THURSDAY, MARCH 10, 2022
...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