New Census Categories, and the Concept of Race

I recently listened to a public radio interview, with an employee of the US Census Bureau, which is considering what might give people clear, meaningful and satisfactory choices for their self-identification into  Categories . “Some other  race” does provide a choice, but that leaves people with the decision of what might be a ‘race’ , when those listed don’t apply. The current effort to  distinguish people by an amorphous mix of groupings, including color, ethnicity, religion, geographical origin, language, and especially race, goes along with the increase in ‘identity politics’. Below I’ll discuss and include an article from Scientific American that explains what’s wrong, scientifically, with the concept of race.

What is the  purpose of the Census? The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, requires a general census every 10 years. “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.” This has been extended over time, to get more information (which is confidential for 72 years), to determine what are the needs and living conditions of various individuals and households. This constitutional  text also includes the infamous Missouri Compromise about representation numbers, “which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons” – in other words, African slaves.

The 2010 questionnaire is given here. There are many references to “race” in it,  which may be re”considered in the upgrade. It’s evident that the classification of race is used with an assumption that ordinary people understand it, and will apply it easily. I doubt that assumption.  For instance, the questionnaire, in Question 8, concentrates on “Latino language variations (as opposed to “Latin” languages, which would include Italian, French and Portuguese), and it further divides the former by country of origin. So where does that collection belong, in terms of race?  Question 9 uses “race” throughout. White is the first race mentioned, and no distinction in sub-groupings is given. Black is the second race listed (or ‘clarified’ to include “African American and Negro”), but African American is not a ‘race’ term, and Africans who are non Americans are left out.

The rest of the list of so-called ‘races’ in this Census form are tribes, tribal groupings, or nations (e.g. ‘Fijians’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Asian Indian’). This suggests the term can be used to cover practically any grouping with which people wish to identify, but would that include American, or Lesbian, or Carolinian? This kind of confusion makes people react negatively to filling out governmental forms, especially obligatory ones.

Obviously these lists give different degrees of importance to different kinds of self-classification, which may be by country of birth, country of residence, native language, cultural identity, ethnicity, tribe, religion, etc. Many of these may be “suspect” groups in the law, given special attention for negative discrimination. Even naming them can be fraught with social and political conflict, especially where history plays a big role. Compare the old Greek region of Macedonia, and its classical associations with Aristotle and Alexander the Great , and the new Balkan country of Macedonia immediately next door. What should a “Macedonian” in the U.S. put down?

Religion is also a category for identity, which has often been a source of friction and bloodshed. France has forbidden categorization by religion since 1882, because it honors beliefs as private, and bringing them into governmental data gathering can threaten social and political order.

Recognizing  the special significance of talk about race in European history, countries in the European Union have formally tried to make agreements they thought would discourage racism. Although such policies  might reflect an admirable principle of inclusion, they makes social science research difficult, and there is wide disagreement among the member countries. If you want to skim a long piece of legislation regarding “‘Ethnic statistics’ and Data Protection in the Council of Europe Nations”, which will go into effect in 2018, here it is. The document is 88 pages long, the first 31 pages consisting of “whereas” paragraphs, and the law itself consisting of 99 Articles. This particular legislation has been through several modifications. I’m sure it’s especially concerning to European citizens in this time of internet hacking, loss of privacy and political division.

The concept of race has been problematic for generations. I had an associate – recently passed away – who was  Argentinian, an MD psychoanalyst, a researcher in psycho-pharmacology and a very critical thinking philosopher. About 25 years ago, he convinced me that race is a nonsense idea at best, and usually is a tool for economic and political harm. With this in mind, I did some research, to look for pro and con arguments. Recent genetic research, including the Human Genome Project, convince me that “race” is largely a meaningless term, scientifically speaking, and should be eliminated from serious scientific and political discussions. Here’s an article on the topic, from Scientific American, which spells out why that is the case. (Apparently the  Census Bureau hasn’t come  to the scientists’ conclusion, but of course it is a political agency, which makes it a problem.)

Consider ‘racism’, before looking at ‘race’. Racism is a prejudicial attitude against a particular group, which is a natural results of a child’s desire to be accepted by her parents. Children know from experience that acting in  accord with their parents’ wishes brings reward. They comply with the models parents present, in terms of behavior, dress and ways of talking  (and even thinking). For a child, “I’m a good girl” is equivalent to “I’m doing what pleases my parents. The people who are different from me (and my family) aren’t doing what is desired of them. They must be bad”. The ‘Other’ is always suspect. With a little parental encouragement, this thinking leads to racism, and is passed on, unless a person tries hard to work against it.

