Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On the Non-Existence of Race

A guest post by Fr. Cassian Sibley:

One of the elements of our statement concerning the sin of racism that has caused the most irritation and created the most resistance is our comment that "race" doesn't exist.  This is a counterintuitive claim for those who simply regard the word "race" as a "fill in" for “whatever quality it is” that enables most of us to tell, with some degree of accuracy, what continent people originated from.  That people can, in fact, do this, we are not at all intending to deny. But that is not what “race" means. When we speak of a Caucasoid, Negroid, or Mongoloid race, as an actual classification for human beings that purports to tell us something factual about the world - then we are in very different territory intellectually indeed. The word “race” has no meaning except as a cultural construct.

To begin at the level of empirical observation, it is a simple matter of fact that a person may carry 25% or more of his or her genetic material from African sources and “pass” as white.  Another person may have the same percentage of genetic material from African sources and be “identified” as an African-American based on color.  There is a phenotypical difference between them, and if the individuals in question are being raised in America, it is highly likely that they will probably belong to different cultural and ethnic subgroups than one another; nonetheless, apart from the mere appearance of difference itself, the relevant biological difference between them is phenotypical—not racial.

One common objection to this argument is that “anything can be a cultural construct.” A table, for instance, is a cultural construct, as a surface for serving meals. But the object that is a table is not "only" a cultural construct. It also exists as an actual thing in the world, one that one may use in ignorance of or violation of the construct - as a doorstop, for instance, or as a shield.  The object is there, but its meaningful character is underdetermined apart from the cultural construct that situates it in a social context.

"Race"—unlike the table—does not exist as an independent physical object. It is purely a matter of appearance.  Some genetic markers are nominally associated with skin color but are rarely found in any kind of lock-step with any other genetic markers; there is no such thing as genetic “Causcasianism,” “Jewish blood,” or “Mongoloid inheritance.” Race terms such as these, when used as definitional descriptions, are not associating various human beings with another based on blood or genetics at all but are merely based on appearance.

Some attempt to save appearances by associating “race” with one simple and obvious trait such as skin tone, but that will not work.  Bantu tribesmen, Dravidians from the Indian subcontinent, and Australian Aborigines share a similar skin tone. Hottentots and many Mexicans do, too. And Japanese and Europeans share a very similar tonal array, even though Europeans share far more genetic markers with Africans than they do with the historic populations of Japan and China.  The genetic differences between Africans are far greater than the average genetic difference between Europeans and Africans.  Thus, those committed to defending “race” as an empirical fact would have to look to other phenotypical descriptors to recreate their prescribed "race groupings," for instance: light skin but no almond-shaped eyes; dark skin with prominent lips and curly hair; brown skin, but taller than five feet on average; and so forth.  Unconsciously, humans have done this for centuries, but to do it consciously is to arbitrarily construct an image of the “race” once believed to be an objectively existing thing out of a subjective selection of phenotypical characteristics. Phenotypical characteristics are not race; they are a collection of appearance markers used to create a cultural association based on appearance alone, in isolation from cultural and ethnic factors, and nothing more.  Therefore, we affirm that race does not exist.  Genes exist. Genetic markers for specific physical traits exist. Light skin exists. Blue eyes exist. Red hair exists.  But a “Caucasian” or “white” race does not exist. A “black” race does not exist. These enculturated groupings are mere congeries of visible physical features that are not necessarily associated with one another, and that sit very lightly upon actual genetic facts.

Indeed, biologically speaking, every time the distribution of a trait possessing a survival value greater under some circumstances than under others is plotted, it has a distinct pattern of geographical variation, such that none of these patterns ever truly coincide. Nose form, tooth size, relative arm and leg length, eye color, skin tone - and every other such trait - is distributed in accordance with its own particular controlling selective force. The distribution gradient of each of these is called a cline and these clines are completely independent of one another. This is why the little mantra, "There are no races, there are only clines" is so familiar to those engaged in biological and genetic studies of human populations. There are recognizable general similarities in the appearances of people originating from a given area of the world, especially if they were a relatively isolated population group, but all that is really being seen is a pattern of features derived from common ancestry in that area, in a manner very similar to the recognizable likeness within a given family that derives from a common ancestry. The association of these recognizable characteristics with one another in a population are largely unrelated to survival value. The distribution of clines does not follow geographical or geopolitical boundaries.

So, while it is perfectly reasonable to use geographic labels to designate people for descriptive purposes, specific race terms such as "Negroid," "Caucasoid," and "Mongoloid" cause far more confusion than clarity. Race terms reflect a mix of narrow regional, specifically ethnic, and descriptive physical components with an assumption that such separate dimensions have some sort of underlying causal basis that they - in a biologically demonstrable way - do not.

Here is a specific example: A friend of mine has a black grandmother. This friend looks absolutely "Caucasian." No one would have turned away a man looking like him at the door of a "Whites Only" club.  But another man with a "black" grandmother – perhaps the same black grandmother - would have been forbidden to use a public restroom during segregation, purely based on his appearance. The fact that this could happen was why those enforcing American race-segregation laws had to maintain race records to avoid accidental miscegenation.  Factually, though, even these records adverted to no genetic facts, but simply tracked a person's ancestry back to someone who had dark skin.  Ultimately there is nothing other than appearance upon which race terms can be established.

There is nothing “Marxist” (whether cultural or otherwise) about acknowledging any of this.  It is just the way it is.  The cultural construct of race in the form that it has come down to us in America is a late Anglo-American creation, initially grounded in a North American context in which peoples originating from three very different and distant parts of the world were thrown together, and in a situation in which clear assumptions about the relative value and intelligence of each of these groups already existed culturally and were readily imposed upon certain clear physical distinctions, the most obvious of which was skin color. Once exported to Europe and to the colonial world, this construct was used as justification to make a great many dubious decisions, some of them genuinely horrific, on the mistaken notion that the categories in question were objective and biological in nature. We now know better.

One last objection has been raised: What about the places in the Orthodox Fathers, or in Orthodox hymnody where the term “race” is used? Are we not ignoring their witness?  No, we are not. It is important to not become confused by the (largely 19th century) translations of ancient texts into believing that the ancients themselves, especially the Christian fathers, believed in "race" as a biological category. Most ancient languages lack a separate term to distinguish what is called “race” apart from ethnicity, language, culture, and locale, that is not either a simple color term or a description of a specific physical feature.  For instance, the word most often translated as "race" in the 19th century from Greek is teleological and has to do with people involved in a common quest or seeking a common goal. Other terms clearly indicate nationality or a common language. In other words, when one sees the word "race" in an English language translation of a passage from St. Athanasius or St. Basil, one has a bit more linguistic work to do in unpacking what is being said, and once one does unpack it, it will become evident that it was unnecessary for the word to be translated as "race" at all.

To conclude, when I say "race" does not exist and is a merely a social construct, I am not being "politically correct." I am trying to describe the world accurately in an Aristotelian sense, using words that divide it at the points at which the actual joints of the world exist, rather than using words that have “meanings” grounded in nothing apart from appearance.