Something About Race

Posted on August 30, 2008

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Let’s talk about race.

The dean where I once taught told me that I talked about race too much. On the contrary I never talk about race.

Human beings are 99.9% identical to one another, genetically. The whole of human difference is contained within that 0.1% of genetic material. Furthermore, only 15% of that 0.1% has to do with what we call racial differences, or 0.015%, and that 0.015% is split across the whole of humanity, shared among all those distinct populations worldwide. The other 85% of human variation is found within each of these distinct populations.

The most genetically homogenous community I ever encountered was Dresden, formerly located in East Germany, which, in 1997 when I visited, was more than 99% native German, as far as I remember. People stared at my daughter and me as we walked down the street, people with melanin being somewhat of a curiosity there. However, like other human communities, the citizens of Dresden still contain 85% of all human genetic variation within their population, more or less. And there are people in Dresden, that being the case, who are more basically similar to someone in, say, Hong Kong, than they are to some of their fellow Dresdeners, even when the so-called racial characteristics are taken into account.

Think of it this way. Human genetic variation is a tower. The tower is 85 feet high. That represents how much you differ from the people where you live, even if you happen to live in Dresden.

The tower is fifteen feet wide. That represents how much the people in your community differ from the rest of the people on the planet. These are the so-called racial differences.

To return to where I started, I never talk about race because there is no such thing as race. I don’t see how having curly hair, or slanted eyes, or pale skin, or high cheek bones is relevant to who someone is as a person. And that amount of variation distributed across the entire planet is a consideration too trivial to matter in any real way. Only fools and racists care.

Now racism, that’s another matter. I admit to talking about that a lot. That’s because it poisons people’s lives, because it’s a social evil which ought to be addressed and eradicated.

Try to stop me from talking about it.

Which brings me to the particular person and occasion which prompted this little discussion. Barack Obama, an African-American who on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, becomes the presidential candidate for the US Democratic Party.

Something like this would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. When I was a teenager in the 60s, they still had separate water fountains for Whites and Blacks in Mississippi, and African Americans still rode in the back of the bus in Alabama. In social studies in school, I was taught that people from temperate climates like Europe were more active that people from the tropics because of the cooler temperatures, and that was why civilization was centred in Europe. Up until the 80s, Canadian and American history professors still referred to North American indigenous people as savages in their academic publications. Oh, yeah.

We’ve got a long way to go to solve racism, but we’ve come a long way as well.

Go Obama.

My father, who fought racism all his life, would have been ecstatic at this moment. I wish he had lived to see it.

Posted in: politics