Racism as Niche Construction

廖顯禕
4 min readApr 12, 2019

Niche construction is a concept developed in ecology and evolutionary biology, which refers to “the modification of selective environments by organisms” (Laland et al 2016: 191). The world is not only something that organisms adapt to, but also something that organisms make. Offsprings not only inherit genes and traits from their parents, but environments too.

The details of niche construction are still under considerable debate, owing no small part to the proliferation of different, and sometimes incompatible, concepts of what a niche is. Traditional discussions are on selective niche, which concerns fitness selection in evolution. But there is also developmental niche, which concerns “set of ecological and social (and […] epigenetic, epistemic, cultural, and symbolic) legacies inherited by organisms, functioning to guide the expression of the genetic potential” (Stotz 2010: 490). Traditional discussions are on ecological niche, which concerns the (mostly physical) environment. But there is also social niche, which concerns “social groups, social environments, and/or patterns of social interactions that may be ‘stable’ and that influence an individual’s phenotype and/or fitness” (Saltz et al 2016: 350). In addition, niches can be characterized at the individual- or population-level; as fundamental or realized; etc.

I have been playing this game called Niche. It is a good game, but it is not what this post is about.

Of course, these details are important; they determine the best interpretation of the slogan racism as niche construction, and, indeed, whether it is best understood literally or (only) figuratively. But here I only want to make an initial case for the slogan and so I set the details aside.

Although all organisms engage in niche construction, humans are arguably especially good at doing so. Philosophers from the 4E cognition program, such as Andy Clark and Kim Sterelny, have used niche construction theory to make sense of the ways in which minds, bodies, and worlds interact. A cognitive niche, according to these philosophers, is “a supersized, distributed ecological control system for cognitizing […] partially created by the appearance of artifacts as representations of social norms” (Stotz 2010: 495–496; paraphrasing Clark and Sterelny).

My contention is that the work of racism can be understood as the construction of such cognitive niches.

Public schools in the United States are good examples of—paraphrasing Stotz—artifacts that are representations of of social norms (and also, it should be noted, isomorphic representations of other artifacts). It is not news that public schools are racially segregated, and have become more so since the fleeting victories of the Civil Rights Movement. In part, this is simply the product of racially-segregated neighborhoods, which are themselves artifacts of American racism. But that isomorphism between racially-segregated neighborhoods and racially-segregated schools is also guaranteed by social norms that are created and backed by state power, such as Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District №1, and social norms that are emergent from individuals’ decisions.

The racial segregation of public education is not something that White* parents merely adapt to, but something that they make via their decisions: where they choose to buy or rent, whether they enroll their kids in the local public school or a private or magnet public school, which district maps or enrollment policies are supported. By choosing the “best school” for their kids, White parents are also choosing to modify the physical and social environments for their offsprings. Not surprisingly, these environments covertly exert an influence on the offsprings’ ideas about race and racism, even more than any anti-racist ideas that the parents overtly adopt. And these environments not only shape the offsprings’ developments, they are also standardly inherited by the offsprings, often at the expense of other children.

(* As Charles Mills—among many others—takes pain to emphasize, Whiteness is not a phenotype but a social position. In the context of contemporary United States, White parents include not only people who are phenotypically racialized as white, but also—just as an example—some people who are phenotypically racialized as East Asian.)

Maybe this is all just obvious from the perspective of scientists who study niche construction. As a human construction, of course racism involves the modification of environments for the benefits of offsprings. Maybe this is all just obvious from the perspective of theorists who have said again and again that racism is not to be found in one’s soul or one’s bone, but in the way the world interacts with one’s body and mind.

Nevertheless, I hope there’s some value to bringing the two maybe-obvious observations together. (No, unless one subscribes to the most naive version of is-makes-ought, the point is certainly not that racism is natural and good.) It gestures toward why people fight over words, debate about statues, etc. in the name of anti-racism. Words and statues are just elements of a niche that guides the development of human beings. Like all other niches, the racist ones we find in our vicinity are not merely parts of the world that we have to adapt to, but also ones that we can try to re-make.

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My academic website is liao.shen-yi.org. The views are all mine, but I got the idea to read more about niche construction from Jay Odenbaugh when I gave a talk at Lewis & Clark last year.

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廖顯禕

Academic studying objects and spaces where cognition meets oppression. Taiwanese.