Is Colin Powell “Black”?
Neocalvinism — By Joe Carter on October 18, 2004 at 2:31 am
A Christian View of Race and Identity (Part I)
— George Moore, The Bending of the Bough
Exploring the concepts of race and identity is admittedly a foolhardy task. Attempting to examine these issues from a Christian perspective makes it not only foolish but presumptuous as well. But beginning a Christian evaluation of race and identity by extensively quoting the militant atheist Richard Dawkins shifts it from presumptuously foolish to downright absurd.
Absurd though it may be, I believe that Dawkins provides some valuable insights on the topic that can help illuminate the issue for Christians. My utter disdain for the British zoologist is no secret; I think he is ridiculously overrated as an intellectual. But his recent article on “Race and creation” for Prospect is insightful and, I believe, worth quoting in some detail:
We are all members of the same species, and no reputable biologist would say any different. But let me call your attention to an interesting, perhaps even slightly disturbing, fact. While we happily interbreed with each other, producing a continuous spectrum of inter-races, we are reluctant to give up our divisive racial language. Wouldn’t you expect that if all intermediates are on constant display, the urge to classify people as one or the other of two extremes would wither away, smothered by the absurdity of the attempt, which is continually manifested everywhere we look? But this is not what happens, and perhaps that very fact is revealing.
People who are universally agreed by all Americans to be “black” may draw less than one eighth of their ancestry from Africa, and often have a light skin colour well within the normal range for people universally agreed to be “white.”
Wouldn’t a Martian, unschooled in our conventions but able to see skin shades, be more likely to split them three against one? But in our culture, almost everybody will immediately “see” Colin Powell as “black,” even in this particular photograph which happens to show him with possibly lighter skin than both George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
What is going on here? Various things. First, we are curiously eager to embrace racial classification, even when talking about individuals whose mixed parentage seems to make a nonsense of it, and even where it is irrelevant to anything that matters. Second, we tend not to describe people as of mixed race. Instead, we plump for one race or the other. Some American citizens are of pure African descent and some are of pure European descent (leaving aside the fact that, in the longer term, we are all of African descent). Maybe it is convenient for some purposes to call these people black and white respectively, and I am not proposing any principled objection to these names. But many people – probably more than most of us realise – have both black and white ancestors. If we are going to use colour terminology, many of us are presumably somewhere in between. Yet society insists on calling us one or the other.
Third, in the particular case of “African-Americans,” there is something culturally equivalent to genetic dominance in our use of language. When Mendel crossed wrinkled peas with smooth peas, all the first generation progeny were smooth. Smooth is “dominant,” wrinkled is “recessive.” The first generation progeny all had one smooth allele and one wrinkled, yet the peas themselves were indistinguishable from peas with no wrinkled genes. When a white man marries a black woman, the progeny are intermediate in colour and in most other characteristics. This is unlike the situation with peas. But we all know what society will call such children: “black.” Blackness is not a true genetic dominant like smoothness in peas. But social perception of blackness behaves like a dominant. It is a cultural or memetic dominant. The anthropologist Lionel Tiger attributes this to a racist “contamination metaphor” within white culture. And no doubt there is also a strong and understandable desire on the part of the descendants of slaves to identify with their African roots.
Fourth, there is high interobserver agreement in our racial categorisations. A man such as Colin Powell, of mixed race and intermediate physical characteristics, is not described as white by some observers and black by others. A small minority will describe him as mixed. All others will without fail describe Powell as black – and the same goes for anybody who shows the slightest trace of African ancestry, even if their percentage of European ancestors is overwhelming. Nobody describes Colin Powell as white.
Whatever we may think as observers of superficial appearances, the human species today is, to a geneticist, especially uniform. Taking such genetic variation as the human population does possess, we can measure the fraction that is associated with the regional groupings that we call races. And it turns out to be a small percentage of the total: between 6 and 15 per cent, depending on how you measure it – much smaller than in many other species where races have been distinguished. Geneticists conclude, therefore, that race is not a very important aspect of a person. There are other ways to say this. If all humans were wiped out except for one local race, the great majority of the genetic variation in the human species would be preserved. This is not obvious and may be surprising to some people. If racial statements were as informative as most Victorians used to think, for example, you would need to preserve a spread of all the different races in order to preserve most of the variation in the human species. Yet this is not the case.
As Dawkins’ later points out, racial labels can tell us something informative about a person but the “information” that can be conveyed by racial characteristics is normally trivial and tells us nothing significant about their abilities or personality. This is not to say that genetic differences between the races do not exist. But the question the Christian must ask is what purpose these differences serve in God’s creation.
Almost all physical differences between the races are the result of adaptation to environment. Non-circular nostrils, for example, help to warm the incoming air in cold Northern climates while dark skin is an effective sunscreen against ultra-violet rays in the Southern Hemisphere. Such traits would increase the likelihood of survival within geographic populations, causing the genetic characteristics to be passed on from one generation to another until entire groups would share similar physical features.
As populations became less static and inter-breeding outside of the geographic group became more frequent, these features become less dominant. While they still exist in many forms, they became less necessary to ensure our existence. Technological advances, for instance, can offset much of the role that biology played in our fight for survival.
While this shift from the biological to the cultural has been occurring for millennia, we are, as Dawkins points out, “curiously eager to embrace racial classification.” In fact, we often attribute characteristics to race that belong in the realm of cultural differences. Recognizing when this occurs is particularly important because as we move from the biological to the cultural we are moving away from God’s creation to that which is created by man.
In the next part of this series, we�ll explore in more detail why we should be more willing to let go of racial classification in favor of recognizing distinctions based on culture.
(Photo credit: BBC News)