What Is Race Good For?

Greg Laden posted a nice review of a traveling science museum exhibit on race and racism. His post touched on a couple of points of disagreement between him and the creators of the exhibit, but all the argument that followed was over this:

First, the parts we agree with: There is no such thing as race (biologically), race is a social construct used as a political and economic tool, even efforts to use race in a “positive” way such as in medicine or forensics are doomed to failure because of the lack of biological validity of the concept, and so on and so forth.

This brought out the racists, as has been the case every time I’ve seen a statement like this made, but unlike in the past, I got involved in the argument. I learned a lot doing so, and I want capture and summarize that here, for myself and others.

These get to be pretty important in any argument like this, especially for avoiding accusations of ad hominem attacks. These are the relevant definitions from the Websters Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.


Racism: the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another, which is usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others. [emphasis mine]

Valid: based on distinctive characteristics of recognized importance: founded on an adequate basis of classification.

I emphasized “usually” in the definition of racism because belief in racial superiority is not necessarily part of racism, although it is important in explaining racism’s negative effects. It is, however, the piece that people who defend the concept of race focus on when you use the first part of the definition to classify them as racists.

The Argument for Race
There were four main arguments made for the biological validity of race:

  1. Genetic testing allows for grouping by country of ancestor origin.
  2. Race may not predict the things it’s been used to predict in the past, but it’s an important proxy for genetics in medicine.
  3. Yes, assignment of humans to racial categories is an arbitrary procedure, but we use arbitrary names for parts of other continua. Why not race?
  4. You’re just being PC, Marxist wankers.

I think we can ignore #4, but the rest were addressed in the discussion.

Where to Start
Most of the racists started with the assumption of race and told the rest of us to disprove it. However, as Greg pointed out, that’s the wrong base assumption. We don’t assume that each bird that we see that is slightly darker than its fellows or is missing a tail feather is a new subspecies. If we want to claim that they represent a group distinct from another group, we have to define the boundaries of the group and prove their validity.

We expect genetic variation. We expect changes in the frequency of alleles across types of environments, across distances from the point of origin of a mutation. Human history is in part a history of trade and conquest, so we also expect changes in frequency across trade routes and distances from trade routes, across distances from imperial centers.

The key word is “across.” As noted before, people trade and fight and have sex and produce offspring with their neighbors. Greg likened this to a game of genetic telephone. What you hear at any two widely separated points may sound distinct, but there is a chain of changes between them. We can divide up our players, but why?

The burden is on the person wanting to impose categorization to show that the categories are valid–both accurate and useful. The existence of a distinct genetic population of humans is not an impossibility, but what we know of human history makes it quite unlikely.

Genetics of Origin
The racists brought up studies that showed that, starting from a knowledge of the region of origin of a test population’s ancestors, researchers could find genetic markers that, in combination, could sort the test subjects into clusters by region of origin. This was given as evidence of the underlying genetic validity of race. There are three problems with these studies.

The first is a sampling problem. Remember that game of telephone? One of the racists in the thread suggested sampling whites from Sweden, blacks from Nigeria, and Asians from China. Researchers in one study cited excluded subjects who gave “other” for their race. If you cut out the parts of your sample that don’t unambiguously fit into your racial mold, it’s much easier to point to the remaining subjects as supporting it.

The second problem is related to how the genetic data was chosen. Researchers used a program for analysis that searched for sites among the hundreds sampled on the genome that could be used to sort the population into a specified number of groups. That means that sites that didn’t covary weren’t used in the analysis. Variation was again discarded on the path to finding distinct populations, and even then, the one of these studies cited in its entirety was not able to differentiate between two Asian groups without restricting their data further. Other studies that haven’t discarded data have found that there is much more variation within races than between them.

Third, nothing about these studies suggested that there were any real-world correlates of any note to the genetic sites used to separate the populations, thus failing to demonstrate any importance in the differences that were found. Relying on self-reported data on origin, they did not even show that the genetics they were testing correlated to any traits typically used to sort people into races.

Race for Medicine’s Sake
One of the more seemingly benign arguments for clinging to the concept of race is that it can provide a clue to underlying genetics that can be useful in diagnosing or treating disease. After all, we know that Ashkenazi Jews get Tay-Sachs and that Africans get sickle-cell anemia. Again, there are multiple problems with this argument.

Both Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia are genetic disorders with well-defined mechanisms, but environmental factors play a role in many diseases. Many of the other disorders that are often linked to race, such as skin cancer and hypertension, do not have such well-defined causes. Limiting diagnosis and treatment advice based on race in these cases is risky at best.

