Is Race Only A Social Construct?

Charles Mills makes the case dispassionately (and if you have the time, it’s well worth a full listen):

Since I really want to get to the bottom of this, it’s also worth quoting TNC’s latest post on the subject at length:

When the liberal says “race is a social construct,” he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth. We do not go around testing the “Irish race” for intelligence or the “Southern race” for “hot-headedness.” These reasons are social. It is no more legitimate to ask “Is the black race dumber than then white race?” than it is to ask “Is the Jewish race thriftier than the Arab race?”

The strongest argument for “race” is that people who trace their ancestry back to Europe, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to Asia, and people who trace their ancestry back to the early Americas, lived isolated from each other for long periods and have evolved different physical traits (curly hair, lighter skin, etc.)

But this theoretical definition (already fuzzy) wilts under human agency, in a real world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census. (Same deal for “Hispanic.”) The reasons for that take us right back to fact of race as a social construct. And an American-centered social construct. Are the Ainu of Japan a race? Should we delineate darker South Asians from lighter South Asians on the basis of race? Did the Japanese who invaded China consider the Chinese the same “race?”

Andrew writes that liberals should stop saying “truly stupid things like race has no biological element.” I agree. Race clearly has a biological element — because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on “Frankishness” in Emerson’s day. Over history of race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis.

“Race,” writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” Indeed. Race does not need biology.

TNC’s commenters push back in exactly the same way I would. “UDDanB” writes:

– When my wife was pregnant, we saw an OB. She gave us a pamphlet about cystic fibrosis testing. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but the pamphlet said that roughly 1 in 30 Caucasians carry the recessive gene. She didn’t recommend testing because she said the chance that my wife (who is Japanese) has the recessive gene as well is almost incalculably low.

– I know a Jewish couple who just got tested for Tay-Sachs prior to marriage. They said their doctor recommended that they do so (citing the much increased chance of this disorder among Jewish couples).

This is exactly what Andrew Sullivan is talking about. To convince ourselves that all alleged differences among humanity are entirely ginned up in a social context is plainly nonsense to anyone who has ever talked to a doctor about anything similar to the above. The word “race” is a pedantic distraction here – TNC is, of course, correctly that the colloquial use of that term has evolved over time (and is usually flat out inaccurate). Maybe what I describe above is best formulated as “subgroups with genetic differences”- ok, fine. Lets have the primary debate using that term.

I think that reclassification is very helpful, although I’d call it “subgroups with genetic similarities“, i.e. subgroups with specific genetic ancestries that make them different from others. This makes sense from a Darwinian perspective, as TNC notes. Before humankind entered its hyper-mobile modern era, members of the same subgroups in particular places and environments obviously developed more genes in common with each other than with outsiders (skin color is just a superficial one). So we get this sentence in the NYT piece about Angeline Jolie’s genetic marker for breast cancer:

Any woman with ovarian cancer should consider being tested, as should Ashkenazi Jewish women with breast or ovarian cancer.

Is that sentence racist? Of course not. It merely recognizes biological traits that are common in one genetic ancestry rather than others. (Interestingly, the first version of the article simply state “Jewish women” and then added “Ashkenazi.” That’s almost a perfect example of how race can obscure reality, which is that Jews come from two distinct ancestries, Ashkenazi and Sephardim.) But the social racial category – Ashkenazi Jew – does actually correlate with a specific, biological genetic marker. Or take the gene CCR5, which provides immunity from HIV infection. It is not found in Africa – because it was a genetic variation that became more dominant in European populations during the Black Death. In that case, “race” in its crudest sense can be a shorthand for predicting the likelihood of certain genetic variations. But it won’t tell you in any specific case. Most “white” Europeans do not carry CCR5.

If we are discussing “subgroups with genetic differences,” we avoid the pitfalls of race as an overly-broad category. But we do not deny biological genetic differences in these subgroups, which can correlate with various degrees of accuracy with our crude racial terminology.

