Race: The Persistent Pink Elephant in the Room

I was in my first year of seminary, first year of marriage, and first year at a new job. Some would call that the perfect storm—it was. To my surprise, seminary became an oasis. One of my favorite methods of de-escalating from a stressful day was to read assigned texts or watch films presented in my classes.

In one class, we watched a documentary entitled Race: The Power of an Illusion[1]. It blew my mind. Up to that point, I simply stood on sheer belief, faith and gut instinct that race was no basis for human division. The documentary’s explanation of race as a social stigma versus a scientific reality was more than a relief – it was liberating. Prior to the film, I had been lacking the confidence of knowing I, and those who look like me, were not fundamentally different. After the film, my confidence was grounded.

In this post, I will walk through the science or biological myth of “race” as presented in the film, with additional commentary from scholars in related fields. I will also briefly highlight some perspectives that disagree with the film.


Definition of “Race”:

A common definition of race today is “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.”[2]  Traits are genetic and refer, but are not limited to, skin color, eyes or hair type. But the reality is there are no genetic markers that are in everybody of one “race” and in nobody of another “race”. The measured amount of genetic variation in the human population is extremely small; genetically we are among the most similar of all species. This does not mean that genetic variation does not exist, it does. But 85% of all variation (ie. protein, blood groups, DNA sequencing) exists between any two individuals within  any local population. This means there is likely to be as much genetic variation between you and your look-alike friend as there is between you and a completely different looking friend.

You may ask: But what about the fact that there are groups of people who look a lot alike?

“Some genes are found with greater frequency in some populations, this however is attributed to geographical boundaries versus “racial” lines,” states Dr. Joseph Graves, Professor of Biology and Dean of University Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. “Human genetic variation is real. [But] it is best described by isolation by distance, meaning that individuals who have ancestry in particular geographic regions are more likely to share genes than those from disparate regions. This does not mean that only certain genes exist in certain regions, or even that certain genes exist in one region more than another, only that if our ancestors lived in the same area we are more likely to share genes.”[3]  Harvard Professor Emeritus Richard Lewontin conducted a study on co-varying traits (certain traits that tend to be found together such as skin color and hair type) and their basis for racial categorization. A portion of his assessment is below:

… A small number of genetic traits, such as skin color, hair form, nose shape (traits for which the genes have not actually been identified) and a relatively few proteins like the Rh blood type, vary together so that many populations with very dark skin color will also have dark tightly curled hair, broad noses and a high frequency of the Rh blood type R0. Those who, like Leroi, argue for the objective reality of racial divisions claim that when such covariation is taken into account, clear-cut racial divisions will appear and that these divisions will correspond largely to the classical division of the world into Whites, Blacks, Yellows, Reds and Browns. It is indeed possible to combine the information from covarying traits into weighted averages that take account of the traits’ covariation (technically known as “principal components” of variation). When this has been done, however, the results have not borne out the claims for racial divisions. The geographical maps of principal component values constructed by Cavalli, Menozzi and Piazza in their famous The History and Geography of Human Genes show continuous variation over the whole world with no sharp boundaries and with no greater similarity occurring between Western and Eastern Europeans than between Europeans and Africans! Thus, the classically defined races do not appear from an unprejudiced description of human variation. Only the Australian Aborigines appear as a unique group.[4]

Bottom line: The belief that races are groups of people that share certain distinctive physical traits is wrong. We are incorrect when we assume that “human physical characteristics are correlated with each other in ways that reflect genetic relatedness.”[5]


What Makes Us Different?

At the same time, it is important to note that the small amount of human genetic variation that does exist can be categorized, though not in the classification of race that we are familiar with. Ancestral heritage is most relevant and accurate, for instance, in the area of diseases. The disease sickle cell anemia has been predominantly associated with “blacks” or Africans. However, it is also found in other parts of the world such as the Mediterranean, where 30% of the population in parts of Greece carry the gene[6]. If skin tone or any other physical trait were predominantly used to identify the potential of sickle cell anemia many carriers would be missed. Lewontin states, “What we ought to ask on medical questionnaires is not racial identification, but ancestry. ‘Do you know of any ancestors who were (Ashkenazi Jews, or from West Africa, from certain regions of the Mediterranean, from Japan)?’ Once again, racial categorization is a bad predictor of biology.”[7]

You might be thinking: Isn’t ancestry and race two sides of the same coin, or simply semantics?

In their scientific research that maps genes and their evolution, Lynn Jorde and Stephen Wooding state, “At face value, such results [locating disease genes in ancestral populations] could be interpreted as supporting the use of race in evaluating medical treatment options, but race and ancestry are not equivalent.”[8]


Is This Really True?!

