Race, How Real Is It?

A friend recently asked a great question: is our diversity work focusing too much on “race” instead of “class” and “power?”

For those of us in the foundation world trying to figure out how to finance projects that will close some of the wide gaps in education and income that we see in America, we need to know how to focus our efforts.

We live in an era in which some like to point to our black President, believe that they carry no conscious bias and even sometimes say that our society is “post-racial.”

I don’t believe that we live in a “post-racial” society – more on that in future posts.

At the same time, the “post-racial” folks are on to something – race isn’t anything real. We share 99.9% of our genetic makeup – and so there is more genetic variation among people within what we call a “race” than between races. Superficial physical features that we often associate with race, like skin color or hair, do have a genetic basis. But it turns out that these features have little to do with other biological differences. (Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin offers a very accessible explanation here.)

And the story of how we created a “scientific” description of different races — and “scientific” attempts to make claims about innate qualities of people of different races, is told in the classic The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould, a now-deceased Harvard professor who was an evolutionary biologist, investigated the “science” behind claims of racial superiority.  He recreates some of the most cited “experiments” that supposedly established white superiority and demonstrates how,  even in a “data-driven” process, the unconscious bias of the research skews the results.

For example, Samuel George Morton, a scientist highly respected in nineteenth-century America, argued that whites were more intelligent because they had larger cranial capacity. (Morton was so sure of his conclusions that he published the raw data.)  Gould found that a series of edits and other “data corrections” — that he believed weren’t overt on Morton’s part — skewed the results.

I include the Morton example not to castigate science as a whole. Rather, Morton shows us how, even with “data” at our fingertips, our unconscious biases can lead us astray.

The book is filled with examples of how we, as a society, have tricked ourselves into believing something that isn’t true.

We’ve spent years building up these fictions.  And we haven’t done the work, like Stephen Jay Gould has, in dismantling all of those we have come across.

Nevertheless, we do know that we can’t believe the neat racial categories we have created for ourselves during the last 300 years.

But if race is not real, what the heck is it?

That’s the same question that a traveling exhibit, soon to hit Seattle, is asking.  The Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation worked with the American Anthropological Association on, “Race, Are We So Different? It will be in Seattle in September, and you can check out the web site and its terrific resources here and see the exhibit page for the Seattle-host Pacific Science Center here.

Now the second part of my friend’s question comes in. Many folks today would say that race is an expression of class and power.

And I’ll plunge into that question in my next post. Stay tuned.

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