Even among known genetic disorders, inheritance is not based on race as we know it. There are no races that all get one disease that no one else gets. The gene for sickle-cell anemia is adaptive in areas with high rates of malaria. This means that there are areas of Africa with almost no instance of the gene and areas of Europe and Asia with fairly high rates. Tay-Sachs is prevalent among one population of Jews but not others. It is also prevalent among Cajuns. French Canadians also have a higher than average prevalence, but the underlying genetics among Quebecers is different than among Cajuns, who share a mutation with the Ashkenazi Jews. As in the studies on population genetics, single genetic markers show very little correlation with race or point of ancestor origin.

Continua and Complexity
“Erm, okay,” say the racists, finally. “Maybe the underlying genetics do vary smoothly. That doesn’t mean they don’t vary. We use arbitrary names for other continua, like color. Why not for races?”

While this is once again starting from the assumption that race has validity–that it already measures something–and thus, the wrong question, it does raise a couple of issues that are worth talking about. Color, an example used in the discussion, is provocative. The underlying continuum is smooth, but we do use divisions of it, frequently and successfully, in communicating with each other. Why can’t we do the same with race?

The answer is complexity. To the extent that we agree on a definition of a name, saying that something is a particular color tells us what wavelength(s) it reflects or emits. What does race tell us? What is the underlying continuum that we’re measuring?

Of course, we can’t reduce humans to a single continuum of variability. We even have difficulty finding traits once considered to be racial traits that vary with geography in ways a racial model would predict. Skin color varies with average sun exposure as much as it does with any known pattern of migration. Analysis of skeletal remains, now and in the past, does not reliably indicate group identity. Facial features and body proportions are both too variable and too consistent across groups.

The continua that race tries to measure are not single, smooth gradations around the world. They don’t always follow the same paths, so that if we overlaid one trait on another, the resulting map would look somewhat like plaid but much fuzzier. A third overlay, accounting for just one more trait, would produce an even more muddled map. Where do we stop and still see anything that look like groups without the groups being larger than an extended family–or even an individual? We would have to reduce the number of traits to the point that we would only be measuring trivial differences between us.

Still No Answers
The question I kept asking during the discussion is, “What does race tell us?” It still goes unanswered after all the debate. If someone wants to claim that race has biological validity, race has to not only be based on biological measurements that distinguish the categories used, which current racial classifications are not. It also has to tell us something about the biology of race that is nontrivial. Importance is a critical part of the definition of validity.

After this discussion, I’m much better aware of what race does not tell us. I’m still waiting to be shown what it does.

What Is Race Good For?
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16 thoughts on “What Is Race Good For?

  1. 1

    Perhaps I didn’t read your excellent post quite closely enough and this is only elaborating something you noted, but it seems to me that the continuum/color appeal is even more problematic than you suggest. The visible range in human beings pretty much starts at one point and ends at another… but there is a very problematic question that’d have to be asked about race as a similar continuum: which race would we start with and towards which other race would the continuum trend before ending on it?Could Asians and Indigenous Americans possibly be placed “between” Africans and Northern Europeans (because we’re gonna hafta cull those swarthy Mediterraneans to keep Whites White enough, no)? What scale, defended how, could we possibly be talking about here? Wouldn’t Whites have to – in some way – be said to “come from” or “follow after” Asians and Americans…? Yikes, it boggles the mind.

  2. 2

    Very true, Alan. I was trying for the big picture and didn’t go into depth on how big a problem the idea is. The more you break it down, the sillier it gets. Similarly, most of the points I make above could be broken down further. There were a number of people commenting on Greg’s original post who did just that, and I strongly recommend reading the whole comment thread there.

  3. 3

    You and Greg were so patient to keep explaining the same things over and over. It seemed like people’s definitions of “race” kept shifting. As soon as it clear that the way the term race is used here in the US is not biologically supported, the commenters trotted out examples of reproductively isolated human populations. But when intelligence came up, then it shifted back to “black” vs. “white”. It makes my head hurt.

  4. 4

    Thanks, Peggy. I’ll freely admit I didn’t feel all that patient, but I did want to know whether anyone would come up with answers if I kept asking the same questions.

  5. 5

    Alan:Let me ad this: Europeans are very badly behaved when it comes to race, aside from politically or socially. Roughly and oversimplified: Depending on how you generate racial categories using various data, Europeans are almost always more difficult to distinguish from either African or Asian than, say, Africans and Asians are in relation to each other. More interestingly, depending on the starting point, Europeans will cluster with either Africans or Asians.This lack of the data’s ‘ability’ to be consistent when building models such as those trees you see in so many papers underscores the vagueness and lack of credibility of racial categories in humans.

