Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Biological Question: Medical Science Puzzles Over Impact of Antiblackness on Health

The health care debate is raising a number of questions around race and health-- and biopower/necropower. Many of the assumptions underwriting formations of health and social entitlement programs are founded in a kind of social scientific antiblackness with which we are all too familiar. The same antiblack affect underwrites the irrational crack-versus-powder cocaine disparity, the opposition to federal means-tested transfer policies (like AFDC), and, if we go back far enough, the initial shaping of the federal New Deal entitlement programs-- especially by powerful southern Congressional leaders-- to exclude agricultural and domestic workers, job classifications in which blacks were concentrated.

Also, over the last few decades, biological and genetic arguments have been on the rise to explain "social problems" like student achievement.

Because of a recent conversation with a friend, I have been thinking a bit lately about the relationship between "the biological" and "the social." What is the appeal of such biological and social scientific explanations to discourses on race? Can the sway of "scientific" explanations be attributed to their power to explain and predict effectively? To the extent to which they tap into a certain set of affective structures widely held in civil and political society? What else might explain the adoption of, say, Prof. John D'Iulio's superpredator theory that continues to underwrite laws concerning the incarceration of juveniles? What crisis is induced, if any, when theories like superpredator theory are proven to be bunk?

Here is another breakdown of the explanatory power of both social sciences and medical sciences. Why would college-educated black American women have higher likelihood of low-birth-weight babies than both white high school dropout women (a control for socioeconomic status explanations so popular in the social sciences) AND African immigrant women (a control for the genetic explanations so popular in the medical sciences)?

Source: Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?
http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/resources_video.php?res_id=210 (accessed 8/11/09)

I'm curious about what the waxing influence of genetic and biological explanations in scientific and even humanistic discourse bodes for black bodies and blackened spaces.

First, we should remember Fanon's admonition that it is pointless to seek out what Blackness signifies (as the Negritudists had done then, as the Afrocentrists, cultural nationalists, and canon formationists do now). Attempting to do so is an attempt to engage in what Wilderson calls "the ruse of analogy"-- an analogy with whiteness. And that just won't do for blackness.

By way of illustration, in mathematical terms blackness/Africanness wouldn't be a zero or a negative term on a graph in which whiteness/europeanness was a positive term. (If it was such, Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic would work for Blacks because negation would be conceivable.) Instead, Blackness is a null set. We recall from math that even zero has a place on the graph; here we should think of a baseball player who has been at bat once and struck out during that time at bat-- her/his batting average would be 0. A null set (written as a zero with a crossbar over it) is the absence of positionality on the graph altogether-- as though the baseball player had never even been at bat to begin with.

This is the often-overlooked radical meaning of Fanon's statement:

For not only must the black man [sic] be black; he [sic] must be black in relation to the white man [sic]. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man [sic] has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man [sic] (BSWM 110).

In the curious way that social realities reflect back onto math, we should take note that without the concept of the null set, mathematics as we know it would be impossible. The null set in relation to mathematics, like the death-bound subject (to quote janMohamed)-- the black-- in relation to modernity, is a condition of possibility, existing as absence so that Presence may have coherent meaning. "No one knows yet who [the Negro] is," Fanon tells us (BSWM 139). Even the Negro him/herself.

Among those whose psyches are most destabilized by the unknowability of blackness are white folks. In this sense, one could read the scientific tendencies to chart blackness as hegemonic moves to make blackness signify something. The sciences become the final arbiter in chains of signification-- the Name of the Father, what Christianity may once have been.

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