Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Myth of "Race" and Remedies for Past Harm

My letter below was published in the New York Times (online today; in print tomorrow) criticizing the concept of "race" while affirming the need for remedies for past harm. This is an "Invitation to a Dialogue" which requests responses to NYT by Thursday. On Sunday (according to the normal procedure) NYT will reprint my letter along with responses and my reply to the responses. 


Invitation to a Dialogue: The Myth of ‘Race’

To the Editor:
What should we do about “race”?
Over many decades, those who study genetics have found no biological evidence to support the idea that humans consist of different “races.” Based on such scientific data, Ashley Montagu published “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race” in 1942. New discoveries have confirmed what he said then. So why, over seven decades after his book, do we keep talking and living as though biological “races” exist?
Not only are certain “racial” classifications flawed, as suggested in “Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning?” (Sunday Review, July 7); all “racial” classifications are inherently flawed, because they are based on the false idea of “race.”
The myth of “race” has supported the horrors of slavery, apartheid, segregation, eugenics and the Holocaust. It continues to support racism. We cannot simply ignore the harm this myth has caused and pretend that the myth never existed.
The scientific, democratic and ethical goal should be to eliminate the false idea of “race” completely. But how do we both destroy the myth and remedy the harm it has caused?
We can begin by mentally changing how we see people. When we look at someone and automatically think about that person’s “race,” we must realize that we are not seeing “race” but instead seeing an arbitrary and harmful societal classification imposed on a continuum of physical differences.
When we want to ask how someone is classified by the myth, we should always put “race” or “racial” in quotation marks (as I have done here). Such questions still need to be asked, for example, on applications for college or a job, or for the census, for the answers provide the data needed to maintain diversity in education and the workplace and to monitor and remedy the harms the myth has caused and continues to cause. The long-term goal, however, is to make these questions obsolete.
Boston, July 15, 2013
The writer is a retired lawyer, former professor of philosophy and the author of books, essays and a blog on democracy, ethics and human rights.
Editors’ Note: We invite readers to respond by Thursday for the Sunday Dialogue. We plan to publish responses and Mr. Hodge’s rejoinder in the Sunday Review. E-mail:letters@nytimes.com

A version of this letter appeared in print on July 17, 2013, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Invitation to a Dialogue: The Myth of ‘Race’.

1 comment:

  1. Dear John Hodge,
    Many thanks for initiating this dialogue on the myth of "race" in the New York Times.

    Anthropology has over a century of experience studying both race and racism. As an academic discipline that spans the biological, social, and cultural, anthropologists have written an enormous amount on how to document and explain human variation but also about the pernicious effects of social systems which use racism to make race salient.

    I have tried to collect some of these resources at my website under the title Teaching Race Anthropologically. I have links to peer-reviewed journal articles and textbooks--please let me know if you would like copies of any of those materials. It is important to understand that post-2002 (or so), there has been a revival of the notion that race exists biologically, including in the reporting and Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. There is also much misunderstanding around the idea that "race is a social construction." Although this is technically correct, as you note in your letter, such ideas have been so mocked and misunderstood that they may now be an impediment toward the goal of a more just society.

    I again thank you for initiating this dialogue.
    (I've cc.ed this to the Times.)
    -Jason Antrosio