SAME OR DIFFERENT? What does it mean to belong to a "race?"


Are such groups fundamentally different?: Just like that, Professor Gates piped up with The Best Question Ever Asked.

When he did, Ava DuVernay offered a thoroughly human response.

All in all, it added up to one of the most interesting exchanges we've ever seen on TV. As we noted yesterday, their exchange started like this:

GATES: Can you read those percentages?

DUVERNAY: 57.3 percent African—thank you! 41.5 percent European. This makes me so happy.

GATES (chuckling): I can tell.

DUVERNAY: This makes me sooo happy.

GATES: Wait a minute. What difference does it make?

DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated film, Selma. As she spoke with Gates, she had just learned that more than half of her DNA tracks to Africa rather than to Europe.

In an exchange which was partly humorous but was also plainly much more, DuVernay said this news about her DNA made her very happy. Gates then offered The Best Question Ever:

"What difference does it make?" the sagacious professor asked.

Translating, Gates was asking this: 

What difference does it make where your DNA comes from? (Where your DNA tracks to.) 

As we've noted in the past few days, we assume that Gates was saying this:

It's all just human DNA. Nothing essential is involved in the question of where it came from. We humans are basically all the same. In terms of biological inheritance, it doesn't really make any difference where your DNA came from.

We humans are basically all the same? Also, there's no such thing as (biological) race? (In effect, "race" is a social construct?)

Within living memory, these were basic, go-to points within the prevailing liberal worldview. We assume that Gates was playing this familiar tune when he posed The Best Question Ever Asked to the exultant DuVernay on his popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots.

As it turned out, 57% of DuVernay's roots had tracked back to African sources. Only 42% of her roots had tracked back to Europe.

Gates asked her what difference this makes. As he did, he seemed to suggest that it doesn't make any significant difference at all. 

In reply, DuVernay said it made a (big) difference to her. As you can see on this videotape, their fascinating exchange continued in the manner shown:

GATES: Wait a minute. What difference does it make?

DUVERNAY: I had had a whole narrative in my head of like, "It doesn't matter. It's how I identify. It's how I'm seen in the world, it's how I—"

GATES: [Chuckles]

DUVERNAY: You know, I did the whole thing. But I truly just feel like my heart just burst open. Because it does make a difference to me.

What a great thing. This was incredible! An incredible experience!

As you can see if you watch the tape, the exchange was partly played for laughs. But also, it partly wasn't.

DuVernay made it clear that the provenance of her DNA does make a difference to her. There's nothing wrong with that (perfectly human) reaction, though it may not make perfect sense in every possible way.

What does it mean when we the people each get assigned to a "race?" What does it mean when we each get assigned to a race, then get told that our "race" is a key part of our "identity?"

We're assuming that Gates was saying this about what it doesn't mean:

It doesn't mean that we're biologically different, in some significant way, from all the people who have been assigned to some other "race." Biologically, we're all pretty much the same. 

It's all just human DNA. We're all just human beings—people. We're just people, all the way down.

We assume that that's what Gates was implying when he posed his world-class question. We also assume that such observations are fundamentally accurate.

But in her response, DuVernay referred to an unfortunate fact about life as it's lived in our world. Each person will be assigned a "race," and that assignment affects the way  that person will be treated.

The "race" a person gets assigned will affect the way she gets "seen."

We humans! We may be inclined to believe that we're fundamentally different from other people in some "racial" way. 

We may even assume that these differences track to our DNA—not to the different cultures and experiences which exist when we divide the world into groups based upon "race," then reinforce the fact of this social division with disparate treatment of different people based on their (perceived) "race."

In this country, we all get assigned a "race." Routinely, this assignment will be treated as very important. 

This cultural fact is very much part of "the world the slaveholders made." Indeed, our brutal national history was built around such perceptions of "race."

Even today, we in the liberal world can be forced to say that there's no such thing as (biological) race—that "race" is a social construct.  We can still be forced to say such things, but we may have to be pushed at this point.

