Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Worries About Prejudice…And Old Worries About Poor Understanding of Race

This is in response to a front-page Sunday NY Times article which I found maddeningly imprecise. The journalist confuses the notion of race so many times through the different perspectives that the average reader can only continue to assume that there is such a thing as a fixed and genetic race.

Let me, just because I can’t stand imprecision about this, make a few points. While I am not a geneticist or a physical anthropologist, there are enough fallacies to sink this article. At the heart of the confusion is that she uses two different notions of race seemingly interchangeably, when only one of them is accurate: the first (and correct) notion is that certain groups of people have certain geographic origins, what she correctly referred to as “continental groups.” Such groupings, over tens of thousands of years fostered, amongst other things, divergence of characteristics due to random mutations in isolated populations (if isolated can be used in the sense of continental isolation) and to the fact that these isolated populations most likely had slightly different genetic patterning already based on their divergent wanderings out of Africa. The second (incorrect) notion is that such groupings constitute a coherent, monolithic, and stable “race” such as Caucasians, Asians, etc. Thus when Amy Harmon begins the article by suggesting that DNA can explain the differences of distinct groups of human beings – e.g., the fact that some populations have lighter or darker skin; the fact that Asians sweat less; the fact that West Africans have different resistance to certain diseases – she is conflating the two ideas to suggest that genetic markers equals race. As she states, “genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA.” The rest of the article is then an attempt to deal with the (completely false problem) of how scientists and non-scientists have to then deal with explaining away what seems to lay-people as scientific proof for the genetic difference of races. The most volatile aspect of this is the tired issue of so-called linkages between race and IQ. See the Bell Curve Wars among the thousands of books, articles, web sites, etc for a refutation of this fallacious claim.

But if the journalist had not made the initial conflation, and had just stuck with the facts that different genes in peoples of different geographic origins had different outcomes (disease resistance, darker skin, etc.) all of this hand-wringing would have been moot. All genes are independent of each other. The only reason that we falsely believe that some genes are aligned (e.g., African-Americans have darker skin, fuller lips, curlier hair, etc.) is due to the long-term continental isolation of populations tens of thousand of years ago.

Harmon even quotes several scholars who point out the overwhelming influence of environment and the socially constructed nature of our racial classifications, but these ideas slide off of her just like they do for the student (cited at the end of the article) who now embraces her African-American heritage and goes to a Kwanzaa festival after finding 9% of her DNA is of that West African ancestry.

Let me be clear: of course people make judgments on racial features; of course there is still covert and overt racism even if no such thing as race exists (in a genetic sense); of course racial issues are still volatile and difficult to discuss. But the basic point is that race is not genetic. Certain characteristics are of course genetically based. But these are two very, very different points. And such sloppy reporting only perpetuates our inability as a society to address these complex matters.

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