On the Social Construction of Race
“Race is just a social construction.” We've all heard that refrain touted in textbooks, in the mainstream media, and by little vigilantes with fresh Bachelor's degrees in anthropology, sociology, Africana Studies, or some other field which served to make them experts in little other than racial equality. In fact, we've heard that allegation so often that we've become reflexively defensive toward it. But in this article I would like to seriously treat that claim, to explore its significance in modern discourse on race and racial difference. When individuals from the left assert that race is a social construct, what kind of argument are they making? What is the actual intellectual product of that statement?
There are several ways to examine the claim that race is a social construct. A method popular in our community is to prove by genetics or biology that racial differences are real or immutable; this research has been carried out by numerous scholars whose work is well-known and whose names need not be repeated here. They oppose the theories of Ashley Montagu, Margaret Mead, and other inheritors of Franz Boas's legacy. Yet there is another strain of social construction theory that has not been so thoroughly addressed by those in our community. The academic left, much of it whose power resides not in the sciences but in the humanities, propagates a parallel “race is a social construct” thesis from departments of English, philosophy, history, communication, and allied fields. These arguments, which stand largely unopposed, have less to do with human evolution than with language, stereotypes, and social interaction.
Regardless of what evidence exists for race's biological reality, “race,” because it is a linguistic phenomenon – a word, an utterance – becomes a social construct when it enters the world of discourse, which it must do, of course, in order for us to communicate about it. I hope to show that understanding how language functions socially is vital when developing a robust, meaningful, and comprehensive argument for the reality and importance of race.
To illustrate, I would like to analyze two texts that defend this strange position. Ian F. Haney Lopez, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, has written extensively on racism and racial constructs in the American legal system. His classic essay, “The Social Construction of Race,” argues that race “must be viewed as a social construction. Human interaction rather than natural differentiation must be seen as the source and the continued basis for racial categorization.” 1 In other words, to that author race is a social construction because we, as social beings, interact about it and therefore constantly construct its abstract significance. To Haney Lopez, because race's definition has varied widely over time, and because it continues to evolve today at both the individual and societal levels, one should not consider “race” to be a meaningful category by which to classify people.2
Haney Lopez proceeds anecdotally, recounting his experience growing up biracial, the son of an Irish father and a Salvadoran mother. (Though, as one might expect, he explicitly writes this chapter “as a Latino.”3) While Haney Lopez's brother identified more closely with his father's white family, leading him to understand and present himself as “unraced,” Haney Lopez himself identified more closely with his mother's family and considered himself a Latino. From this, he concludes that, “in my experience race reveals itself as plastic, inconstant, and to some extent volitional.”4 Haney Lopez, of course, proves very little with his quaint tale, but Critical Race Studies has never required much in the way of academic rigor: its democratic orientation lends itself to evidence based upon feelings and personal convictions. Nevertheless, Haney Lopez's point is well taken: though he and his brother were born of the same parents and can claim the same genetic heritage, they have constructed their racial identities differently. Hence he concludes that race is not biological; it is a set of behavioral expectations chosen and performed by its bearer. It is a social construction.
Obviously, Haney Lopez's biological biraciality, though it is of primary importance to his own refutation of race, is of no consequence to us: the existence of the Labradoodle does not refute the existence of the Labrador. But perhaps this issue of biracial identity does complicate our discussion of race. Haney Lopez's story introduces the important point that a person can “choose” – or construct – his racial identity not only on a census form, but also, more notably, in the wardrobe, in the classroom, and on the streets of American cities. And, as we all known, biracial individuals are not the only ones who must construct their race in this way: a black man must perform whiteness when interviewing for a corporate job, for example, just a white kid in an urban public school must perform blackness when changing in the locker room for gym class.
I think the issue of performable racial identity is vital to explore, for it establishes that there are two forms of useful racial classifications: one that is biological and one that is social – one we are born with and one that is “volitional” (inasmuch as social behaviors can be described as volitional). This second category, the one that is socially dependent, is, according to Michael Omi and Howard Winant's influential Racial Formation in the United States, “a matter of both social structure and cultural representation.” They protest that
Too often, the attempt is made to understand race simply or primarily in terms of only one of these two analytic dimensions. For example, efforts to explain racial inequality as a purely social phenomenon are unable to account for the origins, patterning, and transformation of racial difference. Conversely, many examinations of racial difference – understood as a matter of cultural attributes, a la ethnicity theory, or a society-wide signification system, a la some post structuralist accounts – cannot comprehend such structural phenomenon as racial stratification in the labor market or patterns of racial segregation.