To what extent have we come to believe that there really are fundamental differences built into our membership in different "races?" To what extent have we (perhaps secretly) come to believe that we people really are fundamentally different—that we aren't, in the end, all the same?

Increasingly, thought leaders here in Our Town are devoted to the concept of "race." You can make us say that we're all the same, but does anyone really believe it?

Across the sea, Vladimir Putin is trying to help us fixate on these notions of difference. This will help autocracy win, this widely-admired humanitarian almost surely believes.

Tomorrow: Routine suggestions of difference


  1. "Across the sea, Vladimir Putin is trying to help us fixate on these notions of difference. "

    Funny, funny, dear Bob. But y'know, it'd help if you didn't repeat the same joke every day for two weeks in a row.

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  2. We're all the same deep down!

    Fucking brilliant!

    And like maybe our universe is like just a speck of dust in another universe.

    Wow. Holy Fuck.

    Mind blown...
    Freaking out...

    1. jOE 6-PACK - then why has 'race' and "identity" become so much the center of attention, increasing steadily over the past several years. Something weird is going on. Since we are a speck of dust in an apparently infinite universe, why is one's 'identity' so important nowadays, can't we just be humans?

    2. “Can we just be humans”.

      Ask the GOP or white supremacists that question. It isn’t liberals who would dispute that.

    3. Humans are pack animals.

      To ignore the history of human civilization and pretend otherwise is childish.

      And this is coming from a second rate troll on a third rate blog.

    4. "why has 'race' and "identity" become so much the center of attention, increasing steadily over the past several years"

      It seems to have started in 2012 when Trevon Martin got shot by a whitish looking guy. Before that, blacks getting shot by whitish looking people must have been happening but it wasn't publicized by the corporate mass media.

    5. I think we should debate whether humans are pack animals or herd animals. Pack animals have more IQ and coordinate their efforts while hunting, have a social structure within the pack. Herd animals function more on instinct, blend in with each other and find safety in numbers, startle and run together when one is spooked, and do nothing help the sick or lame among them. Pack animals are carnivorous hunters, herd animals are vegetarian prey.

    6. What if some are pack (predators) and some are herd (prey)?

    7. For 402 years Americans have been working hard to solve the problem of race, and now, thanks to this new focus by the corporate mass media we are finally going to solve it.

    8. Joe 6-pack what are you? a genius? on a 3rd rate blog?

    9. Glaucon X - the thing is Zimmerman was prosecuted for murder of Martin, and a jury found him not guilty. there was a witness who testified he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman, wailing away at him. You can find a summary of all the testimony at the trial on Wikipedia. As far as I can tell it was a fair trial. The standard is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, so maybe he was really guilty - I wasn't there. Since then the discussion about 'race' white privilege, white supremacy; identity politics has been crazy. If somehow "the problem of race" gets solved, that would be great, or even if it got better somehow.

    10. AC/MA -- there wasn't any doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin, just about whether he committed a crime by doing so.

      Somerby is suggesting, in this case, that there is no evidence supporting Gaetz's guilt or innocence -- no way to know whether he committed a crime or did any of the things he is accused of.

      My understanding is that Gaetz is not denying traveling with the girl. He is denying that it was illegal to have sex with her. He apparently went from a state where she was too young to give consent, to a state where she was legally allowed to give consent. If he took her from one state to the other, that is a crime, sex trafficking. So this hinges on who took her from one state to another, not on whether Gaetz knew the girl and had a sexual relationship with her.

      That makes this case similar to the Zimmerman one, where what happened is not disputed, but whether it is a crime is in dispute.

      Somerby, meanwhile, is pretending that nothing happened. That would be like pretending that Martin was not killed.

    11. Somewhere in the USA a guy attacks another guy who he thought was unarmed and he ends up getting shot and killed. It probably happens dozens of times every year. It probably mostly happens between people of the same race, so no one cares, and reporting it won't get high ratings.

      Only when the dead guy is a minority killed by a white will the for-profit billionaire-owned mass sound the alarm. Rating go up, and the Hamptons-based guild gets to add another wing to their mansions. They probably call it the Travon Martin Wing.

