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RACE: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT

No sound-minded human being would ever say with a straight face, that human classification based on color [race], is inherently necessary...

Sunday, June 4, 2017

RACE: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT

No sound-minded human being would ever say with a straight face, that human classification based on color [race], is inherently necessary. "Human racial classification," writes Richard Lewontin in 1972,  "is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations." I totally agree with that. However, color-based human classification has become a social reality no one can ignore.  Race impacts our contemporary sociopolitical way of life even when many imminent scholars try to argue race into oblivion. While Europeans, in a self-serving manner, started this color-based nomenclature, which has engendered the now infamous RACE compartmentalism, it's prudent to note that race has assumed a life of its own. The life, which RACE has assumed, cannot be wished away. It has to be contextualized in a manner that doesn't reek of intellectual and social paternalism.

But one of the most interesting facts about RACE is the debate among RACE scholars regarding what it means and what its instrumentalization has done in history. While there is a general consensus among race scholars that race has been used to mete out unspeakable human horrors on select group of people and that race is a social construct, there is no consensus regarding what it actually means.  Race, writes Sapp, is an "ill-defined word" that "has been given different meanings by different people.. "  "Ask 10 people to define race or name "the races," and you're likely to get 10 different answer," argued Larry Adelman, the executive producer of a PBS series on race.

What I've come to realize, however, is that race is dismissed in the mainstream scholarship because of its historical and contemporary effects rather than what it actually means. There's this fear that if one accept that races exist then one is validating the horrors that have been committed in the name of race. But as someone who continues to be affected by race, it find it annoyingly fascinating that good-will is being used to replace good-arguments and realities.



The work of Richard Lewontin, The Apportionment of Human Diversity, in 1972, played a great deal in convincing many scholars that 'race has no genetic basis' because there are deep genetic variations within same 'races.' This has also been explored by a PBS Series: Race: The Power of an Illusion: "...genetic matches are as likely to be with people from other "races" as their own."

"Genetics offered no support for those wishing to place precise racial boundaries around groups," writes Sapp. That's true; but it's unhelpful in race discourse as it misses the whole point of race classification basis. Socially constructed entities are neither formulaic nor are they clear cut.

And in 2000, after completing the first draft of the human genome, the Institute of Genetic Research and the National Institutes of Health, said that the concept of race has no genetic basis.

These genetic studies, while they have a role in debunking the superiority claim like Herrnstein's and Murray's The Bell Curve, they misunderstand the classificatory basis of race and misuse science in dealing with race. And this is why race has become a problem in many scholarly discourses.

"There is no inherently biological reason that most starting running backs in the NFL are black or most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are white," writes Dr. Augustine Fuentes.

While it's true that there's nothing biological about most CEOs of the Fortune 500 being of European decent , I really doubt that the dominance of African American in NFL or NBA has no trace of biological reality. So one is supposed to accept that the dominance of African American in NFL and NBA is either a coincidence or a function of socioeconomic realities; that there is absolutely no biological basis to their physical strength.

While all 'races' have the opportunity to be pro-athletes, not all 'races' have the opportunity and connections to make it to the top of the corporate pyramid. NBA and NFL are somehow level-playing field because people are selected based on abilities. However, in the corporate world, familiarity and favoritism play a greater role than mere ability. You can make a slightly incompetence John into a good CEO with some tutelage but you cannot make a weak and slow James into a good running back.

While Fuentes is good-intentioned, his argument is flawed and  his comparison of NFL and CEOs ill-advised. But remember, that I'm not saying that this supports the biological basis of race, yet. I'm just cautioning about wishing realities away in the name of 'care.'

But what exactly is meant by race isn't 'scientific' or that it has no 'scientific' basis? It's common sense that 'race' is a simple classification of human beings into roughly physically identifiable human groups based on physical traits. A Han Chinese looks physically different from a Jieeng of South Sudan.  Race is not, obviously,  a natural classification that exists in nature. It's a European coinage.

"There is no genetic sequence unique to blacks or whites or Asians. In fact, these categories don’t reflect biological groupings at all. There is more genetic variation in the diverse populations from the continent of Africa (who some would lump into a “black” category) than exists in ALL populations from outside of Africa (the rest of the world) combined!" Fuentes writes.

This is true. But does that disprove the argument for the biological basis of race? No really.  This is rather an argument against the 19th and 20th century race essentialists, who believed in the natural mental superiority of the Europeans. One needs to go beyond physical appearance, the basis of racial classification, to prove superior intelligence of the Europeans. Physical differences says nothing about people's mental capacities and that's where the argument about going to the genetic level appeals.

However, mere classification of people doesn't require any reductionist biological research at a genetic level. One doesn't need to analyze the genetic sequences of a Han and a Jieeng man to determine whether or not to classify them into the same race or into two difference races. Race is simply a classification based in physical traits and it's unequivocally a social construct.

But the question that remains is, what's the basis of such a classification. Is it biological and natural? The mainstream argument is 'NO'; it is not as Fuentes, Sapp and Lewontin say. The question then becomes: are the physical differences between a Jieeng man and a Han man artificial? Are their physical differences natural? This question would be seen as inconsequential or inconveniencing.

But we still come to the conclusion that physical differences are not constructs. Small eyes, dark skin, broad nose, blue eyes, long hair...are not social constructs. They are natural and they are the basis of racial classification. Basing racial classification in genomic analysis is to misunderstand what race is. It's rather to embark on what one wants race to be rather than what it is.

"It is high time," says Jan Sapp,  "that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population." But who exactly says that race has a direct a genetic basis in terms of 'apportionment', as Lewontin would put it? Genetic basis of race isn't directly relevant because classification was/is based on appearances not genes. Genes are indirectly relevant as physical traits are genetically transmitted.

Admittedly, there's a great confusion between what race was later used for, which is a complete falsehood, and the original basis of racial classification, which was merely physical appearances. What's really mythical about my physical appearances? The most difficult thing for geneticists to deal with though is that physical appearances, the basis of racial classification, aren't completely divorced from genes.

"Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept," writes Jan Sapp.

Indeed, no sound-minded person would argue that races are naturally occurring. They are aren't. However, there's neither an illusion nor is there anything mythical about the appearances of Jieeng and Hans, the basis under which they were placed into difference races. Note very carefully though, that their placement into races was artificially constructed. There was no Negroid, Caucasoid races when humanity emerged or when humans 'dispersed from Africa.' While the placement and the motivation for racial classification is artificial and unnecessary, the basis of such classifications isn't. Unless someone says that a Han Chinese woman and an Igbo woman, have artificial, illusory or mythical physical differences.

While classification of human beings based on skin pigmentation and physical appearance is unnecessary, it's fallacious and condescending to argue that race is a myth or an illusion. Unless we mythologize physical appearances.


Note: References as included in the article as hyperlinks. The next article will be on racism.

Twitter @kuirthiy

*Author of Is 'Black' Really Beautiful?