Author debunks racial distinctions as myth

by Amy Kingsley

During the middle of Joseph Graves’ Feb. 21 speech at the UNCG Science Building, the lights started cycling on and off. First, the lights near the video screen darkened, then a few minutes later the entire auditorium plunged into darkness. Seconds later the whole place lit up, only to begin the cycle again.

‘“Am I doing that?’” Graves asked, interrupting his lecture mid-pace. ‘“When things like this happen, I always say The Man knows that I’m here.’”

It was a moment of levity in an otherwise serious discussion about Graves’ latest book, The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. The professor of evolutionary biology had already defused the revelatory implications of his work, acknowledging that findings similar to his had made the cover of the New York Times more than 50 years ago. But the comment did dig at persistent notions of racial differences that continue to permeate society, from the rarefied realm of medical research down to popular stereotypes.

Graves’ thesis, backed up by recent genomics research, is that genetic differences between races account for a tiny fraction of the diversity among individuals. The fact that more genetic diversity exists among the races than between them means that racial distinctions are largely arbitrary, Graves said.

He opened the speech with an exercise that exposed the subjective nature of racial distinctions. Students in two of his classes had been asked to identify their race in a fill-in-the-blank questionnaire. Some identified themselves through physical characteristics (i.e. black and white) others by religion (Jewish) and a few simply put their native country (Italian).

In the same survey, he polled students on their assumptions regarding racial characteristics. Several labeled Asians the smartest and African Americans the most athletic.

‘“Pretty intelligent folk generally don’t have a clue what they’re talking about when they talk about race. We don’t even have a language to talk about biological and cultural differences,’” Graves said.

The definition of biological race has gone through three iterations, Graves said. When biologists first differentiated the races, they made distinctions based on physical characteristics, then they divided folks geographically and now have moved on to separating them genetically.

Each of these approaches is flawed, Graves said. Grouping people according to physical characteristics results in organizations that have no relation to known migratory patterns. Geographical and genetic groupings often contradict each other.

‘“When we look at the genetic differences using physical characteristics, we get the wrong answers,’” he said. ‘“And the reason is because different portions of the genome respond to different environmental conditions.’”

He disparaged physical measures, such as skull measurements and skin color.

‘“The thing most associated with race is skin color,’” he said. ‘“There is more skin color variation in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.’”

Anatomically modern humans first appeared in Africa 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and migrated across the globe from there, he said. Differences in skin, body hair and other physical characteristics developed as a result of environmental stimuli.

Diseases like sickle cell anemia that appear to confine themselves to a particular race also developed in response to environmental conditions. Having a sickle cell gene made residents of tropical climates resistant to malaria.

Respected research organizations like the National Institutes for Health and American Cancer Society have linked diseases like lung cancer and diabetes to race. But Graves criticized such research as misleading, declaring links between race and disease without explaining the nature of the causality.

‘“There are reasons why people want to believe that race exists,’” he said. ‘“We have a sordid history of blaming the victim.’”

Despite the genetic evidence, the government continues to fund research on racial predisposition to disease that ignores the environmental differences between majority and minority populations. To illustrate, he brought a slide showing that most toxic waste sites in the United States are located in minority-majority communities.

‘“The use of race as a surrogate for the environmental factors is really misleading,’” Graves said. ‘“We need to look very carefully at why African Americans are getting certain diseases. The largest contributor to health disparity is actually social injustice.’”

Students snacked on cookies, cheese and fruit in the lobby after Graves’ presentation. One UNCG student said she enjoyed the presentation but was overwhelmed by the subject’s technical nature.

The professor’s position has detractors, including University of California anthropologist Vince Sarich, author of Race: The Reality of Human Differences. Sarich argued from both anthropological and physical evidence that the small variations do account for differences in achievement. Graves derided Sarich’s research methods.

‘“People will often advance these arguments in a purely political way,’” he said.

At the beginning of Graves’ presentation, he mentioned that he had only been in Greensboro six months and that it was his first time on the west side of town. But it is clear that he is here to shake up more than the UNCG student body. He was appointed dean of A&T’s fledgling university studies program, which is an overhaul of the basic curriculum set for a fall 2006 launch.

In addition to The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, Graves also wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium.

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