Humanism and Race

The humanist position on racial discrimination is clear: we are against it. That’s fine, but it’s too easy; everyone likely to read this essay will agree.

A further question, on which there is likely to be less agreement, is this: Do racial divisions exist within the human family as a biological fact, or is the whole idea of race among humans nothing more than a construct of the human mind, without any basis in the biological world? I shall argue that the humanist should accept race as a biological fact, and that many liberals are in a state of denial when they claim it isn’t. They came by this state of denial for good and honorable reasons, and for a while it served a useful purpose, that of opposing race discrimination in the most direct way they could think of. But that was half a century ago, and they should now take a new look at the facts in the light of all we have learned in the meantime.

The view that race is a human construct, not a biological reality, established itself as politically correct during and after the Second World War, as a reaction to the crimes of the Nazis, carried out against Jews, gypsies, and others that their persecutors identified in racial terms. And it was not only the Nazis who were committing ugly acts of racial discrimination. Our own blacks were still getting lynched and our whole country was going through a kind of crisis of conscience. From the liberal point of view, rooting out racism became a crusade, to be waged with any and all available weapons.

Under these circumstances it was perhaps inevitable that mainstream liberals, including many anthropologists and other academic authorities, decided to shoot the messenger, and root out any systematic study of race as well as racial discrimination. Scientists with established expertise on racial differences were ignored or worse, while a larger body of biologists, geneticists, and anthropologists assembled a hodgepodge of “evidence” to support their contention that the problem was all in the minds of the offending “racists.”

Throughout this period, advances in the biological sciences, particularly in medicine, provided increasingly compelling evidence that the human species is in fact a species like other species, with a tendency to evolve sub-specific variations within populations that live far apart and where, over the generations, there has been time to adapt to different environments. This reality continues to intrude on the fantasies of the politically correct. It is rather like the denials of the Bush administration about global warming, that are getting chipped away by an increasingly comprehensive body of scientific evidence.

Just the other day the Washington Post frontpaged a decision by the FDA to approve a drug “…to treat heart failure in African Americans.” The unanimous decision to approve the drug was followed by a majority vote to authorize labeling it as specifically intended for our black population. That labeling crossed the line of political correctness and instantly drew fire, with reactions like the following: “There is no scientific basis on which to claim race-specific efficacy…” “The effort to stereotype this drug as a race drug needs to be universally decried…” Those were ones the Post reported; presumably there were other angry reactions.

The drug had been laboriously tested. It appeared to offer no benefit to the general public but was extraordinarily effective among African Americans. This should come as no surprise, as the medical profession has long been aware of various physiological differences between American blacks and whites. One has the sense that the political establishment was less shocked by the fact that this particular racial difference existed, as by the fact that an official agency should publicly recognize its existence.

Now this is where humanists should step in and raise a warning signal. We do, after all, believe in the scientific method. We recognize that no answers are perfect in this imperfect world, but that answers arrived at through the laborious method of analysing and testing and cross-checking and testing again are more likely to work for us than answers obtained through some process of revelation or wishful thinking. This is just as important a core value of the humanist world view as the belief that all people are important and deserve a shot at the good things of life. What are we, anyway, if our perception of reality is based on revelation not science?

There is a quick and easy way out of this dilemma. We have only to refer to the following quote from Humanist Manifesto II:

“We deplore racial, religious, ethnic, or class antagonisms. Although we believe in cultural diversity and encourage racial and ethnic pride, we reject separations which promote alienation and set people and groups against each other; we envision an integrated community where people have a maximum opportunity for free and voluntary association.” (<http://www.jcn.com/manifestos.html>)

In other words, race exists, and when it is used as a way of whipping up antagonisms between groups it is bad. By implication, however, the simple fact that people are different, and part of the difference is racial, is not inherently bad. It is certainly not something to be swept under the rug if possible and generally deplored. It is an integral part of the diversity that makes our species so interesting.

CSC 6/26/05

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