Sunday, October 26, 2008
Race is a Bogus Idea
What follows are some excerpts from an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998; this piece appeared the week TV station KRON aired a week long special called "About Race." You might recall that this was during Bill Clinton's second term when the president initiated a national dialogue about race. It's been 10 years since that happened so I thought it a good time to remind ourselves what we already know.
The very concept of race is bogus and has no basis in biology, according to most scientists.
``This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall,'' said Jefferson Fish, a psychologist at St. John's University in New York who has written extensively about race in America. ``Nobody is asking the question, `What is race?' It is a biologically meaningless category. It is a cultural term that Americans use to describe what a person's ancestry is.
``But biologically the human species does not have categories. It just has variations as one travels around the world.''
True, a walk along almost any main street in a major U.S. city will reveal a host of people of various colors and cultures.
Surely, one may suppose,
the American melting pot is brimming with different races and racial mixtures.
Wrong, say a broad coalition of experts.
``The concept of race is a social and cultural construction. . . . Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically,'' according to a policy statement by the American Anthropological Association. ``It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of `race' has no validity . . . in the human species.''
Although few people would mistake a group of Arapahos for Finns, or Malays for Tutsis, anthropologists can find no clear racial boundaries to show where one ``racial'' group stops and another begins.
Jonathan Marks, a University of California at Berkeley anthropologist, said the only pattern that shows up consistently is that as one surveys traditional homelands, ``people are similar to those from (areas) geographically nearby and different from those (who are) far away.'' The bigger the distance, the more different people tend to look. Conversely, while people don't fit into neat racial cubbyholes, the more closely related they are, the greater the chances of finding good tissue matches for such things as bone marrow transplants.
Despite this, many Americans still believe in three great racial groups, a system developed in Europe and North America in the 18th century.
Under that notion, indigenous residents of France, Iran and Poland, for example, are all Caucasoids, members of the so-called white race. People from Somalia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in Africa are all Negroid, belonging to the black race. Ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Malays and American Indians are all Mongoloids, variants of the yellow race.
And people born to, say, ethnic Swedish and Chinese parents are of mixed race.
No way, say scientists, who call such thinking a folk myth.
``We don't even come close to having enough genetic diversity for races, or subspecies -- not close,'' said Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of a newsletter of the anthropological association that has taken on race and racism as its yearlong theme.
``It's hard to get across,'' said Sussman. ``The best audience to try to get to is probably high school and young college students. But even they are steeped in American folklore, and the folklore is that races really exist.''
One reason race is a myth, the great majority of anthropologists agree, is that there has not been enough time for much difference to build up between human beings.
By most measures, modern humans arose in Africa less than 200,000 years ago, a short time by evolutionary time scales. And the migration out of Africa by the ancestors of today's Europeans, Asians, and North and South Americans took place less than 100,000 years ago.
Environmental pressure produced different physical appearances, including slightly different physiques, and Africa has the most human genetic diversity of any continent.
``But the environment, literally, works only on the surface, changing skin and hair a little bit,'' said Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a Stanford University geneticist. ``Underneath, there has been little change.''
``If Americans in general understood the history of the concept of race, the erroneous biological connotations of race, and the cultural and social dimensions of race, they could better address the initiative's goal of `One America in the 21st Century,' '' said Mary Margaret Overbey, a lobbyist for the association.
But even without race, racism can exist as a belief that ancestry is a significant factor in cultural and behavioral differences among peoples.
Rather than race, scientists like to discuss ``clinal variations,'' or physical types that may be found in one general area but that fade more or less evenly into other types as one move about the globe.
Yet even anthropologists admit they use the term ``race'' -- even if they don't really approve of it -- because so far there is no better term to describe the subtleties of the human species.
``I use it because for some uses, it works,'' said Dennis Stanford, chairman of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
But at best, it is a clumsy term for people like Fish, the St. John's University psychologist, who is married to a Brazilian.
By standard American usage, he is white because his ancestry is all European, and she is black because some of her ancestors were African. But she is not really the color black, rather more of a light brown, with ancestry from many parts of the globe.
In Brazil, people are labeled not by race, but by ``tipo,'' Portuguese for type, and some families have many tipos. And she is a morena, which means, roughly, brunette. ``Americans think you can't change race, that it's like changing genes,'' Fish said. ``But my wife can change her race by taking an airplane home.''
Last year, the association urged the government to drop the term race from its census categories in favor of blurrier, but more useful, terms such as ethnicity that also reflect culture and the psychological tendency of people to label themselves.
Now, while strict racial categories are not being abandoned altogether, censuses will permit people to list themselves in several races if they so choose.
Since 1900, 26 different racial categories have been used in various censuses, including Hindu and Mexican. At the turn of the century in the United States, Italians, the Irish, and Jews were all thought to be racial groups.
Nearly all college textbooks have long since dropped the idea that humanity can be neatly, or even sloppily, divided into races.
And a recent survey found that some experts in the 19th century graded humanity into as many as 300 races. Even current encyclopedias routinely list as many as nine races (African, American Indian, Asian, Australian, European, Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian).
In years past, children of mixed marriages ``were assigned the racial (and legal) status of the more subordinate parent,'' said Faye Harrison, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina.
``That rule, called . . . the `one drop rule' (for one drop of blood), has worked to classify me as African American, period,'' said Harrison. ``Despite the fact that I, like most other African Americans I know, have a mixed heritage and mixed `race' genealogy. But that multicultural or multiracial reality is part of my extended family's private transcript, not our public identity as blacks, as African Americans.''
Studies show that the ancestry of American blacks is about 70 percent African, with the rest European and American Indian.
Stanford geneticist Cavalli- Sforza and his colleagues are collecting genes from traditional peoples all over the world. From them, they can get a good idea how past populations migrated and intermingled.
The gradients, or rate of change from place to place, ``are all gradual. The idea of race is not tenable,'' Cavalli-Sforza added. The geographic patterns of some sets of genes do not match other sets of genes, showing clearly that human populations have been merging, migrating, and intermarrying from the start.
While some racist groups may believe there once were pure African or Nordic or other races, genes tell a different story, according to Alan R. Templeton, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Still, anthropologists know they have a hard sell.
``Teaching that racial categories lack biological validity can be as much of a challenge as teaching in the 17th century that the Earth goes around the sun,'' said Marks.