1960s >> 1965 >> no-730-june-1965

The myths of race

A few years ago, an American professor created three fictitious races, gave them names, habits and customs and asked people what they thought of them. A large proportion of those tested were hostile to the non-existent races, and thought that they should be restricted. This is typical of the confusion which surrounds the subject of Race; confusion inspired at the best by misunderstanding and at the worst by calculated malice. A man will be dispassionately scientific when he is talking about the differences between his dog and his neighbour’s, but he will be exactly the opposite when he is discussing the differences between his neighbour and himself, if the neighbour happens to have a coloured skin. The very word Race is distorted and , misused more than most others. It is, for example, common to hear talk about the White Race, the Aryan Race, the British Race—all of which are different, indeed contradictory, ways of using the word.

A first step in clearing this confusion is to realise that the word Race is useful only in so far as it is restricted to a concept in the science of biology. It cannot be used for a political, or sociological, or historical, concept—although this happens too often.

Biology is concerned with the study of life and its processes, their classification and reduction, to order. The basis of the system of classification was laid down in the eighteenth century by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus; from this basis an efficient system has been evolved. Millions of distinct species—some living, some extinct—have now been defined, and their relationships with other species identified. And the work is still going on.

This system of classification originally depended wholly upon physical characteristics — stature, type of hair, skin colour and so forth, The rise of other sciences—of genetics (the study of heredity) and biochemistry (the chemistry of living organisms) in the present century has provided other means, which may turn out to be more useful.

The basic unit of biological classification is the species—a unit, of plants or animals, which can interbreed and so can form a single, natural breeding population. All existing men and women belong to the species homo sapiens. But as we all know, human beings, just like any other species, are not all exactly alike. The physical differences between, say, a Senegalese Negro and a fair haired, blue eyed Swede are all too obvious; they are, moreover, differences which have been inherited and which can be passed on to another generation.

It is clear, then, that the human race can be divided, on the basis of physical characteristics, into subspecies—into races. A race, says one biologist, is “a group of related intermarrying individuals, a population which differs from other populations in the relative commonness of certain hereditary traits.” But when we try to elaborate on this we encounter some important questions which show up our original proposition in a rather more doubtful light.

We meet these questions immediately we try to divide people on the basis of their colour. Any large gathering of “white” people is bound to include a variety of skins, from chalky white (considered to be very undesirable!) to swarthy. Any large gathering of Negroes will include many whose skins are not black, but varying shades of brown, some of them actually lighter than many of those who are considered white ”. Many “white” people have physical traits—a heavy mouth, a flat nose, fuzzy hair—which are supposed to be the identifying marks of a Negro and many Negroes have physical traits which are supposed to be exclusive to “whites ”.

We can extend the questions even farther. Where do we fit in those people in South East Asia, such as the Malays, who appear to be the result of a cross between ”brown” and “yellow” ancestors? Then, outside the field of skin colour, how do we classify the white Europeans who show clear evidence of racial mixing—for example those who bear remnants of the periodical raids into Europe, centuries ago, by the Mongolian hordes? There are many more such questions which, although they do not deny that differences exist between people, expose the absurdity of laying down rigid lines upon which mankind can be divided.

It is not surprising, then, that the very scientists who have tried to classify man should produce such widely differing estimates of the number of races into which he can be divided. Linnaeus said that there were three; Morton thirty-two; Crawford sixty-two; Gliddon one hundred and fifty. It is also not surprising that the same difficulty has afflicted those whose interest in the matter is anything but scientific.

In the United States there has always been confusion over the legal definition of a Negro. In Maine in 1852 a person having one-sixteenth “African blood” was held not to be a Negro for the purposes of intermarriage. In 1910 in Louisiana a coloured person was defined as anyone who had “an appreciable amount of Negro blood.” (What is an “ appreciable amount”?) The Official Census in 1890 applied the term “Black” only to those who had three-quarters or more “black blood”. The 1920 Census tried to distinguish between “full blooded” Negroes (who were classed as “Black”) and those having a proportion of “white blood” (who were returned as “Mulattoes”). The 1930 Census instructed its enumerators to return as Negro those having one half or more “Negro blood”; by the Census of 1940 anyone of mixed white and Negro parentage was classed as Negro.

The definition of Negro varies from state to state. Some (Alabama and Arkansas) say that anyone having Negro ancestors, however remote, is coloured. Others define their non-white population according to the amount of “black blood” in them; of these states, Florida and Louisiana require one-sixteenth, Mississippi and Maryland one-eighth. Thus a person in Louisiana whose Negro ancestors ended with his great-great grandfather is classed as coloured. But he can legally change into a white man simply by moving across the border into Mississippi, which sets the limit at his great-grandfather.

