GATES ON RACE: The professors tried to explain their idea!


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.

Just consider:

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?


  1. "What exactly is race?"

    If we may suggest an answer, dear Bob: it's a bullshit mantra the shamans of your tribe chant to distract your braindead liberal comrades -- so that your tribal chiefs can get into their pockets.

    Does it sound about right, dear Bob?

    1. Are you paid a fee to oversee the blog, making sure Bob never strays too far into looking at the right wing of our political media, and then reporting back to your patron?

  2. The so-called human race is a social construct too. So what?

    Why is it so difficult for Somerby to grasp that our society and the people in it should not privilege or disadvantage people based on their skin color? That this was done to justify slavery and continues to justify continuing privilege of people with white skin in our society (but not others).

    Because white people have benefited from such a system for many generations, it is now their obligation to help dismantle it. There are many who are resistant to that idea, including Somerby.

    This is very simple. The failure to "understand" exhibited by Somerby suggests a motivated confusion, a lack of good will, a lack of sincerity about changing how color is used to justify mistreatment of people with darker skin tones, ongoing in our society. And it isn't just a matter of changing attitudes but of rooting out the systemic discrimination inherent in the government and practices of organizations throughout our culture. These are constructed too and need to be deconstructed and changed in order to achieve fairness and provide access to all people regardless of the accident of their skin color.

    This isn't rocket science, so why does Somerby pretend that the professors don't know what they are talking about and that liberals are as confused as Somerby himself is?

    1. These posts are all about the need to make explicit what it means that race is socially constructed, and not biologically determined, so that people who don't already understand this might come to see race differently.

      Somerby is saying that "the professors" don't do this (they don't), not that they "don't know what they are talking about" (they surely do). It's that not enough people are being put in a position to know what they are talking about.

      For example, to someone who believes that race is biological, it would prove nothing that Gates has ancestors in Europe, other than that he is of mixed "race."

    2. Guess what? “Scholars of CRT view race as a social construct with no biological basis.” (It’s in Wikipedia.)

      Guess those “professors” maybe DO do this, David Stein.

      Not that you would know that from reading Somerby, who never devoted any time to a serious or fair-minded analysis of “CRT.” He just asserted that right wingers might have a point. About what, it was never clear.

    3. Sorry: "don't" (i.e. don't make explicit, explain, make clear, etc,) is a comment only on this specific item of discourse. And "the professors" means only Gates and Curran, not all "Scholars of CRT." Replying to a comment on a blog, not writing a book. Apologies.

    4. Somerby nearly always generalizes his comments about specific people to others, so when he talks about professors Gates and Curran, he IS talking about other professors too.

    5. I don't really think so, at least not in this case. He seems to be lamenting, and I join him in this, that so capable a team in so prominent a forum whiffed on the high hanging curveball: to say what it means that race is social invention, not biological fact, and how that might or should change some readers' view of (or feelings about) the matter. That said, to the extent he might be generalizing, it would not be about stating that this is the case, but about saying what it means, what difference it makes, and spelling out its ramifications for the general public.

  3. "There's only one race—the human race. There are no other "races."

    When I hear Trump speak and witness the behavior of his supporters, people like MTG and Boebert and Cawthorn, I wonder whether this statement can be true. They act like they are inhuman and do not share characteristics with any human race on this planet.

    And Somerby himself refers to The Others. Can he possibly mean that these others are part of the same race? It is hard to see them as similar in any way, especially when they aim their destructive actions against people who should be part of their own kind.

    This bill that would require women to die of ectopic pregnancy (a failure of a zygote to implant within the womb), condemning them to a painful and often fatal outcome in which no child survives, by withholding medication that would save them, because it is God's will that women should die of painful complications -- this is inhuman. How could anyone who is part of the human race possibly contemplate such legislation? I don't know and Somerby doesn't explain.

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

    TDH: We're inclined to agree with that statement—but what does that statement mean?

    Better questions:

    What use is that statement?
    How does it help us?
    If we keep using that statement will racists stop hating?

