Keeping Racism in Mind

Keeping Racism in Mind

Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia

Race, racism and racists continue to be significant features of the so-called politics of identity prevalent in contemporary society. The rise of newer versions of populism, ‘nativism’, nationalism and the like are often tinged with some form of racialisation argument. These discourses advocate for the tangible reality of ‘race’ as their naturalised starting point and then move, with varying degrees of caution, to an argument for the specialness of the local over the foreign, the longer-established over the more recently arrived or, contrariwise in settler societies, of the more recent and ‘civilised’ over the primitiveness and deeper history of the original inhabitants.

Biological Knowledge or Biological Belief
In most of these arguments, there exists a deep, and often unexamined, commitment to biological notions of race in which the uniqueness of the dominant group is central to one degree or another. Indeed, it seems almost impossible for these types of argument not to be tinged with the racist undertones of the 19th and 20th century ideologies which they explicitly or implicitly reference. Apparently, the violence of racist outcomes in these periods, so closely connected to the emergence of the concept of the homogenous nation state idea(l), provides no legitimate counterpoint to variations on these types of discussions – slavery, mass murder and other human rights abuses, of some considerable scale and intensity, fail to negate these kinds of language or even an active search for alternative forms of discourse.

In effect, this framing of the discourse tells us something not only about the intrinsic vacuity of such arguments but points also to the way we see, in our ‘post fact’ era, a need to keep filling up these empty arguments with increasingly aggressive and anti-intellectual contents. If the whole argument is one of assertive self-interest on the part of a minority at the expense of other groups, however conceived, there will be a point at which that sense of separateness can only be sustained by violence at both a conceptual and experiential level. How else can we continue to exclude or mistreat the other on such spurious reasoning?

So then, what part do culturally and politically inherited ideas of race play in various kinds of racist agendas and how do they remain so readily deployable? One element to consider in these scenarios is the persistent of ‘race’ as a legitimate concept in the first place. A second is what we call the inversion of causality in racist discourse, in which race is assumed to be real and represented as such, there is an inevitability to all that follows. Thirdly, and finally for this brief discussion, we consider the ‘problem of knowledge’ that this reification of race exhibits and the difficulty of our extrication from it that is produced by the causal inversion of racism and race.

A Problem of Belief Not Knowledge
Our argument for some time now has been that these kinds of positionality and their accompanying ‘arguments’ are founded not in any substantive knowledge base – evidential or otherwise – but in a mode of belief. Similar to faith (caution required, we acknowledge), such arguments reflect a cultural form of practice in which evidence can be created to support what people already purport to believe or, even more profoundly, what they claim to know. Thus, some geneticists continue to use ‘race’ in their research even when population genetics should, and generally does, mean something quite distinct from the scientific racism of the later 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.

One issue is the enduring impact of unscientific ideas produced in previous eras. Racism is, we posit, an especially pernicious example of this process and, it must be acknowledged, it is not a static concept but, rather, an adaptive strategy of power and control. This makes it highly flexible even when the basic idea is itself deeply flawed. It also makes it a difficult target for critical analysis in public discourse because it is a slippery concept whose function is the maintenance of certain types on inequality.

Human beings are deeply committed to a variety of ideas, concepts and beliefs that rely on virtually no evidence whatsoever for their maintenance. In addition, psychological research has shown that people can quite readily entertain sets of ideas that may well be mutually contradictory. It is here we suggest that irrationality and belief can and do trump evidential knowledge production in, especially, highly politicised social contexts. History, and its close running mate propaganda, converge in ideological spaces such as racism in order to ensure an ongoing process of reproduction.

An issue we raise here is that the inverted relationship between race as a reified construct, seen to exist in physical reality (see some genotype and phenotype arguments), and racism as a strategy of and for the purposes of acquiring/maintaining power, distorts meaningful knowledge production through a lens of belief. By this, we mean that ‘race’ therefore has no independent status external to a racist framework of knowledge production. Knowledge about ‘race’ is, by definition, tied to a racist view of the world. Consequently, the production of knowledge about ‘race’ feeds racism, intentionally or not.

Racism-informing knowledge production it its turn supports the ideological belief in, and commitment to, a notion of ‘race’ and, consequently, the production of ‘races’ and related quasi-intellectual devices. Once we add quantification to this mix, one of modernity’s central knowledge production tools (see also Hacking), there is seemingly no exit from this ideologically informed recursive loop. Race and its ongoing quantification, in contemporary terms, help to weaponise racism.

This in turn produces a number of epistemic and ontological effects – including the justification to act as though race is real and, therefore, an enforceable social regime (in criminal justice, housing exclusion, intelligence testing and so forth). Racism, through the mechanism of race and races, produces a very particular kind of necropolitics, marked by psychological and physical forms of aggression and violence perpetuated through a self-perpetuating form of belief.

Racism as an Ideological Technology
We can see that racism is a form of systematised belief, underpinned by the shifting conceptual technologies around us – cultural, social and political. Thus, at various times, racism has been biologised, quantified and geneticised in order to ‘prove’ races exist and that a ‘natural’ hierarchy of races can be ‘scientifically’ determined. Rather conveniently, human beings are in the business of technological and scientific innovation, and so extricating an ideological technology like racism from this wider context becomes increasingly difficult over time. Each new technical innovation is gradually developed, modified and extended in order to support ideas and beliefs to which people may already be deeply committed. This includes race. This in its turn reinforces the conceptual schemata and social authority of racism as an irreducible system of power.

This is one reason that simply counting racially motivated actions is unlikely to have any impact on societal-level outcomes or even on individual behaviours. Counting normalises things in modern society, quantification makes many things ‘real’ to us that we would otherwise be unable to process cognitively because our sensory faculties are too finite. Some observers have written that the quantification of unacceptable acts may in fact help to normalise them. Technologies of quantification, analogue and now increasingly digital, add power to the things they purport to measure, giving rise to a necessary sociology of quantification.

Examples of this exist all around us but perhaps one of the most obvious and concerning developments has been in the broader field of the computer sciences and the application of the algorithm to quantify, model and predict racialised data relationships.  The datafication of social concepts, categories and their measurement through mathematico-statistical tools is a process demanding much more critique that has been traditional in this space. This is leading to a literature on the role of information technologies in reproducing and reinforcing the racism extant in society.

More generally, we suggest that this causal inversion – mistaking the category for the formative process – is a common misconception in society more broadly still. So, for example, the social determinants of health are frequently invested in the individual rather than in society at large. The individual is blamed for their poor smoking, eating, exercising or health literacy habits as though they lived a context-free life in which all ‘choices’ are a matter of individual liberty. This too is political ideology in action and, like racism (with which it so often intersects) it is applied with or without the consent of those so categorised. These types of ideological technologies are all around us and they are perpetuated through our media, institutions and cultural forms.

To summarise, our position here is that racism is a position of belief in and about the world. It is not one based on knowledge or evidence, but an ideological framing of categories of person for the purposes of acquiring and maintaining power. To extend this somewhat further, a racist under this construction is simply someone who believes in the ontological reality of race. This position has the additional benefit of avoiding tiresome and often pointless arguments about the intent of individuals in their expression of racist thinking, opinions or acts. Put simply, if you believe in the reality of race then you are a racist and twisting knowledge to fit is neither an excuse nor an out.


Hamish Robertson is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Health Services Management at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) @HL_Robertson. Joanne Travaglia is Professor of Health Services Management at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) @j_travaglia.