May 6, 2014

The Race FAQ

With the question of how to think scientifically about race back in the news with the publication of the New York Times' veteran genetics reporter Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, I'm reposting my old Frequently Asked Questions List about Race. Wade and I reach fairly similar empirical conclusions, but our frameworks for thinking about race actually start from different places. Wade follows the traditional top down Linnaean structure in which races are conceived of more or less as subspecies, while I've advocated a bottom-up approach of thinking of racial groups as extended families that are partly inbred.

This is a better-formatted version of my 2007 Race FAQ in VDARE. It’s a non-technical introduction to this topic that so confuses Americans.

Q. Why do you talk about race so much?

A. Most human beings talk about race a fair amount. I write about it.

Q. Why do people care about race?

A. Why do people care about who their relatives are? Maybe they should care, maybe they shouldn’t. I’m not here to preach morality. But people do care, so it’s important to understand the implications.

Q. What’s race all about?

A. Relatedness.

Race is about who is related to whom.

Q. Do you mean a race is a family?

A. Yes, an extended family. (To be precise, a particular type of extended family, one that’s more coherent over time than the norm, a distinction I’ll explain below.)

Q. Race means family? I’ve never heard of such a thing!

A. It’s remarkable how seldom this concept essential to understanding how the world works is mentioned in the press. Yet, in my Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, the first definition of "race" is:

"1. A group of persons related by common descent or heredity."

Q. If races exist, then, pray tell, precisely how many there are?

A. How many neighborhoods are there in the place where you live?

For some purposes, an extremely simple breakdown into, say, City vs. Suburbs is most useful. For other uses, an extremely detailed set of neighborhood names is helpful: e.g., "The proposed apartment complex will aggravate the parking shortage in Northeastern West Hills."

Similarly, racial groups can be lumped into vast continental-scale agglomerations or split as finely as you like.

For instance, should New World Indians be considered a separate race—or merely a subset of East Asians?

Every system of categorization runs into disputes between "lumpers" and "splitters." Whether lumping or splitting is more appropriate depends upon the situation.

Q. Isn’t race just about skin color?

A. That’s a simplistic verbal shorthand Americans use to refer to ancestry. Nobody really acts as if they believe race is synonymous with skin color.
Q. What do you mean?

A. Consider golfer Vijay Singh who during 2004-2005 became the only man in this decade besides Tiger Woods to be the number one ranked player in the world. Singh, who was born in the Fiji Islands of Asian Indian descent, is much darker in skin color than Woods.

Singh is at least as dark as the average African-American. Yet, nobody in America ever thinks of Singh as black or African-American. There’s an enormous industry that celebrates the triumphs of blacks in nontraditional venues such as golf. But Singh’s accomplishments elicited minimal interest in the U.S.

A 2007 article, for example, asked where are all the black golf champions who were expected to emerge in the wake of Tiger Woods’s first Masters championship in 1997. It never mentions the blackest-skinned player on tour, Singh … because we’re not actually talking about skin color when we use the word "black," we’re talking about sub-Saharan African ancestry.

Q. Aren’t we all related to each other?

A. Yes, that’s why we’re "the human race."

Q. If we’re all related to each other, how can one person be more related to some people than to other people?

A. How can you be more related to your mother than you are to your aunt? Or to my mother?

Q. If races exist, how can somebody belong to more than one race?

A. If extended families exist, how can you belong to your mother’s extended family and to your father’s extended family?

Q. How many races can you belong to?

A. How many extended families can you belong to?

Consider Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s children. Clearly, they are part of the Schwarzenegger clan via their father and grandfather. But they are also part of the Jadrny extended family through their father’s mother. Yet, they also belong to the well-known liberal Catholic Shriver tribe through their mother, Maria Shriver, daughter of Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate. And, they are, famously, Kennedys, because their maternal grandmother is Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of the late President.

Q. So, everybody belongs to four extended families?

A. You could keep going beyond the four grandparents. The Schwarzenegger kids, for instance, are also Fitzgeralds, because they are the great-great-grandchildren of John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the mayor of Boston.

