Race Exists. Why Does It Matter?

It seems to me that the notion that race is a social construct, a view that largely took hold among social scientists after I had already left college, is fated (as Trotsky memorably said of the Mensheviks) to the dustbin of history. I don’t believe that it can survive the combination of the mapping of the human genome and genetic testing. That the subject to which Robert VerBruggen turns at RealClearScience, reviewing a book titled A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History:

It’s an important book. It should demolish the idea that race is nothing whatsoever but a “social construct” and jumpstart a conversation about human history. But unfortunately, A Troublesome Inheritance does not equip readers to deal with the broader ramifications of the claims it makes: Though such concerns are arguably outside the realm of science, these theories have the potential to inflame racial prejudices, and Wade’s attempts to address this fact leave much to be desired.

I certainly hope it doesn’t “jumpstart a conversation”. “Conversation” has become an auto-antonym, a word that means both one thing and its opposite like “inflammable”. The dictionary definition of “conversation” is an informal exchange of ideas using speech. It now also means a sermon issued by one person or group to another, very much the opposite of the dictionary definition.

What I hope it jumpstarts is reflection.

Investigations into racial differences have a bad pedigree. They’re frequently used as cudgels to beat some despised group or other with. For example, Mr. VerBruggen repeats one of them:

Wade also digs into Jewish history, relaying theories that the religion’s emphasis on literacy — a skill with little practical value in a farming society — may have driven the less intelligent to join Christianity instead, and that European Jews’ being highly concentrated in intellectually demanding professions like moneylending may have further contributed to increased IQ.

I’m skeptical of that. IMO a more productive investigation might be comparing urbanized Jews with rural Jews or middle class Jews with lower class Jews. My suspicion is that the cultural and social factors overwhelm the genetic ones.

I think that’s the case with cross-racial comparisons of intelligence, too: the variations within races are much more significant than those between races. A prudent society would promote its citizens making the best use of their gifts, regardless of gender (in the case, for example, of the Middle East) or race. That race and gender continue to matter suggests that we continue to have a long way to go.

23 comments… add one

  • ...

    That race and gender continue to matter suggests that race and gender continue to represent something fundamental.

  • My lack of sensitivity is reflected in the fact that my immediate reaction on first hearing the initials LGBTQ was “M-O-U-S-E”.

  • Modulo Myself

    Race is a social construct, though. The idea that all racist thought flows from honestly noting the different skin colors of people and then forming stereotypes is just not the way it is. Race, in America, was/is about having whites having power over blacks. This includes creating an identity for black people and expecting that blacks live in it.

    The pretense that it was a tribal conflict between separate people is something you hear from a lot of white people, but rarely blacks.

  • No. Race is a physical phenomenon. “Whiteness” is an American social construct. A century and a half ago the Irish weren’t considered white. Now they are. A century ago Jews and Italians weren’t considered white. Now they are. I think that conflating race with “whiteness” is a political strategy with a sell-by date. In ten or twenty-five or fifty years many of today’s non-whites will be thought of as white. That won’t change their race any more than thinking of the Irish as white changes them into Englishmen.

    As I’ve mentioned on occasion in the past, I’ve never thought of Hispanics or South Asian Indians or East Asians as anything but “white”. Peculiarity of my upbringing.

    Just how this works out can be seen in how “racial preferences” work to promote sub-Saharan Africans or Caribbean blacks instead of the black descendants of American slaves. Sub-Saharan Africans are genetically “blacker” than most American blacks but are perceived as “whiter”.

  • Zachriel

    Dave Schuler: Race is a physical phenomenon.

    Racial classification, which groups Khoisan with Bantus, or even with South Asians, is inherently confused.

    Dave Schuler: In ten or twenty-five or fifty years many of today’s non-whites will be thought of us white.

    That’s what it means to be a social construct. There are genetic groupings, but the social groupings are contrived.

  • Modulo Myself

    There are scientific differences that are called racial, yes. We could just as easily call these subgroups, though.

