As I’ve written somewhere (but can’t remember where), it always amused me that when I wrote an NIH grant application, I had to specify my “race” (black, Pacific Islander, white, Hispanic, etc.), but then, in the instructions, it said something like “These categories are taken to be social constructs only, and are not biological.”
That statement is palpably false, but comes from the Leftist ideology that if you even talk about races, you’re promoting racism. As an evolutionary biologist interested in human differentiation, I know that the human species isn’t divided into a finite number of well-differentiated genetic groups, but that groups can still be distinguished by combining information from different genes, and that those groups tend to be those that evolved in geographic isolation, telling us something about human evolution. And I’m interested in understanding some of that genetic differentiation, like the processes involved in leading to morphological differentiation in traits like skin color, body configuration, and so on. Is that due to natural selection, sexual selection, or maybe genetic drift? Why do evolutionists pay so much attention to geographic differentiation in animals and plants, but avoid talking about it in Homo sapiens?
The answer, of course, is the ideological view that if you study that kind of differentiation, you’ll be promoting racism. And indeed, that has happened in the past. But I maintain that one can study human geographic variation in a purely evolutionary way, and simply criticize those who try to co-opt that work to set up any kind of racial hierarchy or to promote bigotry. We are, after all, the animal species that most fascinates us.
So when people say “race is a social construct,” they’re simply wrong. The only sense in which they’re right is that the designation of a finite number of easily-distinguished human groups (“races”) is a futile exercise, because we have differentiation within differentiation, making the whole exercise purely subjective. (You can, for example, distinguish subgroups of “Caucasians” within Europe, distinguishing those of Scandinavian from Italian ancestry simply by their genetic differences.)
But that’s not what people mean, I think, by “social construct.” What I think they mean (since they are rarely explicit) is this: “There is no biological difference between human ethnic groups.” That’s just wrong. Or, more plausibly, they mean that groups designated by skin color alone as “races” show no other biological differences that co-segregate with skin color. But that’s not true, either. For one thing, skin color itself is based on genetic differences, ones that (as we’ll see tomorrow) probably evolved by natural selection. And skin color co-segregates with other physical characteristics, as in the group “African Americans.” Finally, there are genetic diseases, like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease, that are more prevalent in some ethnic groups than others, and that is useful biology to know.
I’m writing this because reader Cindy called my attention to an NPR article describing how Brazil is now using skin color to determine who fits into various categories subject to affirmative action boosts. Brazil has “race tribunals” to place people in “racial” groups, and the traits used can include more than just skin color.
The NPR story starts with Lucas Siqueira, who got a coveted government job in Brazil after scoring well on a test and identifying himself as “mixed race.” People looked at his Facebook page, determined he didn’t look “mixed race” but white, and they complained bitterly. The government put his job on hold. The story then gets really bizarre\:
. . . . in order to “prove” that he was Afro-Brazilian, [Siqueira’s] lawyers needed to find some criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine.
“Apparently on my face I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto or John Stamos. On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyonce and Tiger Woods,” he said.
Like most people he has different skin tones on different parts of his body. But in none of these tests did he come out as lighter skinned.
He says the whole thing struck him as completely bizarre because identity, he says, is made up of more than just physical characteristics. [JAC: but to me, the important thing is whether discrimination is based on more than just physical characteristics.]
But this wasn’t just an isolated incident.
Mandatory for all government jobs
A few weeks ago, these race tribunals were made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size, hair texture and nose width, something that for some has uncomfortable echoes of racist philosophies in the 19th century.
“It is something terrible. I believe this kind of strategy can weaken the support of society for affirmative action policies,” says Amílcar Pereira, an associate professor at the School of Education in the Federal University of Rio, who studies race relations. “These policies have huge support … the majority of Brazilian society supports affirmative action.”
I don’t know what to make of this. Clearly the Brazilian government is not construing race as a purely social phenomenon, since it’s based on differences that are clearly inherited (black couples have black children, and so on), and on not just skin color, but hair texture, nose width, and other traits that do co-segregate based on geographic origin.
In what sense, then, is race a “social construct” in Brazil? If race was purely a social construct with no biology behind it, then you could become benefit from affirmative action simply by declaring that you were a minority, which was what people were accusing Siqueira of. You can declare your gender, after all, so why not your race? But people don’t like the latter, as witnessed by the case of Rachel Dolezal, who declared she was black when she had no African-American genes and was of purely European descent. People wouldn’t accept that, and she was forced to resign as director the NAACP (a black organization) in Spokane, Washington.
But maybe this kind of physical measurement in Brazil isn’t so bad after all. I say this because, historically, discrimination against people was based on physical characteristics—largely skin color, but also the biological co-segregates: hair texture, nose configuration, etc. If you want to remedy discrimination based on those traits, then you find out empirically how that discrimination works, which appearances result in discrimination, and then confer advantages to those with the traits most discriminated against. That’s a purely empirical approach to the problem, and although you can call it a “social construct” approach, you’d be distorting the situation, which involves real biological differences.
In the meantime, I’m still not quite clear what people mean when they say “race” is purely a social construct. As a biologist, I can’t find any interpretation of that claim that makes much sense. But in the meantime, I think we can recognize the biology behind racial classification while still working to dismantle the bigotry that goes along with it. After all, there are medical, scientific, and evolutionary questions that rest on the genetic structure of our species.