Rachel Dolezal has said “I hope that that [discussion] can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”
In that spirit, what are the scientific facts about race and genetics?
I defer to the genetic scientists who have studied race in vast detail and who have genetic facts at their fingertips. Professor Joseph Graves, Jr. is one expert. Professor Richard Lewontin is another expert. I suggest reading their linked interviews for a full understanding. Failing that, a few extracts are presented. The bottom line is that race (or what is called race based on skin color) is not a biological factor among human beings that’s important, interesting or that matters from a biological standpoint.
First, I quote Lewontin:
“But when we found that there were practically no genetic differences between groups except skin color and body form and a few things like that, it became a great deal less likely and less interesting to talk about genetic differences between groups. And the consequence is that from the biological standpoint those major so-called races – black, brown, yellow, white, and red – were not biologically interesting.
“And that in turn meant that the differences that people were constantly emphasizing for social purposes were social constructs which almost certainly didn’t have any biological basis. And therefore we should stop talking about major races because to talk about major races gave the impression that there were big differences between these groups in things that mattered – I mean, skin color, after all, doesn’t matter except in some vague aesthetic sense – but things that really mattered: people’s characters, their intelligence, their behavior, whether they’re going to compete with other people or not and so on. The evidence then became that there weren’t any interesting differences in such things, and so we should stop talking about race.”
Second, I quote Graves:
“The average person on the street thinks that race consists of differences in physical appearance, in particular things like eye color, eye shape, skin tone, hair type, and aspects of body stature. They also think that from looking at a person’s physical appearance, in the way we just described, that they can find out or know more subtle thing about them such as their potential intelligence or their likeliness to be aggressive, to commit crime, predisposition towards disease.
“The conventional biologist has a similar, though much more rigorous definition of what they mean by race. Those biologists view race as a subdivision of the human species, that can be consistently defined either by a set of physical characteristics or differences in gene frequencies between those populations, so that the term race in a biologist’s sense usually refers to a subspecies level of division. And subspecies are actually groups on the way to forming new species.
“Now, what I’ve pointed out, and many others have pointed out for years, is that race is simply not a level of biological division that we find in anatomically modern humans. There are no subspecies in the human beings that live today. So when we use the term race in the biological sense, there’s no scientific support for such groups existing.”
Rachel Dolezal says “I identify as black”. This is not a statement about race in the biological sense, because race in the biological sense has “no scientific support”. She is saying that what she is is “black”, not biologically but in other ways, in those ways that are entailed by saying one is “black”. What are those ways? Different people have different answers and emphases. See, for example, these comments from a variety of Americans (dated 2012).
Those of us, and this includes people of all different shades and colors, who think that the common ideas of race distinguish one person from another biologically are mistaken. How one identifies oneself along various lines (in a skin color or racial sense), be they cultural, ethnic, ancestral, tribal, linguistic, religious and others, is not a biological matter. (Gender appears to be biological when masculinity and femininity are tied to one’s sex, as they usually are. However, if one’s identity as male or female or a mixture doesn’t accord with one’s sex, then gender is not biological. The matter of sex, gender and biology is rather new and not settled scientifically.)
It is possible for Rachel Dolezal truthfully to identify herself as black even though her skin color is white. The opposite is possible too, in a number of senses such as being black and segregated by color but being just as morally entitled to freedom as whites. I am reminded of the lyrics made famous by Louis Armstrong in the classic and beautiful song “Black and Blue“:
“I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
I’m so forlorn. Life’s just a thorn
My heart is torn. Why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?”