  3. "As we've noted in the past few days, we assume that Gates was saying this:

    It's all just human DNA. Nothing essential is involved in the question of where it came from. We humans are basically all the same. In terms of biological inheritance, it doesn't really make any difference where your DNA came from."

    Somerby reads a whole lot into an ambiguous question. He doesn't know what Gates actually meant and he never raises a question about it. He just assumes a whole lot.

    Meanwhile, the question strikes me as an open-ended invitation by an interviewer to elicit a statement from DuVernay about what her DNA results mean to her.

    And she clearly does not respond in a way that is consistent with Somerby's assumptions at all. Given that DuVernay self-classifies as black, as does Gates, why would Somerby assume that Gates doesn't care about race?

  4. We are all not only assigned a race, but also an ethnicity, a religion, a sex, an age (which changes over time), a kinship affiliation (with parents, siblings, extended family). Attributions are made about our abilities (athletic, good looking, smart, kind, generous, handy with tools etc.), we acquire interests and hobbies, make friends, choose clothing and hairstyles, and out of all of this arises our identity as a person, similar to others but also unique in our individuality. Race is one part of this process. And if a person chose not to make race part of his or her identity, it would still form them because it is based on physical characteristics that are obvious to other people, so it affects how you are treated, like it or not.

    Most people come to value their attributes. When they do not, it is a reason to seek therapy.

    And this combination of all of the things we are produces differentiation, a person who is not the same as all other people but different, unique, individual, someone who is themselves and not anyone else.

    Somerby wishes to gloss all of these differences to focus on the sameness. That strikes me as borglike and undesirable. He wants to say that the differences do not matter, but they do matter, very much, to each individual person. And I have no doubt that this matters to Gates too, despite Somerby's desperate attempts to put other words into his mouth.

  5. When scientists say that race is not encoded in DNA but is a social construct, what they mean is that the various characteristics encoded as race cannot be found in specific genes or combinations of genes that correlate with each other (are found together consistently among people of a designated race). Even skin color is a matter of melanin in the skin, not of race, because dark skin can be found in people from the Southern Mediterranean considered Italian or Spanish as well as people classified as of black African American ancestry. You can't tell by looking what "race" a person is. And you cannot tell by examining DNA either.

    That doesn't mean that DNA doesn't encode eye color, skin color, hair color and texture, and other physical characteristics. It does. That DNA just doesn't form a pattern that can be identified with a particular race (in sociocultural terms).

    So, when Somerby says that race isn't part of DNA, he is partly right but also partly wrong. The physical characteristics associated with race are part of DNA because DNA produces those characteristics in each and every individual.

    And we do not all have the same DNA (the same arrangement of genes and chromosomes), as Somerby wishes to say. If we did, we would all be identical twins, every person on this planet, and we would all be the same sex.

    The similarities that Somerby wishes to claim for humanity do not exist in the DNA any more than race does. That similarity is Somerby's construct, his idea that he wishes to superimpose onto human diversity. He claims that liberals do this, but we do not and have not historically. Today, many liberals wish to follow science and not make up pleasing social notions of sameness to gloss over the difficult questions of how a multicultural, diverse society ensures equal opportunity for all citizens.

    Somerby is pretending to have a kumbaya moment. Actually, he is advancing the current conservative line that racial problems don't exist, that racism was solved with the civil rights movement, that whites are being discriminated against by civil rights activists today, and that those who "see color" are the real racists. This is an ugly movement and liberals are not part of it.

  6. "Across the sea, Vladimir Putin is trying to help us fixate on these notions of difference. This will help autocracy win, this widely-admired humanitarian almost surely believes."

    Is Somerby actually calling Putin a "widely-admired humanitarian"?

    If so, is he doing this ironically? Or is he, like Trump, embracing Putin and his agenda in order to further the aims of a traitor and a dictator as they attempt to undermine our democracy? Is Somerby perhaps giggling to himself as he cashes checks from Russia while pretending to oppose the folks who are paying him to create dissension on the left?

