Pandaemonium

RACE, SCIENCE AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY

A second extract from the talk I gave last week on ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’. I posted the first extract yesterday.  The full transcript is on my archive site. For an even fuller version of the argument see my book Strange Fruit.


THE DEBATE ABOUT RACE IS NOT A DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER DIFFERENCES  exist between human populations. Jon Entine, a staunch defender of the idea of race, defines race as ‘human biodiversity’. That is meaningless. No one, on either side of the debate, would deny that there are a myriad of differences between different human populations.

The real debate about race is not whether there are any differences between populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. But if you are a Yanomamo Indian living in the Amazon forest, even this difference may not be of that great an import, since it is quite possible that you will be unable – or will not need – to use either form of transport. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems of the contemporary debate about race is that these two questions get too rarely asked.

One reason it gets too rarely asked is that both sides in the debate accept a common view of human differences. What race expresses today is not so much an old fashioned belief in the existence of clearly delineated groups of people each with a special, essential quality but a much vaguer belief about the importance of human differences, a sense that what matters are our particular identities, and that preserving and celebrating such differences and identities is essential to the healthy functioning of human societies.  And such a celebration of difference has today become the hallmark, not of old-fangled, reactionary racism, but of modern, liberal anti-racism. ‘It’s good to be different’ might well be the motto of our times. The celebration of difference, the promotion of a pluralist society, tolerance for a variety of cultural identities – these are seen as the hallmarks of a decent, liberal, democratic, non-racist society. As UNESCO has put it, ‘diversity is the very essence of our identity’.

From this perspective, modern ‘race realism’ is not a throwback to nineteenth century but an expression of the contemporary embrace of pluralism. Through the emergence of cultural pluralism and of identity politics, the celebration of difference, which once was at the heart of racial science, has become a key plank of the anti-racist outlook. More recently, race realists have returned the compliment. Diversity, the concept through which anti-racists have understood cultural difference, has now become a central plank of the race realist outlook.

Race, the biologist Armand Leroi has argued, ‘is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences’. Genetics, he suggests, can help us ‘sort the world’s population into 10, 100, perhaps 1000 groups, each located somewhere on the map’. Any group with a distinct genetic signature is, in Leroi’s view, a race. Race becomes a badge to say ‘This is who I am, this is who my family is, this is where we’ve come from’. An emblem of identity and a form of family history. And indeed, Leroi suggests that one of the ‘pleasures’ of the return of racial concepts into science is ‘the discovery of a new kind of genealogy’.

In an age in which ‘Who am I?’ has become a defining question, and in which people increasingly mine the past to find meaning in the present, genetics-as-genealogy is beginning to change not simply the meaning of race but also the concept of identity. For if race realists talk increasingly in terms of identity and genealogy, anti-racists and minority activists increasingly look to biology for answers to questions of identity. Political and cultural notions of identity are increasingly underpinned by DNA.

Over the past decade geneticists have traced the histories of countless populations. Dozens of commercial companies have sprung up to help individuals trace their family history. Many see this not as an entertaining bit of genealogy, but a fundamental act of recovering their authentic identity.

Rick Kittles is co-director of National Human Genome Centre at Howard University, Washington. He is also the founder of African Ancestry Inc. which, for $349 will test the ancestry of African Americans. Kittles traced his maternal ancestry to the Hausa tribe in Nigeria. ‘I then went to Nigeria and talked to people and learned a lot about the Hausa’s culture and tradition’, Kittles has written. ‘That gave me sense about who I am. In a way, it grounded me.’

One of the first such genealogy companies to set up in Britain was the Cambridge-based Roots for Real. Among the first customers of Roots for Real were Rachel Hunt and Matthew Barrett. They were married in October 2003. The couple turned to Roots for Real ‘to bring something from their ancestral roots into the ceremony’ so they could understand ‘who they are and where their culture comes from’. ‘Our DNA holds perhaps the most intact record of our family, our lands, language, tribes, customs and traditions’, Rachel Hunt told a reporter. ‘It would be so satisfying to know that our children can grow up with a strong sense of identity and heritage by being able to unravel a time we thought would be lost for ever.’

One of the founders of Roots for Real, the geneticist Peter Forster was a consultant to a 2001 BBC documentary called Motherland, in which three black Britons traced their genetic ancestry. Bristol youth worker Beula McCalla was told that that her ancestry traced back to the island of Bioko, off the coast of Cameroon. She immediately got onto a plane to be reunited with her long-lost relatives. ‘I’ve found who I am’, she sobbed when she arrived on Bioko. ‘I’ve found my home.’

Where once black identity might have been seen as a cultural or a political expression, now it is increasingly seen as genetic heritage, inextricably linking race, culture and identity. As Joseph Harker, former editor of the Voice, Britain’s leading African Caribbean newspaper, has put it, genetics provides African Caribbeans people with ‘a route to a new identity’, a reconnection with ‘their own brothers sisters and cousins’ and the possibility of ‘a whole new history and culture’.

The contemporary idea of diversity, as the cultural analyst Brady Dunkee neatly puts it, acts as a ‘double entendre’. As a valued liberal standpoint, it gives race realism a political legitimacy. As an expression of genetic variation, it gives political arguments scientific legitimacy. Diversity, Dunkee writes, ‘kills two authority birds with one stone and extends the already flexible term “population” to substitute in another way for race’.

Today’s race realism is not simply the resurrection of Victorian racial science. The idea of race clearly means something very different today than it did 100 or 150 years ago. It is intimately bound up with contemporary notions of identity and belongingness and is an expression not so much of reactionary claims about inferiority and superiority as of the liberal impulse to embrace diversity and difference. But that makes the concept of race no more scientifically plausible or politically amenable than it did in the era of Cuvier, Broca and Morton.