Essentializing race?

PBS is running a program this month called “Faces of America” (link), hosted by distinguished African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program focuses on a handful of celebrity guests, a genetic profile for each, and then a variety of “surprising” discoveries about the genealogies of various of the guests.

What I found surprising and jarring in viewing Episode 3 is the degree of essentialism about race the script seems to presuppose.  Gates’s script seems to suggest that one’s racial or ethnic identity is a function of one’s genotype and one’s ancestral (though unknown) history.  At one point Professor Gates has a discussion with Kristi Yamaguchi, the Japanese figure skater.  Pointing out that her genetic profile indicates descent from a particular genetic group that originated in far northern Asia some hundred thousand years ago, he makes a joke to the effect that perhaps her skating talent is a reflection of her ancestry in an extremely cold climate.  It’s a joke, of course; but it is a telling one.  It conveys the idea that genes make the person; that one’s biological ancestry constitutes one’s race or ancestry and one’s current characteristics.

What is surprising about this biological essentialism is the fact that most scholars who think deeply about race have decisively concluded that race is not a biological category but a cultural one.  A person’s race is socially constructed, deriving from the cultural communities in which he/she was formed and not primarily from his/her genotype or biological ancestry.  Population geneticists find that there is as much genetic variation within a “racial” group as across racial groups; which seems to imply directly that the race of each group is not determined by the genetic profile of the group.  Instead, racial or ethnic identity is created by the cultural environment in which one forms his/her most basic psychological dispositions.

The American Anthropological Association has had good reason to think deeply and critically about the concept of “race.”  In 1998 the AAA released a careful statement on race.  Here are a few specific claims included in the statement:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. 

At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call “culture.” Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.

It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world. 

So fundamentally, my reaction to the “Faces of America” script is that it seriously misrepresents the social reality of race and ethnicity, implying that identity follows from biology.  Now, of course Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is perfectly well aware of this view of the status of the category of race; he is in fact one of the country’s leading thinkers on this subject.  So it is surprising that he would have permitted the simplistic version of the facts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry that the series conveys.

The most convincing voice I heard in the program was a statement by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich who declined to undergo the genetic screening for the program.  Her explanation of her thinking, roughly, was that her Ojibwe identity was constituted by her experience of family and community, not by ancestry; and she preferred not to confuse that identity by conflating it with facts about her distant ancestors.

The point I am making here is not that the genetic techniques to which the program refers are scientifically invalid; I would be willing to assume that there is good science behind the inferences from one person’s genotype to conclusions about distant ancestry (including the gimmick of discovering that several of the guests have an ancestor in common).  But my point is that this doesn’t tell us anything at all of much interest about race or ethnicity; these are cultural constructs rather than biological facts.

Personally the conclusion I would rather come to goes along these lines: our genotypes matter very little to our current experience and social location.  The origins of our most distant ancestors is of some scientific interest but not much social significance.  If we take pride in being “Asian-American,” “Irish,” or “African-American,” it is because we have had specific social, family, and community experiences that lead us to identify with those groups and to give special importance in their struggles and achievements through history.  The child who was a foundling in New York in 1900 and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family is no less Irish and no less Catholic if it turns out her father was an Italian anarchist and her mother was a Swedish Protestant.  It is the particular communities into which we have socialized that constitute our identities, and I think that extends to racial and ethnic identities.  Of course, some readers may think that this perspective also leads to somewhat paradoxical conclusions — for example, the foundling who is “Irish” without a bit of Celtic ancestry, or that one could be Native American without any tribal ancestry.

