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve is representative of academic-sounding scholarship that claims intelligence is unequally distributed across racial groups. Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior claims that biological race determines cultural and moral outcomes. Blacks, whites, and Orientals (his word choice)—Negroids, Caucasoids, and Mongoloids—are differentiated not only biologically (cranial capacity, density of cortical neurons, size of genitalia, etc.) but in cultural achievements, sexual promiscuity, crime rates, and so on. Claiming to operate in an objective Darwinian framework, Rushton (a psychologist) argues that blacks and whites have different reproductive strategies, the former pursuing the r-selection strategy of large litter sizes and less parental attention, the latter the K-selection strategy of small litter sizes and more parental attention. Neo-Darwinianism is a set up for the old eugenics argument that social welfare programs allow inferior racial types that would otherwise be weeded out through natural selection to artificially perpetuate their kind, producing, perhaps unintentionally, dysgenesis, or the degradation of the superior races.

There is a massive racist literature in between and following the rise of racialism and sociobiology, with evolutionary psychology representing the latest manifestation of race realism. I have considered devoting a blog entry to destroying this absurd and hateful point of view. But, then, the aforementioned—Gould, Lewontin and his army, Malik, Saini, Cavalli-Sforza and his army, and many others—have already done this, so I will for the time being direct you their way. The point I want to make here is that it is not true that the concept of intrinsic race has always been a flexible notion meaning different things in different times. It originated to describe organisms in a biological way and it continues in this usage. Moreover, the races as we understand them today, while certainly subject to social evolution, enjoy remarkably stable cultural histories, and this is what gives the racialist literature face validity. Crucially, then, the stability in racial categories over the long term contradicts the premise of whiteness studies which, with its roots in historicism, presupposes that which it claims is constructed. I next turn to the literature on whiteness and the postmodern mindscape of identity politics that lays a veneer of academic credibility over its pretensions.

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According to the original chief proponent of whiteness studies, Theodore Allen, initiated by his 1975 pamphlet Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, British colonists invented whiteness in the late-seventeenth-early-eighteenth century in the American colonies as an hegemonic strategy disorganizing the working class by manufacturing racial loyalties that disrupted class solidarity. So far so good. However, influenced by postmodern emphasis on power of discourse and narrative in reality construction, this view was expanded in a body of literature arguing that the whiteness that was at first narrowly constructed to apply to white British workers only over a long period of time came to include other Europeans (thus greatly shrinking the number of “actual” white people in history). George Lipsitz gave this a useful hook in his 1995 essay, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies” (American Quarterly, 47 (3, 1995): 369-387) that resonated among my peers in graduate school in the 1990s. Allen’s formulation was highly influential among New Left types and led to the widespread adoption of the “white privilege” rhetoric that we hear assumed by the establishment progressives.

Perhaps more than any other work, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, published in 1991, establishes the foundation of whiteness studies. The Wages of Whiteness was considered the go-to during my graduate school stint (1996-2000), and whiteness studies, along with critical race theory, influenced me greatly during the production of my doctoral dissertation. I reflect on this experience in the entry “Committing the Crime it Condemns,” but I want to add here that I never published my dissertation in book form because I came to doubt this literature not long after graduation. (I moreover became concerned with anti-environmentalism and the Iraq War, work that constituted the basis of my successful case for tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.) I was satisfied with my historical analysis, echoed a few months later in Loïc Wacquant’s “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” published in Punishment and Society (in 2001) and years later in Michele Alexander’s 2010 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The social science in my dissertation was sound. It was the moral claims that framed what I intended as a work in interested sociology about which I became unsure.

A year after I left graduate school, in an article published in International Labor and Working-Class History (“Whiteness and the Historian’s Imagination”) the same year as Wacquant’s article on the deadly symbiosis, labor historian Eric Arnesen dismantled whiteness studies, accusing it of the historically decontextualizing practice of “keyword literalism.” Arnesen’s article greatly influenced the evolution of my thinking. He identifies why whiteness studies has proved so seductive: “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” More devastating is his critique of motive, namely that whiteness studies (in a way analogous to the reaction to authoritarian socialism that produced devotees to the emerging neoconservative movement in the 1960s-1970s) represents a collective reaction on the left reflecting disappointment in the failures of the socialist movement to make an ideal socialist society and of whites to transcend racism and nationalism. He notes, for example, David Roediger’s admission that his The Wages of Whiteness was written in reaction to working class support for Reaganism and the politics of the New Right. This insight helps us understand why, in response to the new wave of rightwing populism, rather than jettisoning its race (and gender) politics, the left recedes ever further into the futile politics of identity.

