The Tragic Mulatto wore Doc Martens.
May 24, 2003 1:47 AM   Subscribe

The Tragic Mulatto wore Doc Martens. In this NYT Magazine piece, Paul Tough explores the uneasy case of white supremacist Leo Felton - a would-be racial holy warrior who happens to be biracial, the child of a white woman and a black man.

While "passing" has always, always been fraught with risks and contradictions, this is one of the more charged, vivid, and frankly depressing examples in recent memory. But is there some hope bound up in it? With "race" increasingly being understood as a social construct, some seven million Americans identifying themselves as "multiracial," and an interracial community replete with its own voices, was Leo Felton the prophet of something entirely other than what he thought?
posted by adamgreenfield (72 comments total)
Race as a social construct? that statement should get some comments. What does science say about race?
posted by Postroad at 3:34 AM on May 24, 2003

Broadly, that it doesn't exist - that the genomic variation between individuals of separate "races" is frequently less than that between nominal members of the same one.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:19 AM on May 24, 2003

Does Race Exist?: A proponent's perspective

''Red roses and white roses are no doubt almost identical genetically, yet no one would argue that the difference in coloration justifies classifying one as red and the other as white. Human races are at least as different as varieties of roses. "

- from Racial Myths
posted by hama7 at 4:38 AM on May 24, 2003

this is an amazing story , thanks for posting it.
Is he a prophet ? i dunno , maybe if he gets some help for himself , you can just see the damage leaping off the page, cant you ?
sounds like he finally found someone who loves and accepts him at the end too , great stuff.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:55 AM on May 24, 2003

'Race: The Power of an Illusion' With Pilar Ossorio, Assistant Professor of Law and Medical Ethics, University of Wisconsin, Thursday, May 1, 2003

[...] Capitol Heights, Md.: Dr. Ossorio, I am an anthropologist and a former journalist. I have been writing about the social construction of race for nearly 10 years. Yet many of my former colleagues in media continue to hold onto the notion that race is biologically based. Those views are ultimately reflected in media treatments of race issues. Dr. Ossorio, given the tendency of people to embrace race as natural, what do you think can be done to disengage this mindset?

The American Anthropological Association would like to strike racial categories from the 2010 census. What are your thoughts on this initiative?

Pilar Ossorio: I wish I knew what could be done to alter the mindset of races as "natural" categories. The idea of races as natural, essential, immutable categories of humans has a long history, and is deeply embedded in our unconscious assumptions about the world. Even those scientists and scholars who know the data on genetics and race often act on their pre-theoretical assumptions about racial categories as natural. In designing research we often treat racial categories as though they must reflect enough about shared, common ancestry that people of one race will be more genetically homogeneous than a mixture of people from different races, even though this often will not be true.

It is very difficult to change the way the concept of race is deployed in science or in popular culture, when race plays such a significant role in the material organization of the world. WHen people of the same race do not live together, do not attend school together, do not have the same jobs, do not attend the same churches, etc. then it is easy to think that the observed differences reflect "natural" differences rather than differences we create.

As to striking racial categories--I am not in favor because even though data about race do not tell us anything about natural categories, they do tell us a lot about the categories we create and impose on the spectrum of human biological and genetic variation. It is important to know who has health care and who does not. It is important to know who is living longer and who is not. It is important to know who can catch a cab in New York City and who cannot. Just because racial categories are socially constructed, this does not make them less real or less consequential in our society. I would, however, be in favor of us collecting much more fine-grained information regarding social class and social experience so that we can obtain a much better understanding of other ways in which people in US society are stratified and other features of life that influence outcomes such as life-expectancy, income level, etc. [...]
posted by allaboutgeorge at 4:59 AM on May 24, 2003

Wow, allaboutgeorge, thanks! Great quote.

hama7, I'm as usual not sure if you're just intending to strike a note of devil's advocacy, or if you really believe that nonsense.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:17 AM on May 24, 2003

In response to hama7's quote:

There's no reason not to identify people by other genetic characteristics as well, such as blue eyes, attached ear lobes, and the like. There are plenty of traits that "breed true", so should we use these as meaningful characteristics to distinguish people? Ethnicity is important from a genetic point of view, as certain ethnic groups will have concentrations of certain genes (like for Tay-Sachs disease or sickle cell anemia), but race is a gross generalization of ethnicity. Race is a meaningful categorization because society has made it so.
posted by meep at 5:25 AM on May 24, 2003

if you really believe that nonsense.

Races exist.

On the heels of the Ogbu discussion, it seems peculiar to simultaneously decry "racism", and then to claim that race is a "social construct" which does not exist.

For what it's worth, I am in favor of doing away with race-based population censuses, but proponents of 'affirmative action' and other race quota preferentiality obviously disagree.

Multracial, yes. 'Multicultural', um.. no.
posted by hama7 at 6:49 AM on May 24, 2003

So you can have a race, just don't try and have a culture.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:51 AM on May 24, 2003

Plus, what do Doctor Marten's shoes have to do with anything?
posted by hama7 at 6:52 AM on May 24, 2003

The better to kick your teeth in with, my dear.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:01 AM on May 24, 2003

On the heels of the Ogbu discussion, it seems peculiar to simultaneously decry "racism", and then to claim that race is a "social construct" which does not exist.

You're making a basic error here. The racism is a learned behavior, part of the social construction of identity: a lower-order phenomenon. It is your right to be reactionary if you wish but I expect you to at least keep your eyes on the ball argumentwise.

Additionally, you know perfectly well that reducing my comment in that thread - which was all about accepting complexity and nuance and "both/and" logic over simplistic "either/or" constructions - to "decry[ing] racism," is either ignorant or dishonest. Your logic, in short, is weak and shabby, so you go for a cheap attack. Well done, sir.

