Thursday, August 16, 2012

Race and Ethnicity

I am reading a fascinating manuscript tracing the science and politics behind the concept of race. The typological approach to biology that gave us the notion of race was shown to be deeply flawed by genetics research that clearly demonstrated that if you pick any given heritable trait such as skin color, the genetic variability within the group is at least as great if not greater than genetic variability across groups so defined. The result in science (evolutionary biology and anthropology) was to move from a typological approach that created groups based on essential properties to a statistical approach in which you can talk about distributions of traits across populations, but you cannot reasonably speak of races as entities unto themselves. Anthropologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (aside from having one of the coolest names in the entire history of science) proposed that the term "race" be removed from scientific discourse and be replaced with ethic group or ethnicity. The notion of race, he argued, was contaminated with the sort of biological essentialism that would only feed racism and seem to provide it with a scientific foundation it does not have. Ethnicity implies belonging to a group that is defined in terms of culture and not genes and thus allows anthropologists to do what they do without the false biological connotations. Is there the distinction between race and ethnicity that Dobzhansky contends? Is there reason to keep the term race around? Does it have the effect of necessarily bringing racist categories to the conversation intentionally or unintentionally?