I highly recommend Arnesen’s article to you (it lies behind a paywall, so I suggest seeing if your local library has access to the the journals of Cambridge University Press). However, the claims of overdeveloped whiteness studies can be rather easily debunked without resorting to the academic literature. For example, in his March 2017 article “Sorry, but the Irish were always ‘white’ (and so were Italians, Jews and so on),” published in The Washington Post, David Bernstein, law professor at the George Mason University and contributor to the useful legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, shows how asking simple questions exposes the distortions of ideologically-driven academic literature:

Were members of the group allowed to go to “whites-only” schools in the South, or otherwise partake of the advantages that accrued to whites under Jim Crow? Were they ever segregated in schools by law, anywhere in the United States, such that “whites” went to one school, and the group in question was relegated to another? When laws banned interracial marriage in many states (not just in the South), if a white Anglo-Saxon wanted to marry a member of the group, would that have been against the law? Some labor unions restricted their membership to whites. Did such unions exclude members of the group in question? Were members of the group ever entirely excluded from being able to immigrate to the United States, or face special bans or restrictions in becoming citizens?

“If you use such objective tests,” Bernstein writes, “you find that Irish, Jews, Italians and other white ethnics were indeed considered white by law and by custom.” Bernstein goes on to note something I have pointed out to people in the past, that “some lighter-skinned African Americans of mixed heritage ‘passed’ as white by claiming they were of Arab descent and that explained their relative swarthiness,” and that this in turn shows “that Arab Americans, another group whose ‘whiteness’ has been questioned, were considered white.” Persons of African, Asian, and Native American descent, on the other hand, did not enjoy access to white institutions. These distinctions are centuries old. What Bernstein shows without explicitly saying so is that ethnicity, which emerges from cultural space-time, organized around language, custom, and a sense of national belonging, is not analogous to race, an externally-imposed hierarchal-arranged control system based on biological categories.

I hasten to add one criticism of Bernstein’s piece. Bernstein argues that his method stands apart from the ahistorical sociological method of defining “whiteness” as persons “fully socially accepted as the equals of Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock.” Correctly, he exposes, even if not intentionally, the aim of whiteness studies: to make whites out to be a minority in the trans-Atlantic space-time by treating white ethnics as historically nonwhite, as well as the approach that allows for the conceptual slipperiness that underpins this academic standpoint. Nonetheless, in one respect, he is punching at a straw man: this is not how sociologists define whiteness. Neither racialists nor the general public define whiteness in this way, either. This is a construction of whiteness studies and works as a background assumption in the white privilege rhetoric, which enjoys widespread purchase among modern progressives. Thus the notion of attaching the exclusivity of whiteness to national groups who perpetrated colonialism and genocide has emerged as part of an ideological project, gaining substantial traction with postmodernist turn in political discourse. But just as conceptual slipperiness has a political purpose, so does maintaining conceptual clarity has a political purpose; the difference is that the latter is political without being ideological. This is the value in clarifying conceptual vocabulary and theoretical frameworks.

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What we can see, then, is that, despite the concept of race referring to biological entities, there are those who find it advantageous to expand the meaning of racism to include cultural things. We see this in the selective extension of the charge of racism to smear cultural criticism the left doesn’t like. For example, if I criticize the culture of a people living in a particular geographical location, and the people living there are perceived as racially homogenous, then my criticism of the culture risks being accused of racism—if it is not directed at white people.[1] But the accusation of racism in the case of cultural criticism could only be valid if the criticism assumed that the culture criticized is an expression of the capacities and propensities of the race of the people living there. Ironically, assuming culture is a projection of race is a tenet of racism itself!

I reject the concept of intrinsic race, therefore it would be incorrect to suppose that any cultural criticism I make reflects an underlying racist sentiment. My cultural criticisms conceptualize culture—which sociologists define as the values and habits of a people living in a particular type of society—as an set of phenomena emerging from and sustained by associated historical and material conditions. This is a basic understanding in Marxism, the general framework in which I work. So, while it is racist to say that somebody should be distrusted because of his phenotypic profile, it is not racist to say somebody should be distrusted because of his cultural (or religious) orientation. For example, if I am concerned about neo-Nazis, which I most certainly am, it is not because they are, with rare exception, racially white (I am racially white, as well), but because neo-Nazis subscribe to fascist and racist culture and ideology. I moreover object to their cooptation of cultural icons and symbols, such as the incorporation of ancient Nordic imagery into racist symbology, that did not originally contain white supremacists notions. Moreover, it would be absurd to defend white supremacy on the grounds that it offends white people who subscribe to it. There is nothing racist about opposition to a fascistic, sexist, heterosexist ideology. Yet we hear all the time that opposition to Islam is racist.

