Dialectics of Racial Categories

The concept of race is often thought to be logically prior to that of racial distinction. It is necessary here to "straighten the dialectics out."

Dialectics of Racial Categories

In common sense, the reason a man is called Black is because he is a member of the Black race, and the reason a man is called White is because he is a member of the White race. Thus, it appears that the logic of racial distinction is simply that of membership in this or that race. This common conception, therefore, presumes the concept of race to be prior (in speaking of the categorical order) to the logic of racial distinction. We shall have to question this syllogism in order to “straighten the dialectics out.”

Historically, the concept of race emerged at least a century after the racial distinction was made into a socially valid particularization. It seems most probable, therefore, that the concept of race itself is a product of the distinction applied to individuals, which we now call, post facto, “racial” distinction. Only after this particularization of individuals was made, were the resulting particulars assembled into a race. The racial does not presume race (except in language), but race does presume the racial. Generalization clearly proceeds from, rather than precedes, particularization. The differential is in search of the integral.

Natural Race

Problems of determining races with the rigor of natural science are numerous. Here we need not go into the history of biological science (especially genetics and physical anthropology) to unravel this mystery of races. We will content ourselves with an outsider’s look. Even in this passive way, we can quite safely predict that natural science would be unsuccessful in rendering definite the concept of race.

The number one problem is the so-called “hypodescent” logic of racial reproduction—how the “mixture” of opposites in racial categories is incorporated. In countries like the United States, the mixed offspring of Black-White parentage is classified not in accordance with the “adequate logic” of intermediacy, but with the blanket rule of banishment to the subordinate side of the distinction. Put more plainly, “a drop of Black blood” is sufficient to establish “membership in the Black race” (with the exception of ‘‘passing’’), but the “membership criterion of the White race” demands no less than an absolute “purity,” e.g. no visible sign of “contamination by Black blood.” In other words, the logic of racial distinction also includes the logic of “pure” vs “contaminated,” “pedigreed” vs “mongrel,” since the mixture of the “pure” and the “contaminated” is the “contaminated,” and the mixture of the “pedigreed” and the “mongrel” is the “mongrel.”

This logic has an intriguing analogy with the rule of disinheritance—disfranchisement in private property regimes. In such regimes, the hypodescent logic also prevails (with some exceptions), i.e., the mixed offspring of an owning and a non-owning class is usually banished to the non-owning side. The concept of “illegitimate child,” for instance, originates in the need to make
this rule systematic with the force of a law; and this also entailed the distinction of natural fatherhood and social paternity, i.e., a natural son is not necessarily a social heir. This is not to suggest that all Whites are owning and all Blacks are non-owning; the point of mentioning this analogy is to show the peculiarly social character of distinction which eventually overrides even the logic which nature itself might have suggested. It shows the degree to which the social has
managed to negate the natural’s former innocence.

Clearly, such a social custom could not find an anatomical or a genetic basis. For the concept of race, one has to concoct such mythical entities as “Black genes” and “White genes” and then work out (rather than investigate) the rule in which “Black genes” are absorbent and “White genes” are rejective, or some such metaphysics. Failing that, metaphysics must justify itself in more metaphysics—e.g., the mythological existence of “pure Whites” and “pure Blacks” (or “pure Negroes”). Even if this mythology may be ideologically successful, there still remains the need for more mythology to explain the hypodescent logic—the next dialectic moment of racial distinction. Had the racial rule in the United States employed the “hyperdescent” as opposed to “hypodescent” rule, some 70 percent of Blacks in the United States would have been Whites! The notion of “racial membership,” i.e., determining racial status by “membership in a race,” is merely a practical operational guide to the racial distinction (a racism-conditioned one at that), and not the reason of the distinction; it cannot even explain why the hypodescent logic is incorporated in racial categories.

Hypodescent is a logic specifically devised for social particularization; the results of such particularization cannot be objectively described as natural genetic entities without falling into irrationality. This is not to suggest that there are no such things as phenotypes (as opposed to genotypes), or that there is no variation in human physiognomy. The real problem here is not that human beings exhibit dazzling varieties of physiognomy, but that all efforts to render what is essentially a continuum into a set of discretes are bound to fail. Even a mediocre scientific judgment on the matter would have indicated the futility of seeking this logic in genetics.

The social character, as well as the particularizing character of the racial distinction, is also clear if we remind ourselves that this logic is different from country to country. For instance, it is not unusual that a person who is classified as a White in the Caribbean becomes re-classified as a Black in the United States. In South Africa, the hypodescent rule has a further twist—the mixture is classified as “Cape Colored,” distinct from “pure Europeans” and “pure Africans.” (Also, Japanese are classified as “honorary Whites,” but Chinese are not!)

