1990s >> 1994 >> no-1081-september-1994

Racism – the myths that kill

Racists see race as one of the central factors in human society and history, playing an important role in how people behave, and explaining why many kinds of social unrest occur or why certain countries are more developed than others. The socialist response to racist arguments is not just to point out their nastiness and the fact that they serve to divide people and to justify discrimination and worse. Rather, we argue also that the whole concept of “race” is a nonsense, and that it has no part in accounting for any aspect of human life.


The racist claim is that a race (and we shan’t keep using the inverted commas, even though it is a non-category) is an identifiable subgroup of human beings, and that (to use their terminology) so-called half-castes apart everybody can be assigned to one of several classifications — usually on the basis of their physical appearance, taking account of such features as skin colour, type of hair or shape of head. The various races, it is argued, have innate hereditary characteristics, which will turn up in all those who belong to that race. Besides physical features such as those just mentioned, racists point to behavioural or intellectual attributes, describing races as inherently more or less intelligent, or more or less hard-working. Some then go on to argue that members of different races cannot, or should not, live in the same community, on the grounds that racial tensions are inevitable. Racist views and policies need not go to the extremes of Nazi genocide, but are still utterly repulsive, condemning some people to poverty and oppression simply on the ground of their supposed racial origin.


Impossible to categorise


One immediate difficulty with this conception is that proponents of the idea of race can never agree among themselves which races should be distinguished, or even how many races there are. Terms such as Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid have often been used, but none of these categories covers a group of people with a single set of physical features. Some schemes devised by anthropologists have identified up to sixty races, while still having to admit many intermediate and unclassified groups. Simplistic references to “blacks” and “whites” gloss over the tremendous variety, in skin colour and much else, of members of both these categories. The simple fact is that everyday assignments of individuals to racial groups are based on social, not physical, classifications, which may vary from place to place and from time to time. In the United States, for instance, any child with one white and one black parent is described as “black”, whatever their skin colour. In Brazil there is an incredibly complex terminology of race, with a person’s classification often being unrelated to that of their parents and sometimes being determined in part by their class position. In these and other cases, people are simply pigeon-holed according to whatever system of stereotyping dominates in the society they live in.


In addition, the way people are grouped together will differ greatly depending on which trait is chosen for the comparison, since different features vary independently of each other (dark brown skin and wiry hair need not occur together, for instance). Skin colour has the “advantage” of being immediately visible, but many other bases for classification are possible Many racists, for example, will talk about “British blood” flowing in their veins, but in fact there is no such thing. Blood groups cut right across all proposed racial divisions, having different rates of occurrence in different parts of the world. Categorising people by blood group makes as much sense as doing so by skin colour — in fact, it makes more sense, since blood group membership is objective, and is relevant medically in a way that skin colour is not. But of course racial prejudice aimed at, say, those of blood group A would be pointless, since you cannot tell a person’s blood group just by looking at them.


It is undeniably true that people differ a lot from each other in physical appearance. Yet, from a biological point of view, the significant aspect of humans is not our differences but our similarities: we are a single species, all sharing the great bulk of characteristics. In fact, over 98 percent of human genes are identical to those of our nearest animal relatives, the chimpanzee. All the differences in terms of behaviour and life-style between humans and chimps is due to that tiny contrast in genes. It follows, then, that the differences among all humans can be traced to an infinitesimal part of our genetic make-up. Racists magnify beyond all reason the genetic differences among people.


The variation among humans is mostly due to differing adaptations to the environments in which we live. On the whole, for instance, the darkest skins are found among those living closest to the equator. Though there are a number of theories that attempt to account for this distribution, it is most likely that dark-coloured skin is advantageous for survival in tropical areas because it reduces the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. In contrast, lighter skin is more suited to cooler areas, in that it enables greater production of vitamin D and so prevents diseases such as rickets. Over the millennia there must have been gradual selection in favour of darker and lighter skin in different regions, eventually giving rise to the current distribution. Equally, people in colder areas tend to have stockier builds, as a smaller body surface means less loss of heat. If modem humans originated in Africa, probably with brown skins, expansion into cooler areas such as northern Europe must have involved selection for traits such as paler skin and also the ability for adults to digest milk (milk is a good source of calcium, which is also needed to prevent rickets).


Variation is good


From this point of view, variation can be seen as an undoubted good thing, since it enables humans to survive in a wide range of climates and environments, a range far greater than that for any other animal. And it is precisely because variation is due to adaptation to our surroundings that the variation is almost entirely confined to our physical appearance, which is where we interact most closely with our environment. Thus human differences are confined to such utterly superficial matters as build and skin colour. Moreover, even simple scientific knowledge can nowadays overcome any disadvantages that may exist. When black children began to live in northern US cities, many suffered at first from bone diseases on account of the relative lack of sunlight and hence insufficient vitamin D. But dietary supplements such as cod liver oil were quickly able to make good the deficiency.


Ever since the evolution of the first humans, members of our species have wandered into virtually every comer of the globe. The first way of life — hunting – gathering — involved moving around to find new sources of meat, vegetables and fruits. This inevitably meant encountering other bands, and reproducing with them. Even after the rise of agriculture and the growth of more settled lifestyles, people continued to travel (forcibly or otherwise) to various parts of the earth, and to mix with people of a variety of origins. The slave trades of the ancient world and of more recent times caused enormous population upheavals, just as did wars and crusades. The expansion of capitalism into a world-wide system has likewise caused people to interact and reproduce on a global basis. The upshot of all this is that everyone has a mixed background, with genes from various parts of the world. American “blacks” for instance, have not just Africans but also Europeans and American Indians among their ancestors. All human beings are hybrids, not members of some pure race or inbred local population.


Race, then, is a concept with no scientific validity whatever. Humans simply cannot be characterised or stereotyped on the basis of their supposed innately determined membership of some racial grouping. Humanity is a single species, divided not along biological lines but by the artificial barriers of class and nation. Unlike race, these are not determined by unchanging properties. Rather, they are imposed by a particular social system. Class and national divisions can therefore be done away with — and they will indeed be abolished by the Socialist revolution.


Paul Bennett