Consider the blog entry I made several weeks ago in which I analyzed the problems of the Central American culture of violence and expressed concerns, based on evidence, about Central American migration to the United States and its potential to exacerbate crime rates (“The Northern Triangle, the Migrant Flow, and the Risk of Criminal Violence”). Some on the left might smear such an analysis as racist. But I make no claims about race at all in that essay. Race is not assumed or implied. Neither is ethnicity. The unfortunate reality is that some places are dangerous to travel to and a big part of the reason is the culture associated with those places. In contrast, there are regions and societies that enjoy higher levels of cultural development, by which I mean they are better for human development and wellbeing, which are safe to travel to.

In the more highly developed cultures, women are not second class citizens, homosexuals are free to be themselves, and persons can practice whatever religion or no religion at all. In these societies, group and interpersonal forms of violence are exceptional. Yet many have been intimidated into refraining from stating the truth about this for fear of being called “racist.” But one has to expand the concept of race in defiance of its centuries-old meaning to manufacture a claim that criticism of cultures inadequate to human needs and rights is automatically racist. Surely, it has not escaped the reader’ attention that those who make this claim can be extraordinarily hypocritical. Why, if it is so wrong to criticize culture, is it so easy to criticize the culture associated with white-majority societies? Here the critique explicitly goes after a race. Some left identitarians even reject science because it is the work of white culture, while accusing critics of sorcery and superstition as racist (see, for example, dreadful essay by Current Affairs writer Aisling McCrea, “The Magical Thinking of Guys of Love Logic”). What is the desired goal of this politics? It cannot possibility be to dismantle racism.

A useful instance of the suppression of a social problem by linking culture to race is found in the problem of crime and violence in the central cities of the United States. African Americans are overrepresented in property and violent crime in both of the primary data sources criminologists use to determine the extent of crime and violence. For example, according to the Uniform Crime Report, in 2017 arrests for murder in American cities were much higher for blacks (4,074) than for whites (2,701). The vast majority of those murders were committed by males (6,243 male compared to 815 female). African American males are less than six percent of the population. These facts indicate significant overrepresentation of blacks in murder (as perpetrator and victims). Robbery by blacks (34,367 in 2017) exceeded robbery by whites (26,633 that same year). Arrests for weapons possession was approximately equal for whites (49,387) and blacks (46,137), overwhelming involving males. The Uniform Crime Report has been criticized for relying on police reporting; however, the National Crime Victimization Survey, while indicating that approximately half of crimes detected by its method are reported to the police, find the measures nonetheless correspond, meaning that underreporting by the FBI does not significant affect the racial distribution of criminal violence.

However, it would be a mistake to suppose that black males are overrepresented in street crime because of their race. Black males are overrepresented in crime and violence because they are more likely to live in central city areas marked by a culture of violence and lawlessness. And this culture is the product of persistent inequalities of wealth and power not genetics. Capitalist relations of production are the root cause of the problem. Race has no effects because it is not a real thing (this is why the IQ studies must be wrong). So when the Center for American Progress warns of “The Dangerous Racialization of Crime in U.S. News Media,” they are only half right. It is wrong to suggest that it’s the mainstream media creating a false perception about the overrepresentation of blacks in criminal violence. African Americans are overrepresented in criminal victimization. The Center for American Progress is (accidentally) right to describe the reporting as “racialization” of the crime problem. However, the desire to deny black overrepresentation in criminal violence causes the Center for American Progress to hide the relationship between the inequality systematically generated by capitalism and criminal violence in America’s central cities. Thus the class dynamic is erased by the left identitarian impulse.

Can we finally admit this basic point: variable cultural conditions have nothing to with the race of the people living there? If we are non-racist we have to. (And, yes, there is such a thing as non-racism once we let go of the irrational cosmic sense of identity where you are either a racist or an antiracist.) The truth is that the West is a great place to live, which is why so many people are eager to come here, even to endure the concentration camps westerners euphemistically call “immigrant detention facilities” (see “Migrant Detention Facilities are Not Fascist Concentration Camps”). But the West isn’t a great place to live because white people are the majority; it is a great place to live, even with its faults (which are many) because of its culture of secularism and personal freedom.[2] But it is not great everywhere, and this is because we still have to transcend the inequalities of capitalism, and that won’t happen as long as the left is diverted from its historic mission by identitarian politics.

Since variability in the conditions of existence is due in large measure to the difference cultures produce and sustain through the behavior of their agents—human beings—there is an urgent problem to consider: the recklessness of ignoring the fact of humans as culture-bearing vehicles when developing immigration policies. Patterned attitudes and behavior are products of inculturation. Because human beings are the bearers of the cultures they are socialized to carry, their values and habits come with them. Therefore, it is not necessarily an expression of racism or xenophobia to worry about individuals from other cultures; it depends on the culture and the relationship of the individual in question to that culture. What else explains these tendencies? Certainly not race, since, again, race is not an actual thing. Clearly, then, smearing such considerations as racist is a tactic aiming at undermining an immigration policy that considers the culture-ideology of the place of origin in order to protect a nation’s inhabitants and advance the national interest, which would, ideally, advance the interests of working families. These are civic nationalist not ethnonationalist concerns. As I have made clear in my blog entries, consistent with orthodox Marxism, I am a proponent of the nation-state and civic nationalism. What I am not is a third worldists or a race identitarian. That racism is confused with culture and irreligious criticisms in popular consciousness is a spectacular propaganda achievement of bourgeois cultural managers.

