Blog Post

Thinking About Race: Redux

biology, post-racial

In the spirit of engagement, I will take up Vilashini Coopan's claim that we have moved beyond biological understandings of race. Have we really?  I guess the answer to that question depends, to some extent, on who the "we" is in the formulation of the question. Certainly, many humanists, following other humanists like Appiah and Goldberg, have discarded biological understandings of race and have declared race to be "socially constructed."  But what role does biology (a socially constructed concept if there ever was one) really play in most Americans' everyday understandings of race?  And how has recent research on the human genome contributed, both inside and outside the academy, to a re-biologization of the concept of race?

My own recent work on race, which is undertaken from the perspective of a literary critic who is in conversation with scholars from across the social and natural sciences, suggests that the situation is a bit more complicated. Now that genetic researchers have the ability to identify overlapping and non-discrete, but nevertheless identifiable, populations, it won't be so easy to simply dismiss the role of biology in the creation of socially-constructed human categories like race and ethnicity.  This is a problem that we literary critics (and other humanists) need to face head on if we are to remain relevant to the conversation about what race is and why it matters.

I'll have more to say about this in the coming days.