Joseph L. Graves and Alan Goodman in Conversation with Olivia Treynor on Racism, Not Race

Joseph L. Graves and Alan Goodman’s new book, Racism, Not Race, breaks down crucial myths about race in a highly readable format. Dissecting everything from junk science on athletic ability to the real reasons different populations are more vulnerable to certain diseases, Graves and Goodman’s guide to dismantling biological myths about race is a needful contribution to contemporary discourse. In today’s Q&A, Oliva Treynor, asks the authors about the instability of race categorization over time, what they hope this book accomplishes, and the future of “biological race” as a concept.

Olivia Treynor: Why was it important to you both to write this book in such an accessible format?

Alan Goodman: That’s pretty easy to answer. There is a huge gap between what scientists like our colleagues know and what most nonscientists know about the relationship among the idea of race, human variation, and racism. That gap just has to be narrowed. I would say it is critical to democracy. So, we both wanted to write a book that broke down the problems into easy-to-understand pieces. We quickly settled on what we think is the best recipe: a book organized around answers to frequently asked questions.

Joseph L. Graves: What Alan said… we wanted this book to be a tool for people who are interested in transforming their society towards real and enduring racial justice.

OT: Your book makes the point that race is both real and not real. Can you explain this distinction and why it’s so important?

Graves: Humans do not have biological races. There is, however, a biological race concept. As we point out in the book, the biological race concept has morphed through time from a special creationist idea to foundations in modern biological science. Thus, there are some species for which the biological race concept has some utility, such as gray wolves in North America, but certainly not for humans. Socially defined race, on the other hand, is of great relevance to human cultures, but the two concepts should never be confused for each other.

Goodman: Absolutely. Joe has said it very simply. There are two very different concepts of race: biological race and social race. The first is not real and the second is real. The idea of biological races, that humans are divisible into something akin to subspecies, is simply not true. We’ve known that for nearly seventy years. The amount of variation within any “race” is too great compared to the variation among “races” for race to be meaningful as a biological concept or evolutionary unit. However, we live in a society that sees race and acts on race, so race is real in that we treat it as real. Therefore, it has real effects, such as glaring inequalities in health and wealth.

Treynor: You write in your book that social classifications of race are unstable. Can you explain how racial categories have changed over time, and the implications of this instability?

Goodman: The first implication of the instability is to be careful, or even take with a grain of salt, any proclamation you hear about one race or another, such as one having heads shaped in a certain way or being more susceptible to a certain condition. That is because who is classified (raced) as Black, white, or some other classification in one place, say western Massachusetts in 2022, is not the same as who was classified that way in western Massachusetts in 1922, and how individuals were and are classified where Joe lives, in Greensboro, North Carolina, in either 1922 or 2022.

Race is always about prejudice and power. But race is also a chameleon that changes to fit the specific context and needs of those in power.

Graves: What Alan said…the ridiculous character of socially defined race is well illustrated by the fact that in the 1960’s one could change their racial designation simply by moving between states.

Treynor: What does it mean that “racism made race”?

Goodman: It has most traditionally been conceived that racism came after the invention of the idea of race and that one could say that race is the parent of racism. But we tend to agree with others, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, that racism, in the form of colonization and slavery, came first and the concept of race, as separate and hierarchically arranged types of humankind, was used to justify racism. In this formulation, racism is the parent of race.

What is important is that in both formulations there is a close, dialectical relationship between the idea of biological races and racism. The idea of biological race provides (mythical) ideological coverage for racism. It is a false justification for racism. That is why everyone should know that the idea of biological race is a myth.

Graves: As we discuss at length in the book, biological race concepts were invented to support racial hierarchy, mainly in the Western world (after the coming of colonialism and chattel slavery). They did not exist in antiquity, and components of the biological race idea manifested in the Eastern world as well. However, these concepts were deeply flawed, but like those of the West, intimately related to the maintenance of social hierarchy.

Treynor: In the opening of the book, there is mention that Alan as a student had assumed that concepts of biological race, like all “flawed explanations,” would be done away with in due course. Your book, however, explains how the belief in biological race remains influential, present, and therefore destructive. Do you still hold out hope that the fact that biological race is a myth will be widely known anytime soon? Or has your optimism shifted to something else?

Goodman: I was taught as an undergraduate in the 1970s that the concept of biological race was a myth. The truth was like the skies opening. I thought that as more and more individuals found out about this, we would have a complete paradigm shift to a nonracial view of human variation. As a result, such crap science as trying to show intelligence differences by race would be seen as something like trying to prove the Earth is flat. What I didn’t understand is how invested our culture was, not just in the idea of race but in believing in separateness and hierarchies of worth.

Today I am still optimistic, but I hope more realistic. By comparison, not long ago few nonscientists knew that the globe was warming due to humans (or more accurately, Western capitalism). Now most individuals know that.

But when it comes to race and human variation, changing minds is slower. It is far easier to change laws than minds. That is because there are the greatest of stakes and investments in maintaining the myth of biological race. Race is a founding social contract of our country. But … if not now, then when? We, of course, hope our book helps.

Graves: The conflation of biological and social race will not just “go away.” This misconception must be defeated as part of a thoroughgoing antiracist program enacted by us to make a better world. This book is a tool to help achieve this. We discuss some first steps that we can collectively take in the final chapter. We dare not fail to achieve this, as we risk losing our society’s thin veneer of democracy. The loss of democracy in America could literally result in the extinction of our species.

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