Paradoxically perhaps, the progressive left already recognizes individual attitudes and behaviors are cultural products. However, in their way of seeing the world, these patterns are essentialized as race and the defense of them clothed in antiracist fashion. The most obvious example is the claim of “white privilege,” something that all whites have by virtue of being white. It used to be the case that those racialized as whites were seen as historically privileged and groups wanted to be included in the structures that whites benefited from by eliminating racial system and becoming recognized as individuals with equal access to the nation’s institutions (which presupposes nation-states). That was the traditional civil rights approach—the Old Left way. Now whites are seen collectively as pariah and the goal is to dismantle the culture of secular liberalism as an expression of white supremacy, while reifying race as essential. So, while we can rationally draw a distinction between multiracialism and multiculturalism, for the left these are conflated and become causal and celebrated as diversity. This is the cultural strategy adapted by neoliberalism. It is an alchemy that then allows the smearing of opponents of multiculturalism (designed to undermine common culture) as opponents of multiracialism. (In various conversations the reader can find on YouTube, conservative scholar Victor Davis Hansen admirably explains this distinction and its effects throughout history.) To make my argument clear, I have no problem with dismantling whiteness. However, I see eliminating whiteness as a step in emancipating individuals from the system of racism altogether, not as a reconfiguration of racial oppression that makes demands on individuals on the basis of race.

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In the current political context, the pariah status of whiteness has produced some curious effects. Such is the perceived advantage in defining oneself as nonwhite in order to escape the collective responsibility that comes with the pariah identity, some Jews have taken to publicly denying their whiteness. Here Bernstein is right to point out that the definition of whiteness is ideologically narrowed to persons “fully socially accepted as the equals of Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock.” Those whites are responsible for the horrors of the world. Those whites owe the world reparations, which comes also in the form of open borders, on account of this “truth” (whiteness is often assumed in claims made on the West; see “Reparations and Open Borders.”) Some Jews have felt the sting of that line of thinking and don’t want to be lumped with the racialized bearers of those alleged horrors. After all, in the white privilege view, all whites carry around their necks the cosmic albatross of racism.

Seth Frantzman, writing in The Jerusalem Post, (“Now they call us ‘White Jews’,” December 26, 2018), cautions his readers about the whitening of Jews. He calls it the “new American antisemitism” and it is a “creeping hatred.” “The labeling of Jews as ‘white’ and debates on how to ‘treat Jews,’ as if Jews are packages in a supermarket,” he writes, “is a form of dehumanizing rhetoric designed to force Jewish people into a binary of ‘white/non-white’ that is currently trendy in US discussions.” He continues, “The new toxic discussion taking place primarily in the United States is designed to label Jews as ‘white supremacists.’” Triggering Frantzman are things said by Tamika Mallory, leader of the Women’s March, to The New York Times about what marchers had been discussing, principally that “white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.” Frantzman also quotes Rebecca Vilkomerson who tweeted: “We white Jews especially need to recognize that centering our own status as victims here is a power move, as well as a way to avoid self-reflection on our relative status in a white supremacist world.” The jargon of identity politics at its finest!

A March 27, 2019 Jewish Journal carried the headline “We’re not White, We Define Ourselves.” In the essay, Karen Lehman Bloch writes that she defines her race based on DNA and the “plethora of genetic research showing that, lo and behold, just like our Sephardic and Mizrahic brothers and sisters, the DNA of Ashkenazim shows an irrefutable connection to the Levant—meaning we’re not white.” Yet populations from the Levant are white according to centuries old racial understanding. Her essay is accompanied by pictures of prominent Jews suggesting that this proves Jews aren’t white. But nobody in the pictures supplied would be considered nonwhite in the West except by white supremacists which are, contrary to white privilege rhetoric, rare. Of course that doesn’t mean that race is biological. It means that a consensus formed a long time ago that people native to West Asia (and North Africa) are white. Bloch is not only claiming to define herself (something that has become fashionable in the postmodern culture); she is claiming to revise the history of racial theory in a personal way. She has so convinced herself of this that she was taken aback by Jews who criticized her for denying Jewish whiteness.

