Alex Berezow and Razib Khan, USA Today, June 28, 2015
The saga of Rachel Dolezal, who recently resigned as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was dishonest about her racial identity, sparked yet another national debate on issues of race in America, until it was eclipsed by events in Charleston.
Though Dolezal’s antics have garnered her few supporters, those sympathetic with her–primarily those on the left side of the political spectrum–insist that race is “just a social construct.” That is biologically incorrect for two major reasons.
First, those who contend that Dolezal is perfectly free to identify as “black” are engaging in relativism–i.e., that each person is entitled to define truth as he or she sees it. That line of reasoning might work in sociology or the social sciences, but it does not work in genetics.
Second, the idea that race is either biological or sociological is a false dichotomy; it is manifestly both a biological and social construct. The relevant question, therefore, is: “To what extent does the biological factor matter?” Different geneticists give different answers. Some, such as Michael White and Alan Templeton at Washington University in St. Louis, say it doesn’t matter at all and that race is not a biologically justifiable concept.
Others, however, argue that genetics still matters quite a bit. Genetic diseases tend to cluster among certain races and ethnicities. For instance, sickle cell anemia is found primarily among blacks, cystic fibrosis among whites of European descent, and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews.
It is widely accepted that the ancestors of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari separated from the ancestors of the rest of humanity 150,000 years ago; ancestors of all non-Africans separated from Africans on the order of 50,000 years ago; and ancestors of Native Americans separated from East Asians 15,000 years ago. In some cases, diverged branches of this diversifying human tree came back together and fused to form new populations. All of these events have left distinct genetic markers.
The point is neither that genetics is fate nor that it determines everything about you. The environment also plays a significant role in developing the person you become, and that certainly includes racial identity.
But the history of human evolution, including race, is real, genetically traceable, and cannot be denied. Race, therefore, is a reflection of our history and geography. It is scientifically inaccurate to reduce human populations to mere social constructions and arbitrary crystallizations of power relations.