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Race Is Not A Social Construct By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 18, 2002


 

The dumbest idea of the twentieth century was Martin Heidegger’s statement, made in defense of the Nazis, that the United States and the Soviet Union were metaphysically identical.  This wasn’t even original, being a transcription into Heidegger’s convoluted system of Nietzsche’s statement that communism is just capitalism for the masses. But the second dumbest idea has to be that race is just a social construct.  As I have written before, social constructivism is one of the Left’s favorite current ideas. Its application to race resurfaces from time to time, most recently in an article by Joseph L. Graves, Jr. in an issue of American Outlook, magazine of the nominally conservative Hudson Institute, whose cover theme is “the illusion of race.”  Dr. Graves, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, is also the author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millenium, which has a similar message. This idea needs to be refuted before it goes any further.  Lest you imagine that only obscure intellectuals believe this, Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) has publicly signed on to this belief.  It has also been expressed in such books as Ashley Montagu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Audrey Smedley’s Race in North America, and Glenn Lowry’s The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

Before we wade into Graves’s theories, let’s just briefly snip the metaphysical knot he’s got his mind tied into that makes him take this bizarre view.  Human classifications of race are indeed social constructs.  This is why, for example, in America everyone with detectable black blood is considered black, while in South Africa people of mixed blood are classified as “colored” and were treated differently than pure blacks under apartheid.  Fine. But this doesn’t mean that the racial differences themselves, as opposed to the language used to talk about them, are social constructs. That’s pretty much it.  The other metaphysical knot Graves is tied up by is the idea that if two sorts of things are different, there must exist qualities that every X has and that only X’s have. That is to say, there are no gray areas.  But of course you can have different types of things that have gray areas between them.  For example, there are cars, and there are pickup trucks, and there are also some odd hybrids.  But this doesn’t mean that there is no basis for distinguishing between cars and pickup trucks.  This is true even though you can’t give me a precise formula for either.  The third confusion about race is that since races form a spectrum, rather than categories, there is no basis for dividing them into groups.  But this is like saying that since colors form a spectrum, we can’t distinguish green and red.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at Graves’s self-described motivation for his research. He writes that,

“Racist ideology has always relied on the mistaken assumption that significant biologically based differences exist between various groups of humans. In particular, racist ideology has always assumed that social inequality resulted from the biological inequality of races. Thus they saw racial differences as determining an individual’s morality, character, intelligence, athleticism, and sexuality, among other features. They also thought that these features were immutable and passed directly on to offspring. Seen in this way, society would never change, and injustice could never be eliminated from it... According to this thinking, the European stood at the pinnacle of human perfection, and all other races were to be measured against him. For this reason, they thought it legitimate to declare the African slave as chattel and to deprive the American Indians of their sovereignty.”

In other words, he’s against racism, and he thinks that if people believe in the existence of race at all, they will inevitably be racists.  Now his objective is honorable in a way, in that he’s trying to get rid of racism, but his method is based on an obvious empirical falsehood: the idea that everyone in the world who believes in the existence of race is a racist.   This isn’t an empirical truth, let alone a logical necessity.  Martin Luther King believed in races. Was he a racist?  One can believe in races and believe in equality between them. Or not, in which case you are a racist. But these are two independent issues.  You can even be a racist without believing in race as a biological fact.  A racist can hate those who are apparently racially different, even if he admits there is no biological basis for his hatred. People hate people who are different in ways they know are socially constructed, like religion, all the time. So “proving” that race is a social construct won’t stop racism.  It’s as false, and as silly, as trying to combat anti-Semitism by proving that Jews don’t exist. So Graves’s crusade, in the name of which he waxes convoluted about various biological phenomena, is pointless to begin with.  There’s no point even defending his theories as a salutary myth to end bigotry.  So now we can start unraveling what he actually says with a clear head and a clear conscience.

Let’s trace Graves’s illogic step by step.  He writes, 

“Skin color, hair type, body stature, blood groups, disease prevalence: none of these unambiguously corresponds to the “racial” groups that we have socially constructed... These physical traits do vary among geographical populations, although not in the ways most people believe. For example, Sri Lankans of the Indian subcontinent, Nigerians, and Australoids share a dark skin tone, but differ in hair type and genetic predisposition to various diseases.”

Basically, what he has said is that physical traits of people do vary geographically, but not according to the crude traditional racial classification of “black, white, red, brown, yellow.”  One can find “black” people anywhere from Senegal to Australia, but upon examination of other characteristics than mere skin tone, they turn out not to be members of the same group.  Fine. So traditional racial categorizations are wrong.  But this doesn’t mean that there doesn’t exist a more sophisticated categorization of races that takes in the complexity of the real situation.

