[Three for All] [Mens et Manus]

* The Construct We Call "Race" (About "Race") (Help)

It is a truism that, to exist, "we" must have a "they." When a suitable "they" does not exist, "we" create one. The word "race," says the Oxford English Dictionary, is related to the French "race, earlier also [OF.] rasse (1512). ... Ital. razza ... Sp. raza ... Pg. raça ... of obscure origin." Obscure, perhaps, but not too obscure to have a definition: "I. A group of persons, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin. In the widest sense the term includes all descendants from the original stock, but may also be limited to a single line of descent or to the group as it exists at a particular period." Which, of course, is derived from no divine revelation, but leads, rather, to an arbitrary view of the world. An earlier sense, dating from the fourteenth century: "Sc. raice, rais, rays ... ONor. rás (Norw. and Sw. dial. raås), running, race, rush (of water)," which defines "A strong current ... 'The river narrows, and a slight fall, or what our sailors call a race, ensues.'" The race, in this sense, is where life quickens, so to speak. And then it is "the course, line, or path taken by a person or a moving body," as in "He diuerted from his accustomed rase which was by the Ilandes of Canarie." Another sense allows: "var. of rase ... A cut, slit, mark, scratch," as in "He, with the Tooth of the Gage makes a Mark or Race on the side of the Face." Also, "To cut a way; to pierce, penetrate," as in "The head of stele ... Through plate and mayle mightly gan to glace / But to the skinne for nothing might it race." And there are other senses and etymologies as well -- but wherever the word began its journey, it has taken up residence in our language, and we use it in certain and particular ways. But what, really, does it mean?

Stanley Garn, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology (Michigan), and author of Human Races, writes:

The term race as applied to humans has been variously used -- by politicians, military leaders, philologists, human biologists, demographers, and historians. Some "races" constitute language groups, often of peoples whose only kinship is that they speak a common language. Such was the original meaning of the so-called Aryan race. Some "races" are simply hypothetical, invented to embrace present distributions of such genetic (hereditary) characteristics as stature or hair colour -- e.g., the Nordics. (The word Nordic also has been given a political meaning, referring, despite their differences in physical characteristics, to peoples in northern Europe.) Race has been variously applied to national or cultural groupings, as in the days when English writers referred to an Irish race and to a Scottish race. As used in census and other applications, the designation race often groups different peoples for administrative convenience; thus, the category Hispanic may group people from Meso-America, the Caribbean, South America, and the Philippines who may differ considerably in their racial origins.

"Race" also has been applied to human groups inferred to have existed on the basis of archaeological discoveries; the Etruscan race is an example. Various religious groups who may or may not have common ancestry sometimes are called races--the Jewish race, for example. ...

All of those uses of the term race are separate and distinct from its biological meaning in classification (taxonomy)--the natural divisions or groupings below the species level. As such, race differs from breed or line, which refer to artificially established groups maintained by intensive selection or by deliberate hybridization. Just as the term race is often too broadly applied to the entire species of man (as in the human race), particular race names invented to explain distributions of observable physical characteristics of human populations are not biologically meaningful.

That is to say, "race" can have a specific biological meaning, but we -- and our "politicians, military leaders, philologists, ... demographers, and historians" -- often use it in ways that are determined not by science but by culture or expediency. And even when it comes to biology -- i.e., taxonomy along genetic lines -- the word "race" is not precise enough:

With the advent of population genetics, establishing gene frequencies in specific populations, many workers have come to prefer the word population for taxonomic purposes. ... The term geographic, or continental, race is often used to describe populations that occupy a broad geographic range. Likewise, local race is used for populations in a more restricted area, and microrace may correspond to a single, extended breeding population. These natural groupings, which reflect geographic (and therefore reproductive) isolation, display a range of genetic differences that are the focus of much research. The ultimate questions are how long the races (or populations) have been distinguishable and what processes brought about the distinctions.

What the different geographic races are called is to some extent unimportant as long as the same terminology is employed by all; such traditional designations as white, yellow, and black, however, are clearly inappropriate.

In other words, melanin is a pigment, not a gene. Of course, as we noted at the beginning of this article, those who cling to the "traditional" view of "race" do so for their own reasons, and are not usually deterred by scientific quibbles. As Professor Garn explains:
People of one group traditionally have found reasons to disparage people of other groups on the basis of their behaviour, language, and other cultural attributes. Thus, the Arabs of the Middle Ages were highly critical of the Frankish (French) traders who did not bathe regularly, as were the Chinese of English mariners. ... The English-speaking settlers of North America were highly ethnocentric, according the highest intellectual capacities first to themselves, then to Scottish immigrants, and then (to a lesser extent) to those of German and Scandinavian origin who followed. Later immigrants from Ireland, eastern Europe and the Balkans, and Italy were accorded lesser abilities and capacities.
[ Chart from the _Economist_ (May 27, 1995, p. 25). ]
[A larger image is available in which the print on the chart is easier to read.]


The Construct We Call "Race"
  • Review: How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev

  • We have invented categories and behave as if they were facts. We call someone with one African and three Italian grandparents an African American, and even geneticists often act as if this silliness had scientific reality, doing studies to find out whether "black" children are genetically less intelligent than "white" children, though this makes no more sense than asking if blonds are genetically dumber than brunettes. ... In fact, our current system of racial categories is a creation less of genetics than of custom.

  • "One Drop of Blood," by Lawrence Wright

    "We recognize the importance of racial categories in correcting clear injustices under the law. ... [But to] be effective, the concepts of individual and group identity need to reflect not only who we have been but who we are becoming. The more these categories distort our perception of reality, the less useful they are. We act as if we knew what we're talking about when we talk about race, and we don't."