Of course, there are always dissenting perspectives. Two differing views stood out due to their exposure in high-profile media outlets. The first is Dr. Armand Marie Leroi. His article in The New York Times argued that “human physical variation is correlated” enough where the distinction of races is appropriate, especially in the context of diseases and medical treatment.[9] Outside of my bias to disagree with Professor Leroi, there are two factors that strongly dissuade me from agreeing with his argument. First, is the point made by Dr. Jacqueline Stevens, Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies: “Leroi quotes only the texts with which he takes issue and not the ones he asserts support his views. This allows him to impute an authority to certain claims that are not supported in the texts themselves. His article contains not a single direct quotation from anyone justifying racial classifications for medical research.”[10] I also observed that Leroi himself states, “race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences” (emphasis added). This begs the question, is it sensible to speak without precision?

The second opposing voice is Nathan Wade, a science writer. In his latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,[11] Wade makes controversial suppositions regarding the abilities and progress of certain groups of people based on human evolution He boldly claims that modern genomics show a biological basis for “race”. In response to his book, a letter was signed by almost 150 geneticists and sent to the New York Times, denouncing his postulations. One of these geneticists, Mark Stoneking (evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig,Germany), was quoted as saying:

How to define the concept of race biologically is not easy, but to me one prediction is that not only should one be able to define discrete clusters of people that correspond to races, there should be distinct boundaries between them, and if you look at patterns of genetic variation in human populations, you find they are distributed along geographic ‘clines’ with no distinct boundaries. It’s like a rainbow. Sure, I can identify parts of a rainbow that are different –red, yellow, blue, and so forth – but there are no sharp boundaries between them; a rainbow is a gradient of colours.[12]


So What?

Why is it significant to recognize the reality of race as a biological myth? Why stress the point?

Because if we believe that race is a fundamental truth, then we can maintain the mentality that we are inherently different. And inherent differences can allow us to disconnect or disassociate from one another. Taken to the extreme, inherent differences allow us to rationalize the enslavement and killing of one another. The Nazi propaganda machine pointed out that its eugenic policies were consistent with and derived from ideas of North American race scientists[13] – our view on “race” matters.

It is critical that we do not harbor a shortsighted perspective on how much a factual (biological and social) understanding of race will benefit our children and grandchildren. Populations are changing; our society will not look the same way it does now.[14] Will the current logic that associates external differences with internal, complex differences (i.e. the basis for stereotypes and prejudices) dominate how the next group of “others” lives their lives? Or even more importantly, in our changing society how will the concept of race affect your grandchildren?

*Follow the links below for resources and additional references. Please leave informational and/or constructive comments below for all of us to enjoy.*

[1] Race: The Power of an Illusion, DVD, Creator and Executive Producer Larry Adelman. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003.

[2] “Race Definition,” Merriam-Webster online dictionary, accessed May 17th, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race.

[3] Graves Jr., Joseph, “What We Know and What We Don’t Know: Human Genetic Variation and the Social Construction of Race,” Race and Genomics, published June 7, 2006, accessed May 17th, 2015, http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org/Graves/.

[4] Lewontin, Richard, “Confusions About Human Races,” Race and Genomics, published June 7th, 2006, accessed May 17th, 2015, http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org/Lewontin/.

[5] Ibid., “What We Know and What We Don’t Know”, Graves.

[6] Race: The Power of an Illusion, DVD, Creator and Executive Producer Larry Adelman. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003.

[7] Ibid., “Confusions About Human Races”, Lewontin.

[8]“Genetic Variation, Classification and ‘Race’.” Nature Genetics 36 S28- S33 (2004), published online doi:10.1038/ng1435. Quoted from Stevens article.

[9] “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” The New York Times, published March 14th,  2005, accessed May 17th, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/14/opinion/14leroi.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.

[10] Stevens, Jacqueline, “Eve is from Adam’s Rib, the Earth is Flat, and Races Come from Genes,” Race and Genomics, published June 7th, 2006, accessed May 17th, 2015,  http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org/Stevens/.

[11] Wade, Nicholas, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History” (New York: The Penguin Press, 2014).

[12] Connor, Steve, “Geneticists Condemn New Book Claiming there is Biological Basis for Racial Differences in Behavior,” The Independent, accessed May 17th, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/geneticists-condemn-new-book-claiming-there-is-biological-basis-for-racial-differences-in-behaviour-9664928.html.

[13] Ibid., Race: The Power of an Illusion, Aldeman

[14] United States Census Bureau http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html