Thursday, May 06, 2004

The second rail - race

This one is pretty simple. Race matters. But race also doesn't matter at all. Huh?

OK, like I said, it's simple. On the whole, there are physiological differences between members of various races. Caucasians are different than Africans, who in turn are different from Asians, who are a little different from Amerinds, etc. It's not racist to say that. And I'll use professional sports below as one of the tools to demonstrate my argument.

Race is, as a whole, a useful tool for describing minor physiological adaptations among select human populations that have evolved over time. One important thing to remember about evolution, though - not all changes happen for a reason. Sometimes a characteristic emerges alongside a useful one that serves no purpose - but since it's not harmful, it isn't selected out. When you take the accumulated differences and express them in comparison to another population, that's what race represents.

What is racist is to believe that the members of one race are inherently "better" than another. That's wrong. In the time scale of human evolution, most racial differences are truly minor variations. Thousands of years of self-selective breeding among communities reinforced these basic racial characteristics, but modern Western societies are re-blending them again.

That's an important thing to remember. There may be multiple races, but only one species. There's no physiological reason why members of different races can't intermingle and reproduce.

Here's the gist of my essay, though: sure, there are average differences between races. But no one human is really all that different from any other when you think about it. A lot more of the difference between two people is from upbringing and socio-economic status than racial factors.

Also, there are a few things we know at this point through anthropology. We can be reasonably certain that the human species originated somewhere in Africa. As a result, the "natural" skin tone of humans is probably on the dark side - I'd guess that what we call "white" today is a more recent mutation that self-selected. We know that the natural size of humans varies wildly - just within the African continent we have the immensely tall Bantu and the small Pygmy. Common sense says that Africans are natural athletes, right? From looking at American professional sports, people with African ancestry excel at games that require size, speed and power. It's obvious.

Except that's all wrong. The greatest distance runners in the world come from Africa, for instance. The Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated the sport of marathon running for decades. Caucasians dominate the game of hockey, which rewards speed and power. A growing number of professional baseball players are Hispanic. The biggest player in the NBA is Chinese. If you believe that Africans are the best power athletes, then how could they not be widely represented in hockey? Why are all those great marathoners from West Africa - in a sport that is designed for athletes with endurance over speed?

Because the assumption above isn't true.

Back in the middle part of the past century, the sport of boxing was dominated by Jews and Italians - all European. Now it's dominated by blacks and Hispanics. Did the Jews and Italians suddenly lose their innate ability to box? No, of course not. What happened was a demographic shift - boxers tend to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In the early 20th century, that spot in society was held by the Jews and Italians (among others) who were recent, lower-class immigrants. As time went by, subsequent generations moved up in society, and other groups expanded into the void left behind. And the next generation of boxers came from those ranks.

Eventually, as prosperity hopefully makes it down the line, there will be another group rising to prominence within the sport. Time will tell. But Hispanics aren't inherently better boxers than Italians - it's just that there's a lot more of them right now involved in the sport, so more of them will rise to the upper ranks.

Hockey players generally come from Europe, Canada, or the northernmost US (New England and the Upper Midwest). The populations that produce hockey players are demographically disproportionately Caucasian. So very few people from other racial backgrounds play hockey. They play other sports that are more popular where they live. It's that simple. And basketball, for instance, is more popular in a lot of urban black communities than it is in comparable white ones - hence more blacks playing. It's not that they're all better or worse - with a larger pool of players to pick from, more of them will make it to the next level. In places like the Dominican Republic, baseball is the sport. So many people are dedicated to it that we now have a lot of Dominicans playing professionally. Simple stuff.

So yes, in a general sense, there may be minor differences between races. To deny that is foolishness in the name of being politically correct. As a total population, perhaps the average black person is a slightly better athlete than the average white person. And I say slightly. But humans are more than averages. Much more. Plus, I suspect I single-handedly hold down the average for white folks, so it may just be my fault.

One more athletic story for now: when I was in high school back in the Dark Ages (okay, the early '80s, but it seemed that way), I was an occasional athlete. In particular, before chronic injuries and changing interests (girls) took me away from it, I ran track - all three seasons per year (cross-country, indoor, and outdoor). I was decent, not great - but not awful either. I was one of the better middle-distance and long sprinters on the team, in fact - clocking an 800 meter time right around 2 minutes. I was close to my adult height of 6'3", but skinny as a rail at maybe 160 pounds (it's remarkable what beer, age, and marriage can do to add bulk).

Anyhow, I, a tall, skinny white guy, was one of the better sprinters. Not great, but good. Our best sprinter, he was black. There was a white guy (not me) who was nearly as good, and occasionally beat him (they both always whupped me). Our best distance runner was a small white kid (he always whupped me, too). Short of that, though, there was no real way to predict who would excel at what - because the population was small enough to make sure that trends don't matter.

So, like I said, race matters a little bit, sometimes. But in the larger perspective, it doesn't matter at all. What matters to most humans is the natural desire to associate with "your own tribe", and racial differences are simply a visible reminder to most people that there are, in effect, different tribes. A Great Dane and a Shar-Pei may look almost nothing alike, but they're both still dogs. If they were physically able to mate, they could have offspring that would combine qualities of both (however odd that might appear). For humans? There's a lot less physical difference between any two human races than there are in an example like I just gave you. And minor trends don't make a difference with any one individual.

So in essence what I'm saying is that though it's racist and wrong to assume that any one race is inherently "better" or "worse" than any other, it's racist and stupid to pretend that there are no differences at all between races, either. There are. It's just that they're minor enough to not matter much, and the social and cultural differences between different classes make a much more pronounced difference. But unless you're one of the nutlogs who believe in predestination, virtually anyone can overcome socio-economic disadvantages given the opportunity (and desire) to do so. And that's what I believe.

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