  6. 6

    Hey Greg/Stephanie, I spend a good bit of time blowing up racial categories in my sociology classes. At the same time, of course – and I’m sure like you two – I insist that race’s lack of any biological validity has tragically not meant that reduced an iota of race’s consequences for socially and economically oppressed minorities.Perhaps sadly, I have found that even the video “Race: The Power of an Illusion” – which shows the ways that similarities in mitochondrial DNA cut strongly across “races” tends to reinforce the placement of the debate about race within the purview of biology and I have to take a strong social constructionist kind of position… something I tend not to do. In this kind of instance, tho, W.I. Thomas’ assertion: “If a man (society – APR) believes the situation to be real, it is real in its consequences”, seems to hold altogether too true given the historical power of racism in structuring modern society/ies.

  7. 7

    Alan, you’re preaching to the choir. I hope that one of the advantages to me putting this all down in one place is that I can devote more attention to other matters.What are the chances that your blog will become active again, discussing some of this?

  8. 8

    Ahhh, my blog… I’ll have to think more about that… I’ve been pretty distracted by the election, family and working with my students (and their assignments), and it started off as an utterly reactive set of posts about the infuriating tendency of the NYTimes to embrace sociobiology and David Brooks being disingenuous. I had hopes of doing more with it, perhaps I need more of the patience and perseverance you all have been practicing… and an end to the job application season. Thanks for the suggestion tho.

  9. 9

    Alan, paying attention to this election is certainly not ignoring the issue. In any way.Seriously, if you (or your students) start blogging on this more publicly, please let me know. You obviously have plenty to contribute to the conversation.

  10. 11

    There are populations with certain physical traits that set them apart. The Australian Aborigine is classified as having a robust skeleton. The people of Ethiopia and Somalia are tall and slender. A combination of traits found as far afield as the Trobriand Islander and the Aizi of Cote de Ivorie. Probably the most famous example are the Masai of Kenya. As a matter of fact, author Harry Turtledove is well known for his great height and slender build. Harry is also Jewish, and it is possible his build has do to a bit of “race mixing” that occurred back when the Israelites were tussling with the Amalekites. According to a minority view the Amalekites were an Ethiopic people who warred with the tribe of Judah, and may even have been cannibalistic. By this theory Harry gets his height and build from some hypothetical Amalekite ancestry.

  11. 12

    Hum… I think I have a different take on this very complex subject.I’m not sure arguing down to the genetic details of “races” is anything but a slippery slope.Let me emphasize a few things:- even in subspecies in natura there’s geneflow, and genetic differenciation is only and will always only be a statistical property of a set of populations. (so there’s nothing in my opinion about the ‘continuum argument’ that is biologically relevant, but an invitation to question where limits have to be placed, and even for wild life studies this is not always a very interesting question, scientifically speaking).- human population genomics is only at its beginning, and there’s nothing that could prevent us to find out that there’s some genetical (since there’s already historical and cultural boundaries to human populations) basis allowing to spot different human lineages (be it close to old human taxinomies or be it radically different from this perspective).Given the possibility that human genetic makeups would turn such results, my point would be something like this: if there were any biological reason to classify human among different ‘races’, whatever it might be, would it follow that we ought to be racist?The answer is no!, of course. Even if humanity were consisting of several species there would be no obligation for specism.This is in my mind one of the greatest danger of genetic arguments with regard to the issue: it is irrelevant whatever the science is telling us. We decide and this is most important, that we don’t care about whatever the other human being is, phenotypically, genotypically, culturally, and so on (the same apply to gender, sexual behaviour, political opinion etc).I think it is important to be affirmative about this (I see no reason to turn racist even if there were actual biological arguments for races). Anything biological is weak with regard to what I decide to hold as values.

  12. 13

    Mythusmage, issues with connecting stature to genetics aside (and they really can’t be set aside), you appear to be doing with that set of traits very much what the researchers did with genetic markers: only pointing to the bits of the data that appear to support you, while leaving out whole populations in between.Laurent, Greg left a response on your cross-posted comment. I won’t try to improve on it.

  13. 16

    Stephanie,Excellent post – clearly presented. Apparently no one wishes to spell it out, but of course, you only need "race" if you need to justify the perpetuation of your "racial" privilege. And in order to make your "race" scienterrific you apparently need to keep mangling two other words – "genetic" and "innate." Whatever about the dictionary meanings of those words, their intent in this type of discourse is simple – "Can't change, won't change, you can't make me change."

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