The persistence of race-based thinking

Scientists have established that the division of humanity into races has no biological justification. There is a certain amount of variation in people’s appearance, and the variations are sometimes correlated with other characteristics such as food tolerances and resistance to diseases, but there’s as much variation or more within the classic “races” as there is between them.

Still, minor differences in appearance often loom large in people’s minds, and the notion of race is hard to eradicate. Certainly racism exists; the fact that it’s based on an illusion doesn’t make it any less harmful, just more stupid. There are people who try to keep the idea of race alive out of misplaced good will, though it looks more like condescension. Aware that the idea of race has been discredited on biological grounds, they try to keep it alive on social grounds. Social groups often are based on ancestry and appearance, but they aren’t races. When someone talks about “people of color” and tries to claim that that’s a social characterization and not a physiological one, that’s doubletalk.

These people get extremely self-righteous about their efforts to prop up artificial racial distinctions. A certain professor mentioned a student who wouldn’t accept the idea of social races; she said that her reaction was that her mouth was working but words wouldn’t come out. I wish she’d realized that this was because her better sense was keeping her from speaking nonsense, but she claimed the student was being “unscientific.”

More recently, a much less respectable person said I was “hiding behind science” in not accepting the social redefinition of race, and threatened that I would be accused of “racism” for saying basically the things I’m saying here. How can it be both? How can the refusal to accept the new definition of race be both “unscientific” and “hiding behind science”? Don’t expect an answer. Both of these people, incidentally, have typically European appearance and a light skin.

The goal of this linguistic maneuver is to treat people as having a “racial identity.” In other words, it’s collectivist thinking, regarding people’s identity as being not their own personal, unique characteristics, but an arbitrary combination of physical and social characteristics. The groupings are ridiculous. “Asian” is typically a single “racial identity,” even though it includes people from Japan, Siberia, Tibet, and Iraq. It has its own stereotype, which looks like the typical person from Japan and forgets that all the others are equally Asian.

Several years ago a small Boston-area college ran subway ads showing a young dark-skinned woman with the text, “My major: Identity” and listing a couple of contentless course titles. Until I started to understand the jargon of racial identity I couldn’t fully believe that the ad was intentionally conveying a racial message. It’s hard to grasp just how condescending — in this case, downright insulting — some “liberal” people can be.

How do people feel about being treated as “racial identities”? Recently I visited a college library and saw an exhibit of comments by students. I didn’t get a chance to look at them carefully, but was struck by the comments of a couple of students who said they are black and were at least a little annoyed at being the “source on all things black” or always being the first one the professor called on when discussing civil rights. This sounds to me as if they’d rather be treated as individuals than be told to major in “identity.”

Certainly people’s origins and heritage are an aspect of their identity. The deadly mistakes are making them be anyone’s identity, and reducing them to a small number of pigeonholes in which everyone is assumed to fit. For some people, these mistakes are innocent, an attempt to bend over backwards and be fair. But when anyone tells you you’re “racist” or “hiding behind science” by challenging their notions, you’re dealing with someone who’s dishonest at the root.

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