August 9, 2002

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.


Jeff G.

Posted by Jeff G. @ 5:17pm

Comments (11)

  1. Brilliant, Jeff. I couldn’t agree more. Somewhat unrelatedly, I just wanted to point out the obvious: we can’t drop the concept of race (in its conventional, American sense) just yet, simply because the term means so much to so many people, and a clear understanding of our society is impossible without it, however dubious it might be.

    But some day. . .

  2. Most people in the US use the term race in a cultural sense, which is nonsensical. That’s why people like Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, and Thomas Sowell can be excoriated as “inauthentic.” They express opinions different from those deemed appropriate for their “race” by self selected arbiters. Under the dead hand of PC doctrine, people are not permitted to be individuals, but are only valid when made undifferentiated bits of a large group identity. Anyone not accepting this is suffering from “false consciousness.” Interesting how such enlightened, “liberal” thought discards any concept of individual worth in favor of group affiliation

    I know lots of people with family names such as Furukawa and Iwahashi. They aren’t Japanese, they’re American. If race is to have any legitimate meaning, it must be based on specific physical characteristics, which are themselves meaningful. Hair texture, skin tone, bone structure are useless for any practical consideration.

    If a genetic classification of “race” has advantages in certain narrow conditions, then so be it. I cannot see what relevance it would have socially, though – because claiming it did is racist.

  3. Yeah, that’s the hope, Glenn: some day. The problem is, how do we get there?

    My strategy has been to work on diminishing the cache of the term. The last thing we need to do is bring the term back, even while changing the meaning almost entirely.

    Steven is right—if bottom-up genetic taxonomy has a legitimate use for science, so be it. But my point is, there’s no reason that I can think of to call such a taxonomy “racial”—because a more exact description, “hereditary genetics,” say, is available, and doesn’t carry with it the baggage and myth of “race.”

  4. This attempt to rehabilitate/redefine “race” seems particularly problematic because if the attempt succeeds it’s likely that the notion that race is back as a scientific concept will gain far more currency than the details of the redefinition.

    Normally, I’m inclined to take a “live and let live” approach to people who want to redefine the meaning of traditional terms, but in the case of a word like “race” that’s been at the heart of so much social strife I really think people have a responsibility to consider the likely effects of their actions and bend over backwards to avoid suggesting that the old idea of race has any validity.

  5. My ancestry is Ashkenazic Jewish. My wife’s ancestry is Korean. We have a son. I have absolutely no idea what “race” our son is supposed to belong to. Even if someone can design a rigid biological definition of his race based on whichever genes he happened to end up with, I can’t imagine why such a classification would or should be of any use to anybody.

  6. Glenn,

    How to get there:

    Someday, in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, we will be capable of lining people up in such a way that the person on one end is “obviously” black and the person on the other end is “obviously” white, and such that no individual in the entire line up is racially distinguishable from his neighbor.  With such a line (constructable for any 2 “racial” groups), the concept of “race” is utterly destroyed.

    It could probably be done today, with enough work.

  7. I don’t know how I ended up on Steve Sailer’s mailing list, but he’s clearly off his nut. The trend in our society is towards finer categorization of people for political, sociological and marketing purposes. That has the effect of destroying the large categories of race we have suffered. That’s a good trend although not particularly scientific.

    But for the purposes of ‘race’ that is, when we want to talk about politics, society and marketing, these new terms are emprical, but that doesn’t imply that an categorically complete and accurate genetic map will serve the purposes of politics, society and marketing. Indeed I beleive the only the purpose such genetic distinctions can make are those that pseudo-scientists have always sought – a holy grail of genetic determinism. Even if such a thing were to be found (a dubious quest), Huxley has shown the moral error in Brave New World. 

    Where race has been most significant, in law and politics the problem has always been that some authority has perverted the premises of equality and natural rights. Nothing external to these original principles should skew them. In this matter the findings of genetics has no standing. We know what is meant by ‘All Men’, and if genetics were to find that some of us were half mosquito, what then of our civil society? Should those found so be allowed to suck the blood of the others? Should the others be allowed to poison them and their eggs? Of course not. We are what we are in the social compact which required no genetics to improve, and requires none in the future.

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