Doctor Martens (true fans know there's no apostrophe) Air Wair have been the boot of choice of self-respecting skinheads - racist, antiracist and nonaligned - for over thirty-five years.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:14 AM on May 24, 2003

Saying race is a social construct isn't the same as saying it doesn't exist. Indian castes are a social construct yet caste membership continues to have a profound effect on people's lives.
posted by timeistight at 7:43 AM on May 24, 2003

...yes, and if you read through the comments, you'll see that "race does not exist" was advanced as a rough summary of what *science* has to say on the subject, in answer to Postroad's question. Which is accurate: biologically, physically, the concept is meaningless.

Sorry if I sound defensive, and I'm still sorrier if the reason I posted this is of so much less interest to you-all than debating something so clearly futile. I'm not going to make any further attempts to re-rail this.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:54 AM on May 24, 2003

I'm sorry. I must have stumbled into the wrong class. This isn't Sociolgy of Race? Could you perhaps rephrase the assignment for those of us who arrived late?
posted by timeistight at 8:22 AM on May 24, 2003


On your roses:

First of all, "red" and "white" are not varieties of roses. Rose varieties are names things like Honorine de Brabant and Chicago Peace. No one who works seriously with roses would use "red" and "white" as primary categories of classification. Similarly, those who work seriously with human genetics have abandoned "Negroid", "Caucasoid", and "Mongoloid" as categories of classification. They're scientifically useless.

Furthermore, on your author's assertion regarding genetic variation among rose varieties: rose varieties are excessively inbred. All individuals of a certain variety are essentially genetically identical. Clones, to all effects and purposes. So distinguishing between varieties is very meaningful: the distinction captures 100% of the genetic difference. In the case of humans, there's significant genetic variation among members of any given race. So making a distinction between individuals based on race captures only a small fraction of the meaningful genetic differences between those individuals: those related to skin pigmentation, some morphology genes, maybe eye and hair color.

Basing a system of human classification on these traits is like classifying vehicles by color. Sure: you could put a fire engine and a red Miata in the same category, but to do so would be to admit a lack of understanding of the meaningful differences between vehicles. In fact, this system of categorization might lead to an error-producing bias by suggesting conclusions such as "red vehicles like to go fast". It's a bad approach scientifically because it ignores more important and fundamental categories of classification. It's easy, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:23 AM on May 24, 2003

What does science say about race?

Race was brought to us by science, albeit shamefully bad science.

what about the Ogbu discussion "resolves" the scientific validity of race? Certainly, there is no "nerd" ethnic group, but I am still against nerds getting beat up in school. One needn't "believe" in race to decry racism. In fact, the very notion of race being bullshit is a top reason for humanity to get over racism. We can hate each other on more valid grounds.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:39 AM on May 24, 2003

Air Wair have been the boot of choice of self-respecting skinheads - racist, antiracist and nonaligned - for over thirty-five years

Why associate the brand name exclusively with racism then?
posted by hama7 at 8:42 AM on May 24, 2003

In fact, this system of categorization might lead to an error-producing bias by suggesting conclusions such as "red vehicles like to go fast". It's a bad approach scientifically because it ignores more important and fundamental categories of classification. It's easy, though.

really....The cop at drivers education said red cars get pulled over more then any other color in almost all the makes and models.

HUH. go figure....that reminds me, gotta get new roses this weekend.
posted by clavdivs at 8:45 AM on May 24, 2003

Why associate the brand name exclusively with racism then?
if i may...because skinheads perfer them....THEY associate themselves with it.
posted by clavdivs at 8:47 AM on May 24, 2003

dr. martens were working class.
skinhead movements were working class.
of course, so were the anti-racism bunch.
who also chose to wear, oddly enough, dr. martens.

maybe in a boys on the docks sense you could argue dr. martens for racists. but probably not.
oi, oi, oi and all that.

i myself always thought "jackbook" for racists. martens are a bit girly for a curbing.
posted by kid_twist at 8:54 AM on May 24, 2003

The cop at drivers education said red cars get pulled over more then any other color in almost all the makes and models.

Right, and so do black drivers. The fact that a bias exists doesn't make that bias valid, however.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:20 AM on May 24, 2003

Race is very important to Americans, as can be seen by the Jim Crow laws linked to above. Perhaps Canada has similar laws, but I've never heard of any -- altho Indian Affairs is a completely different kettle of fish and most certainly not tangential to this thread.

As a Canadian (be that a typical or atypical Canadian, I don't know) I've always viewed people to be people and never really understood the issues surrounding race. Scientifically, I've been told that there are Caucasiod, Negroid and Mongoloid races, but that has never meant all that much to me, save for the most immediate purpose of giving people a very quick description of somebody. It didn't take long to realize that some people didn't quite fit in with our established definition of race: Phillipino, East Indian, and Middle Eastern people, to name a few. These people looked Asian, Black, White, but didn't have all of the usual common identifiers that made them so.

It never really confused me. To my mind, people are people and that's all there is to it. There are certain descriptors that I can use for people, but ultimately, descriptors are all they are since, to use the adage, we are all the same on the inside. To be sure, if what the geneticists are saying is true, that isn't factually true since none of us are truly the same on the inside.

People are different, obviously, if we look at them in a cultural manner, but I this has to do more with diversity, centuries of doing things in a certain manner, religion, etc. In this respect, race certainly exists as a social construct. The example above of the Indian caste system instilling prejudice and bias amongst the population is a good one, I think.

For myself, I wouldn't say that I haven't been given my own set of racial feelings. As concerning the Black and White issue at hand, I would say that when I see a Black person, I notice, simply because I don't see Black people all that often, and frankly, Black people stand out in my very WASP-ish and conservative city. I don't think this is a prejudice, altho I could be wrong. Likewise, when I meet a German person, I notice, since they often have an accent, they speak differently, they even have ideas that are foreign to me that may be obvious to them.

