Race, politics of

Ethnicity too

December 20, 2021 — March 4, 2022


Assumed audience:

People trying to understand what the term “race” does by reviewing the literature on what it is supposed to do

Content warning:

White guy trying to understand what race means in public discourse in Australia; links to texts which may offend due to political affiliation or era of author

I have little to say about race myself, but I want to understand what people are talking about when they talk about race. Here is where I bookmark some interesting links on that weird intersection between genetics, group politics, ethnic history, inequality, and fulminating diatribes that are the indicators of being involved in a race discussion.

Figure 1: Next time someone is described as being “of Causasian appearance”, I invite you to imagine them thusly. Image from page 120 of Geschichte des Kostüms (1905).

1 Race for non-US denizens

To consider: How much of a problem is it that the many and diverse racial/ethnic frictions in the world are somehow disproportionately projected onto the American post-slavery state’s particular weirdness? Racial discrimination is fairly universal, but the US has its weird specificities.

2 Genes

Genetically speaking race is almost always very complicated. One of the complications, I argue, is that we seem ready to think that the genetics of race is simple, although we tend to disagree along partisan lines about precisely how it might be simple…

3 Folksonomy

But is genetics race? Certainly lineages are important. Which lineages become races obviously has a sociological and administrative angle. My taxi driver reckoned “muslim” is a “race”, for example. In common use, there is a connection with ethnicities, and cultures and also census categories and a whole bunch of other things. Sociologically speaking, what people mean by race is wildly complicated, inconsistent, and is a moving target.

What does this mean statistically? We love regressing on categories in statistics. What does that mean? Sen and Wasow (2016) is a starting point:

Although understanding the role of race, ethnicity, and identity is central to political science, methodological debates persist about whether it is possible to estimate the effect of something immutable. At the heart of the debate is an older theoretical question: Is race best understood under an essentialist or constructivist framework? In contrast to the “immutable characteristics” or essentialist approach, we argue that race should be operationalized as a “bundle of sticks” that can be disaggregated into elements. With elements of race, causal claims may be possible using two designs: (a) studies that measure the effect of exposure to a racial cue and (b) studies that exploit within-group variation to measure the effect of some manipulable element. These designs can reconcile scholarship on race and causation and offer a clear framework for future research.

Connection: adversarial classification.

4 Incoming

5 References

al-Gharbi. 2020. Race and the Race for the White House: On Social Research in the Age of Trump.” Preprint.
Brubaker. 2015. Grounds for Difference.
Johnson, Huffman, and Jasper. 2014. Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
Lee, and Skrentny. 2010. Race Categorization and the Regulation of Business and Science.” Law & Society Review.
Mora. 2014. Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American.
O’Connor. 2019. The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution.
Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath. 2020. Racial Disparities in Police Use of Deadly Force Against Unarmed Individuals Persist After Appropriately Benchmarking Shooting Data on Violent Crime Rates.” Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Saperstein, Penner, and Light. 2013. Racial Formation in Perspective: Connecting Individuals, Institutions, and Power Relations.” Annual Review of Sociology.
Sen, and Wasow. 2016. Race as a Bundle of Sticks: Designs That Estimate Effects of Seemingly Immutable Characteristics.” Annual Review of Political Science.
Skrentny. 2002. Inventing Race.” Public Interest.