Race: it doesn’t exist, but it won’t go away

Race doesn’t exist

Does the human population divide into races? Andrew Sullivan thinks it might:

From skin color (which seems to have become pale for Caucasians as recently as 7,000 years ago) to lactose tolerance to variants in disease and even hearing, the genetics of race are clear.

The argument is weak, in my opinion. Obviously it’s true that skin colour and many other traits are determined genetically; therefore there is some degree of genetic difference between the “races”. But as Sullivan also comments,

Focusing on the minor differences while ignoring the huge similarities is a strange emphasis.

Exactly. The genetic similarities relate to core elements of what it means to be human:  for example, apes don’t speak but human beings — of whatever race — do.

Genetic differences, on the other hand, express themselves as relatively peripheral traits. Perhaps the most significant is a predisposition to certain diseases (breast cancer and sickle cell anemia come to mind). But even a potentially fatal disease does not touch the core of what makes us human.

One of Sullivan’s readers wrote in to remind us that all human beings came from Africa just 2,000 generations ago:

As recently as 40 years ago schoolchildren were being taught that human “races” developed independently on several continents – mongoloid, caucasoid, negroid, etc.

In fact, our DNA tells us a far more remarkable story. Roughly 2,000 generations ago, the entirety of humanity was reduced to as few as 2,000 or so individuals living in Africa. … As we migrated around the globe, we left little genetic footprints along the way that can be found in all of us – but all roads lead back to Africa just 60,000 years ago.

Race won’t go away

Why am I thinking about this topic today? The newspapers are reporting on multiple conflicts, all turning on “race”.

  • School desegregation:
    Here’s an issue that just won’t go away in the USA. Segregated schools supposedly came to an end after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. On Thursday, the Supreme Court delivered another decision on a related topic: it struck down a bureaucratic process intended to result in integrated schools. In the opinion of a dissenting judge, the decision rewrites the history of Brown v. Board of Education.1

  • Illegal immigrants:
    This issue has been preoccupying American politicians and news media for weeks. On Thursday, the Senate defeated a bill that would have amended the USA’s immigration laws. In the opinion of at least one Senator, there is an undercurrent of racism to the debate, inflaming emotions and making it difficult to achieve a rational outcome.

  • First Nations protests:
    Here’s an issue that just won’t go away in Canada. The Assembly of First Nations (which is not very happy with Stephen Harper’s government) declared Friday a National Day of Protest. The protests were peaceful, with some disruption of highways and railway lines in Eastern Ontario.

I’m reminded of a Bruce Cockburn lyric:

You thought it was over but it’s just like before
Will there never be an end to the Indian wars?

It’s ironic:  race doesn’t exist, yet it is a source of perennial social turmoil.


1Here’s an analysis of the decision from the University of Chicago Law School Faculty blog:

In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District … [the justices] held that the consideration of race by school districts in assigning students to public schools in order to promote racial diversity violates the Equal Protection Clause. …

Whereas Brown v. Board of Education had held that government could not constitutionally assign black and white students to different schools in order to segregate them, Roberts had the audacity to cite Brown for the extraordinary proposition that government cannot constitutionally assign black and white students to the same school in order to integrate them.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Jul 02, 2007 @ 22:54:57

    The problem is, no matter the roots of humanity, there were multiple millennia where the groups basically developed on their own, developing different societies and trends collectively.

    When the many groups clashed, inevitably, the results proved that there had become “races”, of a sort, even if there was a fairly unilateral development going on at one time. Take, for example, the expansion of Europe into Canada, which saw disease mix and destroy huge amounts of both populations because of lacking immunities. Something as simple as that (as well as other minor differences) has led to a divide between the two groups to this day, because the Europeans developed the mindset that their way was superior and needed to be spread to the barbaric other races.

    Of course, it’s not pivotal that there’s any difference genetically. If you have two children raised in different households with two completely different philosophies, then there can be a clash of personalities when the two are forced to play together. Meanwhile, the two children could get along royally despite having different coloured hair, different skin colours, different genders, or even something more profound such as one having a learning disability and the other not. Millennia put aside in order to ingrane certain values and trend into a society in effect distances those people from other societies more than any mere genetic differences/similarities.

    So, while race may not exist on a genetic level, it most certainly does on a practical one, and because of the fact that European (and the offshoot American) societies tends to be fairly self-centred, the world has had to suffer the consequences.


  2. Stephen
    Jul 04, 2007 @ 13:07:23

    I think you’re confusing “race” and “culture” here. Race is supposed to describe a physical difference. That’s why the question of genetics enters into it.

    You’re right, of course, these various groups are fighting over culture. But they connect the cultural disagreements to physical differences (skin colour, etc.) and assume there is more than one human race.


  3. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Jul 07, 2007 @ 13:07:42

    Sorry, I understand the concept but you’re right that I blurred the lines a bit overmuch.

    But the truth is that different “races” tend to have different cultures. Caucasian cultures in general tend to be more dominant than, say, Negroid (right word?) cultures. The conflicts result because of differing cultures, but the connection can be made to differing races too because of the fact that there are generally physical differences along with cultural ones.

    Not that a country like Canada doesn’t demonstrate the fallacy that races somehow determine the culture you live under… but nonetheless, I think that’s where the historic clash between “races” is rooted.


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