Monday, February 28, 2005

Does Race Exist?

I don't always blog about bollocks. Here's something a little more serious, indeed controversial. Liberal-left firebombs to the usual address, please...

Does Race Exist?

A few weeks ago the Metropolitan Police of London announced that it could soon be seeking a change in the UK's Race Relations Act, to enable it to ‘positively discriminate’ in favour of ethnic minority recruits. Such a move would, the Met claimed, help it to speed its progress towards a workforce closer in ethnic balance to that of London’s wider population.

Just another unremarkable moment in multicultural Britain? Dig a little deeper and the picture is more curious. Given that the Met proposes to favour black and Asian people - and therefore necessarily disfavour white people - you’d imagine they would have a close and handy grasp of what constitutes ‘black’ and ‘white’. Careers, after all, are going to depend on this - how to define someone’s ‘race’. But does the Met have such a grasp?

Last week I rang up the Met and asked them how they intended to classify people by ‘race.’ The human resources officer at the Met replied: ‘We use the term “visibly ethnic minorities”’. You mean they have to be noticeably ethnic, to have brown or black skin, say? ‘That’s right.’ But what if it’s just a darker white person? ‘Well... then we go on other indications. Maybe hair. Or perhaps, you know, lips.’ They need frizzy hair to be classed as black? ‘Erm.... can I come back to you?’

A few days later a different Met Police spokesperson rang back with a different tack. ‘We go by self-declaration. It’s what people feel they are, what ethnic minority they think and feel they belong to.’ So all someone has to do is say “I feel black” - and you will treat them as black? ‘I guess so.’ Then what about a white person who falsely claims he’s black, hoping to get some positive discrimination? ‘Hm. Good question. I suppose if they were blatantly white, blatantly lying, then we would reject them.’ But what constitutes being blatantly white? Freckles? A taste for Morris Dancing? ‘Uhm, er, ’ll call you back?’

A few days later a more circumspect Met Police spokesman had another new line. ‘It’s a difficult question. We haven’t really got an answer, and we don’t want to hypothesise. In the end we go by what the Home Office tells us. Goodbye.’

To be fair to the Metropolitan Police, they are not the only interested party to have a rather flaky grasp of what ‘race’ actually means. When I rang the Institute of Race Relations, they refused to answer the question; likewise the guys at racial think-tank The Runnymede Trust. Only the Commission for Racial Equality gave a straight answer. Which was: ‘We go by what the Home Office says.’

So what does the Home Office say? These days Britain’s race laws are configured in Brussels. And in the latest EU directive concerning race (EU directive 2000/43/EC, since enshrined in the UK’s Race Relations Amendments Act of 2003) one finds this bold statement: ‘The European Union rejects theories which attempt to determine the existence of separate human races.’

So that’s that. According to the Home Office - or at least to their superiors in Brussels - race does not exist. But hold on, if race does not exist, how come we all get in such a tizz about race all the time? Here we come to the nub of the argument. And it is a mighty argument.

On the one side of this debate is a wide swathe of sociologists, philosophers, and scientists, who truly believe that race ‘does not exist’ - scientifically speaking. These people instead believe that the concept of race is merely a social construct: something built in our own innately prejudiced minds around minor differences in human appearance. In this view, race is a biologically valueless notion.

It may sound a fairly extreme position, but at the moment the social constructionists are in the ideological ascendant - hence the EU directive. Yet they do not have the field entirely to themselves. Set against the dominant philosophy is a smaller bunch called the ‘race-realists’; this group of scientists and thinkers asserts that, though we may wish it otherwise, race is still a concept with biological meaning. They consequently reject the ideas of the constructionists.

At this point an obvious question is begged. Given that there is such a vigorous scientific argument going on, why does the EU make its tendentious remark? After all we don’t find in other EU directives any lines like: ‘The European Union does not believe in a tenth planet’, or ‘The European Union rejects the idea that tomatoes give you cancer’. So why should the EU come down so emphatically on one side of this particular scientific argument?

The answer is: because it feels it has to. Although the ‘social constructionists’ are dominant at the moment, they also know they have a fight on their hands. This fight results from the fact that most people in their daily lives still use a ‘common sense’ definition of race, a definition that could be construed as giving race serious biological significance. Indeed it’s this conflict - between our own indididual common sense view of race (race exists), and the politically dominant view of the social constructionists (race is a sinister figment) - that makes for the confused positions on race of well-meaning institutions like the Met.