I've always felt that categorizing people people into races is simply another way to contain our fears of otherness. By labelling people we contain them and are able to keep them as close or as far as we want them to be. We fear that the others will change what we are comfortable with, and we often feel endangered by this.

I am glad that the ideas of race are being changed. If human beings can remove another reason for hating each other from their internal makeup, I'm all for it.

I suppose I could have just as easily said: who cares what colour you are and what country you're from? We all have feelings, we all want to be loved, we can sexually enjoy each other, we can think for ourselves, we all have two eyes, two arms, two feet. Why make the whole thing so academic? We're all people.

Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts. I hope they make sense.
posted by ashbury at 9:30 AM on May 24, 2003

ashbury: Interesting, and I mostly agree. However if you went and did a man-on-the-stret style straw poll of what people think of French-Canadians I think you might get answers that would be easily called 'racist' if they were referring to a different 'race' and not just a language group. (some, not all, and hopefully not most, but it all depends on where you are.)
posted by Space Coyote at 9:38 AM on May 24, 2003

this article really screwed with my head...really really good, though. I'm going to pass it around.
posted by angry modem at 10:10 AM on May 24, 2003

Fascinating story, which seems to support the theory advanced on the photographer's web site that was posted here a few weeks ago, that racism has its roots in self-loathing.

Me, I just prefer to do my hating on an individual basis.
posted by Soliloquy at 10:16 AM on May 24, 2003

it seems peculiar to simultaneously decry "racism", and then to claim that race is a "social construct" which does not exist.

There's a subtle difference here that you're missing. Decrying racism doesn't mean that one acknowledges a biological base for race; decrying racism only means believing that one should not be judged on the basis of race, whether or not it exists. Just because one who decries racism believes it's a social construct doesn't mean a racist does.

Looking closer at the "race as a social construct" viewpoint, biological and genetic evidence does indeed support this. It's obvious that some people have different types of features and skin color, but that does not directly correlate to anything beyond itself, contrary to what The Bell Curve and hama7 would have you believe. Any other importance based on race besides pure morphology is socially constructed; color becomes a simple blanket container in which to classify all people, disregarding the fact that some groups of Africans are closer genetically to Europeans than they are to Melanesians, even though the Africans and Melanesians are both "black."
posted by The Michael The at 10:18 AM on May 24, 2003

Excellent points, The Michael The, meep and Mr. Roboto.

Which leads to a question I've got for you, hama7, since you've emerged as our primary defender of the notion that "race" is an objective, external reality: at what point do you acknowledge that you're simply wrong?

Is there any amount of evidence that would convince you? Or will you cling to your assertions no matter how thoroughly or easily they can be refuted, in defiance of any reason?

I call you out because, on race as on so very many other topics, it's difficult to construct the things you believe as anything but mildly intellectualized (and therefore "acceptable") fronts for the expression of a deeper fear and hatred. It rather reminds me of Leo Felton, actually.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:28 AM on May 24, 2003

Excellent points, The Michael The, meep and Mr. Roboto.

Word. Baseball can be seen to have antecedents in biology: one can be astrong, fast, have good hand-eye coordination, etc. They are many "unteachable" skills. That being said, is baseball biological reality or a social construct? I know which way I would lean.

Fishy analogies aside, you offer no data, hama7. I am waiting for a link to a 100-year-old Henry Huxley article about the trememdous gulf between Homo Sapiens Cusaisius and the lower races. The fact that something strikes you as prima facie biological reality does not make it so.

Indeed, humans the world over have an electrolyte balance that is "naturally" skewed in favor of sodium. People in general seek potassium to attain this balance. It is what it si, but is it biologically mandated as such? Take this: back in the day, before salt and spices were available, this worked the other way. Whereas I drink some orange juice when I get a headache, pre-contact man would go look for some blood to drink or salty rock to lick. This also means that pee used to be seet, not salty, but that is just tangential bonus knowledge (the preceding is from Gun Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, a long-ass book that is not available online insofar as i know).

Thus, gee, apparent biological reality can not be seen as being free from social input. Whoo-hoo!
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:38 AM on May 24, 2003

coyote, there is no doubt in my mind that race and racism are catch-all terms that society uses to create boundaries between us. Having grown up in Quebec, I have first hand experience with hatred both toward the "French Frogs" and "Les maudits Englais", and the very wide chasm that sometimes exists between the two sides.

Hatred and racism are fairly synonymous in my mind. They are both virulent and aggressive memes that can only survive by being passed on to another, either thru indoctrination or by being a victim of it.

What truly bewilders me is not that racism and the hatred that is included within it exists, but what its purpose may be. By purpose, I don't mean the reason why it exists, but rather its function. How does racism validate its function in society? Who can answer that question for me?
posted by ashbury at 10:45 AM on May 24, 2003

Oh, shit, that one's easy. Strong in-group/out-group demarcation strategies do have an instinctual basis in primates, and may indeed have been necessary at various points in human history to assure the survival of small groups.

But I'd argue - and I'm not alone - that these habits have long outlived their usefulness, and in many ways have become downright pathological.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:51 AM on May 24, 2003

racism- the appendix of society
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:03 AM on May 24, 2003

Let's try to see the "problem" if it really is a problem or issue or relevant factor from Dr.Gill point of view: he's an a anthropologists that considers "race" as "real" because he can , thanks to his study, classify kinds of skeletons and identify "groups of skeletons with common features"

Now he (or anybody else, that wouldn't matter) sticks the word "race" on the different groups of skeletons with common features , I may also stick the word "dsdkj" I just invented it ...that would make NO difference, it's just a word. The whole idea of debating if "race exists or doesn't" seems like debating "does this word exist or doesn't exist ?" ..which seems to me an exercise of rethoric at best, a discussion about "the sex of angels"

A question that seems to be worth discussion may be "what differences are in groups that share a lot of their DNA code ?" Are some at risk of, for instance, stroke while others don't ?