It isn’t until roughly midway through the article that Bloch’s motive becomes obvious: she experiences the same anxiety that moves Frantzman’s complaint. It’s the “current practitioners of identity politics,” Bloch writes, that have forced her to push back against the alleged whitening of Jews. “Jews have been told: We are inexorably white and thus responsible for colonialism, the slave trade and mass incarceration,” she writes. “We are white supremacists, and thus responsible for all racism and oppression.” If a person is not white then she cannot be held accountable for these things that white people did and do. “We are white and thus incapable of being persecuted—past and present.” Obviously, this is a real problem if one wants to be persecuted—past and present. There is advantage in victimhood (see McCrea’s “Reclaiming Victimhood,” in Current Affairs). By denying one’s whiteness, one can claim that advantage. Bloch then responds to Vilkomerson: “The Holocaust was a white-on-white crime and thus of little import. We should stop ‘centering’ ourselves! As part of the white European ruling caste, we are the primary beneficiaries of white privilege.”

Generalizing its anxiety, the organizers of the Woman’s March, the movement itself provoked by the success of rightwing populism in the 2016 election cycle (a success I pin on the failures of the left), stoked by elite concern about establishment hegemony, and informed by Black Lives Matter, cuts a wide swath with the white privilege scythe. This testifies to the power of the black identity movement. In 2016, Black Lives Matter included in their platform the following: “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” BLM described Israel as an “apartheid state,” condemning settlements and the “apartheid wall.” Many Jews expressed concern with the pairing of BLM criticism of whiteness with the Jewish state’s national security measures. Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding Israeli security policy has widespread application. Condemnation of the security barriers in Israel is, in part, the reason why discussions of the security barrier along the US southern border, which existed uncontroversially for decades since the early 1990s, have become so shrill of late. All this has come with Nazi imagery paired with Israeli and US security policy. Joined by leftwing pro-Islamic sympathy, this rhetoric is an ingredient in the antipathies fueling an increase in antisemitism and hate crimes against Jews across the West, a phenomenon that some on the left falsely dismiss as exaggerated.

Under these conditions, especially given the conflation of Jews with Zionists and Israel, it is expected that some Jews will wish to deny their whiteness. “We are responsible for tragedies like New Zealand, especially if we dare to call out anti-Semitism (which doesn’t really exist because we are white),” Bloch writes with a palpable fear. She objects to being white because being white is a terrible thing. It implicates her in centuries of exploitation and oppression. It makes Jews responsible for the deeds of those who are classified as white by the racial theory that Bloch believes she can revise while claiming for herself the power to define her race (ask Rachel Dolezal how transracialism worked out for her). Bloch does not want to be white because it allegedly comes with privileges, and privileges used to be desirable, but now (however unevenly distributed across social class reality they are) they implicate one in having to make good on debts owed to non-whites demanding things on the basis of collective and historic victimization. Unlike many on the left, Bloch does not relish this debt. In this climate, it is therefore better to be nonwhite. So now Ashkenazim is a race. If she is white, then Bloch cannot be a victim of anti-Semitism. Moreover, if Jews are white, then there can be no anti-Semitism, she worries, thus historically racializing her religion and her ethnicity, Bloch claims that, because of race, Jews were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition, despite the fact that racism did not exist then. At one point, Bloch asks: “do you ever hear the term white Muslim?” Since Muslims are considered white (except by some racists), the redundancy is not uttered in the West. Why would it be?

Bloch’s error is twofold. First, is the error of thinking DNA indicates race. As we have established, DNA is ancestry. Race doesn’t exist as a biological thing. We reject race realism. To be sure, while antisemitism is widely regarded as a form of racism, Semite, which is a language group, is not analogous to race, and this problem is not solved by noting that the term was never used to apply to Semitic people broadly. Historically, antisemitism emerged as a scholarly sounding word for Jew-hatred, which is loathing of Jews as an ethnic and religious group. One understand why there was a need to coin a term for the phenomenon; Jew-hatred is a special case of hatred. Instead of seeing Jews as an inferior race, Jews are feared for their cleverness as a people. Jew-hatred sees Jews as intrinsically evil, bent on controlling the world. It is a conspiracy theory inextricably bound up in theological notions that inhere in both the Christian and the Muslim world. To be sure, its intensity comes with the force of racism. But Jews are nonetheless white. Bernie Sanders is a white man. So is Joe Lieberman. And so on. Second, is the error that individuals on the basis of racial identity are responsible for the deeds of other individuals with whom they share that identity. This is an ancient and irrational conception of responsibility that must be jettisoned. An individual cannot be held responsible for the deeds of those who share his phenotypic characteristics, for these in themselves carry no explanatory power. To think otherwise is to embrace the heart of racism. Antiracism works on the same principle. (See “For the Good of Your Soul Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations.”)

It is a testament to the irrational state of our contemporary political culture that denying whiteness is seen as a way of avoiding responsibility for things one did not do or could not have done. A far more sensible perspective on this matter is put forward by Ariel Sobel in the January 8, 2019 Forward: “Can We Finally Admit that Jews Can Be Both White and Oppressed?” One might be moved to say the same about Muslims. Or Christians. Try these identities out in the framework of the headline.