    1. I agree that these are important questions. But the statement can't be of any use unless it's understood. Many if not most people I know take it as common sense that races are biological facts. And this makes it all too easy for largely decent people to accept racial stereotypes, and fail to credit claims of systemic racism. I share Somerby's frustration at the (rather shocking) inability to explain the statement in simple language. It can indeed be repeated too much, unless people can understand it.

    2. Other social inventions:

      number systems
      alphabets and other aspects of language
      cooking, recipes and food preparation
      medicine, technology, tools, machines, bowls/baskets
      drama, play acting, oral recitation, genealogy
      clothing, furniture, bedding
      domesticated animals, agriculture, modified seeds and plants, pets
      cosmetics, jewelry, art, literature, music

      In short, everything people do these days, and all of it is real to people and doesn't seem invented, even though it all is.

      Calling race a social invention is no way to make our racial problems go away. We need to say that people deserve to be given equal opportunity and social justice and THAT is what we need to be defining and implementing, not what it means to be human or of this or that ethnicity, or related to this or that person (as if anyone cares other than the person involved).

      I personally don't care who hates who. I care a lot about what people do to each other. Hate whoever you want as much as you want, but the minute you interfere with them, that is out-of-bounds. And it should be that way for all aspects of our society, so that bigots don't deliberately slow walk someone DMV license application just because they are black, and so on at every turn. We can't change people's hearts but we can demand good behavior toward others. And that is what the fuss about racism is in our society -- it is the demand for better treatment of all people regardless of how you feel about them based on race, religion, national origin, gender, disability status, weight, age, etc etc etc.

      This idea that you can be mean to the people you hate is what needs to be changed, not the definition of race.

    3. No one believes calling race a social invention will "make our racial problems go away." Telling people to stop being mean isn't going to work either. But unmasking race as a malign fiction is a step in the right direction. It's also true.

  5. Gates and Curren say, "a surge of antisemitic, anti-Asian, Islamophobic and anti-Black racism threatens the social fabric." I disagree. A country that twice elected a black President and also a black VP is not experiencing a surge of anti-black racism. BTW many of the seeming racist incidents are fakes, like the just-convicted Jussie Smollett.

    The comment wrongly ignores anti-white racism. It exists among some blacks (arguably with some justification.) One way to see that anti white racism is worse than anti-black racism is that blacks attack whites more often then the reverse. You'd never know this from the mainstream media, but it's true.

    1. This factoid is technically true but it would be true of any dominant racial group who can both 1) crowd out other races enough to have a large number to divide by, and 2) any group that can outsource their protection from violence to the state.

      So it's misleading if you're trying to understand relative risk:

      "If you’re a white person in 2013, Nuzzo explained, your chances of being murdered by another white person are approximately 11 in a million, and your chances of being murdered by a black person are two in a million. Meanwhile, if you’re a black person in 2013, your chances of being murdered by another black person are 56 in a million, and your chances of being murdered by a white person are five in a million."

      The statistician adds "According to The Post, “Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate,” being “killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.”

      There's no mention of this data being a hoax, so using the JS claim would be trying to make a trend from one data point. In formal logic this is called a red herring.

    2. "...and anti-Black racism threatens the social fabric"

      This whole premise is bullshit.

      Thoughtcrimes don't threaten anyone or any "social fabric". Only the actual crimes do. Jussie Smollett's crime, for example. And actual crimes are dealt with by the actual justice system, not by race-mongering professors.

      Jussie Smollett will spend a few months in jail, and next time he, or someone else, will think twice before committing crimes. And this is how it's done; not be inventing any "new language".

    3. Nobody asked you Mr. Mumbling About Orange juice.

  6. Two corrections:

    Red herring is informal

    Reuters quoted the post, not the statistician

    As for the troll hiding behind a yellowface name above, I suggest he eats his word salad before putting new information on his plate.

  7. It explains nothing to say that race is a social construct. That is the equivalent of saying: What is race? It is a word.

    Race means something because our society built a social structure and hierarchy around skin color and named that race.