And even if we found, after years of research, that groupA is more likely to survive then groupB or then groupB is "more good looking" whatever that means then groupB, what relevance would this discover have ? I think it would have the relevance (weight) we (as human beings) decide it has. It wouldn't have any "absolute incontrovertible" relevance except for the ones who (blindly) -- believe -- it has one.
posted by elpapacito at 11:17 AM on May 24, 2003

ashbury: Racism is about power.

Floya Anthias (1999) 'Institutional Racism, Power and Accountability' Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1.

It is power that renders the symbols of inferiorisation effective (Anthias 1992). This is not simply a sophisticated restatement of the argument that racism equals prejudice plus power (as Mason 1994 suggests). The term prejudice locates the issue in subjectivist terms ie. as emanating from individuals. Racist ideas about groups are the products of discursive and material forces and emerge in a field of contestation and negotiation in society. Moreover, individuals do not only occupy subject positions as members of ethnic or 'race' groups but also those of gender, class, dis/ability and so on.

The pervasiveness of institutional power makes accountability one of the most vital issues raised by the Macpherson Report (see Chapter 46). For racism comes not only in the form of violence but works insidiously as is acknowledged by the Macpherson report. However, what is missing is the discussion of power relations. Although there are few, if any, situations in which people are wholly powerless and they are not mere victims, having of course agency, this does not mean that they will be able to counter the power of institutions. Unequal power relations, particularly vis a vis the state (and in the actions of the state, such as the police force), but also in terms of class and gender, produce racist effects even where no explicit racist intentionalities can be identified, as recognised by the Macpherson report. Racism without the means to make it effective is like an invention without a maker. [...]
posted by allaboutgeorge at 11:33 AM on May 24, 2003

From Seven Dumb Ideas about Race:

Every person falls into a single clear-cut racial group.

This one is so silly that I doubt that anybody who has thought about race in the real world for more than ten minutes believes this. Nobody can agree on how many racial groups there are, exactly who is in each one, or what to call them.

Since nobody can agree on how many racial groups there are, exactly who is in each one, or what to call them, then race does not exist.
This one's equally daft. Outside of mathematics, and of human inventions like the law, categories almost always fall across continuous dimensions. Where does "young" end and "old" begin? It all depends on the situation. For example, among female gymnasts, 18 is "old." Among architects, 45 is "young." Yet that does not mean that "age" is meaningless. Further, categories are typically fuzzy. Few people are 100% "sick" or 100% "well." But "health" is still a useful concept.

The best example of the fuzziness of natural categories is the concept of "extended family." All the criticisms made about the fuzziness of racial groups apply in spades to extended families. How many extended families do you belong to? Well, at least two: your mom's and your dad's. But they each belonged to their parents' two extended families, so maybe you belong to four. And your grandparents each belonged to two …

And what are the boundaries of your various extended families? If the question at hand is who you'd give a spare kidney to, you'd probably draw the limits rather narrowly. But, when making up your Christmas card list, you probably toss in the occasional third cousin, twice removed. And exactly what's the appropriate name for all these extended families anyway?

In fact, extended families are even less clear-cut than racial groups. Yet, nobody goes around smugly claiming that extended families don't exist.

But why is extended family such a perfect analogy for race? Because it's not an analogy. They are the same thing: kin, individuals united by common descent. There's no natural law defining where extended families end. A racial group is merely an extended family (often an extremely extended family) that inbreeds to some extent. It's this tendency to marry within the group that makes racial groups somewhat more coherent, cohesive, and longer lasting than smaller-scale extended families.
posted by quercus at 12:54 PM on May 24, 2003

There's no natural law defining where extended families end. A racial group is merely an extended family...

This line of thinking seems to imply that a racial grouping is merely an arbitrary boundary drawn to distinguish between various human lineages. This in turn implies that members of a racial group are more closely related to one another than to members of another racial group: certainly members of different groups share common ancestors, but members of the same group are closer to one another on the human "family tree". The boundary is simply (and arbitrarily) drawn at some point on the tree dividing the ancestor of all Caucasoids and from the ancestor of all Mongoloids, for instance. This would make sense if it weren't for the fact that current racial groupings have nothing to do with the actual genetic proximity of individuals and ethnic groups.

As a brief example (and working, admittedly, on memory rather than on resources I have in front of me), Central Asians (ethic groups indigenous to Kazakhstan, for instance), have been show by mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome lineage studies to be more closely related to Europeans than to, say, Filipinos. Yet, traditional systems of racial classification would tend to put Filipinos and Central Asians in the same category due to shared features of facial morphology. In this case, racial classification does not draw an arbitrary boundary on the human family tree--it draws an arbitrary boundary based on features of facial morphology.

You'll note that in this description, I did make use of ethnic classifications. Ethnic classifications, as meep has already pointed out, can be valuable, since members of an ethnic group tend to share much common genetic material due to centuries of group-exclusivity and geographical isolation. Your assertion, quercus, that similar group behavior has occurred within races over a genetically significant period of time is absurd. There has historically been no group cohesion between, say, Bantu-speaking Southern Africans and Nilo-Saharan-speaking East Africans: different languages, different cultures, geographically isolated. Yet the system of racial classification would place these individuals in the same category.