Next comes the scientific core of Graves’s argument.  He says,

“Modern biology defines geographical races as equivalent to subspecies. Subspecies are units that are intermediate to legitimate species. .. No such level of genetic variation exists within anatomically modern humans. There is more genetic variation within one tribe of wild chimpanzees than has been observed within all existing humans!”

Fine; let’s concede this is true.  But all this proves is that races are not subspecies. Obviously, they are a less profound, but still real, form of physical difference.  The fact that modern biology “defines” races as equivalent to subspecies is just arbitrary dogma, not science.  There is no experimental observation that proves that races are equivalent to subspecies, nor could there by, as definitions are not empirical facts.  One can define words to mean whatever one wants, subject to the constraint of actual usage.  This is a deliberate attempt to sweep race under the rug by waving a dictionary. 

Next, Graves goes into a long and complex discussion of human genetics.  His point is that the degree of genetic difference between different races (which don’t exist, of course, but he can still compare them somehow) is very small.  Of all the genes in the human genome, only a miniscule percentage differ between races. This is true, but he neglects the well-established fact that even the tiniest genetic differences can have significant consequences for the organism.  Fatal genetic diseases can be caused by a single gene. The size of a difference is not the same as its significance.  The next step in Graves’s genetic argument is that there can’t be races because genetic variation between races (again, which don’t exist) is far less than genetic variation within races. That is to say, the average genetic difference between one African and another African is far more than the genetic difference between Africans as a group and Europeans as a group. True again, but it doesn’t prove a thing.  The genetic differences among accountants are far larger than the genetic difference (presumably zero) between accountants and architects, but this doesn’t mean that one can’t meaningfully categorize people into accountants and architects.  It just means there are a lot of other categorizations – according to other characteristics – that would also be valid.   All Graves has proved is that race is a fairly small difference between people as biological differences go.  No dispute here, so long as we remember that small doesn’t have to mean insignificant.  And the significance of race, as opposed to its mere existence, is an entirely separate issue.

Graves goes on with a few other observations that confirm his view that race is a relatively superficial kind of human difference.  He quantifies degrees of genetic difference and shows evidence that human races have evolved separately only to a very small degree. Again, fine. Then he drops a huge chunk of sophistry on his readers:

“In February of 2001, Celera Genomics CEO Craig Venter commented that it was not possible to distinguish at the genome level between people who were ethnically African-American, Chinese, Hispanic, and white.”

Fine, but all this means is that our technology is limited.  If there were really no race-based genetic differences between these groups, then why do African-American parents produce black babies?  Why do Chinese parents produce Asian babies?  If the genome is responsible for heredity, race must be in the genome. 

 Finally, we come to the core error that Graves makes.  He writes that,

“our social construction of race was contingent upon the assumption that significant biological variation between groups”

In other words, traditional racial classifications were based on the idea that race is a profound characteristic and we know now that it is a superficial one; therefore they are wrong.  But we’ve already conceded that.  We know that traditional racial classifications are wrong because they categorize black Africans and black Australian Aborigines as both “black” and therefore similar, when in fact they’re quite different.  We also know they are wrong because race is superficial, not profound.  But this just means that we’ve got to classify the races according to a more sophisticated scheme than the old black-white-red-brown-yellow scheme, and must bear in mind that racial differences, though real, are actually quite small, biologically speaking.  But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

On some level, Graves knows he’s flying in the face of common sense, because he tries to provide an alternative explanation of what we’re really talking about when we think we’re talking about race. He writes that,  

“In reality, the differences between groups we have been describing as resulting from biological race are really the result of cultural evolution.”

Now, I can see how this is true in the case of silly stereotypes like blacks eat watermelon.  But is their skin tone a result of cultural evolution?  If not, then it’s a real physical and genetic fact. 

Finally, Graves lets the cat out of the bag and owns up to his ideological agenda, writing that,

“To begin the deconstruction of racism, we must ask ourselves what role racist ideology plays in modern society.”

Now I presume none of us have a problem with getting rid of racism, so it’s hard to be too hard on him, but the key word here is “deconstruct.”  As I have written before, this word is a flag that should warn the reader that Graves is a believer (at least in part) in deconstructionism, a trendy left-leaning philosophy that holds that everything is a social construct.  His objective may be admirable, but the method he’s using is pure sophistry.  He concludes with a list of the reasons racism is bad that I find perfectly OK. 