Given all this, the irrationality of those natural scientists attempting to give a scientific footing to the concept of race is not so much that their products are shoddy, as that the attempt itself shows a singular lack of scientific judgement. What would we think of a physicist who spends his time worrying whether the wave-length of 800 angstroms should be considered red or yellow? And yet this is the “respectable science” of modern race theorists.

It is true that in recent times biologists have been awakened to the fact that the concept of race is not a legitimate notion for natural science. Along with this recognition, most social scientists, too, are no longer concerned with “natural races” and have devised the concept of “social races,” i.e., “races” as social custom sees them. But in the absence of the dialectical approach to this question, they could not hope to explain how such social distinctions have arisen in the first place, and, consequently, they have largely resigned themselves to the position of merely accepting them as given “functional invariants.”

Social Race

If theories of “natural races” err in transferring socio-relational categories of racism to nature, theories of “social races” tend to make the obverse of this error—they abstract the physiognomic rule of racial determination out of racial categories altogether. Racial categories are not natural categories, but they are not for that reason “purely social” in all respects either. The racial standing of individuals is not decided solely by the biography of persons as social beings, but by biologically inherited natural physiognomic marks. Thus, nature does get enlisted as an instrumentality of the social particularization of racism.

The only correct way of unravelling such methods of social identification is by way of the concept of reification. Reification means the transformation of relations into things. (In other words, things determined by relations are turned around, as if relations are an intrinsic potential of things in themselves.) The reification of racial categories into “skin color,” etc., is an integral part of the racial logic, and a careful critique of it will show us, for instance, the historical specificity of racism. Simply put, racial categories are social distinctions devised in such a way that their differential moment can be left to a “superstitious” conception of nature. This engenders the illusion that nature itself has dictated racial categories for us.

Perhaps my philosophical resources would be under lesser strain if I compare this dialectical aspect of racial categories to a better known case of reification. Marx’s theory of money (see Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume 1) states that it is the nature of money (what Marx calls “use-value” of money) to be the officiating object (or a subject as an object) in the reification of a relation called value; this function-turned-into-an-object is inherent in the category of value, with its intrinsic dialectic for abstraction (i.e. abstract labor out of concrete labor) which is also objectification. This social money inhering in natural gold is, essentially, the “secret” of money. Those who conceive money to be an intrinsic property of gold (mercantilists) are uncritical slaves of money’s objectification; those who conceive money to be a purely subjective social symbol (“free traders”) are glib vulgarists who miss the crucial dialectical moment of value objectifying itself. Money is unthinkable (originally, that is) without precious metals, since it would lack the object of its objectification, but money is not precious metals, since their social use as money is far from constituting the universal of these natural chemicals. In other words, theorists of “natural races” are akin to those who mistake money for gold itself, and theorists of “social races” are akin to those who take money in a purely subjective manner—as a social symbol, a state decree, a convention of merchants, a custom which mysteriously commands consensus.

This is not to say that “racism is a social misuse of a natural difference,” any more than money is a social misuse of gold. In the case of racial categories, at least this much is clear: (1) nature provides us with pure physiognomic variation, (2) but this is pure difference, since nature is far from suggesting a discretizing schema for its variation, (3) hence, the cutting edge of racial determinations of persons is a social “imposition” on nature. But not a purely subjective imposition (as when astrologers impose “fortune” on astronomical entities), but an “imposition” capable of all that reification represents. The remarkable fact about racism is not just that its categories “dwell” in nature, but that this “touching on nature” has been ideologically so successful in sustaining the validity of racial categories in the real life of racial regimes. How racism might have stumbled upon mankind’s natural physiognomic variation is really beside the point: the reason of reification of its relational categories into physiognomic differentials will explain the nature of racism. Money seeks gold to objectify itself—gold does not cry out to be money.

Thus, our critique of “social race” theories amounts to a criticism of a theoretical tendency to abstract the natural physiognomic “moment” out of racial categories. Theories of “racial affinity,” in effect, turn the produced dialectic of affinity-disaffinity of racism into its cause, or this dialectic is postulated to be “instinctual” in the name of sociobiology, biosociology or whatnot. Less sophisticated approaches, such as analogizing racial groups to nations, nationalities, castes, ethnics, and even classes, are more unreal in that they decide to make short shrift of the dialectical impetus of racial categories to “congeal” in nature. And yet the specific mode of “interpenetration” of the social and the natural found in racial categories is, as far as I know, its differentia specifica, the very singular character of racial categories. That racial categories may be a very special kind of social distinction (capable of achieving their validity only in a narrowly circumscribed range of modes of production) is a question which is not even raised by these singularly dialectic-less theories. What prevents all cases of the affinity-disaffinity dialectic from being translated into racism? What prevents all national formations, all caste formations, all ethnic formations, all class formations from becoming racial formations at the same time?

Racial categories are a social particularization; they are primarily intra-societal, not inter-societal. As Chinese would put it, it is a case of “one becoming two’” rather than “two becoming one.” As Hegel would put it, racial categories are “inner distinctions” and not “outer distinctions.”

