GATES ON RACE: How clearly do you understand...


...what Professor Gates has said?: This past Sunday morning, we were instantly drawn to Professor Gates' guest essay in the New York Times.

We were attracted by the essay's headline—and by the nugget statement found in its second paragraph.

In fact, the essay was written by Professors Gates and Curran. It was drawn from a book the two scholars are about to publish.

We were instantly drawn to their essay in last Sunday's Times—and by their nugget statement. Headline included, their essay started like this:

We Need a New Language for Talking About Race

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.”

Given our country’s history of scientific racism—and all of the horrible crimes and abuses that African Americans have been subjected to in the name of science—the fact that race is a social invention and not a biological reality cannot be repeated too much. However, while race is socially constructed, genetic mutations—biological records of ancestry—are not, and the distinction is a crucial one.

We were instantly drawn to this essay. In our view, our struggling nation badly needs "a new language for talking about race." More specifically, it seems to us that we badly need a new language built around this claim:

The fact that race is a social invention and not a biological reality cannot be repeated too much. 

Race is "a social invention"—"a social construction." Race is not a biological reality. So Professor Gates was saying—and Professor Curran was saying it too!

Briefly, can we talk? Everyone has heard such statements about a million times. 

The student to whom the essay refers described race as "a social construction." Everyone has heard such statements, but to what extent do we agree on what such statements mean? To what extent can we explain what such statements mean?

We'll guess that interpretations will differ! In part, we base that on a conversation Don Lemon recently hosted on this very topic—a conversation we will review before these reports are done.

That said, let's return to the present:

In search of their (badly-needed) new language, the professors quickly stressed the idea that race "is a social invention." Indeed, they described this claim as a fact. They said we can't repeat this fact often enough.

But what exactly did they mean by this statement? By the time we finished their essay, we didn't really feel that we knew. Nor were we sure that we understood the nature of the new language—the new language for talking about race—the professors say we need.

We thought this essay would have been better had it been dumbed way down—had its basic concepts and claims been made a great deal more accessible. Let's review a complaint we lodged on Tuesday, then move to a second complaint.

In paragraph two—you can see its text above—the professors say that race "is socially constructed." Race is socially constructed, but "biological records of ancestry" aren't. 

In context, the meaning of that second statement is clear. As people widely know at this point, scientists can now track an individual's ancestry in basic, clearcut ways.

The average African American, the professors say in their opening paragraph, "is about 24 percent European and less than 1 percent Native American." Thanks in large part to Professor Gates' popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots, we'll guess that many people understand, in general terms, what such a statement means:

As viewers of Finding Your Roots will know, the (many) ancestors of any individual person may have hailed from different parts of the globe. DNA testing now allows us to see where some person's ancestors lived—and these are scientific facts. There's no "invention" about it.

DNA testing is basic science, but race is "a social invention." The first of those statements is widely understood. But at this early point in their essay, the professors still haven't tried to explain what they mean by their second statement

Do they ever explain what they mean by that second statement, which they describe as a fact? They say we can't repeat it enough, but do they clearly explain what the statement means? Do they ever explain why it matters so much?

We think we may know where the professors are headed, and we think the distinction they're drawing is extremely important. For that reason, we were frustrated by their failure to explain this important point—by their failure to dumb their erudition down to a more useful level.

In fairness, these professors know a lot of things. Indeed, it may be they know too many. As an example of the confusion which may get created by their failure to dumb their copy down, please consider this passage, from later in their essay:

Fast-forward to our era, when new advancements in technology are once again changing the way we think about human origins. With the recent rise in availability of tools for individual genetic analysis, tens of millions of people have eagerly had their DNA tested—hoping, among other things, to find out where their ancestors hail from.

Commercial DNA tests vary widely, and some trace DNA to more than 2,000 regions worldwide. These companies use autosomal (referring to the chromosomes in our genomes that are not our sex chromosomes) analysis to measure shared mutations—known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs—that we have inherited from our ancestors, helping to reveal where they were living over the past few hundred years.