    There are people doing that. Why not Somerby? It would account for the change in his behavior over time, and it would account for his support for conservative memes and wrongdoers, just yesterday Matt Gaetz. It makes more sense to me to assume that Somerby means exactly what he says with this sentence, a shout-out to his boss.

    When someone says something like this, without signaling sarcasm, humor, irony or intended meaning, you have to take him literally.

  7. So, whenever a liberal talks about ending racism and eliminating bigotry, we are making Putin smile? And Somerby knows this, how? The same way he knows what Gates thinks about race?

    Another essay like today's and it will be just about time for Somerby to go on Bill Maher's show.

  8. What do you mean by "race isn't a thing"?
    Any police officer in America will tell you about the super-human strength and quickness of unarmed black men.

  9. We all came from the same place, originally, so we must all have shared DNA. "Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, between 1.5 million and 1 million years.",ago%20come%20entirely%20from%20Africa.&text=Early%20humans%20first%20migrated%20out,and%201.8%20million%20years%20ago.

    I'd like to know WHY DuVernay is thrilled that her DNA is of African origin. Does she think that makes her genetically superior, somehow? That would be very ugly, so I hope not. Or, what is the reason? Would she feel depressed and inferior if the percentages were reversed, and if so, why?

    Skin color doesn't imbue moral virtue, just as it doesn't imbue LeBron James with athletic ability.

    1. Perhaps she is happy because she doesn't have to change her socio-cultural sense of herself, her identity. shows ads featuring people who always thought they were German and just discovered they are Austrian. They are wearing lederhosen and talking about strudel and visiting Vienna. None of those things have anything to do with DNA or "feeling superior".

      Of course, James's DNA gave him a head start in athletics, but not because he is black, because of his reflexes, muscle strength, coordination and interest in competing. Those are partly learned but also genetic, from his DNA. I think sports do teach moral virtue (i.e., sportsmanship, how to lose and win gracefully, how to function as part of a team, how to care about something beyond oneself).

      DuVernay apparently didn't explain why she was happy about her results. There is no reason for you to jump to conclusions about what she meant, any more than it is OK when Somerby mindreads what Gates meant.

      Why would you gravitate toward the worst explanation as your first guess about DuVernay?

    2. It could be a logical conclusion is why.

      "None of those things have anything to do with DNA..." But, that's what DuVernay's happiness is based on, her DNA. And, what about the 43% that's European? Does that dilute her identity somehow? How meaningful is it that >50% is African? What if the percentages were reversed?

    3. 2:04, let us know when DuVernay and members of her race spend 300 years enslaving and then systematically denying civil rights to another race not her own. Otherwise, meh.

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  11. Yes, Gates believes race is a social construct. But:

    ‘when I started the series, it wasn't called "Finding Your Roots." If you remember, it was called "African-American Lives." I only did black people.’

    (Question): “The impact of slavery can make tracing one's ancestry particularly meaningful for African Americans. Why is that?”

    (Gates): “It's important because that knowledge was systematically taken away from us.

    If you need to know one reason why it's important to restore that knowledge, it's because it was important enough for slaveholders to take it away. They wanted to decenter us, to keep us from understanding our roots.”


    “every admixture test that we reveal on the show is a critique of white supremacist notions of purity.”

    I doubt that black people today identify as black because they think of it as a biological race. It has more to do with a sense of shared history and continued discrimination.

    The present day discussion of race is focused precisely on the aspect of it being a social construct, and has little if anything to do with biology. Social constructs come in many forms, race, gender, etc, but should not be a cause for discrimination.

    (Interviews with Gates here:
    “Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. On DNA Testing And Finding His Own Roots”

    And here:

    “Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Ancestry's Impact for Us All”

    1. "The present day discussion of race is focused precisely on the aspect of it being a social construct, and has little if anything to do with biology." But, DNA, and DNA testing, are biological in nature, and apparently this IS part of the present day discussion.

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