10 Replies to “Essentializing race?”

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. But you take the nurture argument too far. Is skin color a cultural construct and artifact of upbringing? Hardly. There are plenty of culturally constructed aspects of race, but there are also biological aspects. A question is whether any of those biological aspects are mental / psychological. You take a blanket "No" approach, without any evidence on the question, other than an ideological predisposition to conflate normative political equality with actual psychological equality. These are not necessarily related. A strong case can be made for biological differences in temperament, intellect, and other psychological attributes between races, based on twin studies (psychological characteristics are highly heritable), on the large variation of these traits, and on the occurrence of differences between groups, though virtually always less than the variation within groups. That humans differ among themselves in 6% of genes may not sound like much, but since our differences with Chimpanzees are on the order of 1% of DNA, these may be highly significant differences.I'd agree that implicit theorizing/jokery by the likes of Gates is not helpful, but it does touch on a commonly recognized nub of truth, which is not served by trying very hard to ignore it.Steven Pinker wrote an incisive article on the matter some time back, concluding that facts should stay facts, and not be drawn into ideology:And for Erdrich ".. she preferred not to confuse that identity by conflating it with facts about her distant ancestors." One would hope that we have the intellectual fortitude to not stick our heads on the sand, but to face up to facts of all kinds, both biological and sociological.


  2. Burk Braun, you have written quite the diatribe against Daniel's post claiming he has a "ideological predisposition" for saying that there is no biological basis for the concept of race. I don't know whether that's true or not, but if you want to accuse another of intellectual dishonesty you are going to have to back that claim up.Anyway, Daniel is quite right as I understand it (and I am just a layman). There is no biological basis for race.And I do think you have misinterpreted part of this post, when you say:"That humans differ among themselves in 6% of genes may not sound like much, but since our differences with Chimpanzees are on the order of 1% of DNA, these may be highly significant differences."But it is not that the difference in genes between one race and another is only 6%. It is 6% of the variation in the genes that is different between one race and another. So the chimpanzees being only different in genes by only 1% is irrelevant.And since 94% of the variation in the genes is within racial groups, then it can be confidently said that, "there is greater variation within "racial" groups than between them."


  3. Hi, Alex-You raise interesting points, and the topic deserves closer argument. You say "there is no biological basis for race". Depends what you mean. If you mean that race A has one genetic composition, and race B has a fully distinct one, then you are right. If you mean that race A and race B are identical, then you are wrong. So we are in a gray zone that depends on your definitions of "difference" and "race". If variation between races amounts to 6% of total variation, this would be similar to differences between the car fleets of Hertz and Avis being 6%, with an average of, say, 6% more red Hondas at Hertz, and 6% fewer at Avis. This could create significant differences in fleet performance in many whole-fleet metrics, while not marking any particular car in either fleet as belonging with any certainty to one fleet or the other.And this is at a very gross level, not knowning what the meaning or nature of these statistical differences really are. As for the ideological imputation, I was only guessing, based on much experience- reading Stephen Gould's book on the matter and the like. In this day when human lineages are being read far back in time and in increasing detail; when our genomes provide an open book that will tell us (as more is learned) of all kinds of medical and psychological traits and predispositions, it is just not tenable to say that there are no differences between races. Our definition of races may be more sociological than biological, but insofar as there are biological lineages being assigned to "races", there are differences, which are more statistical than absolute, as detailed above, but certainly exist. What these differences might be, aside from those that are readily visible, is quite unknown. It is indeed probable that most of the biological differences are exactly those that are visible, since that is naturally one of the strongest areas of sexual selection, which is in all likelihood the strongest driver of recent racial differentiation, aside from climate pressures, etc.I realize this is a touchy area, but I am a biologist and supporter of sociobiology, which has been borne out quite strongly in recent times. I think we are capable of looking at these topics squarely through all our sociological, political, and biological lenses.


