Manual Race Relations: A Critique (Stanford Social Sciences)

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  1. The race relations problematic in American sociology: A case study and critique
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It is more probable that Neguinho da Beija-Flor is a descendent of a person who owned slaves than of a black person who was enslaved … For this reason, there is no way you can justify racial quotas. Kaufmann, A black guy like me!


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The incorporation of genetic data and arguments into the debate on race and affirmative action in Brazil offers a valuable case to explore questions about the relationship between genetics, politics and social identity. How does a political use of genetics against race — as proposed by some geneticists and social scientists — play out in practice?

What purchase do genetically inflected interventions have in the political domain? And how do affected groups such as the black movement respond to the use of genetic data — a question that has been little explored for Brazil but see Santos and Maio, ? A wide range of visual and written material was collected, including blogs, newspaper articles, postings at online discussion forums, policy document and juridical documentation, and videos of public debates, meetings and juridical hearings. Focus groups were held with students in social and medical sciences at universities in Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre.

Kent attended public debates on affirmative action, as well as meetings of the black and pro-quota movement. He interviewed approximately 30 members of the black movement and other pro-quota activists individually, while some 50 more participated in eight collective conversations. Black movement activists frequently requested that exchanges should be of mutual benefit, with the sharing of information and knowledge going both ways. In such meetings, data were collected before the presentation in order to avoid biasing results.

One strand of science studies focuses on the persistence and even re-emergence of biologized versions of race or racialized constructs within recent genetic research itself, despite declarations that genetics provides definitive proof about the nonexistence of biological race. This may be because a minority of geneticists think that race is a useful category, biologically speaking Burchard et al.

The race relations problematic in American sociology: A case study and critique

A second, overlapping, strand in science studies focuses on how genetic knowledge interacts with domains of knowledge beyond the research laboratories. One question concerns whether or not widely circulating concepts of racial and other social identities ethnic groups, nations become geneticized — bearing in mind the diverse possibilities that genetic science offers for relating the social and biological dimensions of human groups.

This entails a broader question about how different forms of knowledge come to have authority to make claims about matters of fact and matters of value in the public domain. DNA ancestry testing, for example, is a field of contested knowledge, where the limits of scientific knowledge are debated Bolnick, ; Bolnick et al. DNA data do not determine social action, but instead provide diverse possibilities, interacting with other knowledges. Existing social categories, such as the Brazilian categories of black or brown, have circulated for centuries through scientific, bureaucratic, political and everyday domains Santos et al.

These concepts now act as organizing categories for genomic science, as they did for earlier genetic studies De Souza and Santos, In the process, they gain new genomic meanings as they did for Neguinho. In the United States, racial categories are institutionalized by clinical practices, medical research and government bureaucracies as part of a broader movement towards social inclusion positing that people must be counted by race to prevent racial exclusion Epstein, In contrast to the United States, in the Brazilian social inclusion movement, which also seeks to correct racial exclusion and also counts by race, genetic data are interpreted as showing generalized mixture, rather than discrete racial groups, so little fear is expressed that race will become geneticized.

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This is despite the fact that the genetic emphasis on mixture depends, as such ideas always do, on the assumption that racial groups existed somewhere or sometime else. The Brazilian example contributes to existing debates in science studies by showing how genetic knowledge, rather than transforming ways of conceiving social identity and belonging, circulates in ways powerfully shaped by the existing socio-racial order even as it simultaneously provides new tools for thinking about that order.

The Brazilian case shows the paradoxical routes genetic knowledge can take, due to its ambivalent potential and uneven traction. It illustrates that contradictory processes of de- and re-racialization, and of re- and de-geneticization can take place simultaneously, as debates rage back and forth in Brazil about the appropriateness of marking racial difference in a racially mixed society. It shows how issues of citizenship can purposely marginalize the relevance of genetic knowledge in some spheres, despite its authoritative status.

