Workshop Session on Racist Theories and Theories of Racism



1.         What race means: a social not a biological category.

People classify themselves and others into racial groups by a variety physical and social features. As a social category, race may help us understand some social phenomena. But race is not a legitimate biological category. A large and growing body of scientific opinion is that race has no legitimate use in human biology at all. Here are some of the problems with it. People who are classified (socially speaking) into the same the major racial groups can be very different from one another, not only in appearance by in their genes. DNA testing show that a "Caucasian" person can be more similar to his "black" neighbor than to his own grandchildren in the genes that he has. But assigning people to racial groups makes no biological sense if a lot of people in any given group are more similarly genetically to people outside the group than they are to the "typical" member of the group they are assigned to.


"Serogenetic studies [i.e., study of proteins and enzymes in blood, saliva, etc] indicate that the within-taxa variation is greater than that between the received named "major" racial units ('mongoloid,' 'Negroid,' 'Caucasoid'); these results mean that numerous individuals are more similar to those outside their morpho-grouping [i.e., grouping based on body shape, skin color, etc] than to its centroid value [i.e, average value] for the traits studied…. There would seem to be no scientific justification for using the term 'race' to describe the units of our enquiry [i.e., the study of human biological classification]."

-- S. O. Y. Keita and A. J. Boyce, "'Race': Confusion About Zoological and Social Taxonomies, and their Places in Science, American Journal of Human Biology 13:569-575 (2001)


2.            Economic inequality of  racial and ethnic groups in the U. S.

In the U. S., racial inequalities in income, employment, health, education, incarceration rates, etc. are large and show no sign of going away. Black families still have a median income less than 70% of white families, with Latino families about 76% of the white median (see chart). Differences in family assets for whites and blacks are much larger than these differences in income In November, 2001, the unemployment rate for whites was 5.1 %, for blacks 10.1%, for Latinos, 7.6%. For men, Latinos, and especially blacks have a much higher lifetime risk of ending up in jail (about 30%) than white men (about 5%). Similar numbers could be cited for health and education statistics. The historical trends show that these racial inequalities are not going away.


3.         Who benefits from racism: a brief survey of the economic theories

            There are two basic views here, the "white skin privilege" view, and the class interest view. The basic idea of the white skin privilege is not only that whites are, on the average, better off than blacks or Latinos, American Indians, etc., but that white people benefit from this inequality, and are better off because the other groups are worse off. The economic version of this view says that white workers are get higher wages and have lower unemployment when employers discriminate against, for example, blacks. The idea is this: a racist employer does not want hire black workers. Since for that employer the supply of available workers is smaller, since he has excluded blacks, he has to pay a higher wage for his work force. Same demand + smaller supply = higher price for white labor.

            The economists who thought up this theory in the 1950s predicted that racial inequality would gradually go away as employers who had to pay higher wages because they discriminate either got smarter or went out of business. These economists have had to admit that they were wrong, since the inequalities are still with us, even when other factors like differences in education or work experience are taken into account.

            The second view, called the class interest view (or Marxist view), says that racism hurts most workers since it keeps them divided, and makes it harder for them to unionize, bargain for higher wages, organize to demand public services, etc. This view acknowledges that non-white workers are worse off, but says that white workers would benefit, along with non-white workers, if racial conflict and inequality were less. One important piece of evidence for his view (analyzed by economist Michael Reich in the early '80s, and others since) shows that in the metropolitan areas where there is more racial inequality, there is also more income inequality among whites. The class interest view has a reasonable explanation for this: more racism means more conflict amogng workers, which means less bargaining power for all workers, which means more profits for the employers, so more income inequality among whites. The white skin privilege view has trouble offering any explanation for this fact. One objection: the class view may not apply to craft unions, like the construction trades, where the union gains power by keeping people out, which racist ideas might seem make more legitimate.

Implications: I. If the white skin privilege view is true, then most whites actually benefit economically from racism. Only the capitalists get hurt by it. So racism can only be ended by (a) getting most people to act on anti-racist principles, but against their economic interests, or (b) getting the capitalists to help end it. II. If the class view is true, then racism hurts the vast majority of people, and only the capitalists benefit from it. This holds out the hope that you can organize anti-racist movements of working people on the basis of common interests, rather than a "missionary" outlook. The employers are likely to be on the other side, however. 


4.         How racial inequality generates racist ideas.

Here is a piece of reasoning, a logically valid argument, that has probably influenced many people: (a) If U. S. society is fundamentally fair, then the persisting racial inequalities must be due to something wrong with the minority groups who are less well off. (b) If the persisting racial inequalities are due to something wrong with the less well off minority groups, that something must either be a biologically or culturally determined inferiority. But (c) U. S. society is fundamentally fair. Therefore (d) there must be either be a biologically or culturally determined inferiority in the less well off minority groups.


When people reason in ways like this, they conclude that non-whites are inferior (in some way or other) as a result of the obvious fact that they are not as well off.


5.            Biological determinist theories, part I:  IQ and the Bell Curve.

See handout, #s 10, and 14 – 17. (available at Excerpts on I.Q. and Culture of Poverty)


6.            Biological determinist theories, part II: Sociobiology and Racism "in your genes."

See handout, #s 18 - 22 (available at Excerpts on I.Q. and Culture of Poverty)


7.            Culture of poverty theories and "blaming the victim."

See handout #s 1 - 9. (available at Excerpts on I.Q. and Culture of Poverty)


8.            Summary and discussion.

For other materials on racism, see racism page.

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