Saturday, August 01, 2015

What is race?

Our nation is transfixed by debates over race relations. But what is racial identity in the first place?

i) On one theory, there are no races; race is just an arbitrary social construct.

ii) Some theories view races as natural kinds. They define race biologically, in terms of ancestry or similar genetics.

Some theories define race geographically in terms of country of origin.

Some theories define race culturally, in terms of a people-group with a distinctive culture. 

But these are not clear-cut demarkers. They can overlap in complex ways.

iii) It might be more accurate to speak of racial characteristics rather than races. On the one hand, people-groups can have objective characteristics. 

On the other hand, the characteristics we select for and combine to identify and distinguish one "race" from another is a social construct. 

We might compare that to sports. Pro basketball players are taller than average. Pro football players and pro wrestlers are larger than average. 

How you group people depends on your selection-criteria. Although the defining characteristics may be objective, the selection-criteria are social conventions, based on what is deemed to be relevant for the purpose at hand. Different sports value different physical traits. 

Likewise, racial categories may pick out certain objective characteristics, but why that particular combination is chosen, rather than some other set of commonalities, is a social construct. 

The whole notion of "mixed race" presumes the notion of a pure race as the standard of comparison. But what some people consider a pure race is just the dominant racial status quo–after the dust settles. 

Is there such a thing as a pure race even in principle? To my knowledge there are roughly two or maybe three sources of racial differentiation:

i) Random mutation might be a possible source

ii) Interracial breeding creates a new variety

iii) Environmental adaptation

Consider (ii). Suppose the world was 99% Amerasian. Suppose that had been the case for 10 generations. Would that be mixed race? How could you tell? That would be the norm. 

If, on that scenario, an Amerasian married a member of the 1% (let's say, "Aryan"), that would be an interracial marriage. 

If you didn't already know that Amerasian kids were the result of biracial parentage, if you only had the result to judge by, how could you even tell that was "mixed race"? 

Consider (iii). That's relative to the country of origin. But how could any particular region furnish an absolute standard of comparison? If it's due to environmental adaptation, then it's relative to any given region. To privilege one regional adaptation as "pure" is arbitrarily selective. What makes that purer than any other regional adaptation? 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! :-)

    Perhaps another data point to consider is modern geneticists like Sarah Tishkoff have purportedly shown there's more genetic variation within groups of Africans (e.g. West Africans, South Africans like Khoisans, Central Africans like Pygmies) than between any African group vs. any non-African group (e.g. various Europeans, various Asians).

    If it is true there's more genetic variation between a West African and a South African, for example, than there is between a West African and a British or Chinese person, then what does it mean to say there's a black race or a white race?

    Or if race exists, then wouldn't it be more appropriate to say there's a West African race, a South African race, and so forth, rather than the traditional categories of race like black, white, Asian, etc.? Wouldn't there be far more "races" than traditionally envisioned?

    Speaking for myself, I think it's more likely human genetic and phenotypic variations range along a continuous spectrum rather than being discrete points or categories ("races"). Not to mention most populations aren't genetically static, but dynamic.