Here the authors identify and hope to synthesize two distinct, popular understandings of race based upon social constructionism: one that centers upon the oppression of biased social systems, and another which maintains and marginalizes various race-specific behavior patterns through institutionalized discourse structures. My intent is, like that of Omi and Winant, to synthesize disparate concepts within race theory in order to suggest a more suitable and realistic concept of race – one that seeks to make use of both biological and social race, which, together, comprise our identity as a people.
Hilton and MacDonald's Social Constructionism
In this regard, there is much to say about Anthony Hilton and Kevin MacDonald's Occidental Observer article “Race as a Social Construct? No – and Yes!” The authors admit to “a modest role for social constructs” in the race debate. However this concession is less generous than it might at first seem, because it allows for only a very limited and weak social constructionism – one in which our unconscious minds are influenced by “images of black criminality and poor academic performance,” while our conscious minds are molded by what “the mainstream media like the New York Times tell us we should believe.” Seemingly inherent in this proposed duality is an omnipresent empirical reality, one in which we all directly observe and “unconsciously” internalize images of black criminality and substandard performance. In addition to this “implicit” comprehension of race and racial differences there exists and “explicit” conditioning by the mainstream media that persuades us to consciously accept the socially constructed party line. Then not only do we accept the product of our explicit conditioning, but many of us also participate, sometimes enthusiastically, in its maintenance at the societal level.6
First, I submit that very few whites actually internalize, consciously or unconsciously, unmediated black criminality. For the most part, we might see blacks “act black” and perform poorly in school, and we might even occasionally see blacks commit various petty crimes, but very rarely do we personally experience the widespread lack of civilization which characterizes our individual understandings of black performance in Western societies. In lieu of personal observation, which we must have in order to directly internalize images of black criminality, this understanding comes to us through published statistics, interpersonal communications, and various media (including motion pictures, newscasts, novels, the New York Times, and articles written by writers like Professor Hilton and MacDonald). These media, of course, contribute to a socially constructed notion of how race functions in our culture. The simple fact that most of us derive our racial biases, prejudices, and stereotypes largely, though not exclusively, via mediation, rather than via isolated personal experience (which, I argue, would still leave significant room for social construction), indicates that our individual conception of race are, at their root, socially constructed.
I want to commend Hilton and MacDonald for addressing the relationship between race and social construction within our discourse community for it is a topic we should seriously explore. Yet I would like to go a step further than Hilton and MacDonald and argue that race is a social construct in vastly more ways than they recognize in their article. In order to make my argument, I want to briefly explore the roots of social constructionism and suggest a few ways in which its application might be of use to us as race theorists.
Social Constructionism As Theory
Of course, social construction theory did not begin with Haney Lopez or Omi and Winant; they are only a few of the most widely cited scholars who have related that theory to race. The notion of a socially negotiated reality, as constructed through discourse, dates back to classical antiquity. Cratylus, Socrates, and Hermogenes debate the matter in Plato's Cratyles. Socrates concludes the dialogue by stating
Nor can we reasonably say, Cratylus, that this is knowledge at all, if everything is in a state of transition and there is nothing abiding; for knowledge too cannot continue to be knowledge unless continuing always to abide and exist. But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the chance occurs there will be no knowledge, and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known: but if that which knows and that which is known exists ever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process or flux, as we were just now supposing. Whether there is this eternal nature in things, or whether the truth is what Heracleitus and his followers and many others say, is a question hard to determine; and no man of sense will like to put himself or the education of his mind in the power of names: neither will he so far trust names or the givers of names as to be confident in any knowledge which condemns himself and other existences to an unhealthy state of unreality.
The participants in this dialogue attempt to find a correlation between words and the concepts they signify; Hermogenes finds the relationship to be essentially arbitrary, while Cratylus maintains that words and names naturally reflect the essence of that for which they stand.8 As can be seen above, Socrates concludes the matter ambiguously; the matters of transitory knowledge and arbitrary signifiers are a bit of a mystery even to him. But his verdict is clear: one who relies upon a thing's name (i.e., one who relies upon something as socially contingent as a mere word) to establish transcendent meaning or stable essence might find himself in an “unhealthy state of reality.”
