Racism, science, and common sense

John Edward Terrell


Five ways to stop sounding like a racist if you aren’t one.

If you think racism isprejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” science has something surprising to tell you.


WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DECADE CAN MAKE. Back in 2006, Angela Davis remarked during a keynote address at the University of Wyoming honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: “We have been basically persuaded that we should not talk about racism.”  Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2013, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was born. Since then the issue of racism has been front and center in American politics. What remains elusive, however, is why racism however motivated finds such fertile ground in the human psyche.

The Earth is flat

Kyrie Irving, who plays basketball brilliantly for the Cleveland Cavaliers, made headlines in February 2017 for declaring boldly that the Earth is flat. He was perhaps pulling our collective leg.  His stated rationale, however, has more than a little bit of good old common sense to back it up:

“For what I’ve known for as many years and what I’ve come to believe, what I’ve been taught, is that the Earth is round,” he continued. “But if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move, and the fact that—can you really think of us rotating around the sun and all planets aligned, rotating in specific dates, being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets?”

Crazy thinking?  Maybe, but then what about this? A poll published two years ago by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 26% of Americans don’t know that despite appearances to the contrary, the Sun does not go around the Earth.   Perhaps more astonishing, when asked, 52% of Americans evidently don’t agree with the statement that humans evolved from earlier animal species.

You don’t have to be Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson to see that all these instances of scientific ignorance make perfect sense from a common sense point of view despite being wrong. Furthermore, it wasn’t all that long ago most people on Earth in point of fact were misinformed in precisely these ways: yes, of course, the Earth is flat; yes, it is obvious that the Sun goes around the Earth; and haven’t you heard? Humans were created in their present form by a special act of Divine Will.

. . . and races are real

There are no polls I know of to back up the claim. Even so, it seems likely many people today—maybe even most—would also say they can’t possibly be at all racist because, don’t you know?, they don’t look down upon people in other races (see the dictionary definition reprinted above).

Editorial cartoon showing a Chinese man, surrounded by luggage labeled “Industry”, “Order”, “Sobriety”, and “Peace”, being excluded from entry to the “Golden Gate of Liberty”. The sign next to the iron door reads, “Notice—Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen.” At the bottom, the caption reads, “THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman—’We must draw the line somewhere, you know.'” 1882. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg. . . and races are real

This argument may be socially honorable, but if this is what many truly believe, then there are people who need to hear that just like the idea that the Earth is flat, so too, the notion that  human beings come in different kinds that can be labeled as “races” is just plain scientifically wrong.

As the anthropologist Jonathan Marks at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and many others, too, have been saying for years, human genetic variation around the globe is real. But the same cannot be said for the commonsense claim that the Earth is peopled by separate and distinct human races.

As Marks has observed on numerous occasions, when we try to divide people up into different races, it’s not that we’re reading natural patterns of variation and simply extracting this idea from nature. Instead,

what we’re doing is we’re deciding that certain patterns of variation are less important than others, and certain patterns of variation are more important than others. We decide that the difference between a Norwegian and an Italian is not significant and so we’ll place them in the same category. And we decide that the difference between a Persian and a Somali is important; and so we’ll place them in different categories.

Sinner heal thyself

It is probably true that most human geneticists nowadays recognize that human beings don’t come in kinds—that is, races aren’t real. It is more than unfortunate, therefore, that geneticists today generally still don’t seem to know how to talk about human biological variation from place to place and down through time without using words—the term “population,” for example—that all too easily can mislead others less knowledgeable into believing science still endorses the old commonsense idea that human races exist in the real world to be embraced or savaged depending on one’s personal and moral proclivities.

No wonder, therefore, that dictionary definitions of racism (such as the one at the top of this commentary) can still make it sound like there is nothing wrong with the idea of race provided we don’t use this notion as an excuse for prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism.

The way forward

Most of us don’t believe the Earth is flat. Yet most of us live and act as if it were because this commonsense idea is a seemingly trivial lie that mostly works just fine in everyday life. Similarly, most of us may feel comfortable using the word race for the same reason. Truth be told, however, most of us also know the consequences of doing so can be deadly. Is there a way forward?

Here are 5 recommendations. They have been written specifically with geneticists in mind. But you don’t have to be a professional geneticist to add them to your own personal stock of “best practices.”

  1. Avoid whenever possible using facile concepts and terms such as ancestry, migration, and admixture when writing about human diversity.
  2. Abandon using the outdated concept of a “population,” and replace it with the statistician’s term “sample.”
  3. Stop writing about the “population structure” of this or that species, and instead report on their “genetic structure” as a species.
  4. Develop comparative databases documenting the genetic structure of other species to demonstrate publicly and repeatedly until the truth finally sinks in that geographic variation doesn’t have to be “racial” to be real.
  5. Create mathematical tools and network algorithms to use when mapping, analyzing, and reporting on the genetic structure of a species that unlike current methods (e.g., the popular computer program Structure) are non-categorical.

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