Q. So, your family tree just goes on out to infinity?

A. No, it eventually turns increasingly in on itself, as you can see it must from the basic arithmetic of genealogy. This tendency to turn back in on itself is the reason that racial identity exists.

Q. How does the math work?

Assume 25 years per each generation in your family tree. Go back 10 generations to the 1750s, and you have 1024 ancestors.

Go back another 250 years to the 1500s and you have 1024 times 1024 slots in your family tree; call it a million. Back to the 1250s and you have a billion openings. (Were there even a billion people alive then?)

And back in the 1000s, 40 generations ago, you have a trillion ancestors. Yet there definitely weren’t a trillion people alive then.

Q. So, where did all my ancestors come from?

A. They did double duty, to put it mildly.

Q. So my family tree doesn’t extend outward forever?

A. At some point in the past, the number of unique individuals in your family tree (as opposed to slots) would start to get fewer in number, ultimately forming a diamond-shaped rather than fan-shaped family tree. Genealogists label this "pedigree collapse."

Demographer K.W. Wachtel estimated that an Englishman born in 1947 would have had two million unique ancestors living at the maximum point around 1200 AD, 750 years before. There’d be a billion open slots in the family tree in 1200, so each real individual would fill an average of 500 places. Pedigree collapse would set in further into the past than 1200.

Q. Wait a minute! Are you saying my ancestors married among themselves? So I’m inbred???

A. Yes. It’s mathematically certain. There just weren’t enough unique individuals alive.

Q. Ooh, yuck!

A. I suspect that the American distaste for thinking about inbreeding, even when it’s so distant and genetically benign as in this English example, is one reason why our understanding of relatedness and race is so deficient.

Q. What does this have to do with race?

A. Pedigree collapse reveals how the biology of race is rooted in the biology of family. We can deduce from the necessary existence of pedigree collapse that while everybody is related to everybody else in some fashion, it’s more genealogically significant to note that every person is much more related to some people than to other people. Even a Tiger Woods can identify himself as being of Thai, black, Chinese, white, and American Indian descent, but not of, say, Polynesian, South Asian, or Australian aborigine origin.

Pedigree collapse is how extended families become racial groups. A race is a particular kind of extended family—one that is partly inbred. Thus it’s socially identifiable for longer than a simple extended family, which, without inbreeding, disperses itself exponentially.

Q. Can racial groups merge?

A. Over time, yes. Think of the term "Anglo-Saxon." The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes intermarried until they lost their separate identities. (The Jutes even lost their name.)

Similarly, the official ideology of Mexico is that whites and Indians have merged seamlessly into La Raza Cosmica, "The Cosmic Race." (African Mexicans play the role of the forgotten Jutes.) The reality is different, but the mestizaje propaganda isn’t wholly false.

Q. But race is just identity politics!

A. Well, there’s a reason that identity politics are a big deal. However you feel about all the various kinds of identity politics, you need to understand them.

People tend to organize politically around some aspects of shared identity, but not around others. For example, language and religion tend to be politically salient, but not handedness. No politician fears the Lefthanders Lobby, because left-handedness is distributed too randomly throughout the population.

Sex can be politically relevant, but it frequently turns out to be less important than feminist activists hope. As Henry Kissinger supposedly said, "No one will ever win the battle of the sexes; there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy."

Relatedness or race is typically the single most common dimension along which people align themselves politically.

Sharing relatives gives people more reason to trust each other—for instance, Jared Diamond notes that when two strangers meet on a lonely and lawless jungle path in New Guinea, they immediately start a far-reaching discussion of who all their relatives are, looking for overlap so they can be more confident the other person won’t kill them. Similarly, organized crime families typically have real extended families as their nuclei because relatives can trust each other more when outside the law.

Further, blood relatives are more likely to share other potent "ethnic" identity markers, such as language and religion.

Q. But, if we’re all part of the human race, then why don’t we always act that way?

A. Because we’re not, currently, under alien attack. Throughout his Presidency, Ronald Reagan, to the alarm of his less-imaginatively insightful aides such as Colin Powell, repeatedly pointed out that the differences between the Superpowers would seem insignificant if Earth was under assault by hostile flying saucers. Reagan, for instance, told the UN in 1987:

"I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." [Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York]

But little green men are not threatening us at present, so we compete against each other in the meantime.

