​Racialising society is not the antidote to racism

IN A FANCIFUL piece on the supposed ‘new science of race’ published by Business Day, political commentator David Mathews resorts to long discredited theories of scientific racism, in particular social darwinism, in order to rail against non-racialists, who he says are nothing more than delusional pundits of political correctness.

“The politically correct mantra that race is nothing more than a social construct, and that “there is only one race, the human race” says Mathews “is not only not true, but is deliberately misleading. And not only misleading, but also inimical to any understanding of, or solution to, the major social problem of racism.” Admittedly, Mathews’ scurrilous fudge piece ends by redefining racism, but in order to unpack a pet theory, Mathews must first resort to a strange racist solipsism, a semantic self-induced coma, if you will.

Hurtling off to the dark-side of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, Mathews says: “There is, as we know, only one human species, but contrary to the politically correct obfuscation above, there are indeed also many human races, when “race” is understood to be what the Oxford dictionary defines as, and Charles Darwin understood to be, “one of the major divisions of mankind having distinct and readily visible physical characteristics, with each group adhering to its own culture, history, language, etcetera”.

That a person such as Mathews so readily resorts to the company of Oxford dons, those like RW Johnson, whose self-referential piece equating ‘black persons and baboons‘ in the London Review of Books, and a controversy predating the Penny Sparrow incident, is really indicative of the general problem with the Oxford dictionary project as a whole, and especially its hegemony over language and meaning. The dictionary itself, is less a provider of hard science than a grab-bag of popular linguistics, off-the-cuff definitions, and semantic quibbles, that have resulted in the inclusion of words such as “conniption” (a fit of rage or hysterics) and “fankle” (to tangle or entangle something).

That Mathews is equally guilty of farnarkling the issues at stake here, can be seen in a popular Newsweek article: “There is no such thing as race” by one Robert Sussman. “The notion of race may be real, but the science is not,” says Sussman, “We are all the same, with no exceptions.”

According to Sussman, who unlike Mathews is not a self-published Amazon author (I admit, to also being one), but rather, the author of a reputable imprint published by Harvard Press, ‘The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea‘, “What many people do not realize is that … racial structure is not based on reality. Anthropologists have shown for many years now that there is no biological reality to human race. There are no major complex behaviors that directly correlate with what might be considered human “racial” characteristics.

Instead of grappling with the science, Mathews offers some ponderous merken of his own: “Why do the apostles of political correctness go out of their way deliberately and pseudo-scientifically to confuse the term “race” with the term “species” in the public mind? Because if people can be deluded into acknowledging that there are no such things as different races, then the concept of race cannot legitimately be introduced when the subject of racism is raised.”

In a review of RACE?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by an anthropologist and a geneticist, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, Jan Sapp  a professor in biology at York University, Toronto says:In biology, a grouping has biological meaning based on principles of common descent—the Darwinian idea that all members of the group share a common ancestry. On this basis, and on the ability to interbreed, all humans are grouped into one species as Homo sapiens, the only surviving member of the various species that the genus comprised. Species are arranged within the “tree of life,” a hierarchical classification that situates each species in only one genus, that genus only in one family and so on.”

“Nothing confuses that classification more than the exchange of genes between groups. In the bacterial world, for example, gene sharing can occur throughout the most evolutionarily divergent groups. The result is a reticulate evolution—a global net or web of related organisms, and no species. Among humans, reticulation occurs when there is interbreeding within the species—mating among individuals from different geographical populations. The result of such genetic mixing of previously isolated groups—due to migrations, invasions and colonization—is that no clear boundaries can be drawn around the variety of humans, no “races” of us.”

In raising the debate about species, Mathews  is certainly putting the linguistic cart before the proverbial horse. Just as the term Anti-Semitism, a polite academic phrase used to describe Judenhaas (Jew hatred), is all too often confused, (no it is most certainly not the opposite of Semitism), racism, the popular word for one of humanity’s most persistent bugbears, does not require that a science of race exist.

“There is no inherent relationship between intelligence, law-abidingness, or economic practices and race, just as there is no relationship between nose size, height, blood group, or skin color and any set of complex human behaviors,” says Sussman.

“However, over the past 500 years, we have been taught by an informal, mutually reinforcing consortium of intellectuals, politicians, statesmen, business and economic leaders and their books that human racial biology is real and that certain races are biologically better than others.”

“These teachings have led to major injustices to Jews and non-Christians during the Spanish Inquisition; to blacks, Native Americans, and others during colonial times; to African Americans during slavery and reconstruction; to Jews and other Europeans during the reign of the Nazis in Germany; and to groups from Latin America and the Middle East, among others, during modern political times.”

As a recent scientific paper published by the US National Institute of Health cautions:”Races may exist in humans in a cultural sense… Adaptive traits, such as skin color, have frequently been used to define races in humans, but such adaptive traits reflect the underlying environmental factor to which they are adaptive and not overall genetic differentiation, and different adaptive traits define discordant groups. There are no objective criteria for choosing one adaptive trait over another to define race. As a consequence, adaptive traits do not define races in humans.”

If race is merely an “informal taxonomy” and not science at all, then race is a fiction, and a bad fiction at that. Best not to racialise society by invoking discredited ideas of Social Darwinism and thus the theories of scientific racism, consistent with earlier epochs of colonialism and genocide, which carried ideas of inferiority and superiority, survival of the fittest and natural selection. Such ideas may once have been prevalent within the field of biology and evolution, but when it comes to politics and human society, they have proven to be nothing more than horrendous justifications for the system known as apartheid.



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