I always liked the idea of Mickey Kaus’s Assignment Desk, although I doubt anyone ever handed in an assignment. Mickey, however, only gave homework to mainstream journalists. There are a lot more bloggers, with a lot more time on their hands, and in the hope that my luck will be better, I hereby inaugurate Blogger Assignment Desk.

Assignment: What Is Race? I’m a willing Jensenist, if only because race and IQ is a topic guaranteed to annoy people who ought to be annoyed. Yet I can’t bring myself to treat race as a real, scientific category, and blogged a few jejune reflections on the subject when even fewer people read me than read me now. Scholars who discuss race refer to genetic similarities, and of course they exist, as one can see by the distribution of certain diseases like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs, but I remain unpersuaded that race is an immutable category or even a useful one. This article should, at a minimum, answer the following questions. How many races are there? How can genetic similarity be the basis for race when genetic differences are greater within what are called races than between them? Why are certain characteristics, like skin pigment, considered racial, while others, like height or eye color, are not? Convince me.

Bonus: Most race studies claim that self-identification is an adequate marker for actual genetic differences, which raises an interesting legal point. Suppose someone of no use in a Benetton ad declared himself African-American and was admitted to college on that basis. What recourse would the college have, if any? Is there a race test? There is a dreadful Hollywood movie, Soul Man, with a similar premise, in which the “black” student goes around in blackface and winds up groveling before the “genuinely” black Dean of Students, James Earl Jones of course, for making a travesty of the black experience. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about checking the black box on your college application and not saying another word about it.

Assigned to: Gene Expression (in thanks for adding me to their blogroll), Steve Sailer. B-Team: G Factor, Jon Jay Ray.

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 7, 2003 @ 7:37 PM | General

4 Responses to “Assignment Desk”

  1. 1 1. Aaron's father

    There may be valid arguments for rejecting race as a "real, scientific category" or even a "useful" one, but "How can genetic similarity be the basis for race when genetic differences are greater within what are called races than between them?" is not one. On this argument, we should reject men and women as separate categories.


  2. 2 2. Aaron Haspel

    This argument is theoretically valid. The problem with it in practice is that while we can trace sex to a single chromosome, we have no idea where race, genetically, resides. But certainly the argument from intra-race diversity is not dispositive.


  3. 3 3. Michelle Dulak

    "I’m talking about checking the black box on your college application and not saying another word about it."

    I’ve wondered about this myself. Even assuming the university tried to check racial self-identifications, how would they do it? There’s no accepted definition of "black," no workable test of "blackness." Just try coming up with one.

    When I was at UC/Berkeley, maybe a decade ago, there was an accusation by the Native-American student association on campus that a large fraction (something like a third) of the entering students UCB was claiming as "Native American" in its diversity stats weren’t really. Unfortunately I don’t remember how the controversy was resolved, or indeed if it was resolved at all. I think the dispute hinged on formal tribal membership vs. claimed Indian descent.

    If there’s some way of verifying tribal membership, of course, whether someone is "Native American" by the first definition could in principle be checked. But by the second, how do you check? Assume a school decides that anyone with, say, one Native-American grandparent is a Native American for admissions purposes. How then do you define a Native-American grandparent? If you use the same rule, you end up eventually with a "one-drop rule" like the one once used to define blacks, and just about as useful (and as odious).


  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    I’m not surprised to hear this. Indian tribes have been having the same trouble with the gambling concession lately; there’s an interesting article about it here. As one might expect, a tribal mafia sets itself up and excludes as many people as possible from the lucrative concessions, regardless of their ancestry, to avoid sharing the wealth. I can’t think of any rational way to decide these questions either, which prompts me to call the whole idea of race into question.


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