Black As Barack? Why Race is Wrong - Part 1

Computer generated extrapolation of Barack Obama's face into generalized regional ethnicities


Lots of things that lots of people believed for a long time turn out to be completely off the mark: The Earth is the center of the universe. Heat and light are two different things. Tomatoes are vegetables. Humanity consists of five or six discrete groups classified by skin color.

That last one is still thrashing about, causing trouble. But now that a world-class leader has emerged in America who may genetically embody and politically embrace a greater range of the world’s people, it’s time for science to step up and put the nail in the coffin of racial taxonomy.

Science has simple mission statement: Ask The Next Question. It exists to re-invent itself in light of the last answer it got. When a classification scheme isn’t working, a responsible researcher will bite the bullet and scrap it. The construct of race was never more than a poor model. Now it’s become worse than useless. It’s divisive and destructive. That any of us may choose to see ourselves as a descendent of Africa or Oceania or America or Europe or Asia tells the rest of us nothing at all about how we will individually behave or what we’ll be good at or where we’ll fail physically, intellectually or emotionally.

Currently, 21st century computing power offers the means to a much clearer understanding of who we really are. When powerful search engines can navigate across and drill down through the broad spectrum of our species data, there’s no need to dump us all into arbitrary buckets based on how we look. And similar power is applicable to individuals’ genetics.

Barack Obama is a public figure and, by all accounts, a good sport. So, just for fun, I’ve run some permutations of his well-known image using publicly available software developed at St. Andrews University’s Computer Science Department. This program computes appearance traits by broad general region. It’s like patching a music synthesizer; you can sculpt the output by spicing the input with various ethnic seasonings and dialing up regional flavorings. The result: billions and billions of Baracks ! Well, faces at least; each a convincing portrait of someone you’d like to get to know.

As recently as perhaps 150,000 years ago, we were all African. We still are. Other than that, all that science can definitively declare is that we’re all Homo sapiens. There’s only one living subspecies. Just one race: Human.

What prevents, say, an Ethiopian Muslim from having a child with a Japanese Jew? Tradition? Belief? Geography? Yep, all that and more. But not biology. In our genes, modern humans are all of one type. The notion that there’s a “race gene,” or even a definitive cluster of racially genetic material that might predispose a baby to any trait other than fuzzy placement in a wide range of two types of melanin (red and brown skin pigment), is not now scientifically supportable.

This is bad news for ideologues of all shades, but glad tidings for the rest of us. It means we’re free to examine each other as individuals, liberated from assumptions and preconceptions.

But let’s be clear: This does not mean that light-skinned folks (like me) are now suddenly allowed to ignore racial issues. Nothing in science excuses “strategic colorblindness.” Social research has shown: If we avoid talking about race, when it’s appropriate to do so, we are often perceived as prejudiced. When race is relevant, you risk being labeled as racist if you fail to address the matter square on. You can’t erase the color lines in societies if you refuse to see them.

Barack Obama says: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather … and a white grandmother … I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Mr. Obama tells his story on the scale of decades. But, if we step back just three orders of magnitude in time — to the scale of tens of thousands of years — his story is, in fact, ALL of our stories. It’s the story of our sub-species. And the shorthand of race — while tempting to impulses both bad and good — misspells that story so badly that it wildly skews its most important lessons.

What we — of all shades — tend to see as racial traits are almost always cultural customs or local social patterns. Stuff we may have been born into, but weren’t born with. To see what each of us truly brings to the world on Day One, we need to search and sort through the 3-billion nucleotide base pairs of our genetic resumes.

We are living now just a few moments after the very dawn of genomics. Imagine the state of astronomy, say, 75 years after Galileo’s first peek at the mountains on the Moon. Gene researchers now have great tools. Not only computer chips but bio-chips and microarrays which facilitate scanning the filigree of your DNA to see what surprises hide in your personal package. Human genomes have been sequenced — at first at great cost but getting cheaper on a better-than-Moore’s-Law curve. The present economic uncertainty may squash this burst of genomic geekery. Before it does, send your saliva through the mail and a few start-up companies will read you your risk of 1,500 or so different ailments for which genetic markers are known. If a certain single nucleotide polymorphism on your 19th chromosome is mutated, for example, you could be at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. But don’t expect to learn why you cheated on so-and-so years ago. No one has yet shown the genetic locus of any human behavioral trait in a rigorous repeatable experiment. And the debate over the so-called “gay-gene” — the possibility of genetic predisposition to homosexuality — continues to rage.

It’s not as simple as it seems. For one thing, the dream that we’d easily find a direct link between particular single genes, specific proteins for which they code, and unambiguous conditions that present in the grown-up individual has died. There seem to be too few genes and way too much variation in people. So what we’re seeing is likely the result of how genes interact with one another and with other factors. Big genomic breakthroughs are clearly needed to tease out these “multigenic” relationships. But already, it’s clear that nothing in the human genome can be categorized the way your college application insisted on inventorying you: White, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American.

Now, there is a rough connection between geographic continent of ancestry and predilection for certain inherited diseases. And of course there are specific diseases associated with ethnic groups whose members are related. But now that we have the human genome in hand, why not just work to spot the disease pointers directly? Invoking the racial proxy has proven to be a slimy slope for science. Once you start using race as a marker for medical maladies, it’s hard to explain why skin color wouldn’t just as likely be associated with various behaviors. Or intelligence.

A few good scientists have gone horribly bad when they let themselves get snookered by the nomenclature of race. In Part 2 of Why Race Is Wrong we tell their stories, and examine where science sits on race vs. racism.

Oh, by the way: Tomatoes are essentially berries. So are bananas. And holding any individual person up to scrutiny based on racial stereotypes turns out to be much less fruitful than, say, comparing apples to oranges.