You can’t rationalise racialism

In his piece Towards a more rational understanding or racialism, David Matthews tries to rationalise “racialism” as an “inherent”, “functional”, “positive” human “behavioural adaptation” that was once “beneficial”, but has “gone wrong”, mainly since the 1950s. He fails on all scores. To explain why will...

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In his piece Towards a more rational understanding or racialism, David Matthews tries to rationalise “racialism” as an “inherent”, “functional”, “positive” human “behavioural adaptation” that was once “beneficial”, but has “gone wrong”, mainly since the 1950s.

He fails on all scores. To explain why will take some words – here goes:


Racialism is the philosophical position that races exist amongst modern humans and can be “diagnosed” by the existence of collective similarities within races and differences among such “natural” entities.

Matthews’ problem is that this cannot be done biologically, sociologically or culturally.

Biologically, a race is a taxonomic “subspecies” – anatomically, ecologically, behaviourally and genetically diagnosable, geographically distinct populations that interbreed freely at the zones of contact. Many of my evolutionist colleagues (but not me) agree with eminent Harvard’s ant taxonomist, conservation biologist, sociobiologist and philosopher of science E.O. Wilson who argued in the 1950s that the subspecies category fails to work in practice and should be abandoned. Although populations of humans certainly interbreed where they come into contact, their genes and anatomy vary so markedly within populations and non-congruently between them that they fail to diagnose evolutionarily significant units. If one were forced to use modern genomics to divide humans into “discrete groups”, the entities that would emerge would mostly divide humans into perhaps half a dozen African groups, and then lump all other humans together with one or other of these groups.

Empirical fallacy

Thus, “scientific racialism” is pseudoscience, or nothing more than out-and-out racism that was used for centuries by Muslims, Europeans and sometimes even “infallible” Popes to rationalise  slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. Recent genomic-based “studies” that “support” racialism (e.g. newsman Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History) and that societal differences largely reflect their differential evolution in intelligence, impulsivity, manners, xenophobia, etc. are nothing more than a “mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles”. Also based on genomic “diagnostic capacity”, other 21st Century “researchers”, e.g. South African-based, ‘decolonist’ philosopher Achille Mbembe, seem to advocate the biological rehabilitation of human races. This assertion is based on nothing more than blatant misuse of forensic genetics.

There always was nothing “adaptive” about racialism. It was “positive” only for racists, and its “function” was to “benefit” oppressors at the expense of the oppressed.

“Us” and “Them”

Nevertheless, Matthews is right in saying that groups of populations of modern humans have separated “us” from “them”, dating back to the roots of humanity. For example, the KhoiSan who self-identify as the “First People” are, in fact, comprised of two “peoples”: the San, who have existed in southern Africa for well over 100 000 years, and the Khoikhoi, who are derived from east African “settlers” that arrived there “only” 3000-4000 years ago. Indeed, the linguistically and genetically highly diverse San self-identify as more than 10 “nations” and have no collective group name for “them”-selves. San is a Khoikhoi word for “them”. But, other than conflicts relating to Khoikhoi stock, the KhoiSan lived relatively peacefully in parallel in the absence of notions of superiority/inferiority.

Race is also an artificial, nefarious “grab-bag” word used up until World War II also to distinguish Jews from other “Caucasians”, and my “people” – the “half-black bog-trotter” Irish – from their English oppressors.

Clutching with culture

But, race also fails to hold water socio-culturally.  In fact, in 1758 Linnaeus, the “Father” of modern taxonomy, and other contemporary racist philosophers, geographers and historians popularized the misuse of subspecies by dividing humanity by morphology and “demeanour” into a handful of “races”. For example, Homo sapiens europaeus was described as “white, sanguine, muscular”, whereas Homo sapiens afer was said to be “black, phlegmatic, relaxed”.

What actually happened sociologically after World War II, was that the oppressed “them” peoples who fought with “us” against Fascism discovered that “we” weren’t so special and that both could work synergistically. Simultaneously, “they” sensu lato became fully conscious of self and engineered their own liberty, unlike the beneficent “abolition” of slavery by the European “us” in the 19th century.

Yes, there was more “large-scale external population movement” to and from “the Western democracies” and some, even a lot of, “internal political conflict”. But, race, racialism and racism were always “morally” indefensible. And, yes – “anyone who is racially prejudiced [was always and still] is morally aberrant.” They may have been “politically correct” in the past, just as fallists claim that fire-bombing vice chancellors’ offices is today.

Nurture: sociality, populism and politics

Some South African humanities scholars, e.g. University of Cape Town sociologist Xolela Mangcu, media personalities (Eusebius McKaiser) and politicians (Julius Malema) advocate continuation of official and de-facto use of “race” (in various guises). Their goal is to “justify” material redress, “affirmative action” and/or even violence to offset past or continuing socio-economic oppression/exploitation or to effect “Afrocentric” educational and/or political “decolonization”. “Race” is re-conceptualized from a social perspective based on “self-identification” according to shared attributes including: pre-colonial nationality/history, language, religious faith/myths, behavioural norms, values/traditions, common expressive symbols, etc. Radical South African university student/staff protesters (fallists) have even taken on the mantle of “race” to justify the establishment of quota-“race”-based academic appointment/promotion policies and the creation of racially exclusive associations/caucuses/societies.  Extreme fallists use racially-based defamation, illegal intimidation, vandalism, destruction and extreme violence in an attempt to topple real or imagined the “white” supremacist/capitalist “hegemony”.

Debunking a menacing myth

Nowhere is this racial fallacy and nefarious activity better exposed than by UCT’s (and arguably Africa’s) greatest “racial scholar”, Prof. Crain Soudien in his final public address as an employee at UCT in July 2015. According to Soudien, “race” in humans has no essence or ontological status biologically, culturally, socially or politically. He elaborates on this in his book, Realising the Dream: “Race is an invention”… “only being framed in opposition to whiteness” … “an ideological smokescreen” … “viscerally inscribed in our heads and in our bodies”. In short, it is a relational concept, and has no inherent reality in the absence of an antithesis – whiteness. To get a handle on the even harder-to-demonstrate “whiteness”, I could refer Mangcu et al., to Rachel A. Dolezal and Dylann Storm Roof or, better still, Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and the author of The History of White People.

Regardless, of how “racial” identity is allocated, assigned or assumed, in the end, the favoured “group” will use its “status” to impose dominance over (or victimize) the “other(s)”.  To allow the rehabilitation of “race”-motivated rule in post-Mandela South Africa defaces the non-racial Constitution for which he was “prepared to die”. Making Desmond Tutu’s dream of a Rainbow Nation a reality requires the ruthless eradication of racialism’s inevitable spawn – racism, its “sister-isms” and xenophobia. That cannot be achieved; neither by the emerging “neo-racism” advocated by Wade, Mbembe, Mangcu et al. and extreme Fallists, nor by Matthews’ attempted rationalization.

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  1. Harald Sitta Reply

    Hm yes but entities defined by ethnic, economic, religious, cultural, geographical, linguistic, historical, artistic, whatever criteria do exist and are powerful. To be human ist just not enough. All that heritage plus the individual genes makes us personalities. “Every human is in his essence a person” (Catholic teaching)

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