The specificity with which this new technology is able to determine individual origins is staggering. For example, one of us, Henry Louis Gates Jr., knows, purely through his DNA, that he is descended from an Irish American man who fathered his great-great-grandmother’s oldest son, because Dr. Gates’s y-DNA signature is one that he shares with a ton of men in Ireland. CeCe Moore, a well-known genetic genealogist, has identified that forebear’s name and biographical details, long a mystery in the Gates family, by analyzing the family trees of all of the people with whom Dr. Gates shares DNA in publicly available databases. On his mother’s line, he is descended from a white woman, most likely from England, who had a child with a man of sub-Saharan African descent at some point during the time of slavery, though their identities have been lost.

It would be an understatement to say that he was astonished to learn that his recent ancestral mutations trace back equally to sub-Saharan Africa and to Europe. As a friend of his joked: Who could have guessed that a Black scholar who has spent so much of his professional life searching for his long-veiled African ancestry would finally find it—only to discover that he’s half a white man. That friend’s joke allowed him to make a point: There is no category for white in genetic analysis; half of his ancestry traces back to regions in Europe. We should never forget that whiteness, like Blackness, is just another social fiction.

There can be few more powerful demonstrations that race is a social construction than his own DNA results...

By the end of that passage, we seem to have learned that Professor Gates' ancestry is half sub-Saharan African and also half European.  

(We don't know why a person of Gates' erudition would be "astonished" to learn this. Also, especially as part of an essay which claims that "whiteness is just another social fiction," we could have done without the joke in which this is said to mean that Professor Gates is "half a white man." That said, these are matters of taste.)

Professor Fates' ancestry traces back to Europe and to Africa is equal measures. We're told that this fact constitutes "a powerful demonstrations that race is a social construction." 

Presumably, we could all stumble toward an explanation of what that statement means. We could also stumble toward an explanation of what this statement means:

We should never forget that whiteness, like Blackness, is just another social fiction.

We could stumble toward that explanation, but the professors don't really provide it. Meanwhile, for people who are inclined to believe that "race" is a powerful marker of important differences between us American citizens, the statement that whiteness is a social fiction won't dissipate the belief that powerful differences lurk behind that construct.

What exactly are the professors saying in this passage? What's the actual nature of their statement, and why is it so imp[ortant?

We don't think they ever answer those questions, but we'll tell you this:

Is there such a thing as "too much information?" Sometimes, yes there is—and we think there's way too much information lurking in this erudite essay at various points. 

Tomorrow, we'll try to dumb it down a bit—and we'll ask if the professors are moving us back toward older ideas as they seek their (very important) new language. They're discussing a very important topic. For that reason, we think their very important ideas should be made perfectly clear.

We admire Professor Gates for the breadth of his obvious decency in matters of this type. Our view concerning this essay?

If the Times had dumbed this guest essay down, the piece might have done more good.

Tomorrow: Don Lemon asks


  1. "But what exactly did they mean by this statement?"

    What they mean, dear Bob, is that race-mongering is their business. This is how they make money, servicing the globalist elite, the sponsors of your liberal tribe.

    And, whatever 'race' is or isn't, they are planning to continue race-mongering, because this is how they make money and it's the only way they know how to make money.

    So, dear Bob, our question to you is: why not simply ignore their beaindead drivel?

  2. We read that race is "social fiction" and later "social invention." The meaning intended must be the less common usage of: "something fabricated or made up."

    Yeah I really don't understand that outlook. I guess it is intended as a way to move past racial issues and gain equality for all. So it's a bit of a fabrication itself which is ironic.

    Should we really be using this sort of sleight of hand to attempt to achieve a grand goal?

    1. I think the essay and the post are both aimed at first understanding what's really at issue in "racial issues." In my experience, even people who might understand or even agree that "race" is a term of convention, actually often use it as if it named a "natural kind." Gates and Curran are surely correct to say that the "social invention/biological reality" distinction should be hammered home. The post is aimed at helping to do that. I think it's a worthy effort.

