Race, not a Biological, but a Social Reality

Race, not a Biological, but a Social Reality: a guest post by Abbas Naqvi.

Mike Brown was not black. Neither was Eric Garner. Nor was Trayvon Martin. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is no such thing as black, white, or yellow, from a biological standpoint. Race is a cultural/political phenomenon that has been used to manipulate, control and oppress populations, at times under the veil of science; however, in reality from a scientific perspective, it is a mere optical illusion.  As we struggle to comprehend how racially motivated murder can still be ubiquitous in America, it is helpful to consider the pseudoscience that has delineated, and thus divided, us as a nation, as well as the scientific research that shows that our differences are negligible, yet inform split-second life-and-death decisions. Decisions like whether a handheld object is likely to be a bag of Skittles or a gun.

The concept of races was derived in the 1700s from a European-led classification system. Carl Linneus, considered to be the father of scientific classification, could also be considered to be the founder of the pseudo-scientific construct of race. He initially defined four races based on skin color: Europæus albus, Americanus rubescens, Asiaticus fuscus, and Africanus niger, which corresponded to white European, red American, brown Asian, and black African respectively. Furthermore, he went a step further by characterizing these four different categories into stereotypical bins, which still exist today. It is important to note, that no other species has such sub-classifications, with the exception of sheep and dog. Importantly, his binning into stereotypes was grounded in the Eurocentric culture that is now the dominant view. With that being said, his classification system did receive some resistance, for example by figures such as Buffon, but eventually Linneus won out. Linneus’ classifications of racewere based on “biological essentialism”. Essentialism is a way of thinking in biology that is associated with Platonic idealization. For example, Linneus describes Europeans as having long blond hair and bright blue eyes. Notably, this mode of thought is considered obsolete in the realms of science and more specifically biology. Additionally, amongst scientists, it is generally discouraged to use race to explain collective differentiation in both physical and behavioral traits, due to its very problematic nature.

Linneus’ work with the nomenclature may have been unintended for any particular abuse, and may have just been a reflection of a human tendency to distinguish amongst different populations. Nonetheless, the consequences of his work are very real and have been felt by many. Alongside empirical and conceptual problems with the term “race,” following World War II, evolutionary scientists became aware of how beliefs about race had been used to justify discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and genocide that a counter movement started to appear in order to deconstruct this construction that was manipulated and modified from its original premise. This type of critical thought gained increased momentum by trickling down to the masses during the US civil rights movements and lead to the understanding that race is a mere social construction that was crafted by those holding the most political power.

With the completion of the human genome project, many scientists have replaced the word “race” with the word “ethnicity” to refer to self-identifying groups that is based on beliefs related to culture, ancestry, and a shared history. With new data emerging this has become the norm amongst geneticists, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, examination of the data from the genome mapping, Dr. Craig Venter, a lead scientist involved with the project, realized that although the genetic variation within the human species is on the order of 1–3%, that the types of variations do not support notion of genetically defined races. Venter states, “Race is a social concept. It’s not a scientific one. There are no bright lines, that would stand out, if we could compare all the sequenced genomes of everyone on the planet…When we try to apply science to try to sort out these social differences, it all falls apart” [1]. In fact, features that are associated with race, such as skin, eye color, or the structure of your nose are controlled by approximately 0.01% of your genes, reflecting a very small part of the geneticmakeup making it irrelevant. In fact, most human variation falls within, not between populations. Most of all genetic variation may be found within any local population and almost a 100% can be found within any continental population. In reality, there are no characteristics, no traits, and not even one gene that turn up exclusively in one “race” [2].

Despite being contradicted by genetic research, the construct of race is now so deep and embedded that the average person now associates violence with black individuals. In a 2001 study, participants were shown a picture of either a white face or a black face followed immediately by a picture of a weapon or a tool. They were asked to identify the specific object within a few milliseconds and the responses were very alarming. The participants more often identified dangerous objects or weapons correctly after they saw a black face, while more accurately identified tools after seeing an image of a white face. This is how a bag of Skittles may become a gun, or how hands raised become fists poised to punch. What’s even more striking is that they inaccurately and falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was black than when it was white. Dr. Keith Payne, the lead scientist goes on to state, “Race stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. Split-second decisions magnify the bias by limiting people’s ability to control responses. Such a bias could have important consequences for decision making by police officers and other authorities interacting withracial minorities. The bias requires no intentional racial animus, occurring even for those who are actively trying to avoid it” [3]. Later studies have also re-affirmed this and similar findings were observed. For example, in this past year, studies have concluded that race significantly predicts usage of specific fear codes [4].

Undoubtedly, in all of the racially sparked cases in the US mentioned earlier, including the latest Mike Brown incident in Ferguson, we see this rooted racial construct taking its toll on oppressed minorities, like it has in the past. The irony of it all is that we show less genetic diversity than those of fruit flies, yet we hold, even at times subconsciously, such a warped view of the “other” that it has lead to unjustifiable acts of aggression.

A few studies have suggested that there may be a key ingredient for subduing this construct. In February 2014, there was a study that supported the notion that white individuals living in racially diverse areas held a more favorable attitude towards their black counterparts [5]. Despite the evidence, it is still a bit unclear how to reverse the idea of race. Regardless, science by its very nature is self-correcting and leads to newer and better hypotheses, but social constructs can only be self-corrected (or deconstructed) by us, as we become critical of the source and concepts it espouses.

Bio: Abbas Naqvi was born and raised in New York, and currently resides in Philadelphia. He is currently pursuing his doctorate degree in field of biology. He has written and edited over 10 publications related to the field of genomics. He has also been involved with national and international initiatives related to human rights, social justice and politics. You can follow him on twitter @aanaqvi.

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