The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has been impressive and far too long in arriving. It is therefore a pity that discrimination against people of color should get confused with the unhelpful label of racism. The term ‘race’ is a relatively new contribution to the English language. It originally just meant a type, used as in a ‘race of bishops,’ without any implication of fundamental or biological differences.
Race only became a term that implied a radical difference in the nature of people in the 18th century. At that time the idea of racial differences was part of the rationalization for slavery. It was the way in which British colonizers convinced themselves that it was appropriate to exploit indigenous people in other countries. Native Americans, Australian Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, as well of course, as African Americans. These groups were characterized as being biologically so different, indeed inferior, from the dominant ‘white’ race that they could be abused, and in many cases massacred without feeling any remorse.
The idea that groups of human beings were biologically distinct from each other gained momentum with a simplistic grasp of Darwinism. If humankind was descended from more primitive animals then surely, it was argued, some human beings were earlier in the evolutionary chain than others. This argument never needed any factual support because it fed into the belief of those who held it, that they were the top of the evolutionary tree. It didn’t take much of a leap for the Nazis to grab this idea and proclaim the existence of an Aryan ‘race’, together with the determination to rid the world of the Jewish ‘race’.
The social-psychological process underlying all this is the desire to distinguish the group you are a member of from other groups. This then encourages the desire to ensure that your group is better than theirs. Any characteristic that supports the difference is seized on and taken to indicate that the other group is fundamentally different from yours.
However, the fact is that biologists have never found support for the holistic differences between groups of people enshrined in the concept of race. Human beings’ genetic make-up is remarkably homogeneous. Of course, there are small genetic differences between sets of individuals that may have importance for their vulnerability to particular diseases, or hair color. However, a tribe of African monkeys have greater genetic variation within their group than the whole of humanity. The small genetic differences between people do not amount to the overarching distinction implied by the idea of a ‘race’. As Jonathan Marks puts it in his wonderful book What it means to be 98% chimpanzee, “people are similar to those geographically nearby and different from those far away.”
The root of the problem is the human tendency to take one obvious characteristic of a person as an indication of all their other characteristics. Skin color is the most obvious example, made even more pernicious by the tendency to ignore the many variations in skin color and assign people to very few categories. But psychological research shows that other oversimplifications are common. If people are thought of as ‘warm’ they are likely to also be considered intelligent, energetic and have a host of other good qualities. In traditional Japanese folklore evil characters were often expected to have red hair. This was such a powerful myth that a red-headed English colleague of mine, who was fluent in Japanese, had children running away from him on Tokyo streets. He had a hard time getting people there to believe he was speaking their language.
The confusion over race has been worsened by well-intentioned legislation outlawing discrimination against people on ‘racial grounds’. This is often explained as it being illegal to discriminate against someone because of the ‘colour of their skin’. But the equation of skin colour with a ‘race’ is total nonsense. As many people classified as ‘black’ will tell you, the variations amongst them in skin colour is much more varied than between those who are classified as white. Their genetic make-up also varies in relation to where they were born and the local communities they are part of. I know it’s more of a mouthful, but the anti-discrimination law would be better described as making it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of any aspect of their appearance. That would cover a lot of relevant biases, for instance, such as people who are disabled, or badly dressed.
The rather spurious trade in tracing ancestral relationships through DNA has only helped to obscure the picture further. What can it possibly mean to say your DNA shows you are 25 percent Scandinavian and 5% Mongolian, for example? It is not going to improve your ability to speak their local languages or obtain a visa to visit those countries. As Jonathan Marks puts it, the use of these genetic tests is grasping at a straw to try to achieve an identity that was lacking. Our propensity to identify with particular groups and distinguish ourselves from others may have many values but regarding such distinctions as ‘racial’ is the cause of much that is wrong in modern society.