Race has nothing to do with extended families. It is useful only as a description of how people look. And even then, it provides a pretty impoverished description.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:50 PM on May 24, 2003

i'm not sure how much this is related to this discussion, but for marrow and other types of transplants, it is easier to find matches within ethnic or racial groups from the same geographic area.

if anything, race or ethnicity should be kept recorded for any potential medical benefits; and people should focus on this aspect instead of any other negative issue or difference.

diversity is good. homogeneity is boring.
posted by titboy at 4:13 PM on May 24, 2003

Mr. Roboto I think we're arguing about words not concepts. You say: "Ethnic classifications, as meep has already pointed out, can be valuable, since members of an ethnic group tend to share much common genetic material due to centuries of group-exclusivity and geographical isolation."
I agree totally. I'm simply using the word "race" as synonymous with "ethnic classification"
You are right-much current racial classification is based merely on phenotypic classifications, and is arbitrary.
There is no "black race" I'd agree. But as you point out-Africa(and all continents)are full of different ethnic classifications which do exist, can be studied genetically, and their histories traced. Population genetics is making new discoveries everyday.
So-I'll scrap the word "race" -But is there anyone who says ethnic classifications don't exist? If so-what is the problem in the middle east since Jews do not really exist?
That similar group behavior has occurred within "ethnic classifications" over a genetically significant period of time is far from absurd. There are all the genes that make them the particular ethnic classification for one thing. Like you I don't have the study here-but it's been shown a successful genetic adaptation can spread through an entire ethnic population in less than 2,000 years. Thus, "ethnic classifications" who historically herded sheep gene have developed a lactose tolerance. Many "ethnic classifications" who historically never consumed milk lack this gene. That's why titboy's comments are totally correct.
posted by quercus at 4:54 PM on May 24, 2003

at what point do you acknowledge that you're simply wrong?

At what point does an opinion become correct? When enough hectoring people pile on for the irrational, does the rational become "wrong"? Was this the point of your front page post?

Race Is Not A Social Construct

"I don't believe race is just a social construct; I believe it exists by nature. But I'd like to point out that even if it were just a social construct, it wouldn't follow that it doesn't exist, let alone that it doesn't matter. To prove this, let's look at class, which clearly is a social construct, since it is constructed by society through the distribution of income and wealth. Now classes definitely exist, and one can make reasonable generalizations about working-class Americans or upper-class Americans or whomever. This is true despite the difficulties attendant to deciding exactly where to draw the lines between the classes, how many classes to recognize, et cetera. So even if Graves were right, which he isn't, he'd still be wrong."
posted by hama7 at 6:39 PM on May 24, 2003

This is a ridiculous debate. Most people would best be served by abandoning race as a concept. I would suggest (not the first person) that the whole race question be struck from the census. People don't really know their full genetic heritage anyway in most cases. The pernicious effects of social racism will hopefully lose its presentday emphasis and people who seek to understand population genetics and the history of humans on this planet can continue their work without social/political interference.
posted by quercus at 7:18 PM on May 24, 2003

Meanwhile, humans and chimps are to shown to share 99.4% of their genetic coding, and some of us are still eating them.

And, apes that we are, many still find it difficult to grasp 'thou are that.' How miniscule a division between people is enough to be inflated into a killing hatred? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

It is a ridiculous debate, and statements like "members of an ethnic group tend to share much common genetic material due to centuries of group-exclusivity and geographical isolation" don't help make it more useful.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:56 PM on May 24, 2003

Felton : ''I need to connect with other Beige people,'' he wrote in a recent letter. ''I suspect in prison I will always live among Whites, but if there is at all some way for me to fix my center of gravity in something Beige, that's what I want.''


What a piece of shit.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:05 PM on May 24, 2003

ok, hama7, lost me right here:
5. America's greatest problem: not crime, racism or bad schools — it's illegitimacy.
The fact that the author of this list can use the term "illegitimacy" without blushing tells me what to think of his ideology. I suppose I'm proving his point, but I can live with that.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2003

That's pretty fucking ugly, hama7...

And incredibly uninformed.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2003

Hama7 - yeah, sure. To pull a concept from another thread, the National Review is peer reviewed writing, so to speak, but not critically reviewed. In other words, what a bunch of horseshit. The writer makes a whole lot of baseless assertions - and unfortunately for him, the ballsiness of the assertion does not imbue truth.
Race "exists" only to the extent that certain groups of genes occur together in a number of people. My girlfriend is German/Irish. She looks the part and gets sunburn in the summer. I'm Spanish/Croatian, and look like a (blonde) extra in a Godfather movie. We're both considered white. "Races" are only clumping along the continuum of certain physical features, but not enough to statistically separate people. Geez.
posted by notsnot at 8:39 PM on May 24, 2003

Geez, again...I need to keep from posting under the influence (PUI).

What mr_roboto said.
posted by notsnot at 8:41 PM on May 24, 2003

Don't feed the trolls.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:41 PM on May 24, 2003

You conveniently leave out the rest of that "point:, hama7:

Oh, and by the way: The Jews are a race. They are, on average, much smarter than the rest of us. They got that way by practicing eugenics for 2,000 years. And it is not anti-Semitic to point any of this out.

That's some high level thinkin', there. The fact that people who are crazier than you agree with you is supposed to prove what, exactly? I don't consider you a troll, but you're right to say whatever you want does not preclude anyone else's right to call bullshit on you.

For what it's worth, I have no doubt that race is real for you.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:50 PM on May 24, 2003

This is hama7's intellectual company[all statements from his link]:

Racial profiling is common sense, and good, fair police practice.

Our military has been crippled by insane attempts to prove that women make just as good soldiers, sailors and pilots as men.

The U.S.A. is a conservative-Republican nation tilted over to the left by black people, who are overwhelmingly socialist.

