The plague of racism has, in many ways, been increasing in the last few years. Whether one looks at Hungary, Germany, Myanmar, India or Brazil, racists are becoming more visible and getting elected to public office.
Then there were the horrors of the slaughters in New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
In the United States, the president has denounced Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, described some poor nations as, “shithole countries,” and failed to reject an endorsement from a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He even went so far as to call at least some neo-Nazis, “very fine people.” One might be forgiven for thinking that what his campaign slogan really meant was “Make America White Again.”
Hate crimes in the U.S. rose in 2017 for the third consecutive year, and they are increasing in Canada too—up 47 percent in the latter in 2017, primarily targeting Muslims but also attacking Jews and people of color.
In combating this increase in racism, there are two primary aspects to consider. The first is that the very idea of “race” is a lie: as the American Society of Human Genetics, the largest professional organization of scientists in the field, explained in an essay:
“The science of genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories”; and it “challenges the traditional concept of different races of humans as biologically separate and distinct. This is validated by many decades of research.” In other words, “race itself is a social construct,” with no biological basis.
In 2014, more than 130 leading population geneticists condemned the idea that genetic differences account for the economic, political, social and behavioral diversity around the world. In fact, said a 2018 article in Scientific American, there is a “broad scientific consensus that when it comes to genes there is just as much diversity within racial and ethnic groups as there is across them.” And the Human Genome Project has confirmed that the genomes found around the globe are 99.9 percent identical in every person. Hence, the very idea of different “races” is nonsense.
A second problem, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff has shown, is that simply using the word “race,” even when criticizing racism, actually reinforces the false belief that human beings belong to fundamentally different groups. That’s because the more a word is used, the more that certain brain circuits are activated and the stronger that metaphor becomes.
The use of colors to describe ethnic groups also supports racism. That’s why it is not acceptable anymore to refer to Asians as “yellow,” to Latin Americans as “brown,” or to Native Americans as “red.” However, many people, including academics and journalists, still use “black” to describe people of primarily recent African origin.
Of course, there are minor differences between various ethnic groups: behavioral, physical, linguistic and so on, and most of those differences are due to one’s culture and experiences. As Einstein observed, “the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment” that people experience during development, by the structure of the society in which they grow up, “by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior.”
In fact, the idea that all of humanity can be divided into four or five (or however many) racial groups is relatively new. Ancient Greeks, for example, never thought of themselves as “white.” As Tim Whitmarsh noted in Aeon in 2018, “Greeks simply didn’t think of the world as starkly divided along racial lines into black and white: that’s a strange aberration of the modern, Western world, a product of many different historical forces, but in particular the transatlantic slave trade and the cruder aspects of 19th-century racial theory.”
The truth is that Greek legends portray themselves and their heroes as multiethnic in origin. The Egyptian Danaus became king of Argos, and his daughter, Hypermestra, was an ancestor of the greatest of all Greek heroes, Herakles (Hercules). Perseus, who slew the Gorgon Medusa, married an Ethiopian woman, Andromeda, and their children established the most powerful of all the Bronze Age Greek kingdoms, Mycenae.
Another example of this nonracial perspective is found in the Histories of Herodotus, who, in the 5th century B.C., wrote that the purpose of his book was to, “preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks” [emphasis added]. The so-called Father of History” also said that Ethiopians “are reputed to be the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples.”
This portrait of Africans is not unique. Historian Peter Farb notes in his 1978 book Humankind that “Greek art, literature, and mythology often portrayed dark-skinned people with respect.” And then there are the remains found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in southwest England of the individual known as “Cheddar Man.” DNA from his skeleton, dated to around 7,100 B.C., suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly hair and “dark to black” skin pigmentation. Cheddar Man shares a genetic profile with several other individuals found in Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg.
Cheddar Man’s forebears likely originated in the Middle East. Later, the ancestors of the people who built Stonehenge traveled west across the Mediterranean from Asia Minor, bringing farming with them and reaching Britain about 4,000 B.C.
The truth is that we are all one human family that had its origins in Africa. Amazingly, research by statistician Joseph Chang at Yale found that the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today lived just 3,600 years ago. In other words, if you could trace your ancestry back less than 150 generations, you would find at least one person who is the father or mother of us all. And the further back in time one looks, the more common ancestors we would find. Chang concludes:
“Our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”
The burden of proof lies, therefore, with those who cling to the notion that there are such things as “races.” They would have to first provide a scientific definition, based on significant differences in human genomes, of what “race” means; and second, clearly demonstrate that there are enough of these differences between different ethnic groups to justify dividing people into separate “races.” This is an impossible task.
In the final analysis, it is our experiences and our culture, not our DNA, that account for most of our differences.
So, while ethnicity is real, and there are indeed minor differences between ethnic groups, there is no such thing as “race”—only racism. And the consequences of racism—from the slave trade to the European genocide of First Nations in the “New World” to Nazi Germany to today’s refugees—are horrific.
Even Ronald Reagan understood that, “if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet,” the consequence would be this: “We'd forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together.”
We are facing real existential threats, and we shouldn’t wait for an alien invasion before we focus less on our minor differences and more on what we all have in common.