    2. Somerby is not interested in the only racial issue that matters, which is oppression. Broadly-speaking race is a relatively recent concept, mostly invented by white American slavers. Black and white people are not actually different races. White people promote the notion that black people are a different race as a means to establish and maintain their privilege and dominance in American society.

      Somerby aims at weaponizing the fact that race is a social construct in order to persuade others that racism is not a significant issue. His goals line up well with his moral compass, which is clearly broken.

      People of color do worse in society in basically every way that matters, some view this as an issue inherent to people of color, they are different in some kind of fundamental and natural way; the rest of us understand that this circumstance exists due to racial oppression.

      DNA with reference to genealogy is not particularly scientific, and does not work the way Somerby thinks it does. It basically involves using statistics to narrow down a common geographical location, and only to a certain probability. These DNA testing companies are barely above snake oil salesmen.

    3. Thank you, this is a very clear statement of what is wrong with confusing genealogy testing with science and Somerby's attitude with support for anti-racism.

      I would add that just because something is a social construct, does mean it is not real to people. Kindship itself (who is the parent or child of whom) is also a social construct. In some cultures, the mother's brother is a child's father, not the biological man whose sperm contributed to making the child. Genealogical research would contradict the reality of that child growing up with a different man who acted as his father in all meaningful ways. In some cultures, the father is whoever the mother names on the birth certificate. These social constructions of genealogy have major consequences in the life of the children involved, that go far beyond DNA.

      All of human culture is "socially constructed" in the sense that it is not part of biology, nature or instinct. From language to tool-making to technology, but also from religion to literature and politics (ways of organizing government and running society). But all of this has huge consequences for people in societies across time and around the world. It would make no sense to ignore or set aside any of this, dismissing it as not real because it is socially constructed. Social construction does mean that such things can change, and they do change.

      When liberal and educated people talk about race being socially constructed, they mean that it is an idea about people that is used to assign social status. It means that social behavior can be changed because it is not fixed by nature or the physical world. It would be wrong to say that biology fixes such things, since evolution makes it clear that even biology changes with time and circumstances. Even rocks change. So a division into scientific and socially constructed concepts will not get racists off the hook and it won't rescue Somerby from having to talk about anti-racism efforts.

    4. Correction: "does NOT mean it is not real

    5. Many good points here; none that seem to me to be at odds with what is said in the blog post, or Gates' and Curran's column. The common language used to discuss race ignores the fact that it is socially constructed or invented; both parties want to change that. Surely that would be helpful.

    6. All language ignores the fact that most concepts are socially constructed. Again, being socially constructed does not make any aspect of culture unreal. Telling people that race is unreal is not going to get anyone anywhere. And it does a lot of harm when the right wing impedes social justice on the grounds that race is socially constructed and therefore not an urgent problem, which is exactly what it is doing.

    7. Not "unreal," just not what "they" think it is. Of course, telling anyone anything is bound to get you nowhere almost forever. Maybe we should all just stop!

  3. "Race" is socially constructed because the user of the term presumes that it has value in categorizing humans, but it doesn't. Unlike "species", which actually means something, race artificially divides the human species into groups that, the user of the term presumes, are fundamentally different from each other and therefore can be treated fundamentally differently. We don't need to find a different way to discuss race. We need to do away with the term and concept altogether. That should be easy.

    1. Easy (perhaps), but not wise. The "race" construction has been a powerful force in history and conditions the lives of people living now and our institutions. Culture is as real as nature, and race is a cultural fact. What's needed is to own it as our own work (not Nature's or God's) and clean up our mess.

    2. How do you tackle concepts such as racial pride or racial inequality without using the term race?

      I agree with the spirit of what you are saying David, but I think there is a strong dose of naiveté in this approach that will hinder its effectiveness.

    3. Correction... it is the "We need to do away with the term and concept altogether" approach I meant to describe as naive.

    4. 1:14 while race is a social construct, it currently does truly exist, due to racial oppression. Racial concepts can and do exist while racial oppression exists.

      Race is only a cultural fact because racism exists.

