On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism

Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell, Quillette, June 23, 2016

Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable.

With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. Furthermore, we believe that scientists can and should study this variation without fear of censure or obloquy. Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals. In fact, pinning a message of tolerance to the claim that all humans are essentially the same underneath the skin is dangerous. It suggests that if there were real differences, racism would be justified. This is bad science and worse morality. Promoting a tolerant, cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world. It requires putting in the hard work and effort to support the legal equality and moral dignity of all humans.

Race exists, but variation is complicated

Scholars who have assailed the concept of race have forwarded three general arguments against it. Although the arguments are worth consideration, they do not ultimately show that race is a useless or fictional concept. The first two objections are aimed at a straw man, and the last, we will contend, is entirely wrong.

(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.

This charge against the validity of race is undoubtedly correct: a lot of human variation is gradual, not discrete. However, we are not familiar with any prominent proponent of the usefulness of race who would disagree with this contention (assuming they actually understand the evidence). {snip}

{snip} This is the key point: although the argument that human variation is continuous rather than discrete is correct, it does not vitiate a sophisticated understanding of race. It only refutes a platonic conception that few contemporary scholars take seriously.

(Objection 2): Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations; therefore, variation that exists between groups is of little scientific interest.

This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).

Consider a simple but illustrative example.a Imagine that a friend is describing an animal one adjective at a time (e.g., “big,” “furry” et cetera). You are trying to guess the animal. At first, it is difficult to guess because there are many “big” animals, and there are many “big” and “furry” animals. But as her description continues, it gets much easier to guess correctly because each adjective adds to the prior adjectives. The information that allows you to guess correctly does not reside in any one adjective but in the list of adjectives strung together (“big,” “furry,” “antlered,” “white tailed,” “hooved,” “spritely,” “brown,” et cetera). The same holds for population groups. Each genetic locus, like each adjective, is relatively uninformative; but a string of 200 or 300 loci is very informative.

Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studies have demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.

(Objection 3): Human racial classifications are arbitrary. For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful; for other purposes, categorizing by, say, antimalarial genes, is useful. These classifications, although equally valid, lead to radically different racial categories. Thus, one particular classification scheme is no better than the other and none are particularly illuminating.

By any reasonable understanding of the word “arbitrary,” this claim is incorrect. {snip}

Group categories are constrained by commonly accepted principles such as coherence, parsimony, and predictiveness. Classifications that are incoherent or that have little predictive value are not valid. There will be some flexibility about classification, but not the anarchic freedom [Jared] Diamond’s arguments seem to suggest. One might, for example, propose classifying Scandinavians with Nilo-Saharan speaking ethnic groups in East Africa because both can digest lactose into adulthood. But, such classifications would violate the principle of parsimony. These groups diverged from each other before developing the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, evolved on separate continents, and do not share other visible traits such as skin pigmentation and hair texture. Therefore, it makes little sense to categorize them in the same ancestral group.

Race, then, is not a platonic essence and racial groups are not discrete categories of humans. Instead, race is a pragmatic construct that picks out real variation in the world (which corresponds to shared ancestry) and allows people and scientists to make useful inferences. {snip}

{snip} If one knows that Thomas is a Caucasian, one can be reasonably sure that Thomas has relatively light skin, and that he has recent ancestry in Europe. But racial categories, like film categories, aren’t immutable essences that perfectly sort humans into distinct groups. There aren’t a fixed number of racial categories, and the number researchers use is partially a matter of convenience. One might start with five continentally based categories (i.e., Caucasians, East Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines) and then add more categories as one’s analysis becomes more granular (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish, Mizrahi Jewish, and so on). These categories aren’t real in some metaphysical sense, but they are useful, and they do have predictive value. In this, they are like many other constructs in the social sciences such as self-esteem, intelligence, and agreeableness. They represent traits that cluster together; they predict outcomes; and they can be quantified.



Most people believe that there are human races. They believe this not because they have a sophisticated understanding of genetic variation or human evolution, but because they see and categorize perspicuous phenotypic (and possibly behavioral) differences. Although many intellectuals have contended that these differences are largely superficial and distort underlying genetic realities, most research suggests that there are meaningful genetic differences among racial groups and that these differences are largely consistent with common racial classifications. Race is as real and useful as other constructs in the social sciences such as neuroticism, self-esteem, and intelligence. Therefore, with appropriate care and caution, scientists can and should study racial variation. This argument may appear alarming to people concerned about racial justice. But it doesn’t need to be. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism don’t require the leveling of diversity; they require the celebration of it. Race exists, but racism does not have to.

Bo Winegard is a graduate student at Florida State University. Follow him on Twitter @EPoe187

Ben Winegard is an Assistant Professor at Carroll College. Follow him on Twitter @BenWinegard

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1

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