And relatedness (i.e., race) is the most common dimension along which people cooperate in order to more effectively compete against other groups politically.

Q. Isn’t race just a social construct?

A. Relatedness is the most real thing in the world: mother, father, baby.

Q. But, don’t different societies have different rules about who is considered to be related to whom?

A. Yes. Indeed, every culture comes up with a way to deal with the exponential unwieldiness of family trees.

For many purposes of daily life, you have too many relatives. The sheer numbers of ancestors, distant cousins, and potential descendents you have expand out beyond any manageable boundaries. The amount of relatives you’ll send a Christmas card to might be larger than the number you’ll volunteer to cook Thanksgiving dinner for, but, still, there’s got to be an end to everything.

Many cultures have devised rules to limit who counts as a relative for the purposes of, say, inheritance. English aristocratic families didn’t want their land holdings divided up into unimpressive and inefficient parcels, so they followed the rule of primogeniture, passing the claim to be of noble blood down through the first-born son, with latter-borns falling out of the aristocracy within two generations. For instance, Mr. Winston Churchill was the first-born son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who was the second-born son of the Duke of Marlborough. That seems awfully aristocratic to us plebian Americans, but by English law, he wasn’t a peer because his father wasn’t first-born. And thus, to Winston’s political benefit, his parliamentary career was spent in the House of Commons rather than the House of Lords.

The Chinese treated sons more equitably, but almost completely ignored daughters.

In contrast to these attempts to nominally define down the putative number of relations, many Middle Eastern cultures have come up with an actual biological solution (of sorts) to reduce the number of relatives: cousin marriage. In Iraq, half of all married couples are first or second cousins.

Q. Why?

A. One reason is this: If you marry your daughter off to your brother’s son, then your grandchildren/heirs will also be your brother’s grandchildren/heirs. So, there is less cause for strife among brothers. Cousin marriage helps make family loyalties especially strong in Iraq, to the detriment of national loyalties.

Q. Do you ever want more relatives?

A. For many political struggles, the more the merrier.

Ibn Saud, who founded Saudi Arabia in the 1920s, consolidated his victory over other desert chieftains by marrying 22 women, typically the daughters of his former rivals. Thus, today’s vast Saudi ruling family represents the intermixing of the tribes, which has helped it survive in power for 80 years.

On the other hand, the wealthy Syrian Jews of Brooklyn, with few political threats hanging over them here in America, don’t need blood relations with other power centers, so the community fiercely ostracizes anyone who marries outside it.

Or, political entrepreneurs can attempt to widen or narrow their followers’ working definition of who their relatives are by rhetorical means. For example, in the 1960s, black leaders encouraged African-Americans to call each other "brother" and "sister" to build solidarity.

Q. In America, wasn’t there a "one-drop rule" for determining if one is a minority?

A. For blacks, yes: for American Indians, no. Herbert Hoover’s VP, Charles Curtis, was famous for being part Kaw Indian. Being somewhat Indian added glamour to his image.

Indian nations have the right to set ancestry minimums (generally, at least 1/4th) required for legal membership in the tribe, and they often police membership with a vengeance.

Q. Isn’t all this outdated?

A. Both blacks and Indians are standing by the traditional definitions, because it’s in their interests.

Ever since Congress allowed Indian nations to each own one casino in the late 1980s, many tribes have been expelling racially marginal members to increase the slice of the pie for the more pure-blooded remainder. That’s because the main benefit of belonging to a tribe—the rake-off from a single casino—is finite.

In contrast, black and Hispanic organizations have backed broad, inclusive definitions of who is black or Hispanic because the rake-off from being black or Hispanic—affirmative action quotas—is indefinite in magnitude. The larger the percentage of the population, the larger the quota, and the larger the number of voters who are beneficiaries and thus supporters.