    As far as genetics goes, we have no idea what makes a person a person genetically. You really can’t talk about personal qualities, such as non-violence, or trustworthiness, or intelligence, without first finding the genotypes that would cause this. And yet this has not happened. And it doesn’t even seem close to happening.

    To me, people like VerBruggen and Wade are desperately trying to make genetic differences conform to the older Western impression of race–the races as separate entities, each with a separate destiny. I.e., the Oriental Race is crafty and subtle, the White Race is hard-working and trustworthy, and the Black Race is all booga-booga-booga.

    I think, if they could, they would go all in with the Bell Curve race stuff, but they have to be careful, because it’s not 1994, and Murray’s cross-burning racism does not go over well.

  • Tim

    The problem is that it isn’t absolutes; there may be a gene which occurs in greater preponderance in one group than another, but it’s hard to say “yes, that makes you Irish,” when you’re talking about, maybe, 70% vs. 40%. In other words, intra-group differences will tend to be greater than inter-group differences. It’s a very long walk to get from those to things that actually matter, however: Say, ability to be good at sports, or be a good doctor.

    Assigning attributes to people based on their region of origin IS a social construct, and that’s what’s commonly referred to as ‘race.’

    That also explains why racial groups can vary so widely in size and meaning: Scots and Irish might be considered different races, yet somehow people from thousands apart are all called ‘Slavs.’

  • ...

    The discussion above highlights why it is impossible to have a realist strain of foreign policy thought, in the line of Kennan, in modern America. Such people must be burned at the stake.

  • ...

    Yes, we couldn’t possibly group Scots and Irish together into a larger group. And all Slavs are thought to be exactly the same. Which is why Poles and Russians speak the same language.

  • PD Shaw

    Comparing a few statements:

    Race is a social construct (IMHO not true)
    Race is a biological construct (IMHO true)
    Race is a biological construct, upon which social constructs may be attached. (IMHO true)

  • Zachriel
  • Which is why Poles and Russians speak the same language.

    My all-time favorite wisecrack about the Slavic languages is that the speakers of the Slavic languages just pretend not to understand one another.

    PD:

    Yes, that’s it.

  • ...

    PD nailed it at 3:16 PM.

    People from an earlier era would be amused that the idea of race is solely about color, though, as some of the commenters above imply. It was a helluva lot more nuanced than that just a few short decades ago.

  • michael reynolds

    It’s still bullshit. You have a population of homo sapiens which is sufficiently identical that they can cross-breed without biological penalty. They have in fact cross-bred. So in addition to “races” you have people who belong to two races. Right?

    Now, which race do the mongrels belong to? How do you decide? What percentage of difference in DNA is required for you to say X is a caucasian and Y is an asian? Where is that formula?

    What if X and Y are both interracial and then breed? You have children who are potentially a mix of caucasian, negroid, asian and Australian aboriginal. If X and Y have multiple children the DNA percentages could conclude that children a, b, c and d are respectively white, black, asian and aboriginal. Their children in turn could reverse direction and be classified as belonging to a race to which neither parent belonged, depending on how you’re working out your DNA algorithm.

    Of what value are those classifications, then? Of no value.

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson is black, I’m a white Jew. Odds are I’m the guy you should get all your scientific information from. Right? Race is a useless concept infinitely more likely to cause mischief than to enlighten.

  • Race is a useless concept infinitely more likely to cause mischief than to enlighten.

    Minus the agonistic expression that’s not a bad way of expressing what I thought I’d said in the post itself. I don’t think that race is useless or arbitrary. I also don’t think it’s particularly useful in looking at individuals.

  • PD Shaw

    @michael, race and ethnicity are useful in diagnosing difficult to identify disease and mental health problems. Its interesting that many of the same people who find it unacceptable for a biological researcher to not believe in evolution, selection, etc., believe they should ignore the observable impact race/ethnicity can have have.