    But we have done the same thing around gender, which has a biological reality less superficial than skin color. We attribute social position, roles, status, hierarchy to gender way beyond anything to do with the actual biology involved. Somerby never talks about women being included in the Family of Man, even though women are demonstrably excluded from many aspects of social functioning ascribed to men only. Such as joining the golf club where the Master's Tournament is held or being the first black woman appointed to the supreme court.

    When Somerby is willing to make The Family of Man inclusive enough for women to join, I will consider him sincere in his remarks about race. Meanwhile, he continues to show bias in both racial and gender attitudes, in my opinion, and that makes him a hypocrite when he suggests that professors should tell everyone how to not see race because we are all one big family.

  8. The problem with Somerby on this topic stems from this remark:

    “our major press organs are creating a new religion built around the (largely imagined) intersections of "race" and crime and punishment.”

    (How and why do unarmed women get shot and killed by police?

    FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2020

    He isn’t even willing to acknowledge the problem exists. It’s “largely imagined.”

    His main interest seems, to me at least, to be to tell liberals to shut up about race, because it upsets “The Others”, whose votes we liberals supposedly should be getting.

    I don’t see a serious effort here to discuss race or “race”, and certainly not racism.

    I also find it unhelpful to assert that there is no such thing as “race” in the face of a real inequality based on ”race.” I don’t see how liberals are supposed to help black school kids (for which Somerby often chastises liberals for “throwing black kids under the bus”) or why he constantly points out racially-based test scores if no such thing as “race” exists.

    It is perfectly reasonable to feel that race is a social construct, but a great deal of the inequality we see has its roots in the idea of race and racial supremacy.

    And I believe Gates would not fully agree with the things Somerby blogs about this topic. Gates is, after all, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, so he finds some value in focusing on a specific group of people, represented by the word “black” in the US. He has said that, because blacks were systematically stripped of their family connections and their identity by whites, it is important to recover that specifically for black people before we can move on. In other words, black people need to discover the story of themselves, something they were prevented from doing in the past.

    1. Latinos are leaving the Democratic party in unprecedented numbers.

    2. "Plus, as of the 2020 election, data haven't shown a lot of change in Hispanic Americans' presidential voting behavior. The 2020 presidential exit polls indicated that Hispanic voters went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 ratio, 65% to 32%. That's very similar to 2016, when exit polls showed Hispanic voters picked Hillary Clinton over Trump by 65% to 29% (although some observers attached great meaning to the modest three-percentage-point gain in the GOP vote). But from a long-range perspective, there hasn't been much substantial change. The 2000 exit poll results, for example, indicated that Hispanic voters went for Al Gore over George W. Bush by 62% to 35%, slightly less Democratic than in the 2020 election."

  9. Longtime readers of TDH know Bob is simply hopeless on matters of race. He writes in bad faith, insisting that only clear examples of racism need to branded as such, and then laughs them off when they appear. In fairness, had Trump been properly dismissed for the birth certificate thing, we would not have sent our Country to hell, and Bob was pretty good on that fiasco.
    Would he have kept it up. Given our current situation posts like these are a distraction. Our global crisis demands utter seriousness and dispassionate attention, and Bob is behaving like a fool. The number one thing on his mind seems to be fair play for Trump, who he admits is a mental case.

    The situation demands clarity, and there are signs the average news consumer may be getting a little shortchanged. On "Realtime" this weekend one panelist argued that Putin's legitimate peace overtures are being ignored by the western press. That's quite a claim. It should be considered, contextualized, or rejected. But it shouldn't be ignored.
    The case that Fox News is basically working in tandem with Russian State Propaganda is chilling and convincing. Bob has nothing to say. Bob sold out the decent part of himself long ago. Bob needs a drink.
    Our own would be Czar needs to be sent to jail. Not with cheers, but with dispassionate speed and seriousness. Many who have shamefully tired to sit on the fence will pressed this summer as the case is presented to the Nation. It will be interesting to see which way some go. Bob has clearly made he choice. A sad and pathetic one. -Greg

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