"Race" and "Intelligence"
  • Bell Curve Critics Say Early I.Q. Isn't Destiny, November 9, 1994

    Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein ["The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life"] ... make no secret of their pessimism about the prospects for elevating the underclass. "For the foreseeable future," they wrote, "the problems of low cognitive ability are not going to be solved by outside intervention." But many social scientists ... believe that intervention can make a big difference -- that study after study of children living in poverty suggests that early attention can improve performance. "Murray and Herrnstein just ignored the evidence," said James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago.

  • Bell Curve thrives despite 'bad' PR, December, 1994

    The firestorm of negative publicity generated by The Bell Curve helped propel the book to the bestseller list and proved the axiom that there is no such thing as bad PR. It also shows the trend among publishers to limit distribution of advanced copies of controversial books to a handful of media in a bid to shape coverage and build momentum for their books. ... The full barrel attack on the book turned into an "endorsement" worth untold millions of dollars in publicity for [the publisher]. It "legitimized" a book that is widely criticized as unscientific and racist by media throughout the nation which launched their own salvos against the book.

  • Curveball: A Review, May/June 1995

    Why was The Bell Curve given full, front-page exposure in the New York Times Book Review? Why did it command cover-story status in news magazines and generous portions of air time on talk shows? Why was The Bell Curve a story?

  • Straightening Out The Bell Curve, August 1995

    [From] assumptions to data to argument to conclusions, The Bell Curve is trash. It was written not to contribute anything useful to science -- the very idea is laughable, because there is absolutely nothing new in the book. ... It was produced not for scientists, but for the media. It was a *political act*, and it should be understood and studied as such. [Substantive objections to the book are] based on (i) scientific methodology, and (ii) the state of research into human intelligence. Each objection points to one or more mistakes in the book. Any one of these mistakes occurring alone might have been enough to get the book thrown out of a reputable graduate seminar. Taken together, they are an *indictment*.

"Race" and Affluence
  • Blacks in America -- 1992, "Statistical Brief," May 1994

    The Black population in the United States numbered 31.4 million in March 1992, comprising 13 percent of the Nation's total. This Brief uses data collected by the March 1992 Current Population Survey (CPS) to explore the state of Blacks in America. It examines how their situation changed between March 1980 and 1992, as well as how their condition compares with that of the White population.

  • Review: Black Wealth/White Wealth, by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro

    [The authors offer] a powerful portrait of racial inequality based on an analysis of private wealth. Combining quantitative data from over 12,000 households and in-depth interviews with a range of black and white families, they reveal deep and persistent racial differences ... [and show how] inequality has been structured over many generations through the same systematic barriers that have affected blacks throughout their history in the U.S.

"Race" and Rhetoric
  • A Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

    Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. ... One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

  • A Speech by William Jefferson Clinton, October 16, 1995

    In recent weeks, every one of us has been made aware of a simple truth -- white Americans and black Americans often see the same world in drastically different ways ... The rift we see before us that is tearing at the heart of America exists in spite of the remarkable progress black Americans have made in the last generation, since Martin Luther King swept America up in his dream, and President Johnson spoke so powerfully for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy in demanding that Congress guarantee full voting rights to blacks. ... The reasons for this divide are many. Some are rooted in the awful history and stubborn persistence of racism. Some are rooted in the different ways we experience the threats of modern life to personal security, family values, and strong communities. Some are rooted in the fact that we still haven't learned to talk frankly, to listen carefully, and to work together across racial lines.

  • A Speech by Louis Farrakhan, October 16, 1995

    We're standing at the steps of the United States Capitol. I'm looking at the Washington Monument and beyond it to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond that, to the left, to your right, the Jefferson Memorial. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of these United States, and he was the man who allegedly freed us. Abraham Lincoln saw in his day what President Clinton sees in this day. He saw the great divide between black and white. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton see what the Kerner Commission saw 30 years ago when they said that this nation was moving toward two Americas, one black, one white, separate and unequal. And the Kerner Commission revisited their findings 25 years later and saw that America was worse today than it was in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. There's still two Americas, one black, one white, separate and unequal. ... And so we stand here today at this historic moment. We are standing in the place of those who could not make it here today. We are standing on the blood of our ancestors. We are standing on the blood of those who died in the middle passage, who died in the fields and swamps of America, who died hanging from trees in the South, who died in the cells of their jailers, who died on the highways and who died in the fratricidal conflict that rages within our community. We are standing on the sacrifice of the lives of those heroes, our great men and women, that we today may accept the responsibility that life imposes upon each traveler who comes this way. We must accept the responsibility that God has put upon us not only to be good husbands and fathers and builders of our community, but God is now calling up the despised and the rejected to become the cornerstone and the builders of a new world.

  • A Discussion: Louis Farrakhan and the "Million Man March," October 17, 1995

    "The fundamental problem that I have with, with something of this sort is the constant reiteration of the idea that somehow black Americans constitute a colony within the United States ... [Whereas] a great deal of what [we all] are is the result of black Americans. You know what I mean? I mean, black Americans, white- black Americans are part and parcel of what we mean when we say 'American' ... Carl Jung said when he came here in the '20s, he said that white men [here] walk like Negroes, they talk like Negroes, and they laugh like Negroes. ... Now, when, when all of this gets set aside, this interwoven American culture gets set aside to, to make it seem as though black people are some separate unit in the colony known as ghetto, I think that we're going, we're going down a path that, that is, is, is absolutely inaccurate in terms of who black Americans are."

Obviously, there are no easy "answers" in any of these materials. As always, comments are welcome.

January 6, 1993 Ideas? Questions?   Let us know! [HTML Hit Counter]