Countless philosophers, linguists, and language theorists have continued this debate since the stalemate between Socrates, Cratylus, and Hermogenes in the fifth century B.C. Yet because of nineteenth- and twentieth-century breakthroughs in structuralist and poststructuralist linguistics, the “conventionalists” – those who find the relationship between signifier and signified to be conventional and arbitrary – seem to have taken the prize. So for our purposes, the implications of their position are worth revisiting: if a word (or other signifier) does not flawlessly and directly communicate the concept it signifies – in other words, if there is not an inherent relationship between signifiers and their referents – at least a certain degree of social construction of meaning must take place between a communicator and his audience. Naturally, this is true even when the conversation is about race or other matters that have a certain empirical basis.
Some modern theorists of social constructionism have latched upon the ambiguous relationship between words and concepts and have then attempted to induce from it a vision of the world in which reality exists only via mediation and construction. This “strong” social constructionism, which gained popularity after the Second World War and which was particularly influential in the 1960s and 1970s, can be exemplified by Richard Vatz, who claims that
Fortunately or unfortunately meaning is not intrinsic in events, facts, people, or “situations,” nor are facts “publicly observable.” Except for those situations which directly confront our own empirical reality, we learn of facts and events through someone's communicating them to us. This involves a two-part process. First, there is a choice of events to communicate . . . The second step in communicating “situations” is the translation of the chosen information into meaning.
Readers of The Occidental Quarterly can likely appreciate Vatz's recognition that reality is frequently crafted for individuals by mediating forces; in fact, this journal exists only as a response to popularly propagated myths which obfuscate or invent (socially construct) “truths” about race and other related issues. If these myths were not “the truth” to the masses of the American public, we in the TOQ community would have little to discuss. Yet Vatz goes further in his theory of social construction, deferentially quoting American political scientist Murray Edelman: “language does not mirror an objective 'reality' but rather creates it by organizing meaningful perceptions abstracted from a complex, bewildering world.”10 This dismissal of any “objective reality” is the core of strong social construction theory.
In quoting, Edelman, Vatz aligns himself with an entire tradition of postmodern thinkers from this era – Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty are among the most notable – who endorse a position of more or less total social construction: they posit a view of the world – or, more accurately, a view of six and a half billion worlds – that exist only in the minds of their beholders. According to them, a person's linguistic experience constructs for him an unstable and indescribable reality that will inevitably differ from that of all other individuals, each of whom possess his own little symbolic reality. According to this postmodernists, we are therefore only able to use language as a system of symbols that problematically communicate the concepts between our quite incompatible individuals worlds. So to them and their twenty-first century acolytes, race, as an utterance, is meaningless, insomuch as “meaning” implies a social negotiation of fluid, faultless understanding. This extreme brand of social constructionism departs notably from the one suggested by Hermogenes in the Cratylus, and it is one which, in my opinion, fails to realistically address the complex relationship between material reality and social interaction.
Today many others also find this “strong” social constructionism untenable. In the introduction to his The Construction of Social Reality, philosopher John Searle addresses the theories of the “strong” constructionists: “We live in exactly one world, not two or three or seventeen … But the existence of phenomena which are not in any obvious way physical or chemical gives rise to puzzlement.”11 To Searle, language does prevent people from living on the same planet. There is room within social construction theory for a realist vision of a shared world, and though language complicates the matter, it does not totally imprison us isolated within its grasp.
Searle distinguishes between things that can be considered socially constructed and those that cannot. He explains that there is a difference between those two types of reality: first, there is the reality in which the value of a $5 bill is socially constructed, and second and there is the reality that hydrogen atoms have one electron.12 Our society has constructed a system of exchange in which $5 bills, despite their intrinsic worthlessness, are accepted as legal tender and are differentiated from lesser and greater bills only by the ink patterns printed upon them (to Searle, an “institutional” or “social” fact13). On the other hand, that hydrogen atoms have one electron is an empirical fact (or a “brute” fact) that would still exist without human observation or agreement.14
After exploring the significance of these differences, Searle commends many twentieth-century sociologists for attempting to solve the problems of social construction, but suggests that their research perspective was restricted; as scientists, they were unequipped to tackle the problems posed by language and negotiated, contextually constructed meaning. Their tradition of inquiry, while certainly intertwined with that of the humanities, was not accustomed to exploring the relationship between words, signification, and producers of discourse. While they could theorize about the nature of truth and the effects of individual constructs, their disciplinary research narratives did not include Plato, Leibniz, Kant, and the other western philosophers who have contributed over the centuries to our understanding of reality. And if we, as modern day race theorists, are truly interested in understanding the social construction of race, we would be remiss to ignore such a rich tradition.
