'Racial disparity' and 'race vs. class' debates: historian Merlin Chowkwanyun

  
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Hi everyone:

Today we’re presenting a conversation between myself (Andy) and my college friend Merlin Chowkwanyun, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. 

For years I’ve peppered Merlin with questions about how to understand the never-ending debate over “race versus class” in the US -- for instance, this New York Times piece from two weeks ago -- a subject that he’s studied for years.

We focus on a critique of “racial disparity” discourse that he has written about several times, co-authored with the political theorist Adolph Reed Jr. (University of Pennsylvania). Across discussions of public health, economics, and policing (for instance, their NEJM paper on Covid-19 disparities this spring), they argue that we too often view “race” as a natural and absolute trait, and “racism” as a question of primordial individual prejudice. Racial thinking, they argue, is in fact inseparable from an analysis of the dynamics of economics and class. “Race” as ideology is certainly real, but we should not mistake it as natural. 

2:34 -- How did Merlin, a Thai-Chinese-American from the Asian SoCal suburbs find himself studying a primarily “black-white” story of race and racism in US history? Why not Asian American studies? How do his students make sense of the “black-white binary”? 

Mentioned: the work of Claire Kim, “Are Asians the New Blacks?: Affirmative Action, Anti-Blackness, and the ‘Sociometry’ of Race

18:20 -- We’ve all memorized the mantra “race is a social construct,” but Merlin argues that many old-fashioned nineteenth-century beliefs in the biological reality of race remain in circulation today, even among good liberals (think about the craze for 23andMe). 

22:15 -- We touch on a recent New York Times article on the “race versus class” debate within the US left. Merlin has collaborated with Adolph Reed Jr. on several articles, but rather than take sides, we discuss their basic criticism of mainstream social science and its simplistic presentation of “racial disparities,” which often wind up stuck in individualized, psychologized notions of prejudice divorced from broader dynamics. Nate Silver-style quantitative regression analysis has helped reify “race” and “class” as static and natural variables of human existence.

30:40 -- Merlin and Reed’s co-authored articles on racial disparity reporting, both for Covid-19 and more generally. How did they come together to co-author these articles? Why is it dangerous to harp on “racial disparity” in a vacuum? 

48:20 -- Missing from most discussions of “racial disparity” are the specific political-economic dynamics of capitalism. Specifically, modern “race” ideology originated in efforts to legitimize, justify, and naturalize slavery and Jim Crow in US history.

(In short: it’s not that white planters, because they were motivated by the racist ideas in their heads, therefore set up the slavery system; rather, because they profited off slavery and sought to defend it, planters then naturalized “race” as a scientific ideology.)

At stake today is this: a primordial account of racism (viz., “everyone’s just born a little racist”) is one that does not challenge the inequities of capitalism and is thus easily embraced by ultra-rich institutions and corporations. 

Mentioned: 

The classic historical account from Barbara Fields

Also Reed’s own interpretation of this history and its implications (how many pop culture podcasts are giving you a discussion of commodity fetishism?)

57:20 -- Merlin warns (Andy) against going too far with “the Marxism” and reducing everything to capitalism. But also a warning against “white fragility”-style characterizations of 400 years of continuous white supremacy. 

1:01:20 -- Is this historical and economic account of “racism” useful for comparative thinking, both with and beyond the black-white binary? For instance, understanding ethnic and racialized hatred between Dominicans and Haitians, or, further away, can “racial capitalism” be applied to understand China today? Asian American history? What about anti-Semitism?