Being able to think about humans in a big picture, objectively, with good will, is a way  of escaping racism and all prejudice. It’s what Confucius and Socrates described, 2500 years ago, and many others since. A virtuous or noble or superior person must always strive to broaden her perspective, from self-centered, to family, to country, to all humans – i.e. the ‘human race’, where the term properly applies. This is not natural,  but it’s the essence of morality. ‘I’m not worried that others don’t know me, but that I don’t know them.’ ‘A superior person is guided by what is right; an inferior person by what pays.’ ‘Superior people don’t compete.’ ‘Don’t judge yourself by what others think of you, but by standards you know are true.’ ‘Don’t advance yourself by making others look bad.’  These are wise sayings you will find in classical literature – not on corporate TV. They are largely foreign to our popular culture.

The idea of race is not based on biological facts, but it is expressed primarily in biological terms, like ‘blood’, ‘inheritance’, ‘genes’, or ‘DNA’. In my view, racist ‘boxes’ are categories that develop wherever one group dominates another, to justify the inequity. So, for example, the Roman masters had racist ideas about their slaves from Gaul (France) but today both would be called ‘White’. This included thinking Gauls were irrational, and acted with no regard for their lives. They went ‘berserk’ when fighting. In my view, race is a  pseudo-scientific concept, expressed today primarily in biological language to give it the look of objectivity.

Racism in America developed, with and because of the need for cheap and manageable labor, including slaves, all over the  early Colonies. But there were many fewer slaves in the more industrial North, than in the agricultural South, whose economy depended on labor intensive tobacco and indigo farms.  In both regions, slaves often worked side by side with indentured Irish immigrants or Native Americans. When these crops destroyed the soil, however, southern agricultural production turned almost overnight to cotton growing, and that turned to a mass scale business when the cotton gin was invented (1794). That made a huge demand for slaves, just when some Whites were beginning to worry about the issue.

Africans were originally brought into the pre-revolutionary colonies, almost by accident. The earliest African slaves were brought to North America in 1619 – specifically to  Virginia – by a Dutch ship which had taken them by force from a Spanish ship. This small group (maybe 20 persons) were treated as ‘indentured servants’ and eventually freed, if they could pay off their ‘debt’. This is because Christians were forbidden to enslave other Christians, and these particular Africans had already been baptized as Christians by the Spanish slavers, when they were captured in Africa. That was Spanish policy. (See Wikipedia, “Slavery in the Colonial United States.”) More slaves were brought to the Caribbean  (1.2 million to Jamaica alone) and to Brazil (4.8 million), than to  North America (about 400, 000).

I think one reason for this difference is that England was interested in setting up colonies, and working trade agreements with them, whereas the Catholic rulers were more oriented to getting gold and sugar, for example, and also to Christianize native populations.

As the dependency on cheap labor for plantation work grew, the view that Africans were a distinct race developed, and their ‘characteristics’ were said to make them docile, physically suited for hard labor, but naturally lazy, and in need of masters who were ‘racially superior’ to ‘care for’ them. They were accustomed to being controlled by African rulers, and would be happier in that condition. I think such a view still has currency in parts of traditional southern culture.  [See White Trash: The  400-year Untold History of Class in America.] There was little opposition in principle to slavery in the American colonies, until the discussions leading up to the Revolution began to show the inconsistencies between slavery and the much discussed ideals of the Founders.

While I was doing some of this research in a local coffee shop, an acquaintance asked if I were writing, or doing research. ‘Research’, I said. ‘It’s an interesting article about the idea of race’, I added. ‘Do you think race is a meaningful category?’ ‘Of course’, he replied. ‘It’s obvious.’ (When someone says ‘Of course’ to answer a difficult question, I go into argument mode.) So we talked about this for some time. Without thinking any reasoning was needed, he stated that Blacks constitute a race, and that they have fixed biological characteristics that prove it. Their physiques are determined (which make them good football players). So are their poor language skills (just listen to them talking to reporters), and low intelligence (making them poor baseball players – standing in order below Yellow, White, Red and perhaps Brown  ‘races’). When I asked about chess, he thought they couldn’t be good chess players either. This man is a retired accountant, a died-in-the-wool Republican, and takes his ideas from Fox News and Newt Gingrich radio talks, so I didn’t expect much critical thinking. But I tried, and things remained friendly. His view illustrates well how race as a pseudo-scientific category can be used to excuse racist thinking, and the policies based on them.

What the article I referred to above shows (according to biologists) is the mistake of thinking there is a fixed set of scientifically measurable characteristics that belong exclusively to each ‘race,’ which are not shared by any of the others. There are skin tones, for example, of certain Blacks that are lighter than those of  many Whites, and conversely. Some Blacks are taller and  stronger than many Whites, and conversely. There are many Whites who are ignorant, uneducated and illiterate, and many Blacks who are the opposite.