To constructionists of the above “soft” variety, truth is largely social: often it can only be discovered through discourse, through interaction with other people. For example: we learned that Barack Obama was elected president not by counting votes ourselves, but by watching post-election television coverage. We “know” we has elected only in a very indirect and trusting way; i.e., we “know” it because other people told us so. It is the exact same process by which our peers come to “know” that Nobel Laurete Menachim Begin was a man of peace and that, without George Washington Carver, we certainly wouldn't have peanut butter today. These “truths” are socially derived, and, according to social constructionists, this process by which we negotiate truth can be applied not only to mass mediated reality, but also to local and more individualized realms of discourse: when we talk with friends, listen to lectures, and read novels, articles, and poetry. They argue that in every social situation there is, to a certain degree, an amount of social construction and negotiation of meaning and reality.
So how does all of this help us, as theorists of race? We can agree, I argue, that to a certain degree race is a social construct. If we accept Searle's distinction, we can consider race both a brute and a social fact. On at least one level, it is a set of social conventions, including fashion, art, dialects, mannerisms, and even occupations and pastimes. It can be performed in certain cases, such as the one cited by Haney Lopez. (And I have to point out that we've all bemoaned the sight of those sixteen-year-old white kids at the mall who “talk,” “dress,” or “act black,” not to mention the respectable blacks among us who, as we insist, “act white.”) In addition, I posit it will benefit us to develop a more critical understanding of how society does in fact construct race in cultural artifacts, political discourse, and news reporting, for our people are frequently the victims of a vicious perpetuation of negative stereotypes – what some might call the social construction of the white race.
Moreover, we must recognize that, even among ourselves – even as a community with common goals and values – we will disagree about the boundaries of race and the definition of whiteness. We as individuals do not scientifically test people we meet in order to judge whether or not they are white. We make that decision based upon how we individually define whiteness, and that definition doesn't come from some universally understood essence or an acknowledged set of criteria. It comes from our social interactions with other humans, from our contrastive experiences with whites and non-whites, which have led us to our own subjective and socially constructed definitions of whiteness.
Let us remember that, when Searle and other modern proponents of social construction developed their theories, they were standing on the shoulders of giants – the giants, in fact, of the entire western tradition. So regardless of what I might think of the excesses of strong social constructionism and its lingering, though dissipating, impact upon humanistic thought today, I believe it will be beneficial for our community to consider the traditions from which these theories evolved. I believe it will be beneficial for us to adopt a rational and well-defined theory of socially constructed race, alongside our traditional theories of biological race, in order to come to a comprehensive definition of who we are, what we stand for, and what we want to preserve.
The appropriate way to rebut Haney Lopez and his humanist colleagues is not to compare skull sizes, establish ancestral migration patterns, or cite criminal statistics (regardless of whatever undeniable merit these projects do possess). Instead, we should consider (1) how certain institutions have manipulated negative social constructs in their attempts to marginalize entire classes of academic research and pathologize certain behaviors and concepts among our people; (2) how revisiting our people's traditional mores, ideals, and worldviews can help us reconstruct an ideal of who we are and what we want as a people; and, perhaps most importantly, (3) how our circles' traditional aversion to modern theories of social construction impedes our ability to participate in these reasonable discussions of the issue which we, as readers of and contributors to The Occidental Quarterly, find most essential: race.
John Howard is the pen name of an American author and critic.
1 Ian F. Haney Lopez, “The Social Construction of Race,” in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, ed. Richard Del Gado and Jean Stefancic (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000(, 163-75.
2 To put it crassly: the use of the word “race” has different connotations in the bleachers at the Daytona 500 than it does in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), though most TOQ readers will likely find both uses to be of equal intellectual consequence. Simply put, the term “race” derives its significance from the context in which it is written, spoken, read, or heard, and from its relationship to the chain of signifiers that precede and follow it. See Kenneth Burke's discussion of “contextual definition” in A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 24-26.
3 Haney Lopez, “The Social Construction of Race,” 165.
4 Haney Lopez, “The Social Construction of Race,” 166
5 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1994), 56.
6 Anthony Hilton and Kevin MacDonald, Race as a social construct – No – and Yes!” The Occidental Observer, December, 9, 2008.
7 Plato, “Cratylus,” The Collected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 474.
9 Richard E. Vatz, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 6 (1973): 156-57.
10 Murray Edelman, Politics as Symbolic Action (Chicago: Markham, 1971), 33-34.
11 John Searle, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995), xi.
12 Searle, The Social Construction of Reality, 2.
13 John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 50-53.
14 Searle, The Social Construction of Reality, 190-94.