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Biological Metaphors for Whiteness: Beyond Merit and Malice

Brant T. Lee, University of Akron

Abstract

The problem of persistent racial inequality is grounded in a failure of imagination. The general mainstream conception is that unfair racial inequality occurs only when there is intentional racism. Absent conscious racial malice, no racism is seen to exist. The only generally available alternative explanation for racial inequality is the meritocratic system. Viewing the distribution of resources as a product of a generally fair meritocratic system provides a defense against any charge of racism, and justifies the status quo.

But in economics, business, computer science, and even biology, observers of complexity are coming to understand how dominant systems can prevail without superior merit, can maintain their position without any conscious guidance or intent, and can be organized without any collusion or direction. Markets, organisms, and ecologies coordinate themselves efficiently and organically, with surprising resilience.

Whiteness operates like these other systems. This essay re-imagines Whiteness using images from perhaps unusual sources. Whiteness coalesces through the actions of multitudes of independent individuals, in the same way that slime mold forms when spore cells join together on the forest floor. Racial segregation results from simple self-organizing mathematical algorithms realized in the collective behavior of human beings moving in and out of neighborhoods. Whiteness sustains itself in the same way that cultural practices and self-serving beliefs do, without conscious intent. Whiteness carefully organizes itself in the same way that snowflakes and ants do, without anyone being in charge or giving direction.

Suggested Citation

Brant T. Lee, Biological Metaphors for Whiteness: Beyond Merit and Malice, 13 Berkeley Journal of African American Law and Policy 101 (2011).