restricted access 79 What Is Race, Anyway?
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79 What Is Race, Anyway? TOD OLSON In the winter of 1993, the small town of Wedowee, Alabama, became a flashpoint of racial tension. The white principal of Randolph County High School had gathered the student body together to find out how many students planned to attend the prom with dates "outside their race." When several students raised their hands, he canceled the event. "How would that look at a prom, a bunch of mixed couples 7" he scolded. From the stunned audience, a single voice responded. Junior-class president Revonda Bowen, daughter of a white father and an African-American mother, asked, "Who am I supposed to take to the prom 7" Revonda Bowen's question served notice in a divided town that the issue of race is not just black and white. Although we like to place ourselves neatly in boxes-black, white, Asian-American, etc.--'--the fact is that not everyone fits. Interracial marriages have quadrupled in the last 20 years, producing nearly 1.5 million kids of mixed race. A new wave of immigrants from latin America and Asia has added more complexity to the mix. More Americans are foreign born than ever before, and their kids often marry outside their nationality . Even as intermarriage blurs the lines between races, we seem to grow more obsessed with our ethnic and racial categories. The national census places every American into one of four basic groups: white, black, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native. last year, at Congressional hearings on proposed changes to the census, various ethnic groups sought to add more categories to the census form. Arab-Americans wanted a new listing for Middle Easterners; Hispanics wanted at least six subgroups to reflect their diversity; and multiracial people wanted a category besides"other" for themselves. In the midst of all this race consciousness, scientists are suggesting that race may have no scientific basis at all. The races, they say, are just arbitrary groupings of people who happen to look similar and have ancestors who come from the same geographic area. While ethnic groups clamor for recognition, experts are wondering whether racial distinctions make sense at all. Current census categories are based on an old theory that has not changed much since 1758. That was the year when Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus divided the species Homo sapiens (human beings) into four basic varieties: Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, and Afer. Linnaeus's idea was that people in various regions-America, Europe, Asia, and Africa-tended to have children only with each other. Their genes passed on characteristics we associate with race, such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture. Each region acted as a kind of bushel basket containing the genetic material of each race. SCHOLASTIC UPDATE, November 18,1994. Copyright © 1994 by Scholastic, Inc. Reprinted by permission of publisher . Copyrighted Material 500 Tod Olson Africa's basket contained genes for tightly curled black hair and dark skin, Europe's had genes for straight hair and lighter skin, and so on. In the past few decades, however, this scheme has begun to fall apart. The problem is that appearance is only one of thousands of genetically determined characteristics we could use to divide up the human race. The vast majority of genes don't fall neatly into one regional basket or another. Suppose, for instance, we divided people up according to whether or not they have a gene that protects against the disease malaria. Nearly all Africans have curly hair and dark skin, but only some of them have the antimalarial gene. In southern Africa, where the disease is not common, the Xhosa people don't have the gene. Neither do most northern Europeans. So the dark-skinned Xhosas would end up in the same race as lightskinned Swedes and Norwegians. The same kind of problems arise when you consider fingerprints, height, and a host of other traits. According to recent studies, only a small percentage of the differences between human beings are accounted for by genes we now associate with race. So, if racial categories have such a shaky scientific basis, then why do we measure them at all? Ironically, racial classification is now used to protect the same groups it has harmed in the past. The government relies heavily on racial data to enforce antidiscrimination measures like the Voting Rights Act and Equal Employment Opportunity regulations. In 1992, for instance, federal officials used racial data to determine that blacks and Hispanics were denied...