The bone of our contention with “social race” theories has to do with the dialectic of racial formations. Thinkers like Marx have long recognized a contrasting logic in social formations under the customary headings of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft—a tribe is a Gemeinschaft, a class is a Gesellschaft, etc. To which side of these contrasting social formations do racial formations conform? And why?

The Gemeinschaft vs Gesellschaft distinction (which may be translated, inaccurately, in English as that of “communitarian” vs “societal”) is best made in the general framework of dialectical logic. The distinction has to do with the logic of “belonging.” In a Gemeinschaft, the logic of “I belong, therefore I am” prevails; in a Gesellschaft, the logic of “I am, therefore I belong” is operative. In the dialectical phraseology, a Gemeinschaft is a “larger unity” which determines its members and a Gesellschaft is a “coming-together” of those who are already determined individually. More abstractly, in a Gemeinschaft, the universal leads to the individual as its concrete, and in a Gesellschaft, the particular results as an abstract of the individual. Is a race a Gemeinschaft or a Gesellschaft?

Probably the most important modern examples of the distinction is found in nations and classes—i.e. national formations follow the Gemeinschaft logic and class formations follow the Gesellschaft logic. The nationality of a person is derived from the socio-historical practice of national life; this is why a mere aggregation of Koreans (say, in Los Angeles) does not constitute the Korean nation. By contrast, a person’s class standing is determined not by his or her membership in a class but by individually engaged class-relations like slavery, tenancy, wage-labor, etc. Thus, a man is a capitalist first because he is socially situated, as an individual, in the economic function of deriving surplus-value through his outlay of capital. The capitalist class results by way of aggregating these similarly situated individuals. A man is a capitalist, therefore he belongs to the capitalist class, but a man is French, because he belongs to the French nation.

This contrast is abstractly seen in the mode of negation as well. A class is other-determined since its formation necessarily entails the formation of an opposite class—e.g. slaves vs masters, serfs vs landlords, workers vs capitalists, etc. In truth, therefore, a class formation is merely one pole of a class division in society—a unity expressed in oppositions. But this is not the case with nations: the formation of a nation is not necessarily determined by others going through a similar process, e.g. the rise of the French nation is not dependent on Ethiopians or Japanese becoming a nation. For this reason, the dialectical opposite of French is neither German nor Russian, but its own negation—non-French.

Now, does the racial formation follow the Gemeinschaft logic or the Gesellschaft logic of social formations? If the former, then a race leads an “inner life” as a race, even in the absence of other races. But there is no historical evidence whatsoever for this. Europeans in the Middle Ages (i.e. prior to the intimate intercontinental contact since, say, 1500 A.D.) were not even aware of their Whiteness, let alone structuring their life as a White race. Similarly, Africans prior to the slave trade were not aware of their Blackness, and an integral life of Africans as a Black race is a modern myth which does not heed the historical fact of the tribal (as opposed to racial) allegiances prevailing there prior to racism. Nations are, logically speaking, self-determined, but races are definitely other-determined.

So, the rule of racial categories works its way from individual determinations to its collective aggregation into races. A man belongs to the Black race because he is determined to be Black (independently of the concept of race), rather than through the inverted “logic” of common-sense which says that a man is Black because he belongs to the Black race. To put it in the language of the unity of opposites, Whiteness and Blackness are coterminous social determinations—White because someone else is determined by it to be Black and Black because someone else is determined by it to be White.


Let us now recapitulate all these anomalous thoughts in search of the concept of race, and dialectically sort out the sequence of compound mythologies. Categorically speaking, the racial distinction is a logic devised specifically for differentiating individuals first—whether any given individual is a White or a Black. This is the logical invariant of racial categories. Once the individual differentiation is made with the force of socially valid objectivity, then race theorists proceed to assign a supposed generic character to the assemblage of the result of individual distinction. A Black is a Black whether the concept of Black race is “scientific” or not; but then Blackness is ideologically depicted as a matter of membership in the Black race. Myth-making proceeds in the opposite direction from the movements of categories of real relations. In real life, the logic of racial distinction as applied to individuals has led to the ideological need to formulate the concept of race; in the unreal world of myths, the concept of race is thought to be just waiting for a final scientific touch, and the racial attributes of individuals are considered simply as a matter of determining the membership to this yet-to-be-determined entity. Dialectically speaking, particularization of racial distinction demands an ideological channel for presenting itself as a “coming-together” of general entities of races, nations, ethnics, etc. This has been the most potent weapon for obfuscating the real relations of racism.

Harry Chang worked with the Racism Research Project in Berkeley in the 1970s. A brief biography can be found here.

Originally Published in Paul Liem and Eric Montague, “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry Chang,” Review of Radical Political Economics 17(3), pp. 34-45, copyright 1985 by SAGE Publications, Inc. Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Inc.