So who’s right? Does race exist, biologically? Before we enter into this envenomed row, we need to define the concept ‘race’. This in itself is hard enough: over time, people have classed race as, inter alia, ‘breeding groups with fuzzy boundaries’, or ‘a population of organisms differing from others of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits’. One of the simplest definitions is arguably the best: ‘very extended families’. But no definition is entirely satisfactory.

In any event, lack of an agreed definition has not stopped the argument. One of the main battlegrounds between the race-realists and the constructionists is human history. Ever since Nazism, the constructionists have understandably opted to attack the idea of ‘race’ through its soft underbelly of ‘racism’. What the constructionists have precisely tried to do is show that the classificatory concept of race is modern, and was invented and refined by Western thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries simply to justify the West’s slave trade. The constructionists know that if they can prove that racism is a purely modern phenomenon they are halfway to proving that ‘race’ is itself a recent invention.

Social constructionists such as Joseph Graves, an evolutionary scientist from the US, have particularly favoured this attack. In his recent book The Emperor’s New Clothes, Graves adroitly demonstrates how ‘race’ and racism were largely absent from the Hellenic and Roman worlds - which were apparently more partial to a citizen/barbarian dichotomy; Graves goes on to do the same for other ancient cultures, Iike Old Testament Israel.

Undaunted, the race realists have come back. Vincent Sarich is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley (and a world-renowned scientist). In his new book Race: The Reality of Human Differences he refutes the ‘unracist pre-modern humans’ thesis by pointing to the anti-black writings of medieval Islam. Sarich and co-writer Frank Miele quote people like the medieval Muslim geographer Idrisi: ‘Many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanj [Africans]’.

Seen from any perspective such remarks are certainly racist - and repulsive. But their existence does not disprove the argument of the social constructionists that ‘race’ is cultural: in fact this Islamic racism arguably reinforces that argument. Medieval Islam, like the West of the 17th to 19th centuries, was a slave-trading culture. Perhaps the thinkers of Islam needed a rationale for their anti-Koranic practise of slavery; racism provided it, if so. In that light, the social constructionists are on the right track: race only achieves salience as a cultural concept in societies that need an excuse for immorally racist behaviour. But of course that does not prove that race is biologically meaningless, merely that it is socially constructed in some way.

Another big battleground is medicine. In recent years scientists have started to notice significant differences in the rates of disease, susceptibility to infection, and success of certain medical treatments, between the ‘races’. The congenital disease sickle cell anaemia is famously restricted to certain ethnic groups, for instance. Likewise, lactase intolerance (the milk-o-phobia that kicks in after weaning) is unevenly distributed across the globe. Most intriguingly, certain vital hypertension drugs seem to be more efficacious with whites than with blacks. Race-realists say with some force that this shows that race is definitely biologically significant: how much more significant can you get than the performance of life-saving drugs?

The response of the social constructionists to this argument is a big ‘so what?’ They argue that the environment is a crucial factor. How can you absent disease from its context? Moreover, some constructionists (like US writer Jared Diamond) go further, and make a philosophical point: they say that sickle cell, for instance, may well be common in Sub-Saharan Africans, but it is also common in Norwegians: are Nordics and Africans therefore to be united in one ‘race’ on this criterion? If they are, that fatally undermines the traditional concept of race.

Game, sex and match to the constructionists, you might think. But not quite. It’s at this point that we enter the troubled area where genes and behaviour interact, and its here the weight of evidence starts to favour the race-realists. Neonatal development is one intriguing area of research. Scientists have shown that oriental babies differ from black and white babies in being more passive and supine when ‘provoked’ (by having their bedclothes twitched). It is very difficult to see how environment could be a factor in this racial difference.

Sport is another interesting, even infamous area. Over the period 1985-1997 one tribe of Kenyans, the Kalenjin, won eighteen of the thirty-six medals available in the World Cross Country Championships. How could this happen if racial factors are not in some way involved?