Gay is not just as good as straight. It's against nature, unhealthy and antisocial.

Either he is not scrupulous about his information, or he is a paranoid and irrational bigot. Which is it hama7?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:55 PM on May 24, 2003

"Human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that there is greater variation within racial groups than between them. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective."

-- American Anthropological Association, 1998
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:55 PM on May 24, 2003


Furthermore, individual variation within groups is greater than the mean difference between groups, even as applies to morphology. Anyone who can not see the arbitrary nature of racial classification doesn't want to (see 7, hama).
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:24 PM on May 24, 2003

individual variation within groups is greater than the mean difference between groups, even as applies to morphology

posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:35 PM on May 24, 2003

I've just been reading that article linked above as "Race is not a social construct." The columnist's entire case pivots on the following gross misrepresentation of Joseph L. Graves' position:
his method is based on an obvious empirical falsehood: the idea that everyone in the world who believes in the existence of race is a racist.
This is, to put it generously, a straw man. Graves does not take this position. He does not even imply it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:08 PM on May 24, 2003

Ah, another revisit from the "X is socially constructed" meme. (I love the 'meme' meme.)

Adam, I get the point, and personally love the denuded irony and double entendre of your linking a race baiting 'mulatto' as a mascot for your assertion.

However, how would you compare the similarities and differences of the following 'groups'?:

the forgotten Ainu
the lactose tolerant Fulani
or the towering Tehuelches

In addition, calls for 'racism' and a means to separate have historically been largely geographical issues. How else to guard the genetic pool of the tribe from 'invaders'? Perpetuated in even recent history with FHA classifications, it is still a very current issue.

For those that accumulate wealth through home ownership, when is the last time you wondered about property values, and what may bring them up, or lower them? Are the keys to those variations not in themselves inadvertent forms of 'racism'?

Possibly 'race' and 'racism' have deeper roots than the ones you imply with your label of 'social construct'?
posted by jazzkat11 at 10:56 PM on May 24, 2003

Wow that Derbyshire fellow couldn't think his way out of a paper sack. Bravo Hama7, you be hittin it now, boiiiiii!
posted by filchyboy at 11:20 PM on May 24, 2003

There's an approximate 99.9% genetic similarity between the races. There's about 98% similarity between humans and chimps. Of the roughly 40,000 genes in the human genome, only about 300 don't have a counterpart in mice.

Is that 0.1 completely insignificant? What about the 2.5% difference between you and what you ate for lunch today?
posted by shoos at 2:00 AM on May 25, 2003

Anyways, what if it turned out that there was no homology between the genomes of any two individual humans? Would that justify some other ethical stance?
posted by shoos at 2:15 AM on May 25, 2003

shoos - it's actually closer than that, as mentioned upthread.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:39 AM on May 25, 2003

As for the article: Thank you Adam Greenfield. It is a story that is both tragic and uplifting. The writer was able to take a sad story and extract a rather hidden and beautiful moral about common humanity and coming together.

This Leo Felton is not the first person to be convinced, through whatever strange series of confusing life circumstances, that he was a member of an "unworthy" race that must be destroyed to the advantage of another. Read the book Hitler's Jewish Soldiers and you'll see many familiar themes.

(Also RE the article: did anybody else laugh at the scene with the total stereotypical slob cops catching the stereotypical clueless criminals:

Whatever plan they had fell apart, however, on April 19, when Chase tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a Dunkin' Donuts in East Boston. The clerk refused to take it and showed it to a police officer who happened to be waiting in line for a doughnut. Chase and Felton were both arrested, and their revolution was suddenly over.

"Who happened to be", heh...priceless political correctness. Remember kids: stereotypes of any kind are bad. :) )

RE: The biological reality of race?

I'm rather interested in nature, animals, evolution, and how humans fit into all three, so I'll tell you my opinion on this subject as someone who has looked around for the answer.

If you were to ask me if scientists believed in the biological reality of race, I would have to say that question depends. It depends on a couple of questions. For instance, what field of scientists are we asking? Are we asking physicists, anatomists, geneticists, anthropologists, biologists? They would probably all give you different answers, but most importantly, would give you different answers depending on how you phrased the question. Which brings me to probably the most important part it depends in large part on how you are personally suggesting "race" be defined.

To be honest, the word 'race' is not very popular right now in the sciences b/c of its perceived baggage and inextricable attachment to discredited (Platonic essentialness) and/or controversial ideas (differences in average abilities/aptitudes, etc.), but many of the ideas you would think of as 'race' never left the sciences. You will read terms in medical and scientific journals such as "population ancestry", "population". "grouping", "sub-cluster" and "super-cluster", "geographical population", and "continental cluster" that are all basic proxies for something not too much different than the classical idea of human races as well as their little brother- ethnicities. (You will also see the terms "race" and "ethnicity" used in reference to things biological as well)

Human beings haven't been breeding randomly since they stepped off of the savannah. There have been reproductive splits, migrations, isolation, and movement. All these movements of people and of your ancestors can be seen in your individual genes. These migrations were most famously tracked by super-star Stanford geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and can be read about in his important book The History and Geography of Human Genes. If you'll look at the cover you'll see a color-coded map detailing the patterns of gene migration he's documented. He describes the chart as such in the book (using, what you'll notice as, familiar terms that the colors correspond to [and Cavalli-Sforza is one of the scientists who has rejected the term "race" in favor of "population"]):

"The color map of the world shows very distinctly the differences that we know exist among the continents: Africans (yellow), Caucasoids (green), Mongoloids … (purple), and Australian Aborigines (red)."