I don’t believe race is just a social construct; I believe it exists by nature.  But I’d like to point out that even if it were just a social construct, it wouldn’t follow that it doesn’t exist, let alone that it doesn’t matter. To prove this, let’s look at class, which clearly is a social construct, since it is constructed by society through the distribution of income and wealth. Now classes definitely exist, and one can make reasonable generalizations about working-class Americans or upper-class Americans or whomever.  This is true despite the difficulties attendant to deciding exactly where to draw the lines between the classes, how many classes to recognize, et cetera.  So even if Graves were right, which he isn’t, he’d still be wrong.

In conclusion, something needs to be said about the authority of science in ideological questions.  Graves would very much like us to believe that science has simply “shown” certain things, and that we should defer to him because he understands mitachondrial DNA and we don’t.  But as I believe I have demonstrated, all of his strictly scientific claims can be totally true without his conclusion, that races do not exist, following logically from them.  There is a big difference between scientific facts and the interpretation of those facts. I think it is worthwhile to note for all time that scientists cannot be trusted when they have ideological motivations to claim one thing versus another.  They can only be trusted on ideologically neutral scientific questions, and we should not be intimidated by them when they talk about other things. All Graves has proved is that the old social Darwinist or Nazi theories of race as a biologically profound difference among humans are wrong.  But (almost) nobody today believes in them, anyway.

So is the denial that race exists a harmless, if comical, sophistry, the sort of thing that confirms Orwell’s observation that some ideas are so ridiculous that only intellectuals can believe in them?  Unfortunately not.  As mentioned above, denial of the reality of race is a variety of social constructionism.  And the key danger of social constructionism is that if reality is a social construct, this implies that one can change reality by changing the way people construct it. Since, according to social constructionism, society constructs reality by the way people think and talk about reality, this means one can change reality by forcing people to think and talk differently.  And this implies that brainwashing and speech codes are a desirable tool for enforcing favored social outcomes. After all, people are being coerced by society to construct reality in a certain way already, so we’re not imposing any more coercion than was there already!  It is no accident that the Left is so keen on these things; they subscribe to a systematic ideology that holds that these things can reshape reality to their liking.  If race is an illusion, it follows that it is legitimate to brainwash schoolchildren into believing this, and to punish them when they believe otherwise.  It follows that we can require adults to speak in certain ways. It follows that anyone who disagrees is not just exercising their right to a political opinion, they are wrong about a scientifically demonstrable fact and should be silenced. So denying the reality of race is very sinister indeed.

Note: Readers write to me all the time asking how to win the argument when someone says X. If someone tells you race doesn’t exist, ask them if Martin Luther King spent his whole life hallucinating. And you can have all sorts of fun with people who deny the existence of race but still believe in affirmative action.

Note #2:  Following is my interesting e-mail conversation with Dr. Graves:

Dear Dr. Graves:

I have just written a refutation of your article in American Outlook that claims that race is an illusion, which will shortly appear in FrontPageMag.com .  As a courtesy and in interest of a reply, I am sending you a copy, attached.

Regards,

Robert Locke

Columnist, frontpagemag.com

 

 

Dear Mr. Locke,

Your so-called reply demonstrates that you don't understand much about population genetics. You misrepresent my arguments throughout your reply mostly stemming from your weak grasp of the genetics. For example, you describe at one point how even "small differences" can have large impacts on the phenotype, such as in the case of complex disease. First, you should be aware that I am one of the geneticists who pioneered our understanding of this genetic phenomenon called "pleiotropy " particularly as it relates to complex traits.

This is still irrelevant to the question of whether racial groups can be identified in the human species, even using physical features. Studies that have attempted to use anthropometric features to group populations into races, return racial groups that don't match the evolutionary history of our species, or the genetic diversity within our species.

What you are confusing in your reply is the existence of genetic variation, with the ability to apportion that variation into non-arbitrary groups. If we were to apportion humans on the basis of our genetic variability, we would identify several sub-Saharan African races, and one other (all people living outside of Africa.) Neither do anatomically modern humans match the criteria of unique genetic lineages, or have enough genetic distance between groups to justify the use of the concept. Clearly this taxonomy doesn't match the socially constructed categories at use in Western society.

Mr. Locke, the science of human genetic variation is very clear, and has declared that a.m.h.s don't have geographical races. Obviously the political agenda of those wishing to maintain the 19th century conceptions of race aren't clear. Martin Luther King was murdered because he was assigned membership into the socially constructed category of Negro in the United States and because he had courage to resist the injustice associated with membership in that category.

Sincerely,

Professor Joseph L. Graves, Jr.

