The concept of ‘race’ or ‘racial groups’ – and the related notion of ‘racism’ – played a central role in the history of the 20th century. These terms remain influential and widely used to the present day – and while ‘racism’ is generally held to be on the decline, legal machinary for countering it is waxing, not waning.
So ‘race’ is not a dead issue. Not yet. Most people still use the word, right across the political spectrum.
Anyway, we're ALL grubs: the famous Punch cartoon from 1882
Race is traditionally a matter of concern to many people associated with the right-wing of politics. Racism is increasingly a focus for concern on the left.
What I’m about to say may cause right- and left-wingers alike some irritation, but I hope I can retain the interest of readers to hear the argument out.
Ideally, I recommend investing the hour needed to watch the accompanying video (below).
My central proposition here is that use of the term ‘race’ to describe and delineate distinct human sub-groups is a source of nothing more than confusion.
It serves no useful purpose.
Its use adds no value to discussions about human beings, our biology, cultures and society.
Race is not a meaningful biological or anthropological concept – and using the expression only confuses whatever issues are under discussion, distracting us from meaningful and potentially useful debates.
That’s the bottom line of this fascinating panel discussion between four eminent scientists, hosted by Cornell University in early 2009 as part of its Darwin bicentennial celebrations.
These presentations and the ensuing discussion at Cornell’s Darwin Days: Evolution and Race seminar are enlightening. The panel is carefully-chosen and the different contributions compliment each other well.
A brief summary of their main and quite unanimous conclusions was reported in Cornell University online on February 11th 2009: Evolution and race: Biologically, race is no longer an issue, scientific panel agrees:
Panelist Kenneth Kennedy, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, agreed with Gates and Provine that “the traditional race concept is now defunct in science.” He emphasized, however, that many of the same ideas about race that have been around for 200 years are still common in our society.
An audience member asked, “If the race concept doesn’t have a biological basis, why is it continuing?”
The answer, the panelists agreed, is that traditional race theory is perpetuated by people who don’t know it’s false — which is most people.
I’ll go further and say that it would be better if the word ‘race’ did not exist at all (or was restricted to athletics and water courses). This is because while the term ‘race’ has no biological or anthropological validity, the fact that it is so widely and loosely deployed itself constitutes a problem. It’s a source of confusion that tends to be exploited by the most powerful sectarian interests to the disadvantage of others.
This essay would benefit greatly from multilingual analysis, but I’d need to spend a lot longer researching the topic to present a careful comparative analysis with other major languages such as French, German, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Janapese and Chinese. Such a study would be fascinating – and might support or weaken the case I’m about to make. I suspect there would be clear parallels and subtle differences in other languages. But my argument here is based solely on the use of the term ‘race’ in the English language. I hope to show that – at least in this very influential language of English – the word ‘race’ and its various derivatives behave like mischievous demons. I also believe the confusing and mischievous ‘meme’ of ‘race’ may not be pure linguistic accident. It’s plausible that it’s result of careful thought and planning over several generations by the world’s most powerful sectarian interest group – the Jewish/Zionist Lobby.
Whatever specialist scholars may say on the subject – and they have plenty to say that’s in remarkable general agreement – most of the populace still embraces the term ‘race’ and uses it widely. In doing so, the condition is created in which something called ‘racism’ can exist and in some cases flourish (it would be hard, after all, for people who don’t believe in ‘race’ and never use the term to behave as – or be deemed – ‘racists’).
But if discrete human ‘races’ are mythical, what is one to make of ‘racism’? Can people hold prejudicies about fantasies? The answer is clearly yes. At the time of the Salem witch trials, many people reported intense feelings of loathing and revulsion for witches. Yet most folk of our own era doubt the very existence of witches as such; we’re more likely to conclude the Salemites fell under the spell of a collective delusion. They conjured up witches – in their individual minds and in common discourse – out of ordinary people. Today, ‘racists’ hold fears based on equally imaginary phobias – because races as distinct competing entities simply do not exist.
It is true, of course, that humans can invest time and intellectual energy into inventing discrete races – just as we can categorise the world’s people in a vast range of other ways. But agreement over precise racial divides is unachievable. We now now enough about human biology to understand that the attempt itself is fatuous. That wasn’t the case in Charles Darwin’s day. This understanding is relatively new and as Will Provine explained in the seminar, it’s the consequence of extraordinarily rapid scientific advances – especially in genetics and molecular biology – since the middle of the 20th century. Popular culture has yet to catch up with the science. Even government policies often continue to re-inforce the old racial confusions.
Most of the concerns of people who hold ‘racist’ views – or who are held by others to hold ‘racist’ views – are in essence cultural, social, economic or political. As such, concerns expressed by ‘racists’ often represent legitimate issues that should be raised and discussed for what they truly are.
Just as the illusion of race creates a foundation for ‘racism’ to exist, oppression of ‘racists’ eviscerates public discourse and hinders attempts to resolve the underlying cause of what are often legitimate community concerns.
We should forget about race and stop assigning people to these imaginary categories. We should also stop fretting about racism. In this new century, we can build a civilization that respects and nurtures human diversity while valuing humanity as one whole and inter-related family. It’s better that once we clearly identify ghosts and myths, we give them no further energy.
If this helps shed light on the hoary old chestnut ‘is Jewishness racial in essence?’, so much the better. Whatever does define ‘Jewishness’ as a (purportedly) discrete subset of humanity, it’s not race.
Charles Darwin (not evil, just wrong about some things - and in his own day, not branded a 'racist' or 'hate criminal' for undertaking intellectual inquiry)
The growing use of laws overtly aimed at combatting ‘racial prejudice’ to constrain open debate about history and contemporary politics is an intellectual absurdity, a con-trick and an outrage. It also happens to be in flagrant violation of the International Declaration of Human Rights.
Can humanity please grow up? Science – and life itself – is an inquiry without limits.
As Professor Sylvester James Gates pointed out so eloquently at the Dawin Day’s seminar, pioneering scientists such as Darwin:
“…are led on journeys of discovery, and… don’t deny what comes out of that journey.”
We must never allow any vested interest to criminalise inquiry itself.
“The western nations of Europe … Immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors, and stand at the summit of civilization..”
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world… The break between men and his nearest allies will then be wider”
- Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, published in 1871