January 27, 2018

The European R-Word

The whole matter has developed into a national scandal, to the point that even Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) President Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti felt it necessary to weigh in on this. “We thought talk of (the white) race had been buried for good,” he said after League Lombardy governor candidate Attilio Fontana recently said migrants threatened the white race. To be precise, Fontana said, “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be wiped out.” Subsequently he said that it had been a “slip of the tongue,” and made it clear that it’s not about being xenophobic or racist, “it’s just about being logical or rational.”

While some on the center-right agreed there was a real risk to Italian society in the numbers of migrants arriving here, the mainstream media and parties condemned the comments. European leaders, in turn, expressed concerns about what they consider an increasingly xenophobic tone of the campaign for the March 4 general election. Even ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right Forza Italia party is the League’s coalition partner for the elections, said Fontana’s comment had been “unfortunate.” But he also said that it would be “a serious mistake to focus too much attention on one wrong word and not on the risk that Europe loses its identity.” On the same wavelength, but even more strongly, League head Matteo Salvini said Italy was “under attack.” “Our culture, our society, our traditions and our way of life are threatened. An invasion is under way,” he said. However, even Matteo Salvini failed to pronounce the word ‘race’. Why? Because in Europe, unlike in the U.S., the word ‘race’ has been banned. Italy is obviously no exception, even though the Constitution itself expressly talks of different ‘races’. In fact, Article 3 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic reads as follows: “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions.” In other words, according to the fundamental law of the country, different races do exist, but nonetheless, you cannot pronounce the word in question. One of political correctness’s many mysteries.

Now we all know there is a social science bias towards the belief that  the differences between the different races are so minimal that they don’t qualify as a strong enough reason to think that there are actually separate races. Accordingly, there is actually only one human race and that is Homo sapiens, and by consequence the correct term to use is ethnicity... Yet, even though the differences are minor they are real and they do define a person’s race—or ‘ethnicity’, ‘ethnic background’, or whatever you like to call it. Therefore, if the exclusion of ‘race’ as a term means denying the genetic differences between groups of people, there is something deeply wrong with the whole concept. Ask a physician about this, and he/she will tell you that he/she sees the differences between races in how they are affected differently by infectious diseases, genetic diseases and cancer. To be precise, from a physician’s point of view asking a person’s ethnicity is basically a cultural question, asking their race is asking something else. The terms are not interchangeable.

As Bruce T. Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein wrote in an opinion piece in Nature (“Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity,” October 8, 2009),

A growing body of data is revealing the nature of human genetic diversity at increasingly finer resolution. It is now recognized that despite the high degree of genetic similarities that bind humanity together as a species, considerable diversity exists at both individual and group levels […]. The biological significance of these variations remains to be explored fully. But enough evidence has come to the fore to warrant the question: what if scientific data ultimately demonstrate that genetically based biological variation exists at non-trivial levels not only among individuals but also among groups? In our view, the scientific community and society at large are ill-prepared for such a possibility. We need a moral response to this question that is robust irrespective of what research uncovers about human diversity. Here, we argue for the moral position that genetic diversity, from within or among groups, should be embraced and celebrated as one of humanity’s chief assets.

The current moral position is a sort of ‘biological egalitarianism’. This dominant position emerged in recent decades largely to correct grave historical injustices, including genocide, that were committed with the support of pseudoscientific understandings of group diversity. The racial-hygiene theory promoted by German geneticists Fritz Lenz, Eugene Fischer and others during the Nazi era is one notorious example of such pseudoscience. Biological egalitarianism is the view that no or almost no meaningful genetically based biological differences exist among human groups, with the exception of a few superficial traits such as skin colour. Proponents of this view seem to hope that, by promoting biological sameness, discrimination against groups or individuals will become groundless.

We believe that this position, although well-intentioned, is illogical and even dangerous, as it implies that if significant group diversity were established, discrimination might thereby be justified. We reject this position. Equality of opportunity and respect for human dignity should be humankind’s common aspirations, notwithstanding human differences no matter how big or small. We also think that biological egalitarianism may not remain viable in light of the growing body of empirical data.

Somewhere in the Web I also read that the mantra that “Race Does Not Exist” is roughly similar to claiming that “Teeth Do Not Exist” or perhaps “Hills Do Not Exist,” with the latter being an especially good parallel.

It is perfectly correct that the notion of ‘hill’ is ill-defined and vague—what precise height distinguishes a pile of dirt from a hill and a hill from a mountain?—but nevertheless denying the reality or usefulness of such a concept would be an absurdity. Similarly, the notion of distinct human races—genetic clusters across a wide variety of scales and degrees of fuzziness—is an obviously useful and correct organizing principle…

Generally speaking, common sense should lead us to think that mentioning and being aware of racial differences is not the same thing as racism . In fact, racism is assuming those differences have an innate value scale attached (one is better than another), it’s “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). But as Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.”

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