I leave this section with a disclaimer: if I have missed some deep sarcasm in Frantzman and Bloch’s work, that’s on me.

* * *

So, if I do not believe race is a biological reality, then why do I insist that Arabs are white? This was a question recently put to me. Without benefit of a lengthy explanation of my argument, it is a reasonable question (this is why I have written this blog entry). I have never claimed that anybody is white in a biological sense. Race is a meaningless construct in human biology. I have pointed out that West Asians and North Africans have historically been racialized as white. But that is a very different claim than saying they a part of a racial type. Earlier, I noted Bernstein’s observation, which I have made myself in the past, namely “that Arab Americans, another group whose ‘whiteness’ has been questioned, were considered white.” I have pointed out that mulattos, as mixed raced persons of white and black heritage were referred to in the past, often claimed to be from Egypt in order to pass as white. I have noted that both the US and UK census have, with rare exception, racially coded Arab populations as white. The whiteness of Arabs is consistent with the socially constructed nature of race, and the stability in this construction speaks to the persistence of common sense racial perception.

My concern is not with racializing people biologically. My concern is over why there is an effort to racially recode Arabs as nonwhite. I am interested in the politics of this. What lies behind the desire to redefine an ethnicity as a race? One suspects that, at least to some extent, the desire shares reasons with the desire of some Jews to deny their whiteness. But in the case of race merchants in the Arab community, there is more at work here. The related question of why Muslims are being racialized bears on this. But one cannot explore these questions, which are very current politically, without recognizing how these populations have been defined in the past and by what method they are being so defined.

Today’s left pursues the othering of Arabs and Muslims most aggressively. They do this with Jews, as well, since Jews are thought of as from this part of the world. The construct of “white Jew” is a product of this way of thinking (to because there, in point of fact, black Jews). Readers may have seen the meme floated on various social media that claims that Jesus, a brown-skinned Middle Eastern man, almost certainly a Jew, was transformed into a white man by white Christians who desperately want to make Jesus one of them (some black Churches have made Jesus out to be a black man for this reason). Europeans “whitewashed” Jesus, the claim goes. The background on this is an old but a rather exclusive story. Ernest Renan’s 1863 book Life of Jesus used the Gospel of John to claim that Jesus purified his character, purging Jewish (or Semitic) traits to become an Aryan. Renan held that the Semitic race of which Middle Eastern Jews were a part, with one exception, was inferior to the Aryan race. The one exception was the Ashkenazim. They were not Semitic, Europeans who converted to Judaism. In contrast, Bloch says that DNA evidence shows the Ashkenazim are Semitic and thus racially different from Aryans and she uses this to escape whiteness (in her own mind). Hitler saw in Renan support for his own views. But most Europeans have never deployed Hitlerian racial designations. Whatever their racial views, they regard Hitlerian racism as abhorrent (European culture is the culture that produced human rights, after all). Rather Europeans depend on common sense understanding of race. Were Jesus a real person, he would have dwelled in Palestine in the first century of the common epoch, under Roman rule, and would have been, had he not been Sub-Saharin African or East Asian, perceived by most observers as white. Same with Muhammad.

It is true that in some particularly ignorant strains of right-wing reaction we see an abstract racialization of Arabs conveyed by the term “sand nigger.” I saw this firsthand in the South as a high school student during the Islamic Revolution. My peers were angry over the Iranian hostage crisis. It afforded them an opportunity to engage in patriotic chest thumping. One night at the rock quarry, I chastised classmates who were trying to scare up a mob to go find and beat up Iranians. I mocked them: “How would know one if you saw one?” Yes, I know that Iranians are not Arabs. But my peers didn’t. Their ignorance does no damage to my point since Iranians, who are of Persian descent, are white, too (moreover, the language spoken by Iranians is European). Arabs (and Persians) are considered white unless the person under consideration has not already been sorted into another racial box. Those who are coded as nonwhite are not thought of as Arab or Persian (although they may be). Famous Arabs and those with substantial Arab descent, such people as Casey Kasem, Diane Rehm, Tony Shalhoub, Selma Hayek, Frank Zappa, and many more, are regarded as racially white. When we watched the Sinbad movies as kids, we all knew the characters were Arabs and Muslim. That was part of what was so interesting about them. The characters referred to Allah and the universe was inhabited by the region’s supernatural entities (and some from other regions–unlike Thomas Bulfinch, Ray Ray Harryhausen was not an especially deft mythicist) and carried a magical character. The actors were brown skinned. They spoke with accents. They were exotic in the Anglo-American gaze. But that gaze never cast them as nonwhite.