Q. So cultures change their definitions of who deserves to be a relative?

A. Not just cultures, but individuals change their definitions to fit their needs at the moment.

For example, right before the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V needed all the loyal relatives, real or exaggerated, he could get, so Shakespeare has him address the English army:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother".

On the other hand, once the bloodshed was over, King Henry probably wasn’t inclined to let his old yeomen archers come over and hang around the palace whenever they liked as if they were his actual brothers.

Q. So, leaders can persuade their followers to see themselves as more or less closely related?

A. Yes, but the more they follow existing genealogical fault lines, the more likely they are to succeed. 

Q. What’s an ethnic group?

A. The Census Bureau draws a sharp distinction between race and ethnicity, stating that individuals of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race. The way the federal government uses the terms can be formalized like this:

A racial group is a partly inbred extended biological family.

An ethnic group is one defined by shared traits that are often passed down within biological families—e.g., language, surname, religion, cuisine, accent, self-identification, historical or mythological heroes, musical styles, etc.—but that don’t require genetic relatedness.

Q. Can you give an example?

A. The difference is perhaps easiest to see with adopted children. For example, if, say, an Armenian baby is adopted by Icelanders, his ethnicity would be Icelandic, at least until he became a teen and decided to rebel against his parents by searching out and espousing his Armenian heritage. But racially, he’d always have been Armenian.

Q. If races exist, doesn’t that mean one race has to be the supreme Master Race? And that would be awful!

A. Indeed it would, but no race is going to be best at everything – any more than one region could be the supreme master region for all human purposes.

For example, a mountaintop is a stirring place to put a Presidential Library. But if you want to break the land speed record in your rocket car, it’s definitely inferior to the Bonneville Salt Flats. 

Q. Okay, what does it all mean?

A. It means it’s time for our intellectuals to grow up. The world is what it is. Making up fantasies about it, and demonizing scientists such as James Watson, just makes reality harder to deal with.


Anonymous said...

Few questions for Steve:

1) Do you believe in segregating races?

2) When people come to the realisation that races exist, how should that change the way we view other races such as blacks and Asians, even whites?

Anonymous said...

"""""""A. Yes. It’s mathematically certain. There just weren’t enough unique individuals alive.""""""""

Are there enough unique individuals in this day and age?



Lucius Somesuch said...

You had me at "Random House Webster's College Dictionary"-- the best college dictionary in America, and currently, it seems, lapsed from print. The "Random House Webster's Unabridged" is still available, a gorgeous and erudite blockbuster.

The underpowered and comparatively pedestrian "New Oxford American Dictionary" (which boasts photos of such luminaries as Kofi Annan and Betty Friedan, and a longer biographical notice on Hubert Humphrey than Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz) includes two sententious blocks of added text, set off in gray, around the entry for "race":

[I]"Although ideas of race are centuries old, it was not until the 19th century that attempts to systematize racial divisions were made. Ideas of supposed racial superiority and social Darwinism reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s and gave pseudoscientific justification to policies and attitudes of discrimination, exploitation, slavery, and extermination. Theories of race asserting a link between racial type and intelligence are now discredited. Scientifically it is accepted as obvious that there are subdivisions of the human species, but it is also clear that genetic variation between individuals of the same race can be as great as that between members of different races."

--I'll spare the second block. Granted, Random House accrued its jots of PC here and there; but unlike the Oxford dictionary, which includes entries for "bootylicious" and the ludicrous-- dare I say, RACISS-- whitewashed Black English term "babymother" (da wordz BABYMOMMA, cracka muthaf**kas!), Random House Webster's College Dictionary includes definitions both for "bump" and "grind", each in their respective denotations for the act known as a "bump n' grind". All Oxford can tell you is that the verb "grind" can include:

"3 [no obj.] informal (of a dancer) rotate the hips: *go-go girls grinding to blaring disco.*"

--I guess I could've got off to that when I was twelve, but as a grown-up I demand a lot more from an unabridged dictionary.

Anonymous said...

I once lived in a town that was foolish enough to offer refuge to scummy Cubans from the Mariel Boatlift. The Cubans got into regular fights with the native African American underclass. However, the local media always used to word "black" to refer to Americans alone. Cubans were never "black," no matter how purely sub-Saharan African they looked.

