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Race and the wilful ignorance of Margaret Wente


Truth, progress and science.

The relationship between these concepts is unwieldy and complex. As media scholars, we read Margaret Wente’s column heralding journalist Nicholas Wade’s new book and cringed, recognizing the ease with which these concepts were used to tell a misleading story about race.

Wente asked in her headline: “what if race is more than a social construction?” The answer in our eyes is not about race, but rather global racism and its remarkable persistence. The gnarled history of race and genes continues to resonate, even among those who naively believe that the worst of its racist history is behind us.

Yet journalists like Wade and Wente are committed to telling stories about race where a cast of stereotypes of the worst kind is rolled out, masquerading as insightful queries.

To those who missed the piece, Wente trotted out Wade’s pseudo-scientific claims about the existence of biological “races” that correspond roughly to popular notions of race based on skin colour or continental origin (white and black, for example, or European and African). Wade asserts that humans can be divided into distinct “races” and that genetic differences between these groups are responsible for essential differences in social characteristics, differences then enhanced through culture.  

The argument is not only a dangerous one but an erroneous one.

Scientific data — from population genetics to human biology and anthropology — have proven time and time again that race is a social invention, not a biological fact.

There is ample scholarship exploring how, why and where concepts of race and racial identity (like ‘caucasion‘) came into existence, and what little weight these categories hold as biological “races” with what we now know about genetic variation and human evolution. 

The damning scientific critiques of Wade’s ‘assertions’ are many, but it’s worthwhile to briefly outline some of them.

If one uses the common measure of genetic differentiation between populations used by zoologists to classify subspecies in other mammals, there is only one biological “race” of humans, and that is Homo sapiens sapiens

The popular assertion that continental races (European, African, Asian) exist, for example, falls apart when one looks at genetic variation within and across continental populations. Humans share nearly 100 per cent of our genes and 99.9 per cent of our variation, and it turns out that most of the variation in that 0.1 per cent is found in populations just in Africa.

As anthropologist Augustin Fuentes points out in his critique of Wade: “All the variation found in all population outside Africa makes up just a small subset of that variation.” In other words, if you compare geographically separated populations within the “continental” areas, you get the exact same kind of variation as you would between them.

As Fuentes damningly summarized: “Comparing 60 Nigerians, 60 Americans of European descent and 89 people from Beijing and Tokyo gives us the same kind of differences in patterns as does comparing people from Siberia, Tibet and Java, or from Finland, Wales and Yemen, or even from Somalia, Liberia and South Africa... Identifying a few genetic variants that are more common in some populations in some parts of some continents than they are in other populations in other parts of other continents does not even come close to any biologically valid or intellectually reasonable demonstration of race.”

One ought to be suspicious when proponents like Wade are unable to settle on a firm number of races that exist (Wade refers to 3, 5 and 7 at different times) or a standard definition that can delineate these groups from one another. 

This inconvenient scientific evidence aside, it’s no surprise that Wente gleefully bought into Wade’s argument. It is much more comforting to blame genes, instead of ongoing systemic racist economic and political oppression, to frame an understanding of global inequalities.

It is this wilful ignorance that we wish to address.

The naked biologism of Wade and his sub-interpreter Wente plainly shows how sturdy racism remains and how attractive it is to those committed to telling a particular story about truth and progress. Wade and Wente are part of that vaunted class of white, upper-class journalist: individuals who are neatly ensconced within elite institutions committed to telling a simple story about the history of the world, one where Europeans somehow generated the lives they now lead simply of their own accord.

It’s much easier to believe that message track to explain why unliveable conditions exist for some in the context of over-abundance for others.

To justify such a context without invoking pseudo-scientific truth claims would mean having to honestly account for why things came to be as they are. Euro-America would have to account for its historical and ongoing global misdeeds. Such an ethical accounting is not one that our post-modern robber baron times are yet ready for — certainly not in the pages of Canada’s national newspaper or the New York Times.

Wente and Wade are much more at ease laying the problem at the foot of the door of evolution, when in fact “evolution” occurred at the barrel of a gun. The theft of resources and free labour in the Americas was not about European environmental advantage, nor was it about Europeans receiving the best traits from their ancestors.

The evolution that we teach about in our own classes, informed by history and geography, is a brutal story of Euro-American violence, theft, African enslavement, free plantation labor and its ongoing effects. The history of all of it still matters for anyone who really wants to understand present global conditions.

And make no mistake: we have found that our students, many of whom are students of colour with complex diasporic histories informing their experience, are not as willing as Wente and Wade to be ignorant to much of what we already know about the last 500 years of global life. They’re hungry for a different story. And history and geography back them up.

Both Wente and Wade conveniently ignore how forced and enslaved black labour were fundamental to the conditions necessary for European and American economic and cultural development since Columbus sailed the oceans blue. They downplay how Europe forcefully installed its ideas of human life as the only legitimate ones, and ignore that the last 500 years has been characterized by a tyrannical run of Euro-American colonial practices the legacy of which lives on, often brutally, in contemporary geopolitics.

The myth that Europe’s historical industrialized, and therefore its “leadership” in, technology, democratic practices, cultural expression and economic advances as entirely self-generated is a heroic and sturdy canard. Our work explains that there could never have been European industrial revolution without the deadly theft of Aboriginal lands in the Americas and the forced labour of the black enslaved on those same lands. To suggest otherwise is to reside in the myth and fictitious history of European superiority.

We also effectively counter the pervasive mythology that Africa is underdeveloped and incapable of development. This mythology is bolstered by a world rife with anti-blackness. Walter Rodney in his still relevant How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) profoundly demonstrated how African enslavement and European colonization worked to weaken African institutions of all kinds. 

The invention of Europe and its superiority cannot be divorced from its “primitive” behaviour in the Americas and Africa. It is a story seldom told in the New York Times, or the Globe and Mail where readers are fed an impoverished meal of pseudo-intellectual engagements passing as information.

When we ask students to think about progress, we invite them to think about how it has been achieved. Progress for whom? On whose backs?

Readers however, just like our students, are not stupid. For them, progress means recognizing a different kind of story, one honest about the role racism played in historical (and contemporary) injustice. It is a story that is, as yet, too uncomfortable for Wente and Wade to confront.

Rinaldo Walcott is a Broadbent Fellow and Associate Professor of Humanities, Social Sciences and Social Justice Education at OISE University of Toronto. Minelle Mahtani is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Geography and Program in Journalism, University of Toronto Scarborough and a Broadbent Institute Fellow. 

Photo: garlandcannon. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.