Fellow, American Association of Science

Professor of Evolutionary Biology

[Arizona State University]

 

Dear Dr. Graves,

See my responses below:

What you are confusing in your reply is the existence of genetic variation, with the ability to apportion that variation into non-arbitrary groups.

I agree with you that one cannot apportion humans into subspecies, and I agree with that races do not correspond to groups segmented on the basis of overall genetic variability.  But this does not mean that one cannot classify humans according to skin color just as much as one can classify them according to hair or eye color.  And such classification is not arbitrary, because if someone has blue eyes as a matter of physical fact, then that's the category they belong in and we have no choice in the matter.

If we were to apportion humans on the basis of our genetic variability, we would identify several sub-Saharan African races, and one other (all people living outside of Africa.)

Fine.  But as I said, classification according to race isn't the same as classification by genetic variability.

Neither do anatomically modern humans match the criteria of unique genetic lineages, or have enough genetic distance between groups to justify the use of the concept.

Fine. All this means is that races don't have unique genetic lineages. As for not having "enough" genetic difference, I'm glad to see you concede that there is some genetic difference, and I'd like to know who decides how much is enough and on what grounds.

Clearly this taxonomy doesn't match the socially constructed categories at use in Western society.

Fine. I've admitted that race doesn't correspond to other biological facts, like genetic lineage et cetera. But this doesn't mean that it doesn't correspond to other biological facts, like skin color. I'm also willing to admit that the conventional racial classification of black-white-red-brown-yellow is hopelessly crude.  But this doesn't mean there doesn't exist a valid scheme of racial classification.

Mr. Locke, the science of human genetic variation is very clear, and has declared that a.m.h.s don't have geographical races.

Only if, as you write in your article, one identifies race with subspecies. But just because race isn’t identical with subspecies doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, as a less profound variety of group difference.

Obviously the political agenda of those wishing to maintain the 19th century conceptions of race aren't clear.

Clearly, you want to get rid of the concept of race because you think it is identical with the concept of racism.  This is not so.  It’s like claiming that anyone who believes Jews exist is an anti-Semite. Also, I’m not interested in maintaining 19th-century conceptions of race; all I’m saying is that different races exist.

Martin Luther King was murdered because he was assigned membership into the socially constructed category of Negro in the United States and because he had courage to resist the injustice associated with membership in that category.

If MLK's membership in the category of Negro was socially constructed, this implies that it would have been possible for society to have constructed him as something else, if it had wanted to.  (To take an example that is socially constructed, let's say he was working class.  Then society could have constructed him as upper class if it had given him more money.)  But there's no way MLK could have been constructed as white.  If you find someone who knows how to construct you as white, let me know.  The magician David Copperfield would be very interested in this.

Regards,

Robert Locke

Columnist, FrontPageMag.com

 

 

Mr. Locke,  

Everything you say in your replies makes my point. Having the blue eye phenotype is not arbitrary, having melanic skin is not arbitrary, having wooly hair is not arbitrary, having O blood type in not arbitrary, what is arbitrary is attempting to use these physical markers to describe an individual's membership into a biological group.

You are right that it is arbitrary to lump people into groups based on any given characteristic in the sense that one’s choice of characteristic, be it eye color, shoe size, IQ, or voting preference, is arbitrary.  But once one has picked a characteristic, it is not arbitrary who belongs in the group.  Because of this, one may legitimately refer to blue-eyed people, big-footed people, high-IQ people, or Republicans as groups. Furthermore, one may make true and meaningful generalizations about these groups.  I don’t see why skin color is any different.

The amount of genetic variation within groups make that impossible,

That’s like saying that one can’t have a category of big-footed people because they will differ in respect of their other attributes, like hair color.

 and the fact that the genetic variation is continuous means that any attempt to define where the supposed biological groups begin or end is arbitrary.

That’s like saying that because the color spectrum is continuous, one can’t have a category of red things versus blue things.

[Martin Luther King's] membership in the Negro socially defined race was conditioned by the particular history of the USA. Yes, because his phenotype was such that his African ancestry was apparent, he would have been described my most who saw him as a Negro. However, Harriet Hemmings (most probably the daughter of Thomas Jefferson) was 7/8 European in genetic ancestry, but defined by Virginia law as a Negro and a slave. Underscoring the arbitrary character of socially defined race in America.