We see a similar thing with perceptions of Mexicans. The US census has categories for white and nonwhite Hispanics, clearly recognizing the difference between race and ethnicity. Hispanic is not a race. It is a language group. There are black people who speak Spanish and white people who speak Spanish. Of course there is an effort to racialize white Hispanics, as well. This has confused the progressive media. For example the Huffington Post complained in 2013 that “the FBI only tabulates arrest data by race, with categories for white, black, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native. Latinos, who can belong to any race provided they have Latin American heritage, effectively vanish from the agency’s published records.” But Hispanics don’t disappear, as they are reckoned as whatever race with which they identity. But for progressives brown is the new black. The leftwing desire to racialize Hispanics helps us understand why efforts to control immigration are widely smeared as racist even while it is obvious that immigrant is not a racial category (nor are immigrants automatically Hispanic). Much of the resistance to Hispanic culture is not because Hispanics are seen as a race, but because there are objections to values and practices attributed to them (for one thing, they are majority Catholic). However, not everything Hispanic is rejected! Hispanic food, music, and fashion are quite popular among Anglo-Americans. Thus one can be concerned about Central Americans illegally crossing the border because they are coming from the most violent culture in North America without holding any racial animus towards Central Americans as people. But beware: you may be accused of racism if you express concern over the spread of crime with the movement of these populations into the United States, even when the phenomenon is well documented. (See “What is the Relationship of Immigration to Crime?” “Democrats are Being Disingenuous on the Role of Security Fencing in Reducing Illegal Immigration and Crime,” and the aforementioned “The Northern Triangle, the Migrant Flow, and the Risk of Criminal Violence.”

The most extreme form of postmodernist expansion of the concept of race is the racialization of Muslims (“Muslims are Not a Race. So why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They are?”). The racialization of Muslims comes from two main sources: (1) leftwing identity merchants who fetishize Islam because of its anti-western and especially anti-American character (whether this is universal among Muslims is beside the point) and because of a general desire to fracture the world into an ever-growing matrix of intersecting essence-boxes; and (2) Islamists who see advantage in Muslims being perceived as a racial minority, hence the propaganda term “Islamophobia,” deceitfully riffing on terms like “Homophobia” and “Negrophobia,” both terms referring to who people are, not what people believe. (See “Islamophobia has no Place on the Left.”) To be sure race, ethnicity, and religion can be intersecting identities. A man can be a black Arab Muslim. He is racially black, culturally Arab (speaks, eats, and so on, Arabic), and a follower of Muhammad. But the tactic of treating a religion or an ethnicity (nation in that sense) as a race is fallacious and propagandistic. That various segments of the public would confuse these things does not overturn scientific epistemology and the greater historical picture. We are explaining why they are confusing things.

An analogy feels appropriate here. Christians complain about anti-Christian prejudice and discrimination in order to prevent the marginalization and therefore its continued strength and relevance in the culture of Christianity and the values and habits that come with that ideology. Imagine if Christians convinced the public that they are a race or an ethnicity and then thwart irreligious criticisms by crying racism or ethnicism. We would point out with no controversy that Christians are not a race, even while agreeing that race is not biological. Indeed, Christianity is so obviously not a race or an ethnicity (it is as racially and ethnically diverse as Islam), Christians dare not work that angle, whch is why the term “Christophobia” never caught fire even in Christian-majority countries. Perhaps this is because multiculturalism doesn’t elevate Christians. But Muslims depend very much on multiculturalism to elevate their ideology and they have a receptive audience on the identitarian left.

There is a longstanding tendency on the left to make criticisms of nonwestern culture out to be a form of racism. Criticism of western culture is, on the other hand, invited and encouraged. The left does not hesitate to accept the invitation and to encourage others to join them. It tells us a lot that it would instantly be seen as ludicrous to suggest that criticism of western culture is racist. Indeed, criticism of other cultures has become one of worst things a white person can do. It is an Islamist strategy to piggyback on racial oppression to manufacture a victim status. Postmodern conceptual slipperiness allows for this piggybacking. It is insulting those—Africans, American Indians, and Asia—who actually suffer racism. Recoding Arabs as white and anti-Muslim sentiment as “racist” reflects the need to stymie resistance to Arabization and Islamization of western civilization. That you read that last sentence with some discomfort testifies to the efficacy of this tactic.

