I saw this image on Facebook, after the Trayvon Martin verdict. It is a lofty sentiment, and an earnest belief. It is even true, but only if we just regard race as just a biological concept. Yes, biologically speaking, there is only one Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately, race is more than just biology. Race is a discursive construct. Discourse, according to Foucault, defines and creates knowledge and truth (see, for example, Truth and Power). It is a type of knowledge that bears the approval of our most respected social institutions. Indeed, science, religion, law, and political systems, among others, create and perpetuate discourse. This means that discourse is inextricably linked to power, which makes it all the more difficult to challenge. After all, power can coerce us to accept discourse, as our dissent can be punishable by laws and practices that are also founded on discourse (e.g., anti-sodomy laws, anti-miscegenation laws, etc). Of course, coercion is not the only way in which discourse is upheld. It’s probably not even the most effective way. We uphold discourse in our daily practices, but that is a subject for another post. This time I would like to point out some of the ways in which institutions create and reinforce racial discourse:
- The United States Census Bureau collects data about race by asking individuals to self-identify as members of a particular race. The Census racial categories “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” According to the Census, the population of the United States can be described using five racial categories (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander). For a definition of how these racial categories are defined, see this.
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 includes provisions about race, which have an impact on redistricting. Though the Supreme Court repealed section 4 of the VRA in Shelby v Holder, Section 2 is in effect. Section 2 prohibits “voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race.” Race data from the Census is used for redistricting purposes, both to establish districts, and to evaluate whether or not new districts comply with Section 2 of the VRA. For commentary the Shelby v. Holder, check out this piece.
- Recently, Merlin Chowkwanyun argued in The Atlantic, that racial categories infuse our knowledge of health and disease. Indeed, we don’t bat an eye when the CDC states that white women are more likely to develop osteoporosis, or when WebMD tells us that “High rates of high blood pressure in African-Americans may be due to the genetic make-up of people of African descent.“
- Racial profiling is a real practice. If it were not, we would not need explicit prohibitions against it, such as this one. Seventeen States ban racial profiling outright. President Bush banned racial profiling at the federal level in 2003. At the time, Mr. Bush stated that “racial profiling is wrong and we will end it in America.” Legislation to end racial profiling at all levels has failed repeatedly in Congress.
Our institutions don’t think of race as a biological construct. They articulate it as a social category. Whether we like it or not, such articulations do have consequences. They can address practices that society deems as unacceptable, but that were not considered as such under previous discoursive regimes. If you think about it, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, literacy tests like this one were used to keep African Americans from voting. I’m not entirely sure I could pass it.
I did not write this to argue whether or not the acquittal of George Zimmerman was fair. It was lawful, which speaks to the nature of the law and how it is applied (Andrew Cohen has a very nuanced treatment of the issue here). My point is that, as much as I would love to believe that we are all one big happy race, the truth supported by discourse is that we are not.