In scientific racist and eugenic theories, white and black Brazilians constituted distinct racial types — with a marked superiority of the former — and inter-racial mixing was thought to result in the degeneration of the Brazilian population, compromising its future viability as a nation.

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This spurred policies to whiten the population by encouraging the immigration of approximately six million Europeans Santos et al. Cultural interpretations of the Brazilian population displaced biological approaches in public debates. The work of Gilberto Freyre has been particularly influential, with his argument that the intense and relatively consensual mixing of white Europeans, black slaves and Indians blurred differences to such a degree that at present there are no clear-cut distinctions between them, only a racial continuum from the whitest to the blackest individual Freyre, The elevation of racial democracy to the status of national ideology from the s onwards, however, did not supplant racialized social hierarchies nor the ideal of whiteness, which continued to figure prominently alongside celebrations of mixture Twine, The concept of racial democracy is now recast as a myth that perpetuated racism by denying its existence.

Quotas for access to public universities — which in Brazil are of higher quality than private ones — have become a particular focus, justified on the grounds that in such universities there is a disproportionate enrolment of white students, up to 96 percent in elite courses such as medicine De Carvalho, : Affirmative action policies are debated in heated terms, supported by parts of the political and academic establishment and the black movement, while challenged by segments of the national intellectual elite, the mass media and — mostly centre-right, but also some left-wing — political parties, who have proposed race-blind socio-economic criteria for inclusion instead.

In this context, taxonomies based on race, colour and descent co-exist, rather than being mutually exclusive. The national census includes the main colour categories of branco white , pardo brown and preto black. In contrast, the black movement and some social scientists propose a racialized binary system of branco and negro including pardos and pretos.

Everyday folk taxonomies include a myriad of intermediary categories. Overall, a permanent tension exists between a bi-polar principle of classification and a more flexible and continuous modality Fry, a ; Telles, ; Twine, Pena has emerged as a public scientist and intellectual who, in popular as well as academic publications, addresses issues of social policy and national identity from the perspective of genetics.

He emphasizes the high levels of genetic diversity in Brazil and sees this as good evidence for the nonexistence of race as a biological reality.


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  • He argues that this information is relevant for medicine and policy-makers in Brazil Kent et al. Pena has since analysed the mixed genetic ancestries of a variety of Brazilian samples. A recurring element is an emphasis on the high levels of non-African ancestry found among individuals identified as brown or black.

    He has published in social science journals in Brazil, mostly as part of special issues focusing on race and affirmative action Pena, ; Pena and Birchal, ; Pena and Bortolini, He also has written newspaper columns, made frequent media appearances and published popular scientific books Pena, , His work bridges genetics and debates on race and Brazilian national identity. Pena consistently argues against the use of the concept of race both in medical research and in general, and actively engages in the debate on racial quotas and differential health policies targeted at the black populations Pena, ; Pena and Bortolini, He acknowledges that in spite of its nonexistence at the genetic level, race does exist as a social construct.

    In the debates on university admission, he was involved in the political campaign against racial quotas, giving evidence on the nonexistence of race at the genetic level in the Supreme Court hearings on the constitutionality of such quotas. Indeed, genetic data became a recurring element of arguments against affirmative action. Although the measure triggered strong opposition — even within the university — elite private schools and university preparatory courses reportedly encouraged students to apply for a racial quota at the UERJ — irrespective of their own race or skin colour — on the grounds that as Brazilians they were likely to have black ancestors.

    They have a white skin, but genetically they are Afro…. In an interview, Pena reported that a number of these contested the decision in court, using evidence of African genetic ancestry provided by his DNA tests Gomes, Genomic science mobilized the notion of an invisible, impersonal genetic ancestry in the individual body, making it feasible to claim to be brown or black — in the context of a racial quota application — while still appearing white and enjoying the everyday privileges thereof.

    This blurred the boundaries between the established racial categories used in such policies, and redefined all Brazilians as potential beneficiaries of quotas reserved for negros. Claims to entitlement were being defined as applicable to all Brazilians, united in their mixed genetic ancestries, contesting the idea that a specific racial category could exist as a subject of entitlement.

