By Patricia Williams

The question of race is, at its core, a questioning of humanity itself.  In various eras and locales, race has been marked by color of skin, texture of hair, dress, musical prowess, digital dexterity, rote memorization, mien, mannerisms, disease, athletic ability, capacity to write poetry, sense of rhythm, sobriety, childlike cheerfulness, animal anger, language, continent of origin, hypodescent, hyperdescent, religious affiliation, thrift, flamboyance, slyness, physical size, or presence of a moral conscience. These presumed markers may appear random in the aggregate, but they have nevertheless been deployed to rationalize the distribution of resources and rights to some groups and not others. Behind the concept of race, in other words, is a deeper interrogation of what distinguishes beasts from brothers;  of who is presumed entitled or dispossessed,  person or slave, autonomous or alien, compatriot or enemy.

In the contemporary United States, race is based chiefly on broad and variously calibrated metrics of African ancestry. To get a full sense of the ideological incoherence of race and racism, however, one must also include the longer history: the centuries-old Chinese condescension to native Taiwanese Islanders; the English derogation of the Irish for "pug noses"; the plight of the Dalit (i.e., untouchables) in India; or comprehensively eugenic regimes like Hitler's.

Despite the enormous definitional diversity of what race even means, and despite the fact that the biological studies - from Charles Darwin's observations to the Human Genome Project - have patiently, repetitively and definitively shown that all humans are a single species, there remain many determined to reinscribe a multitude of old racialist superstitions onto the biotechnologies of the future.  Despite the biological evidence - and a towering body of social science that is cumulative (observations over time), comprehensive (multiple levels of inquiry) and convergent (from a variety of sources, places, disciplines) - we are still asking the same centuries-old questions

For purposes of this paper, let us stipulate that race is not a "scientific" or biologically coherent category.  I ask for such stipulation because it is beyond my scope to prove or disprove creationist theories of polygenesis, or theological tracts about God's intention to keep races separate, or essentialist polemics about whether black women are more or less endowed with testosterone than white men. It is true that race-as-biology remains a major hurdle in the cultural imagination: at one extreme, there are those zealots who actively deploy races as the innate mark of beings so different that they constitute another species altogether. And at the other end of the ideological spectrum are those ordinary creatures for whom discussions of race remain heavily inflected by assumptions of biological difference, as a largely unexamined and unconsciously malleable mush of assumptions about genes, social history, law and culture.

Ergo, let us just agree that, as hard as many have tried to find it, there is no allele for race (as distinct from skin color); there are no separate proteins indicating that some of us are chosen by God over others; and there is no distinct cellular pattern that distinguishes the tribal intelligence of any one group on the planet as opposed to another.  At the risk of being tedious, I underscore this point precisely because it, like some of the most reproducible of scientific consensuses-like evolution, climate change and the value of vaccinations-remains fiercely disputed as "mere" contestable "theory."     

So what is race if not biology?

Race is a hierarchical social construct that assigns human value and group power. Social constructions are human inventions, the products of mind and circumstance. This is not to say that they are imaginary. Racialized taxonomies have real consequences upon biological functions, including the expression of genes. They affect the material conditions of survival-relative respect and privilege, education, wealth or poverty, diet, medical and dental care, birth control, housing options and degree of stigma. 

In antebellum America, race was determined by a number of variables, depending on the state, including color, ancestry, ethnicity, association, behavior, and property records. During the Jim Crow era, appearance became singularly important. Since the civil rights movement, class and speech have sometimes been included among the criteria of line-drawing.

In the industrialized west, racism (as well as related prejudices like class bias, sexism, and religious intolerance) is constructed from a complex intermingling of individual vision, historical happenstance, social milieu, political decision-making and legal structure.  If not actually rooted in biology, race is nevertheless the subject of relentless biologizing. From the slavery-apologist Samuel Cartwright to Adolf Hitler, each generation has brought new utensils to the enterprise of racial demarcation. Calipers were used to measure the size of buttocks or length of leg muscles or circumference of skulls or width of noses.1 There have been mathematical models to measure percentages of "blood" or wavelengths of skin color or degrees of curvilinearity in the arcs of kinky hair. But over and over, race has been proved and proved again to be illusory as a matter of hard science. 

