Race Skepticism and the Racial Satire of George Schuyler

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Kevin Currie-Knight and Sheena Mason (SUNY Oneonta) discuss Sheena’s theory of racelessness, why she is a race skeptic and eliminativist, and their mutual interest in the race satire of Harlem Renaissance writer George Schuyler.

:05 – Why talk about race always seems so polarized and partisan 7:45 – Sheena is a skeptic and eliminativist about race. What does that mean, and how does it compare to other approaches? 17:35 – Ibram Kendi’s approach to thinking about race is understandable but wrong. 29:56: How to attempt racelessness in a world so used to the existence of race? 40:29 – what will “interracial” intimacy, marriage, and births do to current notions of race? 51:36 – Harlem Renaissance writer George Schuyler and satirizing the fiction of race 1;07:25 – Is Schuyler’s skepticism about race partly why he drifted to the political right-wing?

9 comments

  1. I wish Obama (or, heck, even Trump) had said this at the start of his tenure: “If you’re “White” (or interested in “Whiteness”), read historian Matthew Frye Jacobson’s ‘Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race’, then read satirist Mark Twain’s novel ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’; and if you’re “Black” (or interested in “Blackness”), read historian Clarence E. Walker’s ‘We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism’, then read satirist George S. Schuyler’s novel ‘Black No More’.” The only thing I wish more than Obama (or Trump) saying that is so-called “White” and so-called “Black” folks actually reading those books.

  2. Thanks to Kevin and Sheena for this tremendously impressive discussion. Left me with so much to think about

  3. I suppose it depends on what “race naturalism” is thought to require by way of theoretical/ontological commitment. Our concept of race maps onto gene clusters with amazing accuracy.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1196372/

    And, relatedly, there are also health issues that are divided along racial lines. Prostate cancer is, for example, more common among black men. And if you pick up a brochure on osteoporosis, under risk factors it will list being of Asian or Caucasian descent. Such differences are, of course, statistical, so that may be sufficient to reject the label of “naturalism” – but it also seems incompatible with the common view that race is purely a “social construct”

    1. Genes are biochemical/physiological; “race” is a social construct. That certain “race” categories map onto certain genetic categories does not invalidate that.

      “A close genetic similarity between Ashkenazim and Italians has been noted in genetic studies, possibly due to the fact that Ashkenazi Jews have a significant European admixture (30–60%), much of it Southern European, a lot of which came from Italy when Jewish diaspora males of Middle Eastern origin migrated to Rome and found wives among local women who then converted to Judaism. More specifically, Ashkenazi Jews could be modeled as being 50% Levantine and 50% European, with an estimated mean South European admixture of 37.5%. Most of it (30.5%) seems to derive from an Italian source.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_history_of_Italy

      “Thus, Africans differ from one another slightly more than from Eurasians, and the genetic diversity in Eurasians is largely a subset of that in Africans, supporting the out of Africa model of human evolution. Clearly, one must specify the geographic origins of the individuals sampled when studying π or SNP density.” https://www.genetics.org/content/161/1/269

      “Some genetic disorders are more likely to occur among people who trace their ancestry to a particular geographic area. People in an ethnic group often share certain versions of their genes, which have been passed down from common ancestors. If one of these shared genes contains a disease-causing variant (also known as a mutation), a particular genetic disorder may be more frequently seen in the group. Examples of genetic conditions that are more common in particular ethnic groups are sickle cell disease, which is more common in people of African, African American, or Mediterranean heritage; and Tay-Sachs disease, which is more likely to occur among people of Ashkenazi (eastern and central European) Jewish or French Canadian ancestry. It is important to note, however, that these disorders can occur in any ethnic group.” From Genetics Home Reference, by way of https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/inheritance/ethnicgroup/

      This doesn’t mean there aren’t ethnicities; but these seem largely determined by the locality of the gene pools involved, since, humans being the kind of animal they are, they will mate. And it is healthy for the species that they do so.

      From a discussion at https://www.quora.com/Are-Italians-and-Jews-genetically-related, Paulius Bindokas comments: “Yes, both Italians and Jews are members of the human race and share most of the same genome.”

        1. If that was the only determining factor you would be correct. But such medically important biological factors underlie the more obviously identifiable and superficial physical markers that tribalism thrives upon. The addition of cultural differences only aggravates the human tendency for xenophobia and in group out group dynamics.

          Like with many of the discussions here, much confusion and mis characterizations rest upon definitions. Race means or can mean different things to different people depending on how they understand the word.

      1. This sounds right. The fact that the four major racial/ethnic groups (white, African American, East Asian, and Hispanic) existed in relative isolation for thousands of years would account for the mapping of the clusters onto races in the article I linked to and to the variations in susceptibility to, for example, osteoporosis.

        As you suggest, it may be better to think of it in terms of different “ethnicities”

  4. Very interesting piece. To frame my comment I would want my background understood first. I am a consumer of public intellectuals. I am not one. I do have a graduate degree and read widely and follow other public intellectuals like Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Robert Wright, Unheard.com, Persuasian.community, ReadTangle.com, etc. being careful to not get stuck in any echo chamber of the left or right. Now that said, I am pretty sure just from this piece I understand what they are talking about. This is going to take further study and contemplation on my part to grasp it and be about to speak about it to anyone else at all intelligently. I am clear the approach has merit. I am not so sure this will be a fruitful way to reach say the “person in the street” (see how woke I am to not use “man” he says with a smile). I can envision this approach being quickly attacked by one of the political parties as well as other talking heads, opinion writers, etc. as more “woke nonsense” at least if I understand the approach enough a this point. Bottom line this is going to take some study and I wonder about the ability for this type of thinking to capture the high ground in the conversation thus moving into every persons thinking.

  5. The way I understand Ibram Kendi’s argument: we all have the same humanity, therefore, if one race is seen to be more advantaged than the other, that would be prima facie and sufficient evidence of racism. Everyone is then obligated to practice anti-racism. Not doing so makes one complicit in racism, that is almost everyone. Kendi employs the concept of race even though he does not believe in it.

    But thanks to Kevin and Sheena for bravely confronting the persistent delusion of race which is still the predominant narrative in our society: academia, politics, punditry, government, etc. Thanks also for bringing George Schuyler to my attention.

    The narrative of racelessness has been the dominant one in the scientific community for a while now. That is after centuries of promoting a false hierarchy of race leading to disaster upon disaster. The tide only turned after the Second World War.

    Each one of us is physically and genetically different. It is therefore possible to easily establish familial relationships by genetic testing in the lab. It is even claimed that distant ancestry can be identified through the genetic analysis of sputum or a drop of blood. This supports the ancient concept of race – common ancestry is accompanied by some common features, mostly of a superficial kind. It seems to have been firmly established that differences between populations are small and much less than those within a population. That is, people from different parts of the world do not show signifiant fixed functional differences: we are all equally adaptable.

    Contrary to ‘reality’, we have clinged to the idea of race for millennia. Now we finally know that there is one humanity, extremely diverse on multiple levels, and highly adaptive to its environment. We run into trouble, however, when subgroups distinguish themselves for social and survival purposes. There are thus numerous cultural reasons for segregating, or being segregated, into factions: family, friends, community, faith, politics, nation, gangs, profession, etc. The purpose may be good (education) or bad (economic exploitation), or a mix.

    The ultimate question, IMO, is how do we more effectively tackle harmful false beliefs that are entrenched in society?

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