November 9, 2012

Personal to Chris Matthews

Sam Smith - Thanks for your comment tonight about not liking to use the word race and preferring ethnicity. You are the first prominent figure  I've heard making this important distinction.

From Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual:

The most important fact about race


It doesn't really exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that "complexions run into each other." Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."

Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:
The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have the same skin color. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable 'white race.' What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.
Well, it sure feels like race

Regardless of what science says, however, myth can kill and cause pain just as easily as scientific truth. And regardless of what science says, there are no Japanese players in the NBA or, as anthropologist Alice Brues told Newsweek, "If I parachute into Nairobi, I know I'm not in Oslo."

In fact, give or take a few thousand years, it's unlikely that those of a Nordic skin complexion would stay that way living under the African sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that the first generations of both European and Asian Americans have found themselves looking up at their grandchildren.

In such ways adaptation mimics what many think of as race. But who needs science when we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that's good enough for us.

Further, we are obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it. A few years back, a study of urban election coverage found five times as many stories about race as about taxes.

We can't even agree on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories.

If we are going to insist on dividing people by race, we should at least use comparisons more up-to-date than those thought up centuries ago. Here are a few suggestions based on modern science:

Basis of comparison: Front teeth

New Guinean-Germans
Japanese-Estonians
Celtic-Indians

Basis of comparison: Ability to digest milk

Swedish-Indians

Basis of comparison: Nose length

Norwegian-Arab-Nigerians
The English-Algerians


3 comments:

Capt. America said...

Since your research, an 800 pound gorilla has entered the room. We who are white are white because of genetic factors we don't have. We all have an African genetic heritage, and almost none else.

greg gerritt said...

When i was in grad school I refused to answer what race I was because as an anthropologist I knew the4 concept was inappropriate biologically for humans. When the school insisted I answered 800 meters because that was what I ran best when I was on the track team, or on other days, Martian and asked them to prove I was not.

hank chapot said...

I'd like to see the media address the difference uses of sex and gender. Its same-gender attraction, same-gender marriage, etc.