      Ethnicity is another cultural fact, it is different from race, and, unlike race, is not defined by oppression.

      This is nothing new, and pretty bone simple stuff; fair warning: all the hand wringing is a little suspicious.

    5. There has been and continues to be oppression dictated by ethnicity.

    6. Rationalist asks: "How do you tackle concepts such as racial pride or racial inequality without using the term race?"

      This is the point that several commenters have been making here, in response to Somerby's suggestion that we stop using the term race because it is socially constructed. One cannot address racism without talking about race. Liberals are not saying that race shouldn't be talked about. Somerby is saying that, and he is wrong about it.

      Substituting genealogy for race is not a good idea. For one thing, see the movie Gattaca, for a run-down on problems that may arise from assessing people via their DNA. For another, the so-called science behind genealogy tracing is not robust.

      Gates has staked his career on it, so he is promoting it and it is in his self-interest to do so. But there is a sense in which Gates seems to have been running from an identity as an African American, trying to distance himself from all that means in our culture using genealogy findings that call racial categories into question. It may make him feel better, but how does it help anyone else? Someone above noted that many people feel pride about their racial or ethnic identity. Would a reclassification help them or challenge the basis for their self-esteem? They would be right to ask "What is wrong with finding out your genealogy is most strongly related to Africa and not Europe? Gates changes nothing about racism when he is overjoyed at his European connections. Overvaluing some cultures while denigrating others is not an improvement over judging people by skin color. It is just more bigotry.

      White supremacists have already shifted from talking about skin color to talking about defending Northern European heritage and preserving the culture associated with it, including the purity of its women, who must be prevented from inter-breeding. Nothing about Gates' approach would challenge such views, in my opinion. Only the finding that most Northern Europeans have African heritage, but I don't think that is happening much.

    7. My comments were in support of Somerby's, and Gates' and Curran's, support for a truer and subtler language for talking about race.

    8. I think genealogy, DNA and ancestry are not a suitable alternate language for talking about race. Genealogy is not truer or subtler. It is bogus and adds confusion to discussions of DNA, which does not support the concept of race, nor does it offer different bases for categorization of people or identity. Somerby's argument that race should not be part of identity ignores that identity is important to our sense of self and that we will form an identity, even if race is not discussed in our culture. It would be preferable to form identity in different ways, but when racism confines certain people to certain statuses in our society, it will not be possible to avoid discussing race, because race is how racists classify people. Genealogy means nothing to people, especially if family is problematic to them. Suggesting that Gates, for example, should visit England to get a better sense of who he is, is ridiculous, just as the ancestry ads showing black people wearing Nigerian dress or white people wearing lederhosen are ridiculous. Our culture comes from where we grew up and where we live, not what our ancestors did.

      Somerby just wants everyone to get along, at the cost of equality and social justice. Harmony is great, but it cannot come without change in our society.

    9. I think it is important to address what "identity" is and is not. Identification with a group (the more the better!) is important (and good or bad depending on context) to the extent in the service of a noble end (including getting oppressors off one's neck!). But harmful to the extent it blinds one to connectedness with others of a different composition (people, dogs, trees, you name it). A "new language" would somehow onboard this. Genealogy, DNA, ancestry, etc. - these seem to be offered (rightly, I think) more as solvents to break down the notion of race as a biological fact (with cultural entailments, no doubt). Not as new identity-myths.

  4. A book on this subject I have read is "Superior: The Return of Race Science" by Angela Saini. She goes into detail about what is pseudo about the pseudoscience. One way she pokes holes in race categories is by proving people can't be assigned to different race ancestry based on where they live, since the dividing lines of these territories are arbitrary, a cousin of yours might be another race just for living across a body of water. She also shows the political motive of a lot of this shit research.

    I have never taken race to be a subject that I've learned about in the newspapers. I think it is just not likely to be covered as thoroughly in such a limited format. I also take Bob's point, with all due respect to the professors, writing academically and educational writing with a conversational tone are both skills but they are not interchangable. But I think given maybe a longer format like a magazine article they could get some more of the nuances fleshed out.

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