The debate over race has moved on. To judge from his review of my book, Mark Pagel hasn't noticedby Kenan Malik / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
The debate about race has traditionally pitted so-called “race realists” against anti-racists. Race realists argue that races are natural divisions of humankind, anti-racists that race is a social construction of little biological value.
My new book Strange Fruit is an attempt to rethink this debate and show why both sides are wrong. Races are not natural divisions, but they do have biological consequences and can be of practical use in scientific and medical research.
I was intrigued when I heard that Mark Pagel was going to review Strange Fruit for Prospect. Pagel is a race realist. I hoped that he would help move the debate into fresh territory. What I didn’t expect was that he would write about the book without seemingly having read it. Pagel simply assumes that I am regurgitating old-fashioned anti-racist criticism and responds with old-fashioned race realist rebuttals.
Pagel suggests that “observations” about racial differences “collide” with my “insistence” that race “is nothing more than a social construct, having little to do with biology.” Those very observations are, in fact, at the heart of Strange Fruit. Like Pagel, I point out that, “Virtually everyone can distinguish between the physical characteristics of the major racial groups.” I demonstrate at length how we can distinguish genetically between races. I explore the possibilities of inferring racial origin from skull shape and argue that such techniques do not herald a return to 19th-century racial science. And so it is galling to read that I apparently “deny what everybody knows,” perhaps because I am not “grown-up enough to accept the facts.”
Far from claiming, as Pagel suggests, that “unless ‘race’ corresponds to absolute boundaries, it is a useless and damaging concept,” Strange Fruit is a polemic against that very argument. The book opens with a defence of James Watson’s right to have made his controversial comments about race and a critique of the Science Museum for cancelling his talk. I defend research on race too, pointing out that “It makes little sense to ignore such differences or to ban the use of racial or ethnic categories in research.” All this might not fit into Pagel’s stereotype of what a critic of race realism should argue. But the debate, like human differences themselves, no longer fits into neat categories.
The debate about race is not about whether genetic differences exist between human populations, but about the significance of such differences. The…