The meaning of “race.”

I’ve been thinking more about the question of race, as exemplified by Daniel MacIntyre’s comments on the topic. In the post I discussed previously, he writes:

I think I found the problem! the Professor is confusing race with species! For his edification, race is a subset of species. This means not that some of us do not come from African descendants. It simply means that those “groupings of shared characteristics” in different regions are more the rule than the exception.

I’m not “confusing” race with species. I’m pointing out that “race” is a subjective and scientifically vacuous criterion for discriminating between different human individuals. I think the following exercises will help illustrate the problems with making “racial” distinctions based on superficial differences.

1. In the following list of groups, how many races are represented?

Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Cambodian, Laotian, Mru, Hmong, Javanese, Indonesian, Polynesian, Australian aborigine, Magyar, Aryan, Hindu (lower caste), Hindu (upper caste), Pakistani, Afghani, Czech, Serbian, Albanian, Russian, Caucasian, Siberian, Mongol, Hun, Goth, Viking, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finn, Lithuanian, Turkish, Kurd, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Jewish, Ethiopian, Saudi Arabian, Bedouin, Libyan, Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan, Hutu, Watusi, Zulu, Kalahari bushmen, pygmy, Sudanese, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Maltese, Cyprian, Sicilian, Palestinian, Greek, Viennese, Belgian, Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Normand, Erie, Huron, Sioux, Apache, Nez Perce, Hopi, Cherokee, Inca, Aztec, Mayan, Cuban, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Argentinian, American, Canadian, and Eskimo.

2. To me, the above are all members of the human race (one race). If you see more than one race in the above, explain what objective criteria you use to tell the difference between one race and another.

3. Explain why we don’t find “races” in other species besides our own.

4. What is a “mixed” race? If a child of two “white” parents happens to be born with skin that is noticeably darker than theirs, is it a “mixed race” child? If not, why not?

5. What is the purpose of segregating people into different races? What good does it do?

My take on it is that “race” is simply a naive and subjective manifestation of an instinctive fear of strangers. Races do not actually exist in the real world, but when we see someone who is different from what we’re used to, we instinctively want to put a label on it–we call it “belonging to a different race.”  It’s an innate prejudice, a defect in our human character, and something that men and women of civilized and enlightened views ought to resist and correct. Fundamentally, we are all members of the same human race, and if we meet someone whose superficial features show greater diversity than we’ve been used to seeing, we ought to make the effort to broaden our own horizons, instead of erecting mental barriers designed to separate us from those “other races” outside.

3 Responses to “The meaning of “race.””

  1. Deacon Duncan Says:

    [Note: airor mailed me a comment about this post because the system was not letting him post directly for some reason, so with his permission I'm posting it on his behalf now -- dd]

    I’m a little confused about your vehement denial of the colloquial useof the term ‘race’.

    Races do not actually exist in the real world, but when we see someone who is different from what we’re used to, we instinctively want to put a label on it–we call it “belonging to a different race.”

    You ask 5 questions:

    1) How many ‘races’ are represented by this list? (list omitted)

    Race doesn’t have distinct edges. It is more like the color spectrum: there are distinct colors for which we name a few of (or many of: http://www.w3schools.com/Html/html_colornames.asp) but it is simply convention that they are named at the particular points ‘red’ ‘green’ ‘blue’ and so on. So when we name the people of South Eastern Asia “Asians” we are making a distinction of the traits from that area that are different from the other areas, such as “Northern Europe”.

    2) What objective criteria are being used?

    The empirical observation that there are traits distinctive to each area of the planet.

    3) Why no races in other species?

    We call them breeds for species where we care about traits, for the others we simply don’t care. I’m sure biologists have their own term for it.

    4) What is a mixed race?

    Races are a continuum of features. There is no reason ‘mixed’ race can’t happen, there is nothing superior to non-mixed peoples. All a non-mixed person could mean would be that they characterize the characteristic traits to a closer degree than others do.

    5) What is the purpose? What good does it do?

    This is the question that confuses me. What ‘good’ does it do? Why does an observation about how the world is have to justify itself morally?

    So we observe differences (“your skin is black, and you have epicanthal folds”) and we wonder if there are other differences. Low and behold, not really. The differences are either statistical in nature (certain races have a higher incidence of specific genetic disorders) or they cannot be distinguished from being caused by culture instead of genes.

    But that doesn’t make the question evil. Nor does it make any sense whatsoever to say there is no such thing as Asians or Black people. The descendants of people of Native American heritage will look like “American Indians.” And yes, because of that empirically observable real fact there are bad consequences like the fact that people will discriminate against them. But It goes against everything you’ve blogged about to deny the original observation that people look different and anyone with the ability to observe can categorize them based on those features, and those categories (empirically derived, but arbitrarily grouped) are what we call races.

    I just don’t think race denial is the way to advance “evangelical realism.” Better to simply point out the unscientific and arbitrary category system being used and that after looking into it, little besides the traits themselves correlate to the traits observed. It wasn’t evil to look into it. It was a necessary step to reach a conclusion.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    [Note: here was my reply to the above.]

    I would clarify that I do not object to the colloquial usage of “race” to describe visible differences in ethnic physiology. What I object to is (a) the use of “race” as though it made a clear-cut and obvious distinction between a superior and privileged “Us” and an inferior and unworthy “Them,” and (b) the oft-repeated canard that *science* (especially evolutionary science) has proven such a distinction to be true. It is in reference to the latter that I quibbled (ok, more that just quibbled) with certain bloggers over the meaning and significance of race. The chief point I would prefer to emphasize is that we are indeed, as you have put it, a continuous spectrum of differences within one common humanity. There are not and should not be gaps–or barriers–between the colors, because any such separation would be arbitrary, unnatural, and unjust, especially if it were used to separate the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

  3. Crafty Witch Says:

    “This means not that some of us do not come from African descendants.”

    Your friend needs to proofread. None of us come come from African descendants. We all come from African ancestors, some of us more recently than others. ;)

    On question number 3, in the Victorian era, the word “race” was used for other species, hence “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” in the full title of The Origin of Species. That usage has dropped out as more precise terms have come into favor, like “breed” which seems to be used purely for species subjected to artificial selection, or “subspecies” which can be used to describe a sufficiently distinct genetic subgrouping of any species. Of course, like “species,” “subspecies” is a somewhat fuzzy concept, hence arguments over whether the Baltimore Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole are subspecies of the same species or two different species.

    Okay, there are apparently genetic subgroupings of humans, but the statement that I’ve frequently come across wrt race is “The genetic variation within so-called races is greater than the genetic differences between them.” The other thing is that actual genetic subgroupings don’t necessarily match up to how most people divvy up races.


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