It’s well to  note that on average, American Blacks are lower on IQ scores than Whites. But this has been changing, as Blacks get more educated. They still lag 20 points behind Whites on average, but both groups have advanced proportionately. So today Blacks have IQ scores that Whites had 3 decades ago. This can’t be explained by fixed qualities, since they aren’t fixed. And the gap that still exists isn’t from genetics. It’s from environments that favor the one group and disfavor the other. And natural adaptations to those environments.

I admit that generally negroid people have ‘kinky’ hair, and Japanese have ‘epicanthic folds’ around their eyes, and North American Indians have high cheek bones, but these are not the traits that are attended to in racist talk. I presume even these common physical traits are not exclusive to the groups with race names, and it seems they have changed with time, and changing environmental and social conditions. But the qualities that make them ‘suspect’, like being ‘lazy’, or ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘given to drink’, etc. are not exclusive to these groups, and should they be more common, that may result from social and physical environments which are imposed on them. Obesity is no doubt primarily from poor diet and life style, which may be functions of poverty, dangerous neighborhoods, ignorance, the desire for ‘comfort food,’ the dearth of decent grocery stores, etc. Obesity applies to Mexicans too, where sugary drinks are give to children because safe water is not available in many places. But these arguments are perhaps too subtle, and complex, and have nuanced answers, and may be  arguable by thoughtful people. I’m sure, in any case, that the facts discussed by scientists and the arguments that rest on them, won’t change the opinions of those who want to believe some people are racially determined to be inferior to themselves.

Here’s an example of a scientist who seems to be racist, and he’s a key figure in genetics – James Watson. In 1953, Watson and Francis Crick discovered the DNA “double helix”, and ‘cracked’ the genetic code, for which they received a Nobel Prize. This opened the way for the Human Genome Project, started in 1990 and completed in 2003. Watson headed the NIH branch of that study on its planning stages, from 1988 to 1992. But in 2007, in a hasty, and not well understood remark  (apparently his characteristic way of reporting his findings), Watson made apparently racist remarks about Africans and intelligence. He told the Sunday Times that while people may like to think all races are born with equal intelligence [I question that suggestion!], those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. As a result, he was shunned by his associates,  and shortly resigned from his position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.  (Perhaps he should have had a ‘sensitivity editor’.)

I won’t excuse Watson’s way of putting his view, and I do think it’s prejudicial to Blacks. But the racism of this statement is a matter of interpretation. If the term ‘Black’ is a true race category – i.e. unambiguously and uniquely describes a group of humans –  the statement is clearly racist. But if it simply refers to the Blacks Watson has known or learned of, it may well be true that they don’t generally compare well to the standards he expected as an employer. Unfortunately, as I pointed out about, this is a true generalization in the United States. But that fact isn’t because of their blackness, but because of the social and environmental circumstances they experience, for generations, which no doubt adversely influence their attitudes and education. The employable skill sets associated with intelligence today come in varying degrees, and change over time. They are not fixed, nor do they belong exclusively and permanently to any genetically ‘inferior group’. To say that they do is the excuse for racism, which is still woefully evident in America, and other countries.

Biology has long been a part of the search for scientific metrics of race – especially genetic science – which has gone through major changes since Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants, and before. Some high points in this development are summarized here in LiveScience – part of the publishing group that does Scientific American (Excuse the trashy, distracting ads.)

I think scientists need to be careful not to make politically charged statements outside their expertise. Even when it’s within their area, they shouldn’t try to bring public scorn on any scientists with whom they disagree. That is the position of the following article, which, although the author believes ‘race’ is not a properly scientific category, he still defends fellow scientists’ right to express differing views of the question, not as a matter of free speech (which is a given), but as an aid to scientific development. The article, in Nature (2009), was written for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species (1809), and presents a debate, pro and con, about the value of allowing continued research in these topics, and not making that impossible by censoring the authors, as has been done many times in the past, but usually in less intellectually free societies.

In conclusion, debate about race, and about the social and political response to racists and racist talk, no doubt will continue. But I think it’s clear now why the race classification should be  eliminated, in governmental policy considerations, and in the ways that scientists, especially geneticists, do their research and report it.




About justin

Justin retired from a long career, teaching philosophy, world religions and humanities in and near Chicago. Above all, critical thinking has been his teaching goal - i.e. to encourage the habit of asking questions, and looking for answers that are well supported by reasoning. His style is to engage people in discussion in a relaxed atmosphere. His goal is to be a true philosopher ('lover of wisdom') and show others the value of a generous, open-minded and objective search for the biggest, truest picture of reality possible. It may sound old fashioned today, but he believes there is a reality which is approachable, and worth looking for. His motto is “Once a thinker, always a thinker.” He continues the journey over the Web, seeking interaction with students, friends and strangers, through essays, books and blog posts.
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