Saturday, October 30, 2010

Defining race ignoring culture

This extends a comment I made here.

Attempts to get racial definitions in law are inherently fraught, since "race" is not inherently exclusive. All the "strains" of homo sapiens interbreed perfectly. Given that "race" is not inherently exclusive, attempts to define 'race' in law end up in similar spots – the definition of 'race' used in apartheid South Africa being much the same as attempts to define Aboriginality under Australian law.

Indeed, this inherent difficulty is a sign that you should Just Not Go There. The idea that "race" is a significant distinction is a highly historically contingent one: it is only important if people make it so. We shouldn't.

The well-known problem (among statisticians) with Aboriginal counts in the Australian Census is precisely because people can "blend in", for race is not inherently exclusive. Under the "protection" regimes – when Aborigines were effectively not legal adults, but wards of the Protector of Aborigines – there was a strong legal incentive to identify as "white", so as to be treated as a legal adult: this without considering any social stigmas.

But that people could and did just demonstrates how not inherently significant "race" is.

Once you get past not permitting discrimination based on "race", the real issue with Aborigines is culture. One of the ways the ABS justified the large increases in the Aboriginal population count from Census to Census was pointing out that the demographic profile remained consistent. This was deeply depressing – i.e. the add-on's had the same disastrously lower life expectancy as the previously counted population.

In other words, the ABS was saying: "the extra folk we have counted are indeed Aborigines, because they also die much younger than the rest of the Australian population". Trying to move from hunter-gatherers to industrial economy in less than two centuries (sometimes well less) when our European ancestors took about 7,000 years to make the same journey (with quite a few problems on the way) is A Big Ask. It is a Really Big Ask when their societies and cultures are disrupted by disease, dislocation, welfare etc: but that is not a racial issue, it is a cultural issue. When, for example, their understanding of law, rules and property is radically disconnected from that which works in an modern industrial (indeed, post-industrial) society.

And it is not a "have you preserved your original culture?" issue. It is a "have you fully adapted to industrial society?" cultural issue. Which can be an emphatic NO! even if they only have smashed remnants of their original culture left: perhaps particularly so.

Once you start looking at it in cultural terms – by which I mean patterns of behaviour, outlooks, preferences, etc – then a whole lot of things become clearer (which is not the same as easier).

Generally speaking, I have an antipathy to cultural explanations, regarding them as the last refuge of the analytically bereft. But evidence is evidence.

And nothing annoys me quicker in this field than folk who burble on about preserving Aboriginal culture and yet talk as if culture has no implications. Or talk of Aboriginal culture as if it there is a singular Aboriginal culture: 40,000 years is a long time to develop cultural differences.

I am reminded of an attempt to re-create the Tasmanian aboriginal language based on a Western Victorian language. The two languages had been separated longer than English has been separated from Iranian.

And if one thing is clear, it is what a disastrous failure so much of indigenous policy has been over the last few decades (via). Something I have posted on previously.

I have posted this passage before, but it is such a perfect indication of everything that has been wrong with indigenous policy in Australia – the ignoring of culture, the imposition of outside presumptions (including failed collectivism of property rights) – that it is worth posting again. In Richard Trudgen's must-read Why Warriors Lie Down and Die there is the illustrative tale of the Galiwin ’ku fishing industry.
The Galiwin ’ku fishing industry consisted of several small fishing boats made from local timbers at Galiwin ’ku by the Yolηnu and mission staff. The Yolηu named these boats with holy names from their clain or riηgitj nation alliance. The boats were owned by the mission but were skippered and crewed by different clans. Some small clans would come together in a riηgitj alliance to make up a crew. …
These clan groups would use the boats and sell their catch to the mission for processing and re-sale to other places. The people clearly understood that what they caught was theirs until they sold it to the mission and they benefited directly from their catch. From the point of sale on, it belonged to the mission. This arrangement satisfied the legal requirements of both the Yolηnu and Balanda systems of law.
When the mission at Galiwin ’ku handed the fishing industry over to the Yolηnu council in 1974, everything proceeded well for a while because the mission staff also transferred to the council. For most Yolηu nothing really changed. Then in 1975 it was decided to get a loan from the government to develop the industry. The Aboriginal Development Comission ‘decided’ to bring in a consultant to look at the viability of the loan and how it could increase the efficiency of the industry. Following the consultant’s recommendation, one big, modern fishing trawler replaced the small boats. In the dead of night, the small boats were burned on the beach and one was cut adrift, to ‘convince Yolηu of the need to move up to the big boat’. Within six months the whole fishing enterprise at Galiwin ’ku had collapsed and Galiwin ’ku became an importer rather than exporter of fish products.
… from a Yolηu perspective the collapse happened because the separate clans and nation alliances found it impossible to work under one Balanda boss on the trawler, as the trawler captain now had to be licensed. Moreover, Yolηu were insulted and grieving over the destroyed boats. With no clear lines of ownership the people could not see that any authority had passed to them. …
To expect all the clans at Galiwin ’ku to believe they collectively owned the fishing company was like telling twenty-six Balanda companies that they collectively owned an industry incorporated as an association. … But this is not how community structures were set up. … The Yolηu fisherman did not see themselves as working for their own gain anymore; in fact, many now thought that the captain of the new trawler would reap the dividends. They had just become wage earners, and the incentive to work and build the industry for their own benefit was gone.
On top of all this, people had become confused about where these wages came from. In the past they saw a clear trade with the mission—so much fish for so much money. This trade was what the Yolηu were used to. Now they got wages no matter how many fish were caught. The steps in the development of a cash economy, with its system of wages-for-labour, are many. The Yolηnu were catapulted into the cash economy with little preparation.
With all this confusion, only conflict could occur, and economic development through industries like fishing was lost. (Pp47-8).
Race has nothing to do with these problems: culture and policy arrogance a great deal.


