The Race Race
A few days back, I engaged in an extended set of debates with several interested parties on the idea of race — the back and forth of which prompted Steve Sailer, founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute, to pass along the link to his speech, delivered in abridged form at the Reagan Library on July 17, 2002.
The occasion and purpose of Mr. Sailer’s speech I’ll let him describe:
For the last two summers, University of California’s Ward Connerly, leader of the successful 1996 Proposition 209 campaign outlawing racial preferences in California and the 2004 Racial Privacy Initiative, has hosted a small but wide-ranging conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This year, he asked Boston U. anthropologist Peter Wood, author of the upcoming book Diversity: A Biography of a Concept, and I to debate the fundamental question of whether race is a biologically meaningful concept. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity to outline my approach at adequate length before a distinguished audience.
Sailer’s idea involves redefining the term “race” in order to account for the actual DNA-level differences population geneticists use to distinguish between hereditary groups. Sailer defines race this way: “A racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree.”
In this regard, Sailer’s idea of racial categorization is similar in theory to Dr. Neil Risch’s “crude” (as Sailer characterizes it) top-down continental-scale taxonomy – the difference being that Mr. Sailer’s approach relies on a “bottom-up” model, which he describes this way: “the bottom-up approach simply eliminates any compulsion to draw arbitrary lines regarding whether a difference is big enough to be racial. With enough inbreeding, hereditary differences will emerge that will first be recognizable to the geneticist, then to the physical anthropologist, and finally to the average person.”
Below is my response to Mr. Sailer, which I sent him via email:
Thanks for providing the link to your presentation, 'It's All Relative: Putting Race in its Proper Perspective,' in the comments section of my weblog.
A few notes in response to your piece, if I may.
First, you write:
My definition of race offers that kind of conceptual power that allows us to [think through ways to resolve conflict] for a host of other [racial] issues.
What practical steps are implied by this family-based definition of race?
First, if race is a natural, omnipresent potential fault line in human affairs, that suggests to me that we Americans should be extremely wary of using the vast power of the government to exacerbate the natural divisiveness of race by officially classifying people by race.
I agree with this, and I've said as much in my comments, which is precisely why I take the position that "race" (as we conceive of it in the U.S.) is problematic, and that government-sponsored social programs that rely on faulty ideas of "race" are divisive and counterproductive; whereas forging a national identity (which is "real" in the sense that citizenship is a legal category -- not so slippery as "race") is a more socially beneficial identity goal -- provided we continue as a society to find workable ways to account for the most unfortunate of our citizens.
Where I think we disagree is on the need to save the term "race" itself. You define race this way: "A racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree."
Later on you write:
Various euphemisms have been tried without much success. For example, the geneticists, such as the distinguished Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford, who study what the normal person would call 'race,' don't call themselves 'racial geneticists.' Instead, they blandly label themselves 'population geneticists.'
That allows them at least sometimes to sneak their research projects by under the radar of the politically correct. But it's important to realize that they are not using 'population' in the non-racial sense of phrases like 'California's population' or 'UCLA's student population,' but in the specific sense of 'hereditary populations' such as the Japanese or the Icelanders or the Navajo.
Among all the different kinds of 'populations,' the only ones population geneticists study are the ones whose members tend to share genes because they tend to share genealogies.
That's what I'd call a 'racial group.' But, if you don't like the word 'race,' well, maybe we should just hire one of those firms that invent snazzy new names like 'Exxon' for unfashionable old corporations like Standard Oil, and then hire an ad agency to publicize this new name for 'race.'
This last is (I think) an unfortunatly glib dismissal of the crux of the argument being made by many of us who take the "no such thing as race" track. That is, if most of us in the US use "race" to mean something other (and opposed) to the definition of race you are offering (you note: "The way most Americans currently think about race tends to fall in between rigor and absurdity. The consensus American view is full of contradictions, obsolete ideas, and fantasies"), then what purpose does it serve to maintain the category "race" to begin with? -- as opposed to, say, "hereditary genetics"? Not as catchy as Exxon, perhaps -- but also thankfully emptied of the kind of baggage "race" carries with it. PoMo theorists have done much of the work by emptying the concept of "race" (as it's been used legally in the history of US jurisprudence) of its (mostly faulty or overbroad) essentialist freight. Why reivigorate it by applying new signification ("an extended family that is inbred to some degree") to the signifier?
The reason I argue (academically) that race doesn't exist is because "race" as you use the term -- distinguishable by genetic patterns evident among members of extended, inbred families -- is not a description available to most people who are seeking to lay claim to a particular "racial" identity. And that is because most people, obviously, aren't privy to the significance of the mapping in their genetic makeup. Instead, they rely on a kind of hodgepodge of signifiers -- from geographical heritage (my Dad is Irish), to verbal history (my great great great Grandmother on my Mother's side was Native American -- at least, that's how the story goes), to visible iconic signifiers (nappy hair, eyelid fat, skin color).
And so the question becomes this: if "race" is not what we think it is, why should something we don't think race to be come to count as "race" at all? As I mentioned in my several posts, I'm not denying genetic patterns or similarities uncovered by population geneticists -- just as I wouldn't think to deny obvious, Richard Pryor-esque signs pointing to a tenuous type of suggested kinship. But why must we use an outmoded and overdetermined signifier such as "race" when "hereditary genetics" or "extended-bred family" would do just fine, and is a more precise description of what the science itself is purporting to study? Your answer seems to be that it would take time and an especially gifted and motivated PR firm to cause such terms to catch on, whereas "race" is conveniently available, having been stripped of it's most disagreeable connotations.
My point is, that to rid ourselves of the social artifice we've built around our long-running misunderstanding of the term race, we're best off ridding ourselves of the term itself (as a scientific category) -- particularly because there's no essential connection between the term "race" and the idea of "hereditary population genetics." Ridding ourselves of the old category doesn't somehow make actual genetic histories disappear; what it does do, though, is diminishes the power of the social/governmental "race" industry so active -- and so often divisive, to my way of thinking -- in our country.