As humans spread, they bred in semi-isolation through deep historical time (as opposed to 'evolutionary time'. The boundary can be subjective). Geographical boundaries such as the Sahara, and the Himalayas, etc. in connection with political/religious/cultural/agricultural ones slowed and prevented gene-flow in certain directions - recognizable geographic (a subjective category in itself) patterns of breeding. Over time unique mutations and allele frequencies form by chance, selection (see the body-type of eskimos in response to climate), accumulation, and by such migration phenomenon as "the founder effect" and "genetic drift".

The result of all this are certain discoverable historic relationships among people at the genetic level. If world genetic information is fed into a computer, it corresponds to the older relationships determined by physical anthropology. Take these two articles from the New York Times from this last December documenting research published in the journal Science:

The Palette of Humankind

Humankind falls into five continental groups - broadly equivalent to the common conception of races - when a computer is asked to sort DNA data from people from around the world into clusters.


Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations

The first effect of these shared relationships are morphological. A person in Ghana with little mixed ancestry will clearly differ in appearance than a similarly local Asian in Korea. Both share more genes with their local historical neighbors than they do with eachother. Other genetic differences may exist, but many of them are only statistical (though, like the morphology, phenotypic patterns themselves can cluster). Height is one. I'm not sure what the average height is in developed countries in Asia but it is less than that of Western nations, and certainly less than tropically adapted (and often impoverished) peoples of Africa, such as the Dinka, who can be quite tall. African-Americans who mostly come from the populations of western African, average about 1-3 inches taller than European descended americans. Other differences have medical significance, which make bad ideas about race and biology less romantic, and certainly less ethical than they present themselves. Many medical professionals are discouraged with the idea that race and biology are completely unconnected (i.e "just a social construct") b/c self-reported ancestry can be a valuable, and more often than not, reliable tool for medical diagnosis and treatment. A person's racial ancestry can provide doctors with non-trivial information. Read Sally Satel's article from The New York Times titled: I Am a Racially Profiling Doctor.

In many ways then, it can be said that race does clearly exist as something that is both biological and something that is real. Obviously there are still many questions and many ambiguities, but thus is biology. Biology is not physics- it is often messy, jerry-rigged, and inelegant. No taxonomical classification is pretty or particularly well-constructed, but they are still useful, as far as they go, for describing to us relationships that exist in the natural world, of which all of us are a part.
posted by dgaicun at 2:41 AM on May 25, 2003

The obsession with race as a concept obscures the real problem: black people in America have a different culture from white people. Much of what people call "racism" is really a dislike for aspects of black culture. Much of the argument over racism is really an argument about whether mainstream white culture should modify its cultural values in order to accept particular aspects of black culture, or whether black culture should change to accept the values of the American mainstream.

Some of the most vehement denunciations of black Americans as a group that I have ever heard have come from Africans living in Paris. Would you call them racist?
posted by fuzz at 3:28 AM on May 25, 2003

stavrosthewonderchicken: wow. even closer. sorry I missed that.
posted by shoos at 4:48 AM on May 25, 2003

Thanks for the great summary dgaicun. The extremes of this "race as a social construct" idea is exactly like creationism in its refusal to engage science and genetic reality.
posted by quercus at 7:44 AM on May 25, 2003

P.S. Here's a link to recent papers published by the Human Population Genetics Laboratory at Stanford University. See for example “Genetic Affinities of the Andaman Islanders, a Vanishing Human Population” by Thangaraj, K., et al. I assure you the Andamenese are not a social construct.
This recent post at the blog Gene Expression is a good summary of current knowledge as to human migration patterns.
posted by quercus at 10:57 AM on May 25, 2003

.. as opposed to 'black' and 'white' which most definitely are social constructs.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:51 AM on May 25, 2003

It is not likely that anyone in this thread would say that genetics or the fact of human migration are social constructs. Race is about more than the possibility of genetic similarities and differences; it is about lumping people into a few enormous groups that are somehow as rigid as they are arbitrary. At best, race could be sort of workable, but still only descriptive and contrived.

I assure you the Andamenese are not a social construct.

No, but expecting them to share some elements of their identity with Chinese people is a little loopy. All of this new genetic research is exciting, though the fact that it confirms some intuitive notions about the initial diaspora of man is no reason to visit a sorry old set of artificial social groups. The biggest reason that I can think of to avoid doing so is that race, for all of the apparent evidence one way or another, was originally brought to the scientific table by a bunch of racist quacks, who all committed the greatest sin in science: consciously tempering you data-gathering and test methods in order to stack the deck for a pet hypothesis.

posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:56 AM on May 25, 2003

Fine Ignatius. I don't use the word "race' myself-too loaded a term. I won't repeat any of dgaicun's solid post except to say if anyone can refute anything in it-please do so. P.S. You ought to read that paper-it confirms and disproves your point at the same time. For although the Andamanese greatly resemble certain African populations, their genetic lineage reveals an Asian origin.
posted by quercus at 1:43 PM on May 25, 2003

I'm not sure anything dgaicun's said requires refuting. He's sketched an outline for a genetic basis for what we usually see with our own eyes: regionally-distinct populations (or their immediate, relatively unmixed descendents) with a lot of shared ancestry share some common biological traits. This is obvious enough anyway.

But there's nothing there that I can see that provides any justification or rationale for our popular conception of race, since we do not generally have access to the kind of detailed biological and migratory record to which he refers. Or would you suggest that people who, in their daily lives, generalize about 'races' are actually in possession of this sort of information about each other?

dgaicun has provided what on the face of it might constitute the beginnings of a rationale for talking about human biological groupings which you might (though I'd advise against it for reasons of cultural freight) decide to apply the term 'races'. But it in no way validates our popular, historical and social uses of the term. To beleive that it does, you'd have to believe that we individually and severally possess, and have always possessed, the ability to perform genetic assays and historical and ancestry research on other people using only our naked eyes.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:46 PM on May 25, 2003

Huh. I finish complaining about Metafilter threads about race and one pops up that's actually interesting. Color me surprised.

