Is There Value to the Concept of Race?

There is a character (Taylor) in the Showtime TV series Billions who wishes to be referred to by others with the pronoun “they”. This person is brilliant and successful, and they do not wish to be painted into a particular gender box. And thus the focus on pronouns.

I like and respect the character in the show (at least for the first two seasons), but I found their wishing to use the term “they” to be kind of silly. As someone who grew up in the 80s, for me the pronoun “they” indicates “more than one”, so to refer to a singular person with “they” seems incorrect and awkward. I’ve heard that this grammar rule loosened for the generation after me, but I still find the choice very curious, as it creates a paradox of values.

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Taylor in Billions

The reason to want to get rid of “he/she”, presumably, is to communicate that sex/gender is neither valuable nor pertinent information when talking about someone’s identity. Yet, in replacing he/she with they, this focus suggests that the person asking for the switch believes that having a penis or vagina really is more significant — and in need of being hidden — than whether or not the entity being referred to is one person or several. And, for me, individuality is a much more relevant and important characteristic than sex or gender.

Anyway, these were my thoughts as I watched season 2 of Billions, and it was only later that I spent any serious time on Twitter and found that the subject of gender pronouns was big news.

To be clear, I am totally sympathetic to the issue that gives rise to this focus: women want to be seen as individuals and judged by their own merits and skills before any preconceived calculation is made based on sex. And, presumably, the same would be true for (strong and honest) men. The continued need to fight for this issue is well illustrated by the 2000 study Goldin and Rouse, which showed that female musicians were more likely to be hired by professional orchestras when they used blind auditions. That is, judges heard the musical performance, but could not see the person doing the playing. Assuming that most people doing the hiring were not consciously being sexist, this is a sad and startling result.

That being said, I think in most everyday activities recognizing that sex/gender does not determine all of an individual’s choices/skills/behaviors is enough to overcome the problem. If you’re a woman who likes boxing and I’m a man who cares nothing for watching and talking about sports (I am), I don’t think we need to get rid of our gender pronouns to feel good about ourselves.

Anyway, that’s me.

But then this topic got me thinking: while I see a lot of people protesting against the use of gender pronouns, as it unfairly paints them into a gender-bias box, why am I not seeing a similar protest against race identity?

First a disclaimer: I’m a white guy. Hopefully more pertinent to the topic: I’m neither a sociologist nor a biologist. But I am an American who lives in a society where the topics of race and equality and justice are important, and I do my best to think about them and form relevant and fruitful opinions. And to me, a philosophy that wishes to tear down gender identity but reinforce racial identity seems to be in conflict with itself.

There are various definitions and understandings of this term. I think the average person, if pressed to give an answer, would respond similarly to Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I know it when I see it.”

I don’t think this is a fruitful way to determine pornography, and I don’t think it’s a fruitful way to approach race.

Here’s my understanding: In part, “race” is a set of shared genetic markers that cause similar physical attributes to manifest in a set of related individuals. Of course, the same could be applied to the recognition of various ethnicities, and it can even be applied family-to-family. Thus, with practiced eye, one can recognize an Englishman in comparison to an Italian; and one can recognize a Smith in comparison to a Jones. (Though it’s important to understand that all human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup. (National Human Genome Research Institute) This means that whatever physical differences between you and your sister, you and your neighbor, and you and some guy from the next continent, they are all contained within that .1% of difference.)

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However, along with this biological factor must come a cultural component whereby we actively sort and classify certain physical characteristics apart from others. Thus race is the result of both real differences in genes as well as a choice to set socially constructed boundaries.

This latter point only made real sense to me after a conversation I had with my then-girlfriend’s cousin. Their family is from Eritrea — a country in East Africa. Somehow the topic of racism came up, and he claimed that racism in Africa was much more prevalent there than in America. (This was pre-Trump.) Hard to believe, perhaps, and I can’t attest to which continent’s racism is worse. But he explained that within Africa there are five or more recognized races — and they all have their proponents of superiority and inferiority. The average American, I’m sure, would consider someone of Nigerian descent the same race as someone of Ethiopian descent. While I was previously in the same boat, now having met my wife and my eye a bit more practiced, I can recognize a distinct physical difference between people from West and East Africa.

Americans love to point out where their ancestors came from. I never really understood it. I mean, sure, it can be fun to imagine what conditions your great great grandfather lived under; but it’s also interesting to imagine what your neighbor’s great great grandfather was doing at the same time, and just as relevant to who you are as an individual in this moment (which is to say, not at all).