I have already admitted that conventional classifications of the races are crude and inaccurate, so you are quite right that they entail certain absurdities.  But past errors in classifying the different varieties of a thing do not prove that there are no varieties of that thing to be classified. It is like saying that because we used to call whales fish, there is no distinction between fish and marine mammals. The very fact that you can make a rational criticism of Sally’s racial classification implies that there exists a correct racial classification (7/8 white) that you can compare the false one (black) to.  The fact that you use this classification to argue with me implies that you admit its validity, so I feel you have admitted my case and our argument is done.  Thank you very much.

She was not alone, as in there is more skin color variation in people defined as African American than in Euro-Americans, as there is more skin color variation in Sub-Saharan Africans than in Europeans.

The fact that there are different shades of red and blue doesn’t mean that red and blue don’t exist.

 

Sincerely,

Professor Joseph L. Graves, Jr.

Fellow, American Association of Science

Professor of Evolutionary Biology

[Arizona State University]

 

Sincerely,

Robert Locke

Columnist, FrontPageMag.com

 

 

Mr. Locke,

I can see we are not going to agree on this.  Red and blue are defined, and even this definition is arbitrary.

The definition of the words "red" and "blue" are arbitrary.  The distinction between red and blue themselves is not arbitrary, because the difference between them exists whether we recognize it or not.  You are falling into the classic social-constructionist trap of confusing the arbitrariness of how view facts with the arbitrariness of the facts themselves. 

The problem is when do we say we are looking at red and blue. At the end points (those we defined) it is relatively clear,

So you concede that some people are black and some are white, for example?  Thank you.

but in between the end points is where the difficulty lies.

But not that much difficulty: let's just call someone half-black and half-white, i.e. a mulatto.

Now, since there are biological definitions of the meaning of race,

You've never explained why race = subspecies.

[humans] don't fit those requirements,

Humans don't have subspecies, but races are not subspecies.

and furthermore, individuals can not always be readily assigned to any of the previously existing categories (e.g. Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid.)

As I've said umpteen times, traditional racial categories are clearly very crude and must be replaced.

This invalidates the use of these categories for use in solving any sort of biological problem.

I agree it invalidates the use of the traditional racial categories, but not racial categories as such.

Better is simply to recognize that most genetic variation in humans exists at the level of individuals.

All this proves is that race is a superficial characteristic compared to other things. 

So that any individual may have a particular drug-metabolizing genotype, and deal with that, rather than assuming some other un-linked genetic marker, such as skin type will tell you with certainty, the genotype at the drug metabolism locus.

All this proves is that one shouldn't form racial stereotypes that are unwarranted by the empirical data. Your individual points tend to be true, but they don't prove that races don't exist.

 

Dear Mr. Locke,

The accepted use of the term race in biology is equivalent to subspecies.

Clearly, this is wrong, as races don't correspond to subspecies, as you have said.  I deny that biologists have the right to define race as subspecies; this is not a scientific fact but a dogma about the meaning of words.  There is nothing you can see in a test tube or a microscope that proves that race equals subspecies.

Now if one wishes to come up with a new set of criteria, then we would need to know what they are, for example, all people with height greater than six feet.  If we accept this as a criterion, then we can also use others, such as people with blue eyes, people with melanic skin, people with O blood type, etc.  Thus we could by your logic define several thousand human races based on a particular phenotypic trait, and any individual would belong to any number of them.

True, but all these schemes of classification would not be of equal interest.  Race is no more important BIOLOGICALLY than any number of other things, but we pay attention to it because it is important SOCIALLY.  I'm happy to concede that the importance of race is a social construct, but this doesn't mean that race itself is one.

If this is your method, then why use the term race?

For the same reason I use all words: so that people will know what I'm talking about.

Why not just say that individuals have different physical features and that some people share some of these features in common with others?

That's true too, but it takes longer to say and is more confusing.

None of these by the way, match the socially constructed terms by themselves, or in combinations.

As I said, the conventional CLASSIFICATION of races, which I have admitted several times is socially constructed, is erroneous and needs to be reformed. But errors in the classification system don't mean there aren't different classes of thing.  And just because the classification is social constructed doesn't mean that the thing classified is.

Also for anyone of these arbitrary criteria, we would probably recover about the same amount of genetic variability within that group, as we find in the socially constructed categories.  Once again invalidating to use of this concept.

No. As I argued before, diversity in hair color doesn't mean we can't classify people by skin color.  All this means is that characteristic X is not correlated with characteristics A,B,C et cetera.  But this doesn't mean it doesn't exist and that we can't classify people according to it.  You seem to have pretty much conceded my argument; you just refuse to call the outcome “race.”  Fine with me, though it’s a bit odd to refuse to use a word that everyone understands.

Sincerely,

Dr. Graves

Regards,

Robert Locke

 

 

 




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