Yet still the questions come: If we are one species, what about sub-species? As in: "Blacks, Jews, Asians - you can't deny they're different. It's like a poodle or a dachshund or a St. Bernard is to the species of dog," according to one of my former students. This sort of perception is a not a matter that will be resolved by yet more scientific testing. Rather, I think this reiterated resistance to data is testament to the persistence of human imagination and the power of belief over documentary evidence.

If history has shown us anything, it's that race is contradictory and unstable. Yet our linguistically embedded notions of race seem to be on the verge of transposing themselves yet again into a context where genetic percentages act as the ciphers for culture and status, as well as economic and political attributes. In another generation or two, the privileges of whiteness may be extended to those who are "half" this or that.  Indeed, some of the discussions about Barack Obama's "biracialism" seemed to invite precisely such an interpretation. Let us not mistake it for anything like progress, however: biracialism always has a short shelf life. For example, by the time he was elected President, Barack Obama was no longer our first "half and half president" but had become all African-American all the time. Indeed, Obama himself seemed to acknowledge the more complex reality of his own lineage in an off-the-cuff aside, when, speaking about his daughters' search for a puppy, he observed that most shelter dogs are "mutts like me."

In fact, of course, we're all mutts - and as Americans, we've been mixing it up faster and more thoroughly than anyplace on earth. At the same time, we live in a state of tremendous denial about the rambunctiousness of our recent lineage. The language by which we assign racial category narrows or expands our perception of who is more like whom, tells us who can be considered marriageable or untouchable. The habit of burying the relentlessly polyglot nature of our American identity renders us blind to how intimately we are tied as kin.

In the United States' vexed history of color-consciousness, anti-miscegenation laws (the last of which were struck down only in 1967) enshrined the notion of hypodescent. Hypodescent is a cultural phenomenon whereby the child of parents who come from differing social classes will be assigned the status of the parent with the lower standing. Most parts of the Deep South adhered to it with great rigidity, in what is commonly called the "one drop and you're black" rule. Take for example, New York Times editor Anatole Broyard, who denied any relation to his darker-skinned siblings and "passed" as white for most of his adult life. There were many who expressed shock when it was uncovered that he was "really" black. Some states, like Louisiana, practiced a more gradated form of hypodescent, indicating hierarchies of status with vocabulary like "mulatto," "quadroon," and "octaroon." And even today, despite our diasporic, fragmented, postmodern cosmopolitanism, there is a thoughtless or unconscious tendency to preserve these taxonomies, no matter how incoherent. Consider Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter Senator Strom Thurmond had by his family's black maid. She lived her life as a "Negro," then as an "African American," and attended an "all-black" college. But in her 70s, when Thurmond's paternity became publicized, she was suddenly redesignated "biracial." Tiger Woods and Kimora Lee Simmons are alternatively thought of as African-American or "biracial," but rarely as "Asian-American."

In contrast, many parts of Latin America, like Brazil or Mexico, assign race by the opposite process, hyperdescent. That's when those with any ancestry of the dominant social group, such as European, identify themselves as European or white, when they may also have African or Indian parents. As more Latinos have become citizens of the United States, we have interesting examples of this cultural cognitive dissonance: Just think about Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Lopez. Phenotypically they look very similar. Yet Knowles is generally referred to as black or African-American; Lopez is generally thought of as white (particularly among her Latino fan base) or Latina (among the rest of us), but she is never called black or even biracial.