Tenfort Williams said...

This reminds me of the science fiction movie The Lathe of Heaven, a PBS movie from about 1980. In the movie the protagonist has a fantasy that comes true - that all humans are of the same race and ethnicity. A strong bit of Utopian fantasy thinking by liberals.

The Lathe of Heaven

Anonymous said...

"Singh is at least as dark as the average African-American. Yet, nobody in America ever thinks of Singh as black or African-American"

The narrow american/new world concept of black = subsaharan african only, cannot survive for much longer. In Malaysia the indian tamils are correctly called blacks. In Australia the aborigines are called the same. And so on. India's neighbours in west and central asia historically called its inhabitants black. Within India itself south indians, tribals etc are called black by their fellow hindus who themselves would be seen as black if they traveled to say east asia.

Btw, your faq on race is very lucid and informative....

Anonymous said...

"""""The narrow american/new world concept of black = subsaharan african only, cannot survive for much longer.""""""""

Way way way way wait. Hold it a second. Sub Saharan Africa = Negroid as opposed to Caucausoid or Australiasoid or Asian (or US Indian, for that matter), so where exactly should these darker skinned folks be placed?

Aren't Indians sometimes referred to as Aryans? As in, Aryan? And Aryans are not biologically racially related to Subsaharan Africa.

Aborigines are part of Australiasoid, which is in fact a distinctive race of its own and not a part of SubSaharan Africa.

West/Central Asia = part of Asian race.

There are of course differing degrees within each race, there are more to whites than just the Albinos.

Jingo Starr said...

@anon 5:39

1) there is no reason to segregate by fiat when races, per my brother steve's definition, segregate themselves on the basis of shared culture. all of the fiat race laws haven't changed this. see chicago for data.

2)the logical thing would be to immediately cease government subsidies with racial determination.

Fred Mok said...

This FAQ is so incredibly helpful. Most Americans today do not understand these basic ideas about race. It's like we have these politically correct blinders on. I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

"When people come to the realisation that races exist...."

Seems to me that everyone, perhaps with the exception of a few Nice Old White Ladies of both sexes, is already completely aware that races exist; that it's all about the getting while getting is good; and about solemnly and piously intoning the proscribed religious mantras (make that "lies").

Anonymous said...

The terms "black" and "white" are used in the US as ethnic terms, not racial ones. Black=descendants of slaves, mixture of West African and white southerner. White=Old Stock white, northern European Protestant. Quaint terms from before the US became a multiethnic, culturally sterile cesspool.

Anonymous said...

Where are you getting your definition of ethnic group? I'd always understood it to include shared ancestry as well as the non-genetic traits you list. "Race" is a less precise (and I'd say less meaningful) and purely biological concept and usually only distinguishes between white, blacks, Asians. For example, Irish and Swedish would both be of the white/Caucasoid/etc race but of Irish and Swedish ethnic groups. Your example of an adopted Armenian as being of Icelandic ethnicity isn't the common usage of the term, at least not as I've seen the term defined anywhere or how it is used in the census.

Anonymous said...

It seems you are using the 19th century definition of race, which includes shared ethnicity, culture, and geography. For example, Brits and Boers considered themselves separate races in South Africa until about a 100 years ago.

My understanding of the race-as-a-social-concept issue was that people resisted the associations of complex behaviors with broad racial categories (in other words, stereotypes). Like intelligence, trustworthiness, honesty, work culture, thrift, etc. I think the jury is still out on that one, notwithstanding Wade's book, because these characteristics are so dependent on the surrounding environment and the people who inhabit that environment that it would be very hard to separate the variables. I don't think anyone (even the most left-wing person) denies that racial groupings exist based on common descent and endogamy over multiple generations.

Bert said...

"Aren't Indians sometimes referred to as Aryans?"

Nobody today calls Indians "Aryans". The Aryans were a distinct Persian-speaking people who have been extinct for centuries.

Anonymous said...

"It seems you are using the 19th century definition of race, which includes shared ethnicity, culture, and geography. For example, Brits and Boers considered themselves separate races in South Africa until about a 100 years ago."