  4. Race is a political concoction. If it was a cultural thing, it would not be taken so seriously. It has its uses. A black kid raised in white family is black. A drop of black blood makes you black. Jefferson had all those children with a slave, and they were black in his eyes. The modern understanding of “race” in America has come about largely from Anglo-Saxons in relation to the African slaves. As slavery becomes distant and Anglo-Saxon influence wanes, the term might fall in disuse. As to scientific basis of race. I doubt that we will ever be able to construct a classification system for humanity that is both accurate and untainted by politics. It could never be accurate because the situation is largely fluid. There are differences between people and peoples, but the differences are continuous, not discrete. Genes and cultures are a product of our history in that both are mutable and selectable; try classifying cultures. There are no “pure” races: Greeks are more genetically related to West African Fulani than to the rest of Europeans. The drive to procreate is stronger than any barriers imposed by cultural or biological “race”; people interbreed, evolution never ends, new mutations in the genome occur, environment continuously changes. Immigration is on the upswing; “races” that are powerful today may enter a decline and disappear into other races or simply disappear. New races may arise from fusion of existing races or environmental selection. Again because the drive to procreate and to ensure a better life is so strong, no classification could be free of bias conscious or unconscious; and if someone comes up with one, who would care about it if it did not give them an advantage. If I were Mr. Gates I would just declare myself a new superior kind of being that has arisen out of the meat grinder of slavery and fusion of many “races”. Maybe he thinks that by showing that there are no “pure” races scientifically speaking he would erase the barrier in America between white and black. But he misses the target because race is a political concoction. It's a fad that will pass because it does nothing for those who indulge in it.


  5. Obviously race does exist, using the normal English definition of the word.The statement from the AAA is disingenuous– you can't consistently believe, on the one hand, that race is totally a social construct, and then admit, on the other hand, that 6% of genetic variation occurs between races. The two statements are contradictory.On top of that, according to George Cochran (occasional blogger at Gene Expression) and Henry Harpending, authors of The 10,000 Year Explosion, that 6% of genetic variation controls a disproportionate amount of the phenotype. Meaning, while 6% of the genetic variation is between races, a larger percentage of the phenotypic variation is between races.They also go on to explain that, despite the short period of time involved, some separate evolution of different races is to be expected, thanks to the drastic changes in our environment with agriculture and later developments.(Oh, hey, the Steven Pinker article Burk posted covers some of this.)


  6. Race of course is a human constructed concept like any other. Also, like most concepts, it has been defined in various ways. However, some definitions make more sense than others. For example, why claim that race is cultural, when we have the concept of culture to account for the cultural? Genes exist and have a significant impact. As Burk says, it is ridiculous to deny this. Yeah, I could understand how it could be frightening to know that it is possible to quantify the abilities of human beings to some extent through analyzing their genetics. Indeed the prospect of a genetic hierarchy, such as the one presented in The Bell Curve creates a conflict with the American ideal that "all men are created equal." But what if we're not created genetically equal, and some have an obvious advantage? What are the implications of this? Does it mean that the genetically inferior ought not be treated with the same respect as their genetic superiors? Does this reality really conflict with the ideals of Humanism? I think not; thus, I think it's time to get over this fear. (And Besides, human genetics are so complicated that it's really hard to draw strong conclusions in areas such as intelligence or motivation.)So I've gone off topic, but only because this theme of ignoring genetics is something I view as a huge problem in sociology and anthropology; and I see the that same anti-geneticist passion in much of what's going on in this discussion. But to get to my main point. Race should be viewed as a a matter of degree. There are some groups that have been more isolated and so have more genetic homogeneity, such as the Finnish and Japanese. We have groups like the "ethnic" French which maybe hit a middle ground. We have the Italians that have yet more genetic diversity, and then we have people with genes from various parts of the globe, who are generally labeled as "multi-racial." However, the two elements I see as essential are initial genetic variability and time. So we can find an interbreeding group, such as the Finnish, and look into how that group came to be. Where did the people come from? How diverse was that initial group? To what degree did they exclude alien genes from the beginning of their group to the present? Perhaps in the end we will discover that the traditional definitions of race are far to simplistic and categorize as "races" groups with hugely varying levels of genetic homogeneity. In other words, treats the French and the Finnish equally as a race. I hope that we can see the shortcomings in this without abandoning the core meaning within the essentialist concept of race (for it is a concept that can be quite useful at times).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: