Structural inequality and race

In last week’s class on human variation we stressed how race is never about biology. It is however an idea deeply rooted in the western intellectual tradition from Linneaus and Blumenbach in the eighteenth century, through Galton in the nineteenth, and on into the twentieth century with the eugenics movement.

So all that is ancient history right? Post-Nazi Germany we all saw the error of our ways and it would be unthinkable to advocate for forced sterilization of populations deemed unfit. Uh, not so fast. The idea that reproduction of undesirables is dangerous still holds great appeal for some!


Take this news story for example. A state politician in Arizona made the case for sterilizing women who receive Medicaid, a government program that provides reduced cost health care to the poor. It’s worth remembering that the majority of individuals who were sterilized against their will during the eugenics era were women. It doesn’t take a PhD to point out that it takes two to get pregnant, but it is not the behavior of men on Medicaid being sanctioned. Former state Sen. Russell Pearce subsequently resigned his vice-chairmanship in the Arizona Republican Party after his comments caused a stir among his peers.

This is one way in which the race-as-biology fallacy rubs up against sex and gender. If you pursue this idea further in women’s studies you will find that the sex-as-biology argument breaks down under scrutiny too. It also exemplifies the degree to which we in the United States tend to medicalize deviance. Someone showing undesirable behavior? There must be something pathologically wrong with them! Take this pill, undergo that procedure. You can learn more about this in a sociology of deviance course.

Lecture ended by pointing out not only where biological variation does matter and how particular behaviors become racialized, that is seen to be the domain of specific race groups. This has important implications in terms of structural inequality.


For example, this graphic from The Economist illustrates how the probability of being murdered in the United States is terrifyingly higher for black men, particularly when they are young, compared to all other groups. So one way in which race still matters is in how risk is distributed among populations. It is not the result of stereotypes or personal biases, it is a broader trend that can be seen society wide. These kinds of “big picture” ideas that do not involve the decisions of individuals but groups are a little tricky to grasp because their run counter to our intuitive ideas about choice.

Another example taken from the headlines was Hollywood actress Danièle Watts’ recent encounter with the police. No, this wasn’t a Lindsay Lohan-esque case of drinking and drugs leading to getting tossed from a ritzy night club. Watts kissed her white husband in public and that was enough to draw police attention. As you can see from her anguished expression this was an experience of acute humiliation.

Strucutral Ineq 2

I encourage you to see current events like these as a sociologist or anthropologist would. They represent structural inequalities moreso than the behaviors of one cranky old man in the case of the Arizona politician or a cop who made one bad call as in the case of Danièle Watts above. Its about patterns and trends that some people are more likely to experience while others can comfortably ignore. Being uncomfortable every now and then is a good thing if it helps you pay attention to the world around us.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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