Here’s a delicate subject, especially given the nationwide anguish over what appears to have been the cold-blooded, racially lubricated if not racially motivated murder of Trayvon Martin: race itself. More specifically and more delicately: whether race is a “socio-cultural construct.” My response, and one that may well disappoint and annoy many readers, regardless of their ideology (but perhaps especially my fellow travelers on the left): It is and it isn’t, but mostly isn’t. That is to say, an objective, science-based look at the subject and at its use in other contexts requires us to conclude that race is both socially constructed and biologically “real,” but probably more the latter than the former.
Of course, in the old days of racist pseudoscience, it was universally assumed that the human races were genuine biological entities, and moreover, that they were linearly arrayed with whites on top, then Asians, then blacks at the bottom. From that bizarre and altogether unscientific misuse of biology, there was, not surprisingly, a backlash that went overboard in the other direction, maintaining as a matter of faith that there is simply no such thing as human races, that they are purely an arbitrary figment of our sociocultural proclivities. Sad to say, this is arrant nonsense … just as was the earlier insistence that the human races could be evaluated in terms of “modernity,” “distance from the apes,” or simply, “degree of advancement” or “intelligence.”
If we’re going to talk about the alleged reality or unreality of human races, we need first to discuss the meaning of “race” itself. When biologists talk about races in other species, they are essentially concerned with a convenient grouping of individuals that comprise phenotypically distinguishable populations characterized by some consistent genetic differences between themselves and other, comparable populations, and that typically inhabit different geographic regions, and are therefore normally prevented from interbreeding (which was essential to the initial distinctiveness of each race in the first place). Of course, human races are all capable of interbreeding; hence, we know for certain that they are all members of one species, Homo sapiens. Moreover, we are not restricted to separate, non-overlapping (“allopatric”) populations. Nonetheless, there is no question that what are generally identified as different human races have historically been allopatric, with much of the geographic and genetic mixing being a comparatively recent phenomenon.
When examining other species, we affix the label “subspecies,” “race,” or “ecotype” (essentially, all synonyms) to whatever readily observable trait or suite of traits coincides with these distinct populations. Sometimes its coat color (if a mammal) or plumage characteristics (if a bird). Among a species of mammals I’ve studied in the past, the white-footed deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), two subspecies—P. m. gracilis and P. m. bairdii—are identified by whether the limbs and tail are somewhat more or less gracile, as well as whether they inhabit forest or prairie. Subspecies taxonomic distinctions in many bird species are based upon subtle but consistent differences in courtship songs. It isn’t necessary that subspecies (i.e., races) be distinguished as a result of traits that are particularly meaningful, or that necessarily correlate with a large amount of underlying genetic difference – simply that they exist, are based on differences in DNA, and are readily identified and thus, conveniently applied.
It is in this sense, and a potentially important one it is, that designation of a biological race is indeed socially constructed: It is based on whatever trait(s) emerge as useful, consistent and convenient. Thus, if desired, we might choose to identify human races on the basis of blood type: A, B, AB, or O. Or Rh factor. But although human beings can unambiguously be placed in one or the other such categories, which are clearly based on genetic differences, we simply don’t designate them as such. Nor do we distinguish races based on height or weight, although genetic correlates exist, because these differences grade too smoothly to be useful as well as because there are no geographic patterns that correlate with these observed phenotypes.
By contrast, pretty much anyone can affix an appropriate racial identity upon the great majority of human beings. When Trayvon Martin’s photo is seen, only an idiot would deny that he was African-American. Indeed, anyone (such as myself) who believes that there should be enhanced legal penalties for hate crimes based on, say, sexual orientation or racial animus, could hardly justify claiming in the same breath that there is no such thing as sexual orientation or human races! George Zimmerman doubtless perceived Trayvon Martin as African-American, and in this, at least, he was correct.
When Barack Obama identifies himself similarly, only an idiot would deny him the right to make such a self-designation. Clearly the President had a choice, and thus his identification as “black” is also to some degree a socio-cultural decision: his. But equally clearly, it was made possible by the fact that his biological father was black (which is why, incidentally, the president noted that if he had a son, he would “probably look like” Trayvon). On the other hand, if Obama’s mother had reproduced with someone as Caucasian as she was, their offspring would most certainly have been Caucasian, not black. Moreover, when Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton our “first black president,” it was obvious to everyone that she was speaking allegorically: Bill Clinton is no more African-American than Trayvon Martin was Caucasian.
My point is simple, basic common-sense combined with standard biological practice: A Martian zoologist, looking at the diversity of Homo sapiens, would not have the slightest doubt that we are composed of numerous races, and that these races have a substantial underlying genetic component (although, as I’ll explain in a later post, it is impossible to state with certainty how many different human races there are – a fact that in itself speaks powerfully once again to a substantial role of social construction in the designation of human races).
The phenotypic differences among different human races are no less distinct than the various phenotypic differences which, when found among any other living species, warrant the designation of “sub-species,” or “race.” And the fact remains that human races exist in exactly the same sense that biologists apply the term to all other creatures, which nearly always make use of evident phenotypic traits: In the human cases, obvious candidates include skin color, hair texture, eye shape, etc.
All of this says nothing whatever about whether these traits are meaningful in any deep biological sense, or whether they correlate with anything important. The most likely answer to both questions is No. Nor does it say anything about whether such distinctions have, in the past, often been misunderstood and used for great social mischief. The answer here, undeniably, is Yes. But I can do no better at this point than to quote Darwin: “We are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it.”
More to come, including the important fact that there is more genetic variation, for example, within many races (e.g., among black Africans) than between said races. So where does that leave “race”?)