It’s really futile and I would argue self-defeating for liberals to deny this reality. These days, you can actually find out the exact subgroups with genetic differences that your DNA most closely resembles. You do that by spitting into a beaker and then sending off your DNA sample to Here’s what happens:

Once your results have been processed … you can log into your account and see an approximate composition of your ancestral DNA, which dates back around 500 years. For example, if your grandparents were half Polish and half Irish, your DNA results wouldn’t necessarily reflect that closely, but they would show you roughly where your family came from 10 generations ago.

Here’s how the science works:

Basically, your DNA is tested using several hundred “markers,” and compared using the “signal” those markers share strongly in common with geographic populations worldwide. Some markers have a very strong association with a specific location, making the results much more reliable, while others — such as those associated within central Europe, France, and Germany — are much less so, making that fine of a distinction often difficult to assume with a high level of accuracy.

These “subgroups with genetic differences” are real. Homo sapiens would be a bizarre exception to natural selection if they weren’t. And these genetic variations have changed within the last 500 years. Imagine how much they might have changed over hundreds of millennia, with subgroups largely separated from each other and adapting to very different challenges, diseases and climates. Commenter “kochevnik” addresses this point here:

Both the cases [UDDanB] mentioned do point to higher likelihoods of congenital disorders among certain ancestries (although if I’m not mistaken, Tay-Sachs is more an issue among Ashkenazi Jews, not Jews as a whole).

But in both cases a particular ancestry leads to a recommendation test for a particular gene. You don’t get cystic fibrosis because you are white. There is a higher likelihood that that condition will occur if you are white, which triggers to a test to find the actual gene that causes the disorder.

In the case of race and IQ, it’s comparing test scores to self-reported categories, the labels of which have been influenced by US history. No one has (as far as I can see) just made the case that x gene leads to y IQ score.

Not yet, but they are hard at work in China trying to figure it out. A lab partly funded by the government is examining the genome of 2,200 individuals with stratospheric IQs of over 160. They intend to compare those genomes with people of average IQ and see where the genetic differences are. This is not quack research – although it is a daunting scientific challenge with something as genetically complex as intelligence. Scientists have discovered a series of genes that regulate height, for example. But intelligence will require an enormous number of DNA studies before we get a clue. But the idea that genetics has nothing to with subgroups in human history or intelligence is bizarre. TNC responds:

The example I am more familiar with is sickle cell which is more prevalent among African-Americans than it is among “Caucasians.” But what do we mean by Caucasian? It’s obvious from this map that sickle-cell affects a lot more people than just “blacks”–including some who in America would be called “Caucasian.”

I appreciate your point. (No sarcasm at all.) I am not saying that there is no point in asking a patient about their ancestry. I am saying that the minute you say “Caucasian” you have entered the realm of race and social constructs, because “Caucasian”–like black–is a term defined by actual people, with actual agendas.

On this we can agree. “Race” as a term is very nebulous. But human subgroups with similar ancestries can have group differences in DNA – and intelligence is highly unlikely to have no genetic basis at all (although most now believe its impact is greatly qualified by cultural and developmental differences).

But what I really want TNC to address is the data. Yes, “race” is a social construct when we define it as “white”, “black,” “Asian” or, even more ludicrously, “Hispanic.” But why then does the overwhelming data show IQ as varying in statistically significant amounts between these completely arbitrary racially constructed populations? Is the testing rigged? If the categories are arbitrary, then the IQs should be randomly distributed. But they aren’t, even controlling for education, income, etc.

That’s the core problem with debunking the Richwine thesis. The policy inferences are repellent to me. But the data are real. And they correspond to our socially constructed racial categories. There’s no correlation between intelligence and height, for example, or between intelligence and gender (except arguably at the extreme extremes). So why would our constructed and arbitrary racial categories yield such dramatic IQ differentials? Remember this holds true even when controlling for class, money and education. The answer is: we can only guess. Once they find a specific genetic pattern for intelligence, as they are looking for in China, we may find out.