Race is not biological reality. It is a social construct, an operating feature of the ideology of racism. The system adapts over time, but it has been remarkably consistent over the centuries. If you task a computer with running a factor analysis on genetic dissimilarity, it will produce factors that resemble the racial classification system developed centuries ago. This consistency speaks not to biological race but to the persistent effects of the racial system and common sense understandings of it. Our shared racial understanding is what Thomas Kuhn would call paradigmatic. So when I say that Arabs are white, I mean they are white according to a centuries old racial classification system that in many places carries the force of law and almost everywhere constitutes common sense. Ethnicity is a cultural category that includes language, cuisine, music, art, etc. It is one of two meanings of “nation.” As with race, ancestry is a big part of it. There is anti-Arab and anti-Mexican bigotry and discrimination. But it is not racism. A religion is a system of beliefs referencing supernatural beings or forces. There is also the reality of anti-Christian and anti-Islamic discrimination. But one cannot make anti-religious bigotry a form of racism. Moreover, while ethnic prejudice is problematic, irreligious criticism is noble and necessary. This is why the construct “Islamophobia” is particularly obnoxious: it suggest that there is something wrong with criticism of Islam. It is precisely this freedom, the freedom to critique oppressive thought, that the multiculturalists seek to rob us of. 

* * *

Racists argue that there really are such things as races. But we know that race is a social-historical construct. Therefore we study not race per se, but racism, even when we are debunking the notion of biological race by climbing down into the trenches with race realists. This requires that we work from valid conceptualizations in order to study change over time. To use an analogy, people define social class in all sorts of ways, but historical materialists define social class as production relations, that is a person’s relationship to the means of production (which may locate a person in multiple relations). Then we study the changing class structure over time by using these concepts. If we keep our concepts consistent, then we not only have a basis for objective theorization of social change and group dynamics, but we can elaborate the intellectual tools to combat efforts to mainstream extreme ideologies like Islam and postmodernism, which seek to change our definitions of things, as well as our values (such as secularism and liberalism), in order to undermine them. 

Imprecision and conceptual inflation are not just the result of intellectual sloppiness but often are propaganda tactics. It is evidence of a tendency. The academic conflation of Islam with race is an obvious example. The expansion of the meaning of racism to encompass culture and religion reflects the problem of conceptual inflation. Moreover, there is obfuscation about the origins of race as a concept and racism as an ideology in order to facilitate inflation. The concept of race was initially developed and for centuries used to describe things that are biological or result from biology. In the twentieth century is was fallaciously expanded to include ethnic or cultural identities. More recently, it was fallaciously expanded to include optimistic speech that racism is not as much of a problem as it used to be (the so-called New Racism, which interferes with the guilt of original sin). And, of course, the concept of race is currently undergoing further expansion to selectively and fallaciously encompass religious identity.

There is a need to deflate the concept of racism and circumscribe its usage to what it originally referred to, namely a false theory about human variation and the practice of treating people differently—hierarchically—based on these differences, and then relegate that theory to the dustbin of intellectual history along with flat-earthism and geocentrism. We need to keep it to its original meaning to avoid the conceptual inflation that the entrepreneurs of identity politics use to either extend or deepen oppressive relations (such as racializing ethnicities in order to deprive them of their rights) or stifle criticism of things not covered under the concept (such as culture and religion). All of which keeps us from the historical task of the working class: to overthrow capitalism and replace it with democratic socialist arrangements.


[1] There is of course an exception. I am even allowed to racialize classist intent as long as white people are the target, hence the easy use of the “white trash” slur. It is okay on the left today to speak about white people in the most demeaning manner conceivable and to attribute racist motive to their politics (for an example of the latter see John Blake’s messy CNN article, “In the census-citizenship case, the Supreme Court may once against affirm ‘white rule’,” citing approvingly the assessment of Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, implicating, albeit implicitly, working class whites who suffer amid mass immigration in the white supremacist “impulse” that sustained Jim Crow segregation in the South). There has been some elite reflection on the acceptability of racializing poor white bashing. Last year around this time NPR carried the useful segment “Why it’s Time to Retire the Disparaging Term ‘White Trash’.” Moreover, the leftwing populist Bernie Sanders was loathe to embrace identity politics in the 2016 election cycle until Black Lives Matter activists, seeing an easy target, commandeered the stage at one of his political rallies (the sympathetic make easy targets).

[2] I hasten to add that my view on these matters differs from the sense conveyed by the work of Ricardo Duchesne, a historical sociologist at the University of New Brunswick who elected for early retirement in the face of a censorious onslaught for linking civic nationalism to ethnic identity. This linking is also the mark of such neoconservatives as Douglas Murray, the author of the recent The Strange Death of Europe. I do not credit secularism and liberalism to whiteness but to the unique historical and cultural trajectory of European civilization driven by the social forces associated with capitalism. Wary of making claims of inevitability, any alleged racial, or ethic group, for that matter, in the context that produced the modern West could have produced modernity. Indeed, the West was made by many ethnicities. At the same time, the cultural character of the West is unique and this is why, for example, the Islamic government of Iran views the United States as the “Great Satan”: the West promises something that, if its inhabitants are committed to its core values, will end the authoritarian religious oppression of the masses. That means that clerics lose their privileges and status along with their pathological desire to control human personality. As Barnard Lewis famously pointed out, the clerics are bent on negating the threat to their power.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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