Before the war the Nazis conveniently modified their ideas of racial purity so that their Italian and Japanese allies could be included in the Master Race. The South African government (whose official, legal definition says that a white person is anyone who is “generally accepted” as such) has for commercial reasons admitted the Japanese into the “White” ranks, although at present the Chinese are excluded. .

Whatever the race maniacs say, a “pure” race is almost an impossibility; it could only exist among a few small isolated groups who by virtue of their remoteness have been able to inbreed for generations. Man has spread all over the Earth during his life, and wherever he has gone he has interbred, swamping any “pure” races that may have existed. There is hardly a country—certainly there is no modern country— which is not now a racial melting pot. To talk, therefore, of Race as something which is rigidly definable is nonsense. To support such theories with a political policy of discrimination, suppression and extermination is pernicious.

But in face of all the facts the racists carry on; one of their most popular arguments today is that Negroes are mentally inferior to white people, and that the white race has been responsible for all the cultural achievements of the modern world. One of the happy hunting grounds of such theorists are the intelligence tests which have been carried out in the United States, and which usually show the Negro scoring lower than the white person.

Even if we accept the validity of I.Q. tests as a measure of mental capacity, it does not’ follow from their results that the Negroes are inferior. To begin with, we must take account of the fact that nowhere in the United States are educational facilities and opportunities for Negroes equal to those for white children. In the South, where the mass of Negroes still live, the discrepancy is especially wide. Yet even without taking this into account, the fact is the tests have not demonstrated that skin colour has anything to do with intelligence.

One of the most important—and widely quoted—of these tests was one which was given to nearly two million United States Army recruits in 1917/18. Although the results put the Negro at the bottom of the IQ scale, they also showed Negroes from urban areas in the North on average scoring higher than white recruits from some states in the South. Of the other tests, those carried out by S. D. Porteus draw results from many areas of the world, including Hawaii, Australia and parts of Africa. Again, although the coloured people were generally lower, the results were uneven; some of the most primitive groups, for various reasons, actually surpassed other, more culturally advanced groups. In the Fifties, tests on Negro children who had moved from the South to New York City and to Philadelphia showed that their I.Q. went up with the length of time they had been away from the South.

In any case, all of these tests can only have a limited usefulness. Scientists have not been able to devise a means of testing innate mental capacities, and what tests they have devised have not even been able to separate innate from acquired capacities. Some tests, for example, have discovered that Africans who could not readily recognise diagrams and pictures when they were drawn on paper had no difficulty when the same shapes were cut out in the more familiar ivory or leather. Swazi natives were found to be unable to arrange coloured pegs into a simple pattern, although they frequently planted trees in that very same pattern.

The other popular argument — that coloured people are inferior because their cultural achievements do not match those of the white race — has gathered a certain amount of support from people who claim that North West Europe has alone been responsible for modern civilisation. But the history of the human race started a long time before Europe became civilised; while the people there were still primitive savages, coloured races in parts of what are now India and China had developed civilisations with a high standard of cultural achievement.

These civilisations rose and declined for the very same reasons as those which later allowed and encouraged developments in Europe. Civilisations depend for their life upon many influences — primarily economic, but also geographical, climatic, historical. Where such influences are favourable, settled life can take root and flourish. Where they are not favourable, it is a different story; there are many areas in the world which even the so-called Superior Races cannot tame and which remain deadly wildernesses.

Culture is not something innate, something which human beings are born with. It is something which they acquire, in reaction to their external conditions. These conditions affect people of all colours; some Negroes are undoubtedly culturally backward but then so are the Poor Whites in the American South, and so are the Hillbillies of Kentucky and Tennessee. Not all white countries are in the forefront of modern culture: some are distinctly backward and may soon be overtaken by some of the new African states. Culture is only one of the characteristics man has acquired during his lifetime; it can be acquired by all people, whatever their race or colour. It has nothing to do with man’s innate capacities, which are probably not much different now from what they were eighty thousand years ago.

The racist argues against this. At its highest, his case confuses the innate characteristics of man with the acquired. At its lowest, his case is a mass of evasions and distortions, which in the end can only be asserted by oppression. The only way to avoid this morass of confusion is to subject the racist’s arguments to a searching examination. This is bound to show them up for the pernicious sham that they are, and to illuminate the fact that there is no reason, in biology or elsewhere, why men of all colours, shapes and sizes should not live in harmony and co-operation.

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