Race Doesn’t Exist

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The Trayvon Martin shooting has resulted in predictably absurd conclusions and ridiculous behavior. On first impression, the circus that gathered around the Sanford, Florida, site of the killing (featuring race-baiting clowns like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) looks and sounds a lot of a scene from the satiric Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jackson sputtered that “blacks are under attack,” adding that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business. . . . No justice, no peace.”

This cynical circus is so predictable because it’s based on a false premise. Not that the shooting didn’t take place; George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The false premise is that the shooting was race-related.

It’s false because there’s no such thing as race.

What we call “race” is a social construct invented hundreds of years ago by slave traders and colonial powers. It’s been kept around because it suits lazy people and statist governments looking for cheap ways to categorize individuals.

It’s time that reasonable people abandon this slothful shortcut.

I make the argument about the falseness of race in detail in my book Libertarian Nation (if you have a Kindle, you can “borrow” the book from Amazon for free). Much as I hate to interfere with commerce that channels some money my way, here’s the gist of the argument.

The pigment of your skin and acidity of your hair don’t have much to do with your personal identity. And they don’t make you similar to or different from anyone else.

Race is a social construct. And an old one. The idea that people can be categorized into supposedly objective — or, more recently, “scientific” — groups has been around for as long as human civilization. It’s always been subject manipulation, usually by the state. And its categories are always shifting, usually according to the political needs of the people running the state.

The libertarian notion of a colorblind society is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

So, contemporary notions of race are more . . . contemporary . . . than most people realize. Skin color wasn’t the controlling characteristic of race until the end of the 16th century; and then it had something to do with slavery and something to do with the birth of colonialism. The states that stood to profit from the import of cheap materials and slave labor began a 500-year campaign to convince the world that Africans with dark brown skin were a different class of humans than Europeans with lighter brown or pink skin. The Portuguese and Dutch were especially dedicated to the concept. They defined “race” to suit their needs; but popular culture seems to have forgotten their roles in promoting the fiction.

All people are a mix of genetic traits. This fact raises various questions — and the dread of both hardcore racists who lament “mongrelization” and race-obsessed multiculturalists (who, intellectual brothers of the racists, are heavily invested in the notion of distinct racial identities).

What’s the relationship between genes and race?

Most anthropologists and biologists agree that race is a fuzzy concept. By various estimates, 20 to 30% of the genes in the average “black” American come from light-skinned European stock. As Time magazine has noted: “science has no agreed-upon definition of ‘race’: however you slice up the population, the categories look pretty arbitrary.” And, in a similar vein, the Chicago Tribune reported:

In a 1998 “Statement on ‘Race’,” the American Anthropological Association concluded that ordinary notions of race have little value for biological research in part because of the relatively minor genetic differences among racial groups.

And, the anthropologists might have added, the broad genetic variation that exists within racial groups. In the New Statesman magazine, the often-quoted science writer Steven Rose pointed out:

. . . the idea that there is a genetically meaningful African “race” is nonsense. There is wide cultural and genetic diversity amongst African populations from south to north, from Ethiopians to Nigerians. There are, for example probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not.

The normally statist British newspaper The Guardian has stumbled to the same conclusion:

Other scientists point out that our species is so young — Homo sapiens emerged from its African homeland only 100,000 years ago — that it simply has not had time to evolve any significant differences in intellectual capacity as its various groups of people have spread round the globe and settled in different regions. Only the most superficial differences — notably skin colour — separate the world’s different population groupings. Underneath that skin, people are remarkably alike.

So, the libertarian notion of a colorblind society (often dismissed by statists as an unrealistic ideal) is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

These advocates have more influence over mainstream media and popular culture than they should. People like Jackson, Sharpton, and Derrick Bell have devoted their lives to a fiction. That must leave them with a hollow feeling, in their solitary moments or when they look themselves in the mirror.

Derrick Bell may have been the saddest of the bunch. He was intelligent enough and well-trained enough that he should have been able to see through the fiction. Instead, he spent his life popularizing Critical Race Theory — which is the intellectual rationalization of a false premise.

The critical document that stands in contradiction to the ultimately bankrupt rationalizations of the Critical Race Theorists and base manipulations of the race hustlers is Martin Luther King’s rightly immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. To the point:

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. …We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. …Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That speech drew its undeniable moral force, in part, from its recognition of the falseness of the concept of race. The triviality of the color of a person’s skin.

(Take a few minutes to read — or reread — that speech. Would any left-wing speaker today use the metaphor of a bounced check to criticize failed promise? It’s so…bourgeois.)

A side note: I’ve always thought there were two Kings, the libertarian defender of individual dignity who fought for fair treatment and delivered the August 1963 speech and the less-inspiring socialist who muddled through the last years of his life.

Compared to King’s image of free individuals treating one another with mutual respect, the current discussion of race is insect-like. The mainstream media tries to turn Trayvon Martin’s shooting into clicks and readers and ratings. The pathetic New York Times concocts the term “white Hispanic” to emphasize that Martin’s shooter was, er, something different from black.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes.

