02 December 2014

On Race, Violence, and Social Constructs

C. Loring Brace, an American anthropologist at the University of Michigan, argues that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. What we think of as "race," in humans, is simply the concentration of inherited physical traits in a given population, based on geography and, to a great extent, social isolation.

In other words, people from different parts of the world tend to show different physical traits based on where they live, or, more accurately, where their ancestors lived. For example, people originally from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and the Americas tend to have darker-toned skin and eyes; people from northern Europe and other parts of Asia tend to have lighter skin and eyes. For millennia, travel to and from those places was limited, so people selected their mates from the local population - the people they were most likely to meet. This meant that their offspring bore the physical characteristics of their parents, and with the passing generations, each population took on a distinctive look specific to its location.

And that distinctive look is the root of our concept of "race."

The second part of the race puzzle is social isolation. For most of human history, the different "races" did not mix extensively because travel to other parts of the world was difficult, and the odds of meeting people who had very different physical characteristics were low. As travel became easier and more efficient, however, two things happened: the more economically powerful northern Europeans began to subjugate people with darker skin, enslaving them and otherwise treating them as inferior to those with lighter skin. For generations, they struggled to fit into a society that rejected them as full members at the most fundamental level. And, perhaps as a result, a social taboo grew up around marrying and reproducing with people whose appearances were different from one's own. The taboo was so strong that it was encoded into law in many places. For example, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types, known as miscegenation, was illegal in parts of the United States until 1967.

Thus, although barriers to meeting people of different national origins have been largely physically eliminated in the developed world, we still have a strong concept of "race" embedded in our consciences. We know the physical differences between black people and white people quite well; we can identify them on sight. And we still, unfortunately, treat these people differently based on the most superficial of criteria.

Because, you see, all human beings are biologically the same. We are of the same genus and species, and our biological functions do not differ significantly. (Oh, sure, there are some populations that are more prone than others to various maladies, or that have certain strengths or immunities that others do not have, but these are small differences that do not, and should not, affect our ability to treat each other equally in the eyes of the law.)

The more I learn about the theory of race being a false construct, the more I like it. The inequality that we, as a society, experience and enforce on a daily basis, is all in our heads. If you remove skin color and feature shape from the equation, all you have left is bare humanity.

If you recognize the entire concept of "race" as the natural extension of an unjust and outdated social construct, the scales fall from your eyes. The young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August becomes simply a young man killed by a police officer. The twelve-year-old black boy shot in Cleveland by the white police for playing with a toy gun simply becomes, well, a dead twelve-year-old boy. As the us-and-them dichotomy disappears, the feeling of horror rises. What have we done? And what are we doing?

A Facebook friend attacked me last week for the sin of sending my children to a public school that is apparently not "racially diverse" enough for her tastes. She boasted that she herself had attended an "integrated" school, and that she in turn had sent her children to a school that had a lot of "blacks."

I send my children to the local public schools, which have a sizeable first- and second-generation immigrant population, a high proportion of children for whom English is not a first language, and strong representation of Jewish, Asian, and Muslim cultures. Though I chose the location of my house, I did not choose the ethnicity, religion, or skin color of my neighbors. They are who they are, and I cherish my community for the people in it. When I explained this to my friend, she responded, "Asian people don't count. They tend to excel at integrating into our society. Your school isn't diverse unless it has a lot of black people."

Another of my Facebook friends - someone clearly, by her appearance, of northern European descent - told me that she wished "the black community" worried as much about "black on black violence" as it does about the killing of that young man in Ferguson. In doing so, she revealed to me that she is a true racist, and one of the most insidious kind: the kind that pretends to be concerned about the welfare of "the black community," but still believes, deep inside, that people with darker skin tones are more prone to violence than people with lighter skin tones, and that this tendency toward violence is something they need to solve.

But the people with dark skin are not the ones shooting unarmed teens, under color of law, on the city streets of Ferguson and Cleveland. They are, in overwhelming numbers, the ones being shot, not the ones doing the shooting. The idea that "black" people are inherently more violent than "white" people is not just racism of the most repugnant type: it's scientifically and mathematically unfounded.

I'm not finished thinking about this issue. I may never be. And neither should you be. We, all of us, have a long way to go in changing our mindsets about skin color. But we absolutely must work at it, as hard as we can. If we challenge ourselves to think of race, as Dr. Brace does, as a false construct - to measure ourselves and each other simply as people, without regard to the varied physical traits our ancestors handed down to us, we might make some progress in no longer associating skin color with tendency toward crime. We might begin to eliminate the socioeconomic injustices that have created a permanent underclass in American society - a group of people we urge to play by the rules, but then repeatedly deny full participation in our democracy. We might stop assigning a value to someone's company, in the classroom or at the dinner table, based on their blackness, their whiteness, or their Asian-ness. And we might, God willing, stop the senseless fear-fed violence that tears our society apart on a daily basis.