First things first though:

That first link of hama7's leads to an opposing argument, for those who may have missed it.

"Is race a social construct?" Hmm. I'm not sure that I'm ready to regard race as nothing more than a matter of semantics: archetypes of different races (the whole comparison of real-world analogues aside) do contain physical traits that tend to be common within the race and (more) uncommon without. Hair types, skin and eye colors: to imply that there are no real variations from one group to the other sounds fairly absurd.

On the other hand, I can really see why people would tend to shy away from any strong assertion of race as anything more than a social convention. I think that racial issues are a lot like the swastika: so tainted by recent convention that most people think it's more convenient to abandon it entirely than it is to constantly preface it with "wait, now, I'm not using it that way..." The obvious problem with the Bell Curve-Henry Huxley acolytes is that they tend to take it to unsupportable extremes.

Consider intelligence, for example. What chromosome are intelligence genes on? Where are they? How do they work? How flexible is intelligence? Is it more dependent on heredity or environment? Forgive me if I'm uninformed-- my last genetics class was about five years ago-- but last I heard no one had even come close to gaining any definitive answers to these questions, or even knowing if these questions could be verified. (If anyone here knows better, please feel free to throw in a corrective link.) But hey, not knowing has never stopped bigots from jumping to the conclusion that race and intelligence are linked, and hey, surprise surprise, their race just happens to be the pinnacle of humanity! Huh, who'd'a thunk it? It works for other things, too. I don't think we've pinpointed a "criminal" gene yet, but don't you get the feeling that when we do it'll be linked to race too? Yeah.

Basically, I think that crackpots have screwed the subject up with their goofy eugenic theories. The result is that most people would rather gloss over the minor benefits of an outlook open to the concept of race (along the lines of what titboy mentioned) just to keep morons from overgeneralizing and going all fourth reich on us. (The articles you linked to aren't exactly proving those fears wrong, hama7.)

Can I talk about the part of the link that I was actually interested in now? The Leo Felton story... very depressing, I agree. One of my uncles married a white woman back in the 70's; they had two children before they broke up, and yeah, I think they tend to pay an unwarranted price for the simple fact of their existence. Their mom had two slightly older kids whose father was white; their (white, of course) grandmother, in an especially evil display of bigotry, would have nothing to do with my cousins, even going out of her way to pointedly make a will that left them out-- and the damn old woman didn't even have anything! That's just insane.

...Not that they had the easiest time living with their black relatives, either. Not that anyone within my family picked on them for having a white parent, mind you, but they often reported having trouble socially, both in school and with being called "half breed" on the street. What can I say? People-- all people of all races-- can be hateful assholes when they want to.

While I can understand the desire for people who defy conventional stereotypes to form their own more accurate "multiracial" designation, I don't really see it as advancing any particular cause past self-protection. Lots of other countries abandoned the "one drop" rule that gained favor in the US for convoluted mestizo/mulatto/quadroon/octoroon- type social stratification, but that seems just as prone to creating a racist society as anything else. I don't think we're going to eradicate racism by splitting people into increasingly specific categories.

In response to ashbury's question, I would say that racism exists to salve the psychic wounds of the insecure. It's like a cheap fix for the ego. I would say that racism validates individuals who, for whatever reason, feel that they have failed in some vital way to contribute to society through other means. Poor? Ignorant? Marginalized by society? Hey, at least you can take solace in your racial identity! Go to the nearest mirror, take a good long look, and tell yourself that being born (insert race here) was a really great contribution to the world in and of itself. Your very existence is a boon to the universe! Go find a bunch of similar looking, like-minded losers and you're in business. It's certainly not limited to white people, of course-- remind me to tell you the story about that wily scientist Yacub sometime. Racism blooms wherever ignorance, fear, and deprivation mingle. But hey, I'm sure that as soon as we get rid of that stuff, it'll disappear for good.

Great, now I'm depressed. Time to get away from the computer.
posted by tyro urge at 5:49 PM on May 25, 2003

Or would you suggest that people who, in their daily lives, generalize about 'races' are actually in possession of this sort of information about each other?

Umm definitly not spig-your average "wake up white people" kkk dude is a total idiot. Does anyone read these threads or just the last two comments? Earlier I said the whole "check your race" box should be removed from the census because the self-served information is suspect and it only leads to social discord.
posted by quercus at 9:52 PM on May 25, 2003

I think I'm changing my stance to on the whole question of race as a social construct. The arguments about increased gene frequency don't really justify classification by race. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" and all, and I haven't seen any definitive evidence that all members of race x carry gene y exclusively. Allele frequencies and gene distributions just aren't enough. Given the fact that assertions about race have been abused frequently in the past, and given that the human genome project seems to have completely transcribed our DNA, I don't think it's unreasonable to demand absolute proof before accepting race as an absolute fact.

Oh, and racism isn't society's appendix. I'd say it's more like an allergy-- an unwarranted overreaction to the presence of an otherwise harmless element.
posted by tyro urge at 4:39 PM on May 26, 2003

Better tell Howard University that quick Tyro before they waste millions: From todays New york Times:

"Saying black people are in danger of being left behind at the newest frontier of medical research, Howard University plans to create the nation's largest repository of DNA from African-Americans.
The samples would be used to find genes involved in diseases with particularly high rates among blacks like hypertension and diabetes.
The plan, to be announced today at Howard, a historically black institution in Washington, is to gather blood samples or cheek swabs from 25,000 people over five years, mainly patients at hospitals associated with the Howard College of Medicine."
posted by quercus at 8:15 AM on May 27, 2003

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