A PBS program aptly illustrates the problems that ensue when attempts are made to conflate genes and "race." Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates hosted a series exploring his roots and those of a handful of other prominent African-American figures, including comedians Chris Tucker and Whoopi Goldberg, scholar Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. It was a fascinating series of TV programs, particularly from the perspective of the discipline of history. It revealed the peculiar difficulties of tracking lines of descent through slavery-the sales of human beings that acknowledged no family ties, the absence of last names, the absence of first names in some cases, and the necessity of consulting not just census records but also "the master's" property holdings for listings of possible relatives. The reconstruction of family history was like an archeological dig, part intergenerational storytelling, part study of migratory patterns, part recovery of commercial transactions, and part science.

The science du jour is, of course, DNA testing. On the one hand, DNA testing can be quite useful in establishing certain kinds of family relation. (Since the program aired, Gates has set up his own ancestry-tracking company, AfricanDNA.) Gates' own test results showed that he had no relation to Samuel Brady, the white patriarch he'd grown up "knowing" as the man who impregnated his great-great-grandmother. Nothing had prepared him for Brady's not being his direct ancestor. Indeed, one of Gates' cousins remained adamant that the test must be wrong. If the test was right, he insisted, there would have to be "two truths": One would be the story he grew up with, the other what the DNA says.

Somewhere in between what the DNA says and what shaped the family account is a gap that is something like a lie. A secret passing from black to white? An act of assimilation or aspiration? A myth to hide some shame? A change of identity to escape to freedom? Yet I do hesitate to think of it as precisely on the same moral level as the kind of "lie" that James Frey is said to have told in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. There is something very human about the repetition of family stories until they become epic rather than literal, the burying of family secrets, the lying of ancestors, the reinventions of migrants, the accommodations of raw ambition, the insulations from terrible shame. This is, I suppose, distantly related to James Frey's addled manipulations; it might also be related to, but of a different order than, the magical thinking of mental patients, character-disordered people or victims of great trauma.

There is something commonplace about the kinds of family mysteries that Gates' inquiries reveal, particularly in the American context. It is part of how many of our ancestors, regardless of where they came from, reinvented themselves in the "New World." New York University Law School Professor Jessie Allen describes the "magic" of legal remediation this way: "What ought to have been prevails over the past." Family stories ritualize the past in a very similar way. It is part of what Professor Robert Pollack, head of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Science and Religion, calls the "eschatology of repair."

If there is value to this kind of "emotional truth," it is important not to confuse it with the sort of "truth" that DNA tells us. While DNA can undoubtedly pinpoint certain aspects of our ancestry through sequencing and matching mitochondrial DNA, it does not make literal sense to say, as Gates did to Oprah Winfrey at one point: "You've got education in your genes." Of course, he was speaking metaphorically at that moment, using the human genome as a metaphor for a pattern of socialization, a family habit, or a thirst for knowledge modeled by parents.

But at other points in the program, as well as in our daily parlance, that metaphoric dimension is applied rather more carelessly - and more dangerously. We have a long history of thinking of identity as genetically based, but again, there is no more an allele for being "white" or "Latina" than there is for "education." These are malleable political designations that expand and contract with time and human circumstance.

It behooves us to be less romantic about what all this DNA swabbing reveals. I worry about the craving to "go back to Africa," to "connect with our Yiddishkeit" or to feel like new doors have been opened if we have an Asian ancestor. The craving, the connection, the newness of those doors is in our heads, not in our mitochondria. It is a process of superimposing the identities with which we were raised upon the culturally embedded, socially constructed imaginings about "the Other" we could be. The fabulous nature of what is imagined can be liberating and invigorating - but it is fable. If we read that story into the eternity of our blood lines, if we biologize our history, we will forever be less than we could be.                                    


Patricia J. Williams, JD, is a Professor of Law at Columbia University. Her books include The Rooster's Egg (1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1998) and, most recently, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Own (2004).



1. For an excellent compendium of such experiments, see Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to The Present (Doubleday, 2006)

Search: GeneWatch
The Council for Responsible Genetics’ Genetic Privacy Manual: Understanding the Threats- Understanding Your Rights will be a comprehensive, electronic source of information for the consumer on these issues.
View Project
Genetic Testing, Privacy and Discrimination
View Project