Friday, November 20, 2020

On Dembroff and Payton on Race and Gender

 Robin Dembroff and Dee Payton have an interesting argument for an asymmetry between transgenderism and transracialism. I don't see, however, how their argument is supposed to work the way they think it does. It's possible I'm missing something, but I think there are independent reasons to expect their argument to be untenable. Of course, if any of the following is right, we can't draw much conclusion from this untenability; this particular argument against transracialism will have failed and this particular argument that transracialism is significantly different from transgenderism will have faile, and that is all.

They consider an analogy: If we have a reparations program for indigenous people, we would not regard self-identification as an indigenous person to be sufficient for receiving reparations, "because the goal of the program is to concretely assist those who were harmed by a historical injustice." This is no doubt true, but what is very obvious is that this is so because of the teleology of a very specific program. Since Dembroff and Payton reject essentialist accounts of race and gender, it's utterly unclear what would be the analogue of this teleology in the racial case. And this problem with the analogy is exacerbated rather than alleviated by their main argument.

The argument is based on 'intergenerational accumulation of inequality':

Being Black in the United States is similar to being a person who qualifies for IRSSA reparations in at least one important respect: being Black isn’t simply a matter of internal identification; it is also a matter of how your community and ancestors have been treated by other people, institutions, and governments. Given this, we think that race classification should (continue to) track—as accurately as possible—intergenerationally inherited inequalities. 

One problem is that we don't, in fact, track intergenerationally inherited inequalities in race in this way. We don't for most purposes make a clear separation between American descendants of slaves and later immigrants from Africa; we might for specific programs, but if you're an African who just arrived in the United States, there's nothing that makes you racially different. If anything, you'll just be deemed a member of the local Black community -- whom you may know nothing about, and with whom you may have no identifiable cultural commonalities -- because people will take you to be part of the Black community. And in practice for racial reparations, we don't make much of a distinction most of the time between people who are descendants of those who actually suffered the injustice and those who came later. Part of it is practical; in programs where we do try to keep track of these things, like specific programs for Native Americans, it's a never-ending headache, so unless there's some very specific reason not to do so, it's just easier to handle matters at a more coarse-grained level. But the argument given by Dembroff and Payton really does seem to need us to do the fine-grained analysis.

There is a further complication in talking about "community and ancestors" because these are not exactly the same thing. African immigrants who share no known ancestors with American descendants of slaves don't become part of the same ancestry, but they could be said to join the same community, although the community attribution clearly follows the racial classification and not vice versa as Dembroff and Payton would require. But it's unclear how 'community' is working here. If a baby of white ancestry is adopted by a Black family, it's unclear what we mean by saying that they aren't part of the same community as their Black family, unless you just mean that they don't change their ancestry or color of their skin. If someone discovers to their surprise that they have a black ancestor a few generations back, so that, for instance, they are 1/128th Black, they have the ancestry, but it's unclear what it would mean to say that they have, unbeknownst to them or anyone else, been part of the Black community all their lives -- or, indeed, what it would mean to say that they have suddenly become part of the Black community despite until yesterday having been assumed by themselves and everyone else not to be Black. If we take 'community' to be tied to ancestry, we don't get transracial identification for the adopted infant and the person who turns out to everyone's surprise to have a Black ancestor, but then it's pretty clear that what tracks "as accurately as possible" any intergenerational inequalities is not race but something much finer-grained. (Indeed, almost all of their actual argument on this point implies this.) If we take 'community' to be a matter of vested interest due to social classification, we get the descendants of American slaves and the later African immigrants in one group, but then it's not clear how we could hold that a baby with no Black ancestors who is adopted by a Black family inherits nothing of the family's intergenerational burden from inequality. And the problem with the community talk is that it isn't clear why people couldn't voluntarily join the community and, by participating in it for a long time, be affected by that same intergenerational burden. None of this is a significant problem for particular programs or organizations or the like, which often deal with matters from any boundary. But Dembroff and Payton are arguing that there is an impermeable boundary, and their characterization of it doesn't obviously rule out transracial identifications.