I think someone might have been telling you porkies. Or to paraphrase our porcine friend: " Yes, all separate, but some more separate than others."

Gilbert P

Anonymous said...

"1) Do you believe in segregating races?

2) When people come to the realisation that races exist, how should that change the way we view other races such as blacks and Asians, even whites?" -

1)Why no, instead we support freedom of association, which everyone will promptly use to segregate themselves.

2)well for one, all those racial groups exist, whereas before you had to pretend that those distinct and separate groups of whites, blacks, asians, et al were not separate and distinct.

Pochinko said...

"Despite the obvious sub-Saharan ancestry of Sadat, Egyptians were outraged at any suggestion that they are related to blacks. Note also that American black elites love to claim that the ANCIENT Egyptians were "black," but are careful not to insult the modern Egyptians by claiming them."

-Showing once again that their views are bass-ackwards from reality. The ancient Egyptians were Caucasians, while the modern Egyptians are the ones hybridized with sub-saharan Africans.

Anonymous said...

"1) Do you believe in segregating races?"

I have questions for you. Walk around any college campus in California, most especially the UCs, and you will probably find groups like MECHa, a hispanic student organization ("for the liberation of our people"). Often these groups do commendable things like sponsor study groups for students who need remedial help. Take a look inside the lab space or classroom in which they met and they will, in fact, be all hispanic. Not that they necessarily have anything against anybody else.

Here's a link to MECHa at Stanford. Here's another group, the Society of Hispanic Engineers. The whole point of these organizations is to enable self segregation of people of a particular group (a group that in California is very near equivalent to race).

So what's your definition of segregation? Is this segregation? Or does segregation only happen when white people do something like have the Society for White Engineers? If non-whites do it, is it all okay, even all good, even worthy of state support (the Chicano Latino Resource Center doesn't fund itself)?

Are you pro--non-white voluntary self segregation, like MECHa and the Society of Hispanic Engineers?

Anonymous said...

My question is where did Steve find someone to ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers without getting all hot under the collar about it and calling him names????

Such people are very rare in the United States!!!


Anonymous said...

Everybody's ancestor was black if you go back far enough because mankind EVOLVED in Africa from some clever chimpanzee strain. And if our skin had been white, the sunlight would make too much vitamin D in our skin and that is toxic. So MANKIND evolved with a dark skin.

What turned some of us white is that our ancestors migrated out of Africa into northern latitudes and ran smack into an ice age. And then the skin needed to be lighter so the weaker sunlight of northern latitudes would make enough vitamin D, because too little is just as bad as too much.

If we whites NOW moved back to tropical Africa and lived a 'native life' i.e. no clothes on and living outside all the time, eventually our progeny's skin would turn black again.

ALL of this skin color changing takes MANY hundreds of generations, but it simply works by natural selection and random mutations.


Anonymous said...

ALL of this skin color changing takes MANY hundreds of generations, but it simply works by natural selection and random mutations.

And of course it's not just skin color changing, it's lots of things.

Anonymous said...

What I was getting at is that Steve is absolutely correct. Race is NOT your skin color. It is your extended family group. Your skin color is determined by where your extended family group has lived (latitude-wise in the world) for the last hundred thousand years or so (in very round numbers).

Kurt (I'm only anonymous because I don't have a google account, or openID, or want to publish my email address since I get too much junk email as it is now.)

Anonymous said...

The word race came about because of a perceived, visual, difference, surely?
That visual difference is genetic and is definable quite easily.
Liberals do not want to use visual difference as a means of grouping people.
So, the AAA came up with the term geographic ancestry to explain why some people look alike and others don't.
Forensic anthropologists have adapted to this shift by using the term continental populations.
So, the environment selected, the genes adapted, and geographic populations were created.

Of all the arguments I've read in the Wade debate, I think the best is Steve's line about New Hampshire and, instead of getting drawn into what are essentially politically-motivated words games ('I see no patterns'), pro-racers could simply yet in solidarity, keep repeating that one line about New Hampshire?

Christoph Dollis said...

I couldn't agree more.