Race as a social construct? No — and Yes!

Are the PC and non-PC crowds still arguing over the meaning of race? Of course. But a recent and quite useful review in The Occidental Quarterly (Fall, 2008) by Alexander Hamilton (“Taxonomic approaches to race”) shows that genetic differences imply that race is a valid biological category, on a par with sub-species in the rest of biology.

However, we will point out here that, actually, there is at least a modest role for social constructs.

Hamilton explains that the criterion for species differences is the absence of successful reproduction of fertile offspring between such groups. On the other hand, interbreeding can be successful between sub-species even though the individuals are somewhat different genetically. Since biologists routinely categorize other organisms as members of sub-species on the grounds of significant and meaningful genetic differences, why isn’t it reasonable to consider human races as sub-species and, hence, equally legitimate, valid, and useful biological categories? Hamilton then goes on to review the taxonomic problem scientists have had in deciding on the number of races.

As he notes, species become species only when the original population of a species divides and the resultant groups are somehow blocked from further contact and interbreeding; subsequent independent genetic changes in each group accumulate to the point that interbreeding is no longer possible. Normally this all happens because of geographical barriers. And this isolation is the reason why so many racial (genetic) characteristics cluster together.

Hamilton notes that race deniers complain that Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, whose research is considered standard in the field of human population genetics, sampled people from different geographical areas in a search for genetic differences, as if he were somehow artificially jacking up the amount of genetic difference. The race deniers suggest obtaining random samples aimed at finding genetic relatedness. However, it is that very geographical isolation and the resulting clustering that helps make race meaningful as a category.

Why? Because the clustering allows one to make predictions about what is likely to accompany a particular racial classification. If I know that you have aboriginal ancestry, I would be well advised to avoid encouraging you to drink alcohol. Alcohol is really a poison for a great many Indians because of their biological ancestry, and they may need all the help they can get in refraining from it. (There obviously are non-Indians for whom alcohol is a poison, too. It’s just that alcoholism seems less of a racial characteristic for some other races.)  

Of course this is racial profiling. But racial profiling improves prediction about what people are like, so it’s a problem mainly for people who do not want their behavior predicted.

It’s interesting that some species don’t interbreed because of quite trivial obstacles. Two species of birds may not reproduce together only because they have, say, a slightly different song For example, the red-legged partridge and the rock partridge look similar but remain separate because of their mating calls. In other words, some different species look to us as more similar to each other than do many members of the same human race, not to mention people of different races. Thus, being different species doesn’t imply different appearance.

On the other hand, if races are biologically different because of clusters of genetic differences, they can (like species) still vary in precisely how different they are from each other, especially when the isolating barriers are not totally impermeable. Biologists use the term cline when there are gradients in the distributions of the genes responsible for the racial differences. This variation in degree of genetic difference is the basis for conceptualizing trees of genetic relatedness. The following illustration is from Frank Salter’s important On Genetic Interests and is based on Cavalli-Sforza’s work:

Next note that the genetic differences that make the races different need not be visible to the human eye. For example, reproductive isolation over many generations could make one race more susceptible to diabetes than another. Who would know? It’s not something one can see in another person even though it represents a genetic difference.

This is probably why people have trouble agreeing on the number of races. Anthropologists and people generally differ according to which differences they experience as salient or dramatic and they do so for psychological and socialreasons as Pierre van den Berghe recognized.

The number of races is not set in stone but a more a matter of where one wants to draw lines. The figure below results in seven different racial groups, but one could easily combine some groups together and get a lower number.

The second author of this article has described several ways in which human psychology influences racial classification. First, using our rational faculties, we can decide how to carve up the racial landscape to best suit our political and genetic interests. For a European-American, it makes much more sense to identify with others who can trace their ancestry back to Europe before 1492, but possibly excluding Jews given the unusually long history of hostility and mistrust between Jews and other groups and  because most of their genetic background derives from the Middle East. On the other hand, it would be a poor strategy to identify only with Scottish Americans or Italian-Americans because these relatively small groups have much less political potential in multicultural America than the category of European Americans.

Secondly, psychological research on race shows that people’s perceptions of others are typically tinged by racial stereotypes. At the unconscious level, the social construction of blacks in America is tinged by our images of black criminality and poor academic performance. But at the conscious, explicit level, we tend to construct race according to what the mainstream media like the New York Times tells us we should believe. Needless to say, there are very large penalties in store for people who publicly dissent from the official view.

The score? Both sides are right. Race exists as a biological reality and, as Frank Salter reminds us, it is an important storehouse of genetic interests for all humans. But how we behave on the basis of this information is not at all determined by the genetic data. We Europeans must define ourselves in a way that makes strategic sense. And we have to make explicit assertions of racial identity and explicit assertions of our racial interests. No other strategy will succeed in staving off the dispossession of European America.

Anthony Hilton is Assoc. Prof. (retired) in the Psychology Department, Concordia University, Montreal.

Kevin MacDonald is a professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach.