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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Race: An Empty Category?

Patricia Palermo

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
--Albert Einstein

What is race? How many races are there? What are the genes that separate each race? How many genes are there? What do evolutionists, scientists, or anthropologists have to say about race? And even more importantly, what role does race play in your life? When I was a young girl of about 6, I had a friend of a different race who was particularly interested in answering the unsolved mysteries of our world. She explained to me that she was made "some place different than white girls." I took a good look at the both of us and determined that this must be correct. As I grew older, I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I ever believed this. And as I got even older, I started to question whether or not other people were told the same story.
Race, in the sense that I will be addressing it, is popularly defined as: "1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics," or "2. Biology. a. An interbreeding, usually geographically isolated population of organisms differing from other populations of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits. A race that has been given formal taxonomic recognition is known as a subspecies." (1) But what if we could not distinguish a more or less distinct group through genetically transmitted differences? Imagine how the definition of race would need to change if the very idea of a "geographically isolated population" become a rare occurrence? For too long, racial categories have had too forceful an impact on our understanding of human variation. Many findings in past racially motivated scientific experiments have only encouraged our divide. However, in recent American society, a great deal of time has been spent on a different approach to racial awareness. Interestingly enough, those who rest on opposite sides of the spectrum, (those who are racists and those who are race conscious and considerate,) have one thing in common: they acknowledge race as an important distinction between human beings. With a new awareness of the historical development of race, and a close look at the biology of human beings, we may feel compelled to ignore our classifications of race all together. This seemingly simple step is not only exciting on the level of racial equality, but on so many different levels of humanity that are waiting to be touched by this. This will not only change what types of variation among human beings are most important to define, but it will change the way we see ourselves, and the way we imagine ourselves perceived by others.
Unlike culture, race is actually a relatively new concept. Documentation of ancient civilizations shows us that social distinctions based on skin color or physical appearances were rare and simply not a preferred way of describing others. The ancient writings and customs of the Egyptians and Kushites, along with the relationship between the Greeks and Romans, show that color was not always and obstacle in dividing society. "They distinguished people according to customs and religion; not race." (3) It was not until the 16th century that we became race conscious, which may have derived as a cultural battle that later evolved into a distaste for physical features and color indigenous to groups that we culturally opposed or desired to control. The roots of racism can be found in the 19th century scientific traditions, and even earlier philosophical traditions where it was common practice to categorize based on the understanding that "immutable visible traits can predict the measure of all other traits in an individual or a population" (9). Race distinctions were further perpetuated by the English's struggle to dominate the Irish, or from the religious persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, when Jewish or Moorish "taint" were the clearest signs of inferiority in their beliefs. (3) When speaking of the United States, our intrigue with race has deep implications with the slave trade, and also the relocation of Indians from their homeland (4). The classification of race and all inquiries or misconceptions that arose from that construct clearly played a role in some of the more tainted moments in our human history. However, today we find race making very different historical marks. On June 23, 2003 the US Supreme Court upheld University of Michigan Law School admissions policy's use of race as a factor in admissions selections. (5) Race has also been determined as an important factor in such diseases as sickle cell anemia. It would seem as though this time, race was being used to include and care for different races, rather than exclude or harm. So, is this an example of race being used for good? Possibly.

So what if we did abolish the entire idea of race? The University of Michigan's law school would be forced to admit students based on their merit alone without ANY prior knowledge as to the color of their skin. People of other "races" would not run the risk of believing that they are not at risk for sickle cell anemia, considering the most recent statement from The Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia and their colleagues insist, "Sickle cell is in many nationalities including African Americans, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Italians, Latin Americans, and those from India. You can be Caucasian and have sickle cell disease or trait. All races should be screened for this hemoglobin at birth" (8). But currently, all races are not, and this may have a lot to do with our current conception of race. It is important to recognize that even what may seem to be the benefits of the concept of "race," may still be nothing more than better-disguised drawbacks. And these drawbacks may be keeping us from more important scientific advancement and social, cultural, and medical achievements due to our preoccupation with a poorly developed construct with little to no value.

This may be because the common understanding of race differs from the best understanding of race. In 1996, the AAPA issued a Statement on Biological Aspects of Race as a revision of the 1964 UNESCO statement of race. I propose that the best definition of race become today's common definition, which includes the following points made by the AAPA:
"Biological differences between human beings reflect both hereditary factors and the influence of natural and social environments... There is great genetic diversity within all human populations. Pure races, in the sense of homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past" (9).
Interestingly enough, the United States census bureau has also chosen to get involved with our misconception of strictly separate races. In the melting pot, particularly, we realized the need to break down the very rigid structures of race. The 2000 census was the first in history to allow people to check off more than one race category, "a process destine to reshape the ideas about race in America." (2) Our definition of race is changing, slowly... but is this decision scientifically supported?
The best answer is that the idea of abolishing the category of race is more scientifically sound than the idea of keeping it around. No matter where you stand on the issue, some say the best that biology has to offer is this: Human beings are made up of approximately 30,000 genes. Of those 30,000 genes, there is a surprisingly low number that have been proven to be responsible for separating one race from another- Zero! (7) But this finding, or lack there of, seems to disagree a great deal with our first definition of race. Also disagreeing with our first definition of race as something involved in "genetically transmitted physical characteristics" are studies finding that approximately "90% of human genetic variation occurs within a population living on a given continent, whereas about 10% of the variation distinguishes continental populations. (7) Basically, this would imply that we can find 90% of our individuality to be distinct from our neighbor, even if that neighbor is of the same racial category. Furthermore, it is also crucial to take in the fact that a black woman and a white woman may share much more "genetic similarity" than two people of the same race. (7)

It is important for human beings to define themselves and to be defined through their actions and not their appearances. Eliminating the idea of race, an idea that was ill conceived from its inception, may allow people the freedom to classify a group by their actions, their culture, and their beliefs. Abolishing the idea of race does not force us to ignore heredity, or the medical advantages of understanding someone's geographic history, family lineage, or bloodline. It merely forces us to look deeper. Abolishing the use of race as a defining characteristic will not erase our past, but it will evolve our future in a completely different direction, especially concerning our scientific endeavors. If you are someone whose goal is to end racism in this country, or in any other, consider not only focusing on ending intolerance to differences, but terminating vocabulary that supposes we have more differences than actually exist. We have found different approaches to our differences throughout history, and we would be best served to ignore our skin color as a means of classification. Race is not a valid distinction between human beings. The merits of the previous statement rest on biological advancements, and not just a sweet ideological wish. To be in agreement with Albert Einstein, although race may be a visible trait that seems easy enough to measure, it does not predict the more important traits of an individual... at least not enough to be "counted."


Dictionary. Com - A source that provided me with a generally excepted definition of race in a variety of different context, including a biological one.

Project Race: Rethinking Racial Identity - An article expressing excitement over multicultural, multiracial advancements made in this country.

Race: Is It a Valid Issue? Focusing on the historical non-existence of race.

4. Audio clips taken from the Travis Smiley Show concerning Race (includes several commentators)

University of Michigan website- An article on their victory in the case involving race as a factor in admission to their Law School.

World Almanac for Kids Online: The 2000 United States Census

7. Bamshad, Michael J., and Olson, Steve E. "Does Race Exist?" Scientific American Dec. 2003: 23+.

The Sickle Cell Information Center: Is sickle cell only in African Americans?

9. "AAPA Statement on Biological Aspects of Race." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 101 (1996): 569-570.

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