Osagie K. Obasogie’s opinion piece “Return of the Race Myth” in the 4 July issue of New Scientist opens with:-
“As the 20th-century world recoiled from the horrors of Nazi Germany and the eugenics movement, we learned how economic , political and social circumstances produced the racial differences that science had once claimed to be “natural”. Race came to be recognised as a social construct – an aspect of social choices rather than a reflection of biological differences between racial groups.”
It is true that the Jews, the group that was most hated by the Nazis, were defined by their religion and the social customs that sprang from it. Often there was no physical difference between the Jewish communities and their Christian neighbours so it is reasonable to say that the Jew-Gentile divide was a social construct rather than due to any innate differences between the two communities.
That being said, it seems to me that Professor Obasogie is conflating two concepts in the rest of the article (most of it refers to the black-white divide) – race itself and the consequences of different races living in racist societies. For example, being ethnically African, Asian or European is biological but apartheid was a social construct that granted or denied opportunities based on ethnicity. He goes on to say that since the Human Genome Project has discovered that “all humans are more than 99 per cent alike” the final nail should have been put into the coffin of the concept of racial differences.
Frankly I do not see why he should think that; 99% (or for that matter 99.9% or 99.99%) is not 100% so there are slight biological differences between races. The one that everybody notices – the paler skin of Europeans and some northern Asians – is a real biological adaptation to low ultra violet levels but is contolled by a tiny number of genes. Please note that I am not claiming that any group is superior to any other – just slightly different. Racists used to claim that whites were more intelligent than other races but a little thought shows that this could never have been the case. The pressures on pre-civilization humans would have been very similar the world over so no region would have favoured high intelligence more than any other.
The notion that black Africans wre less intelligent than white Europeans was a social construct. Blacks in many societies were denied education so they knew less so would be less able to hold up their end of a conversation on a topic of interest to whites so would seem less intelligent. This was then used as justification for not educating them …
Spot the circular argument. Indeed, once the socially constructed constraints have been removed, blacks can be seen to be just as capable as whites of being teachers, doctors, military commanders or President of the United States.
I do wonder at what point Obasogie does believe that genetic difference do reflect genuine biological differences. Chimps and humans are 98 percent alike but I presume he does not believe the differences between us and our hairy cousins to be mere social constructs. I can only assume that he – and other constuctionists – go down the route of pretending that there are no differences between racial groups is through fear that difference will be equated with superiority/inferiority. In the 1950s, when blacks were still oppressed just about everywhere constructionism was an understandable tactic to undermine racism but in the twenty-first century, when racism is shown to lack any sort of evidence base, it is an unnecessary intellectual imposture.