The other part of the argument given by Dembroff and Payton is that there is an asymmetry with transgenderism: women do not have inherited intergenerational inequalities as women: "Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered." There are, of course, multiracial households that do not prevent people from being regarded by themselves and others as Black, and there doesn't seem any obvious reason why women can't be considered part of an intergenerational community (indeed, all the evidence seems to suggest that they can) that can as a community inherit burdens from prior generations, and individual women do seem at least sometimes to inherit the burdens  of prior inequalities between men and women, so the claim seems to reduce to individual women being at least usually unable to inherit the effects of inequality between men and women in a way that accumulates. And this seems to come down to the question of how 'inherit' is understood: "While parents often are responsible for ingraining patriarchal ideas and rigid gender norms in their children (it is extremely difficult to avoid!), this is not a 'passing down' of socioeconomic inequality itself but, rather, of a socialization that perpetuates gender inequality." So this requires that we understand the 'passing down' of socioeconomic inequality in racial matters as something other than a socialization that perpetuates racial inequality. I confess I'm not completely sure what this is supposed to mean. Given that their rejection of racial essentialism means they also can't essentialize racial inequality, I suppose it means that Dembroff and Payton want to say that the difference is whether you receive it as a community or individually; as they say, there are no universal truths about experiences of misogyny, but the experience of it is impacted "by socioeconomic class, race, age, ethnicity, ability, body type, and geographic location". No doubt there are differences between race and gender in this respect. I'm not sure how the necessary asymmetry is supposed to arise from this, though; experience of racism is certainly impacted by whether you are grew up dirt-poor in Alabama or in a wealthy Manhattan family, despite the fact that neither determines your race.

It's clear that Dembroff and Payton do need to be arguing that, whatever inequality is inherited by women, you can inherit it by self-identifying as a woman, whereas whatever inequality is inherited by blacks, you cannot inherit by self-identifying as black. The weight of this argument falls on the notion of intergenerational accumulation of inequality. But this does not appear adequate for creating the asymmetry, for two reasons:

 (1) This does not actually seem to give us a good criterion for race, because while there is undeniably intergenerational accumulation of inequality, the boundaries of race do not precisely track this and it does not precisely track the boundaries of race, despite the fact that the whole question here is exactly where the boundaries are. 

(2) While women don't inherit being a woman as a race, there's good reason to think that women do inherit, as women, inequality that accumulates over generations, and if it occasionally appears otherwise, it's only because we have been doing a lot of work in undoing the inequalities themselves, and probably have been rather more successful at it than we have been at undoing racial inequalities.

And we run further in to the problem, previously mentioned: inherited accumulation of inequality may be quite sufficient for making a major and important distinction for some purposes. But Dembroff and Payton need these to be the only relevant purposes, and it's not clear what teleology could force them to be so. Being Black and being a woman are not like being potential recipients of a precisely defined program; both of them affect your lives in uncountably many different ways.

There is a more general problem with trying to link the boundaries of race too closely to racial injustice. The reason is that it's not just any racial classifications that are linked to racial injustice; the racial classifications that are most closely linked to racial injustice are explicitly racist racial classifications. That's obviously going to be the case. And racist racial classifications are incoherent and ill-founded, and always have been, so if you start trying to trace the boundaries of race with considerations of racial injustice you are going to get boundaries that don't make sense and often have no basis in anything but a racist's fantasy. If you start with non-racist accounts of race, however, that is, with accounts of race that are not structured by any attempt to treat anyone as inferior, you are quickly going to find that racism won't track those boundaries exactly, because, again, racism is generally incoherent and is not noted for grounding itself in actual evidence. To take just the very obvious example, there have been people of white ancestry who have experienced racism directed against Blacks; the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, was notoriously promiscuous about whom they considered to be black, and caused Polish and Czech families no end of misery for generations on the ground that they were Europeans degenerating in a blackward direction. Racial injustice is heavily determined by extremely racist people, and extremely racist people are never going to be the people on whom you want to rely if you want rational distinctions and reasoned boundaries. Trying to build an account of race out of racial injustice is absolutely guaranteed to fail because racial injustice originates with stupid and inconsistent classifiers.