The Validity of Racism as a Concept – Is Racism Right?

The recent US elections, with the election of Barack Obama, have pushed the topic of race to the forefront of public attention, but few have attempted to truly ask the important question at the heart of the issue: is racism right? Does the idea that some races are superior, or at least different, to each other have validity?

Race by Appearance

To begin exploring this issue race must first be defined as innate biological differences that are inheritable. Race, as a biological concept, is defined as any inbreeding group of a species. That is to say, any group that all belong to the same species and can all breed with each other. Thus the question arises, is humanity made up of multiple races or just one? If there are multiple races, what are they and why? If the concept has any validity then in theory the difference should show up in the genetic code of a person from one race when compared to a person from another. However, when examining the methods employed by people outside the scientific community to distinguish between races it is quickly discovered that variation in phenotype, otherwise called variation in appearance, is the dominant method of racial separation. Skin color serves as the primary, appearance-based identifier that is seen as indicating what area of the earth a person comes from and in turn their genetics. This particular method of racial separation tends to sort people into five categories: the white or the Caucasoid from Europe, the black or the Negroid from Africa, the yellow or the Mongoloids from Asia, the Polynesians from the Oceanic islands and the Amerindians who are seen as native to both North and South America. The question, then, is how well these racial categories line up with genetic evidence.

Problems with Defining race by Appearance

The first problem with judging race based on appearance is that it does not take into account commonalities that extend beyond appearance. All your organs could potentially be identical to a person from a race differing from your own, your skeletal structure, your height and eye color, but if one person has a darker shade of skin then they are considered in a different race. Further adding to this problem with racial identification is that the evidence suggests as the most valid hypothesis that humanity collectively has its roots in Africa. This means that at one stage or another our ancestors all came from Africa and hence our gene pool as well². The ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis is largely accepted as the most valid in the scientific community, with the head of the genome project, Dr. Francis S. Collins, having stated in clear terms that he has largely accepted it as the case¹.

The second problem with judging race based on appearance is trying to judge where one race ends and another begins, particularly in the case where a child has a mix of what are perceived as two separate races. The genetic evidence adds further to this argument. In total, the genetic difference between the two most extreme cases of humans tested has proven to be 0.5%. Professor Alan R. Templeton of Washington University’s Department of Biology has stated that while there is significant variation between individuals, the large proportion of that variation is individual as opposed to socially defined groupings4. Furthermore, the evidence is strongly against their being any real genetic variation between culturally defined racial categories. In other words, it is a common occurrence that if a Caucasian person were to be compared to both another Caucasian person and a Negroid person, genetically, the Caucasian could have more in common with the Negroid person than the other Caucasian person. This ultimately leads to the conclusion that race does not fit the definition of race as defined by biologists, however it still leaves open the possibility that race can be defined by key traits.

Race by Key Traits

Defining race by key traits would mean that potentially Caucasians could all have a single key trait that is different to Negroids, which truly separates the two and the manner in which they approach or interact with the world. A 2003 paper written by A.W.F Edwards, a statistician and evolutionary biologist, entitled Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy argues that whilst categorising people based on race by comparing individual genetic codes does not work, examining one entire group and comparing that group to another entire group can yield results by collecting identifying racial traits that have common distribution amongst a population3. In other words, people in China may collectively have a high likelihood of three particular genetic traits that distinguish them from Europeans. Thus it is argued that four basic sub groups do exist, described as western Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, China and New Guinea. Despite this, the traits used to distinguish these groups have little to no relevance in terms of ability, specifically mental ability, and as such do not particularly aid the validity of racism as a concept. The traits are genetic markers, not necessarily markers that can be seen clearly. Furthermore, the groups can be very broad, for instance people from the Middle East, which are popularly considered a different racial group from Caucasian Westerners, are actually sorted into the western Eurasian group based on genetics.

Conclusion

Racism is more the result of social constructs based on ethnicity and culture than biological differences. Whether there is enough variation in humanity to generate noteworthy racial groups is a matter of debate, though admittedly in favour of being against the idea. Regardless, though, the genetic groupings do not match up with the already established racial groups.

Reference:

1. Collins, S in Reinberg, S (ed.). ‘Global Analysis of Human DNA Tracks Migration, Identity’. HealingWell, .

2. Diamond, J. (1994). ‘Race without color’. Discover: The World of Science, 15 (11), 83- 89.

3. Edwards, A.W.F. (2003). ‘Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy’. BioEssays, vol. 25, no. 8, pp. 798-801 .

4. Templeton, A (1998). ‘Human Races: A Genetic and Evolutionary Perspective’. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3, pp. 632-650.

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