Like nearly everybody these days, I think a lot about race in America. I have always thought a lot about race, ever since I was an adolescent in the late 1940s. One day, when I showed up with an African-American high-school chum at my hometown Jewish Community Center, we were firmly asked to leave. How, I thought, could American Jews, all relatives of Holocaust victims, only three years after the end of World War II, behave like racists?
Fast forward about fifty years, during which I went to college, got a Ph.D., did research in Africa, and enjoyed a 40-year career as a professor, teaching about differences across cultural groups, nearly always called “races”. My writings, like those of other social scientists, explained racial differences as the result of cultural facts, and not due to innate, genetic, determinants.
Then, one day in the early 1990s, while visiting Geneva, I encountered a Franco-Swiss exhibition, whose title translates into “All of Us Are Related, Each of Us is Unique”. What I learned there hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly any effort to interpret racial differences made no sense, because, after all, there weren’t any races. There is just one unitary species, the human race. And I left the exhibition believing that this discovery could end racism, since, I thought, how could racism endure if there were no such thing as race?
The exhibit’s authors allowed me to produce an English language version, which has been seen across America and in other English-speaking countries. Wherever I have lectured, whether in Oxford, Mississippi, Washington, DC, or Melbourne, Australia, many audience members admitted surprise, but were convinced that they could no longer cling to the illusion of separate races.
Then, in 2001, what many social scientists had long suspected, was finally confirmed by a bona fide hard science …. genetics. On February 12, Science magazine published the Human Genome, demonstrating unequivocally that all humans alive today, whatever we look like, are not divisible into biological “races.” As the exhibit had earlier proclaimed, we are indeed all related.
So, I now believe that to assert that are no separate biological races is not a mere politically-correct claim. It is as indisputable as the fact that the earth is a sphere, revolving around the sun.
However, the Human Genome failed to sound the death-knell in the 21st century to the belief in “races” any more than astronomy demolished beliefs in the 15th, that the Earth was flat. Just as everyday experience competes with astronomical truths, the fact that there are no “races” is incompatible with what we seem to see every day. Confronted by human diversity, we think we see races. The scientific meaninglessness of “race”flies in the face of what we think we know. Counter-intuitive discoveries that contradict compelling experiential evidence are a hard sell. How do we make the case?
We must demolish the illusion of races by teaching facts….that our species originated in Africa, approximately 150 thousand years ago and that all six billion of us alive today share common ancestors, many times over.
Given racism’s central role in our history, we must continue to underscore discrepancies across so-called “races”in access to health, education, and wealth. And we will continue to identify ourselves on the US census as a member of one or more “races”, even though nobody really knows what we’re talking about when we talk about Hispanics, “some of whom are white, and some black.” Although the word denotes different cultural constructs, “race” still gets in the way of efforts to emerge from our racist ways.
Will widespread acceptance that there are no biological races end racism? Of course not. But I do fervently believe that until we admit that we are all related, racism will be fed by an outmoded belief that is as flat wrong as the belief that the earth itself is flat.
We live in a world where there were never races ….just racism. So, let’s start spreading the news.
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