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The Misuse of Race

By David M. Debartolo and Jonathan H. Esensten

Race is a dying idea. The division of humans into races, like the Aristotelian division of matter into the four components of fire, water, earth and air, has reached the end of its useful lifetime. And like Aristotle’s view of nature, the idea of race has taken its most severe criticism from modern science. Yet, in the face of the scientific evidence against it, race has enduring significance to many—and it has become a central issue on Harvard’s campus this year. The departure of Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, the fighting in Israel and the West Bank and the debate on ethnic studies have often been interpreted through a racially-colored lens. Yet in none of these cases were such interpretations either accurate or compelling.

The inadequacy of racial categorization is acknowledged both by scientists and philosophers. Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the publicly funded project to sequence the human genome, came to Harvard Medical School last year to explain the project’s findings. Collins said that all humans have 99.9 percent of their genetic code in common and variation between geographically distinct people is very slight.

“Most of those variations existed when we were all black Africans,” he said. “There is no scientific basis for using ethnic or racial categories.”

Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah, who decided to leave Harvard for Princeton this year, has written extensively on race. In the essay “Illusions of Race” from the collection In My Father’s House, Appiah discusses the racial theories of another famous Harvard academic, W. E. B. Du Bois, Class of 1890. After picking apart Du Bois’ theory and showing the racism that underlies it, Appiah states “the truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us. Talk of ‘race’ is particularly distressing for those of us who take culture seriously.”

Given that race is a useful fiction, why has it been at the center of some of the most contentious debates on campus this year? It is far too easy to construe straightforward differences about politics or academic policy in terms of so-called racial bias. At any great university, scholars are divided by their different opinions and views. Those differences of opinion very rarely occur because of differences in skin color or facial features. Nevertheless, some see race bias in nearly every conflict.

When West became involved in a very public spat with University President Lawrence H. Summers, race became the sordid subtext to the whole disgraceful affair. West was upset at Summers’ alleged accusations that West needed to spend more time on serious scholarship. Shortly after West announced he was leaving for Princeton, he infamously called Summers “in one sense…the Ariel Sharon of American higher education,” specifically claiming that Summers “acts like a bull in a china shop.” But in retrospect, it appears that the disagreement was little more than a turf war, with two strong-willed men playing an intricate game of politics. That Summers happens to be a Jew and West black was only incidental to their disagreement. The same race-based misconception plagued those who claimed West’s comment was anti-Semitic—the negative comparison of two people who both happen to be Jewish does not a bigot make.

Many who pushed the University to adopt ethnic studies curricula claimed that Summers’ apparent reluctance to do so indicated a diminished commitment to “diversity” at Harvard. The many possible arguments against establishing ethnic studies departments, on both practical and ideological grounds, have been largely ignored in favor of racially-tinged emotional appeals and protests. A performance by the mock a cappella group “The Callblacks” even implied Summers was racist. Nevertheless, this dispute cannot realistically be seen as a racial or ethnic problem; the administration under Summers has steadfastly resisted any attempt to atomize academic study—queer studies being one oft-overlooked example. Reasonable people may debate the merits of ethnic and queer studies—although Summers has hardly helped his cause by maintaining a stony silence—but a refusal to accept ethnic studies does not imply race bias.

Events beyond Cambridge have also fallen prey to ill-advised race-based interpretations. On these pages, Harvard Law School student Faisal Chaudhry cast the war in Israel and the West Bank in racial terms, saying Israeli racism was one cause of the continuing conflict. On its face, this explanation might seem reasonable; the war is certainly between Israel—a Jewish state—and the Arab Palestinians. But the real reason for Israel’s actions is the brutal campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings that have jeopardized Israel’s security.

Yet many people believe that “race” is still important, and use the word interchangeably with more precise words like ethnicity or culture. For those reasons, race will not soon fade away from campus debate. At the same time, ethnicity and culture are critical aspects of diversity—both at Harvard and nationwide. But as rates of interracial marriage increase and the last racial barriers in American society are being broken, when race-based accusations are made, they must be given stricter scrutiny.

David M. DeBartolo ’03 is a government concentrator in Lowell House and is editorial chair of The Crimson. Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House and is associate editorial chair of The Crimson.

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