Constructionists try to argue an environmental case for Kenyan running supremacy, but it’s difficult, because there are non-black or non-Kenyan peoples who lead similarly high-altitude lives, who don't exhibit the same athletic skills. And the constructionists face the same difficulty explaining away all the other problematic evidence for racial differences: things like skull size, facial morphology, desire for reproduction, hormone levels, even those notorious differences in IQ between blacks and whites (about 15 points, by some estimates, though some scientists fiercely abjure this data). Taken individually all these areas can be argued over; seen globally there does seem to be a fairly convincing case: race exists, biologically speaking. Albeit ambiguously.

At this point it is tempting at this point to throw up our hands - and wilfully ignore the whole area. Because, if we do ignore it, there’s no chance we’ll add any more disastrous fuel to the racist fire. However science is progressing at such a rate we simply cannot ignore it. What makes this entire debate so pressing is that one day soon we will probably have conclusive answers to all the race questions. With the mapping of the human genome we will shortly and probably be able to pinpoint someone’s ‘racial origin’, going by telltale signs in their DNA. And if the race-realists are right on the wider significance of race, as it seems they may be, that means we will be able to predict, on racial grounds, things like a person's tendency to heart disease, their probability of having certain personality types, and so on.

How dangerous is that? OK, it means the Met Police will be freed from their conundrum - a simple anatomical test will establish someone’s race, once and for all - but is that really what we want to do? Do we really want to follow the bitter logic of race-realism and end up favouring and disfavouring whole peoples because of their genes? Because of a blood test?

Put it another way, even if race does exist biologically, nobody is forcing us to obsess about race; nobody is obliging us to get even more neurotic. Instead we could try, now, before it is too late, to construct a race-blind society rather than a race-supersensitive one. We could try and judge individuals by their personal worth rather than their DNA. But of course, to do that we will have to dispense with dangerous experiments of wholesale racial differentiation. Experiments like ‘positive discrimination’ in the Metropolitan Police.


Anonymous said...

Never quite understood why "socially constructed" is taken as meaning "not real". The Metropolitan Police was socially constructed; nobody is born a copper although some people are born with tit-shaped heads (really, I saw one once).


Anonymous said...

By the way, apropos of nothing, the BBC is at this moment showing a documentary about Arthur Miller which claims that "Death of a Salesman" was profoundly shocking to theatre audiences. How? If you've gone out for an evening to see "Death of a Salesman", and the first character who walks on stage is a salesman, you don't have to be Harold Pinter to suspect that it's not going to turn out well for him.

sean said...

Well I think the social constructionists, vis a vis race, would certainly like us to believe that race is "not real". As for Arthur Miller, I really enjoyed his work in the Carry On Films. Or was that Arthur Mullard?
Hey, maybe Arthur Mullard wrote The Crucible? Did you know that Hattie Jacques was the mother of famous Guardian Marxist Martin Jacques? Also, Sid James was Jewish. But that's just a social construct.

I'm going to put my head under the cold tap now.

Anonymous said...

Very well-written and thought-provoking post. I was going to post an argument to counter that IQ thing, but Ross talked me out of it fairly quickly by kicking my ass at that argument, so nevermind.

I always thought "race" was just like breeds of dogs. Same concept, no? Hmmm...


norwegian said...

First of all, Hitler was austrian, not german.

The Kalenjin runner argument is typical for people who seeks to find support for a certain point of view, and is almost always put together with "results" from "The Bell Curve", relating race and IQ. The statistic results of "the Bell Curve" are pseudoscientific and can be seen as a effort by Charles Murray to produce new support for his earlier work, "loosing ground" (1984), which argues that welfare is a waste of money, because blacks are genetically determined to live in poverty.

The kalenjin have dominated long distance running since 1968.

The russians have dominated chess since 1950. Are the russians by genome intellectually superior?

Anonymous said...

You give the "race realists" a free pass when simple Socratic questioning would surface some inherent contradictions.

For example, scientists can discern much about modern humans by using a combination of DNA, as well as migration patterns, particularly out of eastern Africa. This simple data reveals that even within "so-called" "black Africa", there is as much biodiversity there as there is between any other two or more groups anywhere else in the world.

Perhaps the question I would ask for the "race realists" is: how many biological traits/characteristics must a group of people share before they can be identified as a "race"? And taken to its logical end, would we not end up with hundreds of thousands of races (if not more)? And if that process is pursued, is it not a "social construct"?