A clutch of books published this year argue the question. All miss the point.
Michael Yudell’s Race Unmasked and Robert Sussman’s The Myth of Race can be read as inadvertent retorts to former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, published while the former were in the press. Wade’s book is by far the most insidious, but all three are polemics that become mired in proving (in Wade’s case) or disproving (in the others’) whether race is biological and therefore ‘real’. This question is a dead end, a distraction from what is really at stake in this debate: human social equality.
Race is certainly real — ask any African American. It originated long before the science of genetics, as sets of phenotypes and stereotypes. These correlate with haplotypes, clusters of genetic variation. In this sense, race is genetically ‘real’. But those correlations depend on judgement calls. Wade cites population-genetics studies that identify three principal races: caucasian, African and East Asian. Elsewhere he cites five, adding Australasian and Native American; or seven, splitting caucasians into people from Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. A study in Scientific Reports this year identified 19 “ancestral components”, including Mozabites, Kalash and Uygurs. Palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo and others have revealed the underlying human genetic variation to be a series of gradients. Whether and how one parses that variation depends on one’s training, inclination and acculturation. So: race is real and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is ‘really’ genetic.
The completion of the draft human-genome sequence in 2000 led some optimists to forecast the end of race, but use of the term in the biomedical literature has actually increased since then. For clinicians, race is a matter of pragmatism. Although each of us is genetically and epigenetically unique, our ancestry leaves footprints in our genomes. Consequently, clinicians use familiar racial categories such as ‘black’ or ‘Ashkenazi Jewish’ as crude markers of genotypes, in a step towards individualized medicine. For them, the reality of race is immaterial; diagnosis and treatment are what count.
Debates over the genetic reality of race, then, are not mainly scientific, but social. They deploy the cultural authority of science — considered society’s most objective way of understanding the world — as a fig leaf for positions motivated explicitly or implicitly by ideology. All three of these books argue that if the proof or disproof of race is scientific, it must be true. The author must be right. More importantly, his opponents must be wrong.
A full-throated, intellectually rigorous anti-racism must critically assess both biological and cultural evidence about race. It must acknowledge that no work on race science can be free of ideology — and, precisely for that reason, it must not place historical actors before a moral green screen showing an image of contemporary values. Rather, it must set the stage for each scene with meticulous, empathetic historical detail. Such work would allow the scientific study of ‘racial superiority’ — inherently grounded in subjectivity and bias — to fall on its own sword.
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