SATURDAY, MARCH 12, 2022
In our view, they largely failed: Yesterday, we chose to revisit a recent traumatic event.
The trauma stemmed from a bollixed discussion on the prime-time CNN program, Don Lemon Tonight. We were watching, in real time, when Lemon posed these questions to a pair of ranking professors:
LEMON (2/2/22): The interesting thing is that we have this idea, what I said earlier, this sort of modern idea about what race is. What exactly is race? Is it a social construct? Many people see it as color. Is it something that's visible? What exactly is it?
Let's have that conversation. We'll take a break, and we'll talk about it on the other side. We'll be right back.
"What is race?" Lemon asked. "Is it a social construct?" Also, "Is it something that's visible?"
The analysts screamed and wailed. After we sat through a series of ads, Lemon returned and said this:
LEMON: Race is a social construct. Do you guys agree with that or disagree with that? Yascha?
Is race "a social construct?" That was the question Lemon posed to Professors Mounk and West.
As we noted yesterday, Lemon's guests come from the finest schools. Expressed most charitably, the ensuing non-discussion discussion was an incoherent, jumbled mess—and an instant source of trauma for our youthful analysts.
Can this really be the best our high-end professors can do? Whatever you may have been programmed to think, we'll suggest that the answer is yes.
In last Sunday's New York Times, Professors Gates and Curran tackled some similar questions / topics / concepts. Briefly, we'll be honest:
By the time the professors were through, we had at least a general sense of what they seemed to be saying. That said, to the extent that we could decipher their claims, their claims didn't seem to make much sense.
In their essay, these professors said, again and again, that race is "a social construction" (also, "a social invention").
At one point, they called race is "a toxic social construction." Right there in their second paragraph, Gates and Curran even said this:
"The fact that race is a social invention and not a biological reality cannot be repeated too much."
We're inclined to agree with that statement—but what does that statement mean? And how does it help us devise "a new language for talking about race," the boon the professors would promise.
For our money, the professors never quite spoke to those points in a way which made ultimate sense.
For the record, the notion that race "has no biological reality"—the idea that race "is a social construct"—is a highly familiar idea. The idea has been around forever. Here within the liberal world, it's stone-cold conventional wisdom.
The idea that race is a social construct is stone-cold conventional wisdom! At some point, everyone knows that they should make that statement when they're discussing race.
The claim that race is a social construct is stone-cold conventional wisdom. That doesn't mean that we know how to explain this conventional claim—and it certainly doesn't mean that we in our liberal / progressive world are currently conducting ourselves in a way which suggests that we believe that claim.
"Race is a social construct?" What the heck does that statement mean?
When CNN's Lemon raised the point, Professors Mounk and West produced a muddled non-discussion. In the case of Professors Gates and Curran, they offered this statement as they neared the end of their essay:
"There can be few more powerful demonstrations that race is a social construction than [Professor Gates'] own DNA results."
According to those DNA results, half of Professor Gates' DNA traces back to locations in Europe. Half of his DNA traces back to origins under African skies.
This means that Gates is "half a white man," the professors said someone had joked. According to the professors, "There can be few more powerful demonstrations that race is a social construction."
Presumably, that means this:
For a wide array of living Americans, their (many) ancestors lived in various parts of the world. Professor Gates identifies as African-American, but half his ancestors lived in Europe.
This shows that race is a social construction, the pair of professors say. They go on to say that this helps us undermine the toxicity of some of our long-standing concepts concerning race.
Alas—were it only that easy! Here is the fuller text which ends the professors' essay:
GATES AND CURRAN (3/6/22): There can be few more powerful demonstrations that race is a social construction than his own DNA results. And therein lies the promise of this new science. DNA, used in this way, can restore a remarkable amount of information about the ancestors whose traces we carry around every day in our genomes. The multitude of population clusters, regions and genetic groups reflected in DNA tests counters existing narratives that try to reduce the astonishing variety of the human community to the four or five socially constructed races of man about which prior generations of students learned in biology class.