What I mean is, people would talk about being Irish or Italian, when in fact they were Americans with ancestors from Ireland and Italy. And I guess for families that married strictly within cultural traditions, where their ancestors came from did have an impact on their home life. In my family, my grandmother got a little sparkle in her eye when she thought about the St. Patty’s Day parade, but for the most part our ancestral heritage wasn’t a big thing. Even so, the opposite was not encouraged either: a conscious effort to think of oneself as an American, rather than some percentile breakdown of ethnic ancestors. So it’s hard to say why as early as elementary school I was correcting people and telling them that they were Americans rather than some separate ethnicity. I guess I just have a contrarian nature.

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Thomas Nast cartoon depicting violent Irish mobs attacking police officers. (Credit: The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

This “pride” in ancestry had its dark side. Irish, Germans, Italians, Polish — these groups were all viewed as outsiders when they first came to the American shores. They were discriminated against, mistreated and maligned in various degrees. To some extent, the physical characteristics that set these groups apart were outweighed by their cultural characteristics — language, religion, and custom. And so it was relatively easy for later generations of these groups to melt into the American milieu. Also, hard as some of these groups had it, none had a history as harsh and debasing as the experience of the African slave.

That being said, the success of these groups merging with the American identity was in their descendants’ choice — and society’s permission — to recognize and highlight the similarities between themselves and other groups, rather than focus on the differences. While my grandmother said there were reservations in her day about Irish and Italians getting together, it is the marriage and mixing of these groups that united them as Americans.

Did the English refer to the people of Ireland as “the Irish race”? Probably. As noted above, the term “race” has never had any well-defined meaning. The Irish, when contrasted to the English, would still have certain specific genetic markers that would manifest themselves within individuals, and these physical manifestations could be focused upon to highlight a difference between groups. (Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a good indication for this, even if it is satire.)

It has happened everywhere throughout history: whether the English and their treatment of the varied people of their colonial empire; the treatment of African slaves in America; the Japanese and their treatment of the Chinese and Koreans during WWII; and even today within the tribal discord of Ethiopia.

Racism is tribalism on steroids, and tribalism is part of the human condition.

I’m generally not a fan of tribalism, but one does have to recognize that it has its positive effects. As individuals, we all have our own desires and aspirations, and there is a lot we can accomplish on our own. But often, the greatest and most complex desires require the cooperation of a group. Tribalism not only instigates negative feelings and behaviors toward outsiders, but it also fosters positive feelings for those within the perceived group. It allows for cooperation on projects with a grand scale, and it even promotes competition between groups, which can lead to greater results than one person or group working alone.

Of course, tribalism has a significant dark side. Whether it’s warring political tribes online who are unable to listen to ideas from the other side of the political spectrum, to wars between nations, tribalism has been as destructive as it has been beneficial.

Racism is a kind of biological essentialism projected onto another group. It is an unshakable aspect of “otherness” that one is born with and dies with, and it can only exist in communities that recognize and focus on different races.

Some reading this may have connected what I’m saying here about race to what I said above about sex and gender. Half of you might be saying: you see, this is the whole point of using “they” instead of he/she — we choose not to recognize sex so as to avoid sexism. The other half might be saying: you saw above that it is silly and impossible to avoid recognizing the differences between sexes, so how could it be any more sensible to not recognize the difference between races?

I’d say both halves of you are astute, but you are ultimately missing some differences between the concepts.

Sex is binary with porous boundaries. Yes, there are eunuchs and intersex folks; yes there are people with vaginas but no working uterus, and people with penises but no testicles. Yes, there are people with all the working gonads, but who still call themselves something else. These are all real and important people deserving of respect and consideration. But they make up a very small percentage of the population when compared to the majority of men and women.

Race, on the other hand, is multifarious (and again, with very porous boundaries). While in this current place and time the authorities recognize five races, throughout history different peoples of different cultures have recognized and labeled hundreds, if not thousands of races. Race is much more a social construct than sex (though gender characteristics are a different debate).

Beyond that, there is a very valuable reason for recognizing sex: if nothing else, it’s how we make babies and produce a future. Race, on the other hand, has no such benefit that I can see.

In college, I took an anthropology course, and I can remember the teacher asking this very thing: does the recognition of race have any value? At the time, I replied that it did. Despite the unequivocal harm of racism and discrimination, it seemed ridiculous to blind oneself to an obvious characteristic like skin color. And while this characteristic should not lead to any other prejudgments, it was perfectly fine and practical to refer to someone across the room as the black guy or the white guy over there.

