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Biologically Speaking, Race Doesn't Exist

Dr. J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, the company that recently mapped the human genome, recently said of race and biology, "It is disturbing to see reputable scientists and physicians . . . categorizing things in terms of race."

Dr. Venter’s statements were emphatically backed by Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr., author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at Millennium," in a recent New York Times interview.

"Possibly only six genes determine the color of a person’s skin," Graves, a professor of evolutionary biology and African-American Studies at Arizona University, said in the Times interview.

Six genes, out of the 30,000 to 40,000 genes that make us human, determine race. Graves further asserted what genome researches have been uncovering over several years as the mapping project has wound down: as far as biology is concerned, race doesn’t exist.

Black, white, Asian—all are artificial, really. A black man and a white man from Manhattan, for example, are likely to be more genetically similar than a black man from Manhattan and a black man from Nigeria.

Graves sites sickle cell anemia as an example of what’s widely thought to be a "black disease." In fact, because sickle cells offer immunity to malaria, the condition exists wherever malaria exists. American blacks descended primarily from West African blacks, where malaria is abundant. But Graves notes that the disease is also present in Greece and Yemen. Had colonial American slaves been Greek or Yemeni, sickle cell anemia would be known to Americans as a Greek or Yemeni disease, not a black one.

Graves and Venter hope their research will prevent doctors from considering race when making diagnoses. But, as the Times points out, old habits die hard. The current Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, continues to divert millions of dollars toward eliminating health disparities among the "races" by 2010. Black medical associations continue to fund research into black-only pharmaceuticals for "black-only" ailments.

But voices like those of Graves and Venter are beginning to change some minds, if ever so slowly.

This heartening new research ought to have sociological implications as well. If my doctor sees no difference between black and white, my Congressman, my teacher and my police chief shouldn’t either.

It’s time government stop recognizing race.

The 2000 U.S. Census lists eleven different racial and ethnic classifications, and allows for any hybrid combination of those eleven.

The last Census also was steeped in racial classification controversy. Should minorities be "actually enumerated," or estimated via statistical sampling? Federal dollars are routinely allocated on the basis of race, as are federal contracts to private firms. The use of race in college admissions processes has mired academia in turmoil and controversy. Private companies are closely monitored to ensure the workers on their payroll have faces tinted to "look like America."

Following the government’s lead, sociologists, demographers, statisticians and academics endlessly break down our television viewing habits, purchases, mortality rates, income and voting patterns into black and white, red and yellow.

Is it any wonder then why America is race-obsessed?

Black Americans are routinely told that they are sicker, poorer, less intelligent, less upwardly-mobile, less motivated, more criminally-inclined and more prone to illegitimacy than their white and Asian counterparts.

Of course none of these maladies is predicated on biology. They are class disparities, not race disparities. As conservative columnist George Will recently noted, if one could wave a magic wand over black America and make it white, black America’s problems would not disappear with its pigment.

Affirmative action, a program that rewards race for race’s sake, usually at the expense of merit, is a fine example. Black social critics on the left and right have lamented that academic success in urban high schools and among black communities on college campuses is often equated with the "whiteness," or at the very least, with the lack of "blackness," of the African American students.

Affirmative action -- government recognition and selection based on race – has instilled in black Americans a stigmatization that equates their own race with academic failure.

But race isn’t the reason the poor kid from the city needs a boost – class is. A white or Asian kid from the inner city is just as disadvantaged as a black one. But he doesn’t get extra consideration. The implication is that being poor is not a disadvantage, but being black is.

Some colleges now recognize "hardship" and "background" in the admissions process. But race continues to drive their selections.

America will never get over race until we stop crunching our numbers by it. Change should start with the state. As more Americans intermarry, and as overseas and interracial adoptions continue to attract American couples, racial and ethnic distinctions will continue to erode—in skin tone, as well as in custom and culture. Consequently, the government’s habit of recognizing these distinctions will become more and more absurd.

Unfortunately, the same people who rightly want racial blinders removed from board rooms and highway troopers wrongly want government to continue to recognize race when it benefits their own interests. The statistics and alleged discrepancies that continue to racially marginalize and fractionalize Americans also fuel the fundraising drives, the political clout and the demands for federal assistance from racial advocacy groups.

If science ceases to recognize race, government ought to follow suit. It’s time to take race off of the U.S. Census. And, while we’re at it, off of college applications, loan applications, and off the minds of New Jersey’s state troopers.

If the state takes the lead, perhaps the rest of us will follow.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va.

 

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