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    Racial Capitalism and the Rule of Law – Items

    As more Brazilian public universities adopted affirmative action policies from onwards, and as the political debate became ever more heated, references to genetics have become increasingly prominent in arguments against such policies. A number of social scientists support race-based affirmative action 11 and, in doing so, a few of them address genetics Dos Anjos, ; Munanga, , They use his data in academic publications Fry, a : 15, —; Magnoli, ; Maio and Santos, : — , including in co-publications with Pena resulting from collaborative research Pena and Birchal, ; Santos et al.

    Finally, genetics features prominently in the petition that the Democratas political party presented to the Supreme Court to have racial quotas declared unconstitutional, and which includes an expert opinion by Pena Kaufmann, : 27—37, — In such uses, genetics is systematically presented as neutral, objective knowledge. Genetic data and arguments are deployed in the affirmative action debate in three main ways: to deny the existence of human races in general; to deny their relevance specifically for Brazil and to deconstruct black identity.

    The petition to the Supreme Court referred to above uses such evidence to question the possibility of defining who is black in Brazil and who qualifies for racial quotas. Interestingly, while genetics is often associated with the establishment of certainty — for example through paternity tests and the forensic identification of bodies — in this case, it has principally been used in order to cast doubt. This approach shifted the focus away from the social inequalities emphasized by the black movement and proponents of racial quotas towards the issue of classification and the non existence of difference.

    Such uses of genetics suggested a primacy of biological over social definitions of race. The biological nonexistence of race was used to invalidate race as a social construct and genetics was seen as a mandate for the social order. The research conducted for this article sheds light on these complex circumstances. The experiences of the black activist interviewees illustrate the ways in which the genetic nonexistence of race — in Brazil or elsewhere — is used against affirmative action.

    Many interviewees said that they are confronted in public debates with genetic arguments as formulaic anecdotes, rather than through discussions of scientific detail. In the wake of the Afro-Brazilian Roots project, Frei David had the relevance of his political battle repeatedly questioned during interviews with national media. This article was used in order to discuss the issue of the Brazilian population. In general, people are delighted with it. Genetic data had become institutionalized as part of the affirmation of the primacy of class over race. The use of genetics against affirmative action began to affirm the irrelevance of such policies by downplaying the size of the black or Afro-descendent segment of the population.

    As European origins are closely related to whiteness in Brazil, such uses of genetics turned it into an additional avenue for strategies of whitening. Genetics is used in order to speak precisely about race in biological terms, rather than to undermine its existence. How, then, have members of the black movement dealt with these genetic arguments?

    The latter approach eventually prevailed, for three main reasons. Second, those in favour of challenging the genetic arguments did not find the means to do so effectively. In fact, several prominent actors in the black movement searched for black or pro-quota geneticists who could help them in formulating a scientific counter-argument.

    However, they found none. While Frei David secured the assistance of Rosa Andrade, a black geneticist specialized in sickle-cell anaemia, she considered the technical knowledge involved in ancestry research an obstacle to challenging its content. In addition, the substantial resources required for such research made it prohibitively expensive cf.

    Latour, As it proved impossible to mobilize scientific experts and their knowledge for the production of a counter-argument, or even to gain sufficient working knowledge of genetics to engage the scientific debate, members of the black movement instead focused on keeping genetics outside the affirmative action debate.

    As such, genetic knowledge was deployed mostly by opponents of affirmative action. This led several interlocutors to conceptualize genetics in Brazil as a racialized scientific field, illustrating the necessity for the quota system, as well as the political cost of their under-representation in higher education and scientific knowledge production.

    Third, most interlocutors in the black activist movement interpreted the use of genetics by their opponents as a strategy to de-politicize the debate on affirmative action. It shifted the focus away from structural social inequality between black and white segments of the Brazilian population towards the nonexistence of biological difference and the difficulty of identifying the beneficiaries of racial quotas.