Not everyone is so small. Former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant accused the likes of Jackson and Sharpton of “exploiting” the Martin shooting. “His family should be outraged at the fact that they’re using this child as the bait to inflame racial passions,” Bryant told The Daily Caller. He said that “race hustlers” were acting like “buzzards circling the carcass” of the teen.

Race doesn’t exist. Population ancestry influences the patterns of an individual’s genotypical and phenotypical traits (what people commonly think of as “racial” appearance and characteristics) but single variables — for example, skin color — do not. It may seem counterintuitive, but skin color is actually a poor indicator of race.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes. No one who loves liberty should buy into the fiction.




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The Healthy Society

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British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on February 5, deplored “state multiculturalism,” a failed doctrine of “encourag[ing] different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.” Immigrants should feel, rather, that they were living in an inclusive society, sharing a national identity, culture, curriculum, and language. Lacking such a sense of belonging and experiencing, instead, segregation and separatism, some young Muslims in Britain had turned to extreme Islamism. Cameron cited the “horror” of forced marriage in some immigrant communities. He proposed “a two-month programme to show sixteen-year-olds from different backgrounds how to live and work together.”

Earlier, on October 16, Chancellor Angela Merkel had expressed similar worries for Germany, home to some four million Muslims. The idea of people from different cultural backgrounds living happily "side by side" without a common culture did not work, she indicated: "This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed." French President Sarkozy has said similar things.

Such remarks might be code words for anti-Islamism, but I am not cynical enough to think so. The worry of Cameron and others seems plausible, but it requires nuancing. It is perhaps soundest for a situation with two aspects. First, only one substantial immigrant culture, rather than several, confronts the local culture. Second, the authorities work to preserve the distinction — as, for instance, through year-by-year, not just transitional, public-school instruction in the immigrant language.

But this scenario does not necessarily recommend the opposite: different cultures melted into a homogeneous dominant one. A good society, true enough, does require consensus on ethical norms such as treating other people honestly and honorably, respecting their rights and property — not cheating, stealing, or committing aggression. Such consensus can accommodate differences in details of etiquette and lifestyles (arguably extending to same-sex and even polygamous marriages). Furthermore, a good society requires acceptance of a common legal system, without special privileges or burdens for particular groups. Consensus on the political system also rules out seeking change by violence, but it admits advocating even radical change by constitutional means.

While rejecting militaristic and imperialistic nationalism, Ludwig von Mises welcomed liberal nationalism, including movements for liberation and unity of populations speaking a common language (Nation, State, and Economy, 1919/1983). Liberal nationalism can be a bulwark of peace. Different nations should be able to respect and — to interpret a bit — even share in each one’s pride in its own culture and history. By extension, such mutual respect and celebration can extend to members of different national heritages within a single country. A healthy multiculturalism welcomes a diversity of interests and heritages without official favor or disfavor for any.

A diversity of national heritages can enrich a country’s overall culture. Quasi-native speakers of heritage languages, especially with their own publications and broadcasts, can promote language-learning and can be useful in diplomacy and in war. Diversity even of national restaurants and foods — Chinese, Mexican, Greek, German, French, and so on — multiplies options for work and for leisure. Cultural diversity can bolster a general awareness of history.

Diverse national heritages can scarcely offer benefits as great as those of the occupational division of labor and of domestic and international trade. They can, however, multiply the variety of niches in life in which a person or a family can feel comfortable and important. They can help avoid the dismal opposite, a society in which individuals must feel superior or inferior in competition on a single scale of overriding significance (money being the most obvious metric). A diverse society includes all sorts of (decent) persons, including, yes, entrepreneurs and investors obsessed with creating wealth and making money. Few people, however, can realistically expect outstanding success on the monetary scale. Pursuing an unattainable material equality would foster attitudes and politics incompatible with a quasi-equality of a more humane and more nearly attainable type.

A healthy society — to continue my amateur psychologizing — comprises many “noncomparing groups” (so called by analogy with the noncompeting groups recognized by the 19th-century economist John Elliott Cairnes). People should not be ranked according to the fields in which their accomplishments lie. Each person should have a chance to excel in something, whether craftsmanship, business, scholarship, athletics, a hobby such as collecting classic cars or rare coins, a religious group, travel and adventure, conviviality, or self-effacing service to mankind.

And, yes, cultivating a national heritage. Many kinds of excellence should be as respectable as the amassing of fortunes. A teacher could continue associating without embarrassment with former colleagues or students who had become business tycoons, not because progressive taxation had lopped off their huge incomes but because scholarly values and monetary values were regarded as incommensurate yet of equal dignity. While the approach to equality sought by left-liberal egalitarians implies measurement, true liberals need to follow Herbert W. Schneider (Three Dimensions of Public Morality, 1956, p. 97; cf. pp. 100, 118) in emphasizing "the incommensurability of human beings.”




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