  1. How would you respond to Steve Sailer's arguments about the existence (and relevance) of race (seen, for instance, here:

  2. As you would expect from Sailer, that is the most intelligent presentation of the distinction I have seen. Except he makes no differentiation between race and ethnicity. Afghanistan, for example, is not a place of different races (in the modern sense) but of different ethnicities.

    People form groups, but they then tend to seriously over-estimate the significance of the groups. Witness the ascription of characteristics to 'left' and 'right' or 'liberal' and 'conservative' by partisans of said groupings.

    In some ways, the medievals were more clever about this. For them 'race' and 'tongue' meant much the same -- a person of my race was a person who spoke my language. Thus, I could communicate far more easily with, was likely to share a larger set of references, expectations, even preferences with them. (Afghanistan would be a place of different races to the medievals.) If one presumes differing capacity to communicate (i.e. takes a transaction cost analysis) one can explain most of the apparently "racial" patterns in modern societies, particularly in things like hiring and housing.

    Skin colour and other physical features make easy "markers". But, as Sailer implies, not exactly precise ones. (Jew-haters had terrible difficulty with that.) And ones which people have put widely different importance to over time. (The medievals put almost none at all, for example. They wanted to know your religion and your language: sensible folk, since they are likely to have real effects on behaviour.) The historical contingency of racial signification is something many of the "race does not exist" crowd are very aware of.

    There are certainly genetic clumpings which have, for example, medical significance. But race mainly matters because people think it matters and because language and culture do matter for interactions and language and culture have some association with ethnicity and thus race. But language and culture are a lot more plastic over time than ethnicity which is a lot more plastic over time than race. So, even conceding the sensible bits in Sailer, race is not what one should be concerned with.

  3. Fred, I have done a somewhat extended version of my response to your excellent question as a new post.

  4. I am no Boltist, but I have an awful lot of trouble when a white inner-cityliving academic with 7 white European grandparents starts lecturing about their "Indigenous" rights to sovereignty and self-determination.

  5. Quite: mixed heritage is mixed heritage and failing to embrace it is denying one's heritage in a really blatant way.

  6. Actually, I will respect that person's choices in the private sphere. If s/he wants me to accept/respect him/her Indigenous identity, I will do so. But when that person demands a privileged voice in the public sphere on the basis of that self-identity, then that alleged Indigeneity becomes fair game.

  7. It is an odd sort of claim though: this set of my ancestors count but this (larger) set of ancestors do not.

  8. To be fair, I suppose one response might be "well if I am denied entry to a pub because I am a 'boong'" and so on. But the point about these 1/8th types is that their experience of 'Indigeneity' does not include such horror.

  9. Well, yes racial discrimination is noxious but that is, as you say, quite different from using part of your ancestry to "game" the system.

  10. This issue is actually very heated within Indigenous communities. There is a lot of resentment towards 'white' inner city types who "choose" their Aboriginality, and at the same time pick and choose the good bits - scholarships, gov't jobs, academic positions - and decline the bad bits.

  11. Lorenzo's brother says

    My Aunt who lives in rural NSW quotes the local wisdom about Indigenous Australians; "the blacker they are the better they are". It has the ring of practical truth about it.

  12. I'm sorry missy, it's true. You ain't. "Humiliated"? Jesus, talk about can't handle the truth!