As you can see from my writing above, my thoughts have evolved since then. And they continue to evolve.

While it is silly to avoid pointing out an obvious physical characteristic — dark skin — it is not obvious that having such a characteristic should relegate an individual to a group concept like race, any more than red hair or left-handedness.

Of course, people’s focus upon race is not always about separation and otherness. It can — as with any manifestation of tribalism — be about community and security. From colonial days, to the 1960s Civil Rights movement, to be black in America was to be inferior. Most white folks believed this, and I’m sure a lot of black folks believed it as well — if not intrinsically, then practically. Society, in other words, was telling the black community that they should not feel any pride, precisely because of their racial identity.

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Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, fighting for civil rights and union rights in 1968

Therefore protests and marches with signs like “Black Pride” made sense to overcome that notion. It was less about feeling some active pride for one’s unchosen physical characteristic, and more about refusing to feel shame for an unchosen physical characteristic. In other words, one can see the value of group unity in a set of people who are being attacked by another set of people because they determine them to be that specific group. It is in that set of people’s interest to band together as a group and fight back. That, I think, is the reasoning behind traditional racial minorities focusing on their racial identity.

That being said, a person of African descent in the 60s marching with that sign, and a person of European descent in the 21st-century marching with a sign that reads “White Pride” have two very different contexts. It is the difference between refusing to feel shame foisted upon you from outside, and the desire to feel a sense of accomplishment for something over which you had no control. Granted, there’s a fine line between those feelings (and it may not be restricted to racists, since one gets a glimpse of the absurdity when hearing sports fans talk about how “we” won the game last night, etc.)

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Florida Gators Tribe

Because of this fine line, however, there may be a point when the focus on race is problematic for everyone involved. Because we are prone to tribalism, splintering into inherent, governmentally sanctioned racial groups can potentially lead to conflict rather than harmony. In a society where racism is not the norm — where the majority publicly and privately rejects racism — a focus on racial identity is likely to instigate more racism rather than snuff out its remnants.

I was lucky to be raised by two parents who were consciously and vocally against racism (though some of my extended family did dabble). I’ve also long valued individualism over any group identity, so race rarely played a role in my life. Sure, if I had to fill out a government form, I’d check off “white” without much thought, but otherwise, my race had no conscious impact on what defined “Jave Galt-Miller”. Some may recognize this as “white privilege”, and in part I’m sure that’s true. But I’m not sure why this experience is viewed as some kind of negative thing. Rather than have it be restricted to one group of people, wouldn’t we want all individuals to define themselves above and beyond anyone’s conception of race? Rather than seen as a privilege, shouldn’t it be seen as an aspirational human right?

Granted, this question became personal to me only recently when my son was born. In truth, it was later, when he entered school and I had to start filling out a bunch of government forms. His mother is an actual African American (born in Africa, but became a US citizen), and I’m a guy with European ancestry. So what race is he? Shouldn’t really matter, but I keep getting little slips of paper that ask me to come up with an answer. And it’s really kind of weird.

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If race is how I defined it above — a set of genetic markers common amongst a related group of people — then presumably he would be considered just as white as he is black. Though, with the socially constructed slicing mentioned, what side of the coin this ultimately comes down on will be a result of how others perceive him. Of course, in the ultra-racist antebellum American South, he would be judged “black” by the one-drop rule. Yet in modern liberal Southern California, this still seems to hold true, and with almost as much moral righteousness as the slave-owning Southerners would have felt.

Now, look, people are going to self-sort however they like. But my main question is, “why is this a relevant piece of information to track for a school kid?” Maybe the box I check on the form really won’t have any effect on my son’s educational experience. It probably won’t. But I do wonder if a lifetime of checking such boxes has an effect. I wonder if it starts to rob a person of an identity driven by his or her own efforts and actions, and replaces it with an identity driven by membership in unchosen groups.

I don’t expect America to become a raceless society any time soon. While a lot of progress has been made in just a few decades, unfair bias and discrimination rooted in race are still problems that need to be overcome. However, it seems strange that the solution to these problems would be to highlight and thicken boundaries between racial groups. What is needed is a perspective that looks for similarities rather than differences. What is needed is a perspective that embraces all groups in America as Americans first.

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I’m not demanding that we yank the concept of race out of our vocabulary — not yet. But I am somewhat perplexed that more people aren’t making the suggestion, and I wanted to explore the question of why with this essay. I look forward to thoughtful responses in the comments section.

TV Producer and Comics Writer. Read the first 20 pages of my “Trial of Socrates” graphic novel here:

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