That’s why, as historians who study race, we believe that we’re once again entering a new era. If, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, science put an enormous amount of effort into dividing the human species into separate categories, 21st-century genetic analysis promises to reveal just how meaningless those categories are—and how connected we’ve been all along.
At a time when our society is deeply divided and when a surge of antisemitic, anti-Asian, Islamophobic and anti-Black racism threatens the social fabric, it feels urgent that we develop new language for discussing the relationship between identity, ancestry, history and science. DNA analysis could help create that language by offering more nuanced ways of looking at individual origins and a more unifying narrative about our shared heritage.
But, of course, where there is promise, there is also peril. Race is, to steal a line from Wordsworth, “too much with us.” Its history is too long, its presence and usage too common, for it to magically disappear anytime soon. While, biologically speaking, the idea of individual human races with different origins is as farcical as the medieval belief that elves cause hiccups, the social reality of race is undeniable. And genetics—or, for that matter, any science—has the potential to be misused, co-opted by racist ideologies and employed to bolster harmful narratives about racial purity or biological superiority.
But if we can, at the very least, embrace the understanding that race (a toxic social construction) and ancestry (a shared genetic history) are not only distinct but also fundamentally opposed—and teach that in our classrooms—it could go a long way toward freeing us from some of the binds in which scientific racism have trapped us.
The stories embedded in our genes beg to be told. They tell of ancestral diversity that stretches back thousands of years and ultimately underscores all that we—despite superficial physical differences—have in common.
In our view, what you see there is a well-intentioned jumble. For starters, we'd have to say that it tells us things that everyone already knows.
Everyone knows a fact the professors state right in their very first paragraph. That paragraph said this:
The other day, while teaching a lecture class, one of us mentioned in passing that the average African American, according to a 2014 paper, is about 24 percent European and less than 1 percent Native American. A student responded that these percentages were impossible to measure, since “race is a social construction.”
The average African American has a substantial amount of European ancestry. The professors establish that fact in their opening paragraph—but everyone already knows that.
Alas! The fact that everyone knows that fact doesn't necessarily defeat the ideas which can make race "a toxic social construction." The toxicity lies in the idea that those original European and African populations differed in ways which actually matter—not just in "superficial physical differences," such as "white" and "black" skin.
In this essay, Gates and Curran are telling us something that everyone already knows. They seem to think that restating this fact can take the toxicity out of lingering concepts of race.
We say that's what they seem to think; we can't say they ever state their case with ultimate precision. But so it goes, and so it has gone, when even our highest-ranking professors try to discuss the most crucial concepts.
We'll have to leave it here for now. For the record, we vastly admire the decency with which Professor Gates approaches guests of every so-called "race" on his fascinating PBS program, Finding Your Roots.
Years ago, on that very program, he asked film director Ave DuVernay a question we scored as "the great questions ever asked." Semi-jokingly, but only semi-jokingly, DuVernay said she was relieved to learn that her African ancestry slightly outweighed her European ancestry.
"What difference does it make?" Gates laughingly asked.
For reasons we explained at the time, we called that the world's greatest question. We'll guess that Gates' understanding of these important questions goes beyond the tangential claims he and Curan seem to make in this somewhat jumbled essay.
At any rate:
Long ago and far away, the liberal world proceeded past the place where Gates and Curran now stand. Long ago and far away, the liberal world was saying such things as this:
There's only one race—the human race. There are no other "races."
Last weekend, we saw a woman who hails from the greatest generation express that idea with aplomb. Rather, we saw the way she expressed that idea way back in 1953, when she was 17 years old.
That woman is Mary Frances Early, the first black woman to receive a degree from the University of Georgia. When she was just 17 years old, she expressed herself with admirable dexterity concerning the question of race.
There's only one race, the teenager wrote. That goes beyond what Gates and Curran wrote in Sunday's guest essay.
What lies behind that long-ago claim? What keeps us from spreading that news?