  • Modulo Myself

    People from an earlier era would be amused that the idea of race is solely about color, though, as some of the commenters above imply. It was a helluva lot more nuanced than that just a few short decades ago.

    My grandmother, a nice Southern lady, told me once that blacks and whites were like two different species of birds who needed to be apart.

    Yes, so it wasn’t about color of skin, it was about how blacks and whites are of different essences or species or whatever. I’m sure that there were more enlightened individuals out there who read Darwin, drew the conclusions about common descent and shuddered and became eugenicists, but the sentiments were the same.

    And this is the biology on which social constructs of race are based, by the way. So calling the past’s ideas about race nuanced is like calling creationists nuanced.

  • Maybe some terminology might be useful. “Races” of a species are, by definition, able to interbreed, at least theoretically. For example, Great Danes and chihuahuas are different races of dog. In dogs we call them “breeds”. There are, er, mechanical problems in interbreeding Great Danes and chihuahuas but otherwise they can interbreed.

    There are genetic populations known as “haplogroups” that only occur among people of sub-Saharan African descent, there are haplogroups that only occur among people of European descent, and there are haplogroups that only occur among people of East Asian descent. It’s not particularly mysterious. If your genes belong to one of those groups, you belong to that population.

    My paternal haplogroup is R1b1b2, like most Europeans. My paternal haplotype is R1b1b2a1a2d3*, pretty common in Switzerland which is what one would expect. Note the first six characters of my paternal haplotype—that’s the haplogroup from which my haplotype descended over a period of thousands of years.

    Making this stuff tabu or dismissing it as unworthy of study or meaningless is probably not the most productive course of action. However, as I mentioned in the post, racial and ethnic classification has a bad pedigree which explains why it’s such a sensitive and emotional subject.

  • PD Shaw

    Were neanderthals a separate species or a subspecies of homo sapiens? Taxonomy disputes abound in biology, lines can be fuzzy.

  • Zachriel

    Dave Schuler: “Races” of a species are, by definition, able to interbreed, at least theoretically.

    Subspecies can interbreed, but usually don’t for one reason or another, often geographical separation. Humans have always interbred with neighboring populations, consequently, there has been substantial gene flow across the human population. For instance, Europeans have genes from Siberia and North Africa, even some from Neanderthals. In more recent times, Vikings and Mongols have spread their genes all over Eurasia. Humans have been migratory and invasive since they left Africa.

    In any case, biologists only recognize one extant subspecies of human, Homo sapiens sapiens.

  • Were neanderthals a separate species or a subspecies of homo sapiens?

    It’s a hot debate, PD. That neanderthal was a different species appears to be winning. I suspect that taxonomic disputes are something that will become a thing of the past as we do more genomic mapping and genetic testing and a rigorous definition of species is adopted.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    I have no problem with researching the topic. I never object to knowing more. And some diseases are more common in some populations. But that’s about the sum total of the valuable information we get from race.

    If everyone’s mind worked like Dave’s there wouldn’t be a problem, but almost no one’s mind works like Dave’s. The average person thinks if some ill-defined race has a 5 point lower average IQ score than some member of a different ill-defined race, well, we’d better hire from race B.

    It’s useful to consider the list of things which this or that race has been seen as either prone to or incapable of. Blacks used to be seen as cowardly and submissive. Then they were seen as aggressive and violent. Asians were seen as servile and sly, then they were seen as brutal automata, then they were seen as talented and intelligent. In reality no racial characteristic has stood up to scrutiny across time and circumstances. So, as a practical matter the concept of race is still bullshit. My asian daughter cannot play violin, my shiksa wife is not cold and unemotional, my 1/4 Jewish son can’t handle money, and my 1/2 Jewish self is not the guy to call if you want to work on subatomic particles.

  • Asians were seen as servile and sly, then they were seen as brutal automata, then they were seen as talented and intelligent.

    The portrayal of Asians, particularly the Japanese, in old movies is really interesting. See, for example, The Cheat.

Leave a Comment