Opposing to Antiracism the Late Richard Lewontin’s Insight

“The apparent homogeneity within races as compared to the ‘obvious’ difference between them stems partly from the fact that our consciousness of racial differences is constantly being reinforced socially because racial distinctions serve economic and political ends.” —Richard Lewontin, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change (1974)

There are few people more perceptive visàvis the role scientism plays in the cultural and social relations of economic and political power than the late Richard Lewontin (Lewontin passed away July 4, 2021). Anticipating Barbara Fields’ arguments from her domain of social history, Lewontin’s natural history makes it clear that the constructs of racism (scientific or otherwise) manufacture the existence of race rather that discover and clarify it. Race is really an illusion. Like the phantoms of theology, we make race significant by confusing myth with reality.

Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin died July 4, 2021

Although Lewontin was situationally engaged with the persistence of race thinking on the political right, his observations of 1974 speak to the problem with the political left’s rhetoric of race essentialism dominating today’s discourse. Antiracism, Black Lives Matter, and critical race theory are counterproductive to their professed goal of fighting racism because, like the race realism and white supremacy hailing from the right, proponents essentialize race rather than assign it to history or insignificance. By recentering race, by making skin color significant for purposes other than combating discrimination to insure equal treatment across institutions, the antiracist means to resurrect and repurpose systemic racism for economic and political ends.

If progressives really believed in combating racism, they would demand equal treatment for all individuals regardless of the racial categories inherited from the racist past. But that’s not what progressives do. Instead, they insist on living in the past by continually reifying the racial categories scientists such as Lewontin have debunked and transcended. Compounding the problem of reification is the practice of redefining racial—even ethnic and religious—categories to elevate or diminish the presumed power of one or more groups, while strategically expanding the scope of racial oppression in order to enlarge a list of grievances, demand special treatment, and diminish individuals defined as oppressors. As I noted in a recent blog (Totalitarian Monopoly Capitalism: Fascism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), progressive rhetoric on race is being used to plan the large-scale expropriation of wealth based on racial categories. This has always ever been the purpose of systemic racism.

Every time a progressive charges an “oppressor” with “cultural appropriation” for wearing clothes or playing music associated with a race to which he does not belong, consciousness of racial differences is being reinforced socially and expanded to include nonracial things. It signals the progressive investment in racial categories. By conflating culture with race, the system of racism is not only elaborated, but escapes being assigned to the past by moving the goalposts. Every time a person who personally identifies as a race other than the one to which the (customizable) rules of racism assign her, consciousness of racial differences is being reinforced socially. How is one a race imposter if race isn’t really real? Confusing race with ancestry has always been a method of racecraft. Every time a group historically presumed to be white (for example, Arabs or Jews) is redefined racially, consciousness of racial differences is being reinforced socially. Every time an ethnicity (for example, Mexican or Palestinian) or a religion (Islam) is treated as a racial category, consciousness of racial differences is being reinforced socially. (See Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation; Muslims are Not a Race. So why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They Were?)

Antiracism, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory—these are part of a campaign to make racial distinction serve economic and political ends. Ask yourself how the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with its emphasis on equal treatment of individuals regardless of race, was soon eclipsed by an overarching system of “positive” racial discrimination. The answer is obvious from a class analytical standpoint: the system of corporate governance requires an ideological system and set of political practices disruptive to the class consciousness that might challenge its power. If individuals are no longer focused on racial differences, even if they still believe they see them, they are left to refocus on what most individuals share: their common existence as proletarians exploited in a capitalist system. Racial consciousness has proven to be an effective strategy to prevent this from happening. (Before you accuse me to repurposing a biologist’s argument for economic and political purposes, know that biologists can be Marxist, too. And Richard Lewontin was.)

I close with a note. This blog is inspired by Joseph L. Graves Jr.’s August 8, 2021 article “Richard Lewontin: Race Science for the People,” in Science for the People. Graves argues that Lewontin’s “analysis of the fallacy of racial classification in humans is one of his most important.” I agree (for a summary of Lewontin’s views, see his “Confusion About Human Races”). In his essay, Graves pushes back against the argument that, with the advancement of genetics, race science is regaining legitimacy. He cites, for example, a March 23, 2018 article in The New York Times by Harvard geneticist David Reich “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of Race.”

I will discuss this matter in greater depth in a future blog on Freedom and Reason, but it should suffice here to note that we know from large-scale population genetics studies, as well as from archeology and physical anthropology, that our common sense notions of race align with the geographical distribution of phenotypic features, these the result of evolutionary processes and patterns of migration. It is likely that, despite common sense understandings existing on a different plane from scientific ones, populations around the world, operating from varied worldviews, would arrive at a simultaneously false yet uniformly common understanding of race. For this reason, it is just as unlikely that racial thinking will disappear in light of arguments by preeminent scientists such Richard Lewontin. But this is all the more reason to insist on equal treatment of individuals despite their racial classifications.

* * *

Note (later the same day): The Guardian and other establishment newspapers gleefully spin the new US census numbers. Good news: whites are losing. Bad news for Republicans, who will have to draw their districts even more tightly.

“Non-hispanic whites now account for around 58% of America’s population, a drop from 2010 when they made up 63.7% of the population. It was the first time that the non-Hispanic white population has fallen below 60% since the census began.” The trick is the contrivance “non-hispanic white.” (The idea of non-white Hispanic is meaningful, however.) The trick is also played as “white-only.” (They Do You This Way; How to Misrepresent the Racial Demographics of Mass Murder.)

“The Hispanic or Latino population grew by 23%,” the Guardian tells its audience. But here’s what it doesn’t tell them: two-thirds of Hispanics are white. The facts that Asian population numbers rose even more than hispanic but that Asians are a small percentage of the population, whereas Hispanics are the largest ethnic group, and black population numbers rose considerably less than the Asian numbers, means the white majority did not really shrink by that much, especially if most of the rise in Hispanic numbers were racially white. (Asian and Black are racial categories, Hispanic, like Arab, is an ethic category.) Moreover, overall, America’s population achieved its second lowest decadal growth in US history (good news, but it could stand being even lower).

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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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