Race Abater

Geneticist has big news for bigots: Biology doesn't recognize race

I find Joseph L. Graves Jr. in his windowless office at Arizona State University West. He's listening to a classic Carlos Santana CD. Shelves crammed with books line the walls. All the literature absorbs and mutes the guitar virtuoso's signature fretwork.

This comfortable cocoon of academe undoubtedly has the same effect on Graves, 45, the first African American ever to achieve a doctorate in evolutionary biology.

Yet despite his precise and professorial tone, the discerning ear occasionally detects a soulful wail or a jolt of goosefleshy feedback. Like virtuosos in every discipline, suffering suffuses his discourse.

Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr.
Paolo Vescia
Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr.

When it comes to bending notes -- and minds -- Carlos Santana has nothing on Joe Graves.

Graves' father toiled long hours in a lumber yard. His mother was a domestic who mopped the floors of the gentry in his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey. They raised four children together.

Graves recalls vividly a day in 1963 when he accompanied his mother to work. He sat on a fine sofa while she went about her tasks. The television brought news of the firebombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four black girls were killed.

"The woman [of the house] looked directly at my mother and said, 'That served those little niggers right,'" Graves says. "My mother, who needed that job, put her cleaning implements down, picked me up, told the woman, 'I don't think I can work here anymore,' and walked out of the house."

He watched in frustration as opportunity bypassed his father.

"I had the experience of working beside him as a teenager, and could see that he was the most experienced and knowledgeable person on the yard," Graves says. "But he was never promoted."

Such excruciating episodes weighed heavily on the boy's curious mind. They fueled a defiant spirit that molded Graves into the respected geneticist he is today.

They motivated him to write a book that attempts to topple the totem of racism by debunking the very notion that races exist. In The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, published last month by Rutgers University Press, Graves argues that there is no biological foundation for race as we know it.

Genes don't lie.

". . . [S]cience identifies no races in the human species, not because we wish there to be no races but because the peculiar evolutionary history of our species has not led to their formation," Graves writes. "There is more genetic variation in one tribe of East African chimpanzees than in the entire human species! Only political orthodoxy in a racially stratified society has maintained the race concept for this long. If race does not exist at the biological level, then its use in social and political policy is profoundly flawed."

In the grand sweep of creation, he avers, people who might appear to be different are really much more alike than different. Race is a social construct. Racism is based on fiction.

He appropriated his title from Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable because it "likens to how we as Americans have been duped by the myth of our socially racial categories . . . to awaken from our racial nightmare, we must recognize that no biological races exist, hence no reason to discriminate based on race."

Appearances can be deceiving -- and are. While varieties in humans' skin color and skeletal and hair types are undeniable, Graves contends that genetic variation within the so-called races is frequently greater than between the races. But our relatively superficial differences are magnified because they are inundated by cultural bias, environment, climate, education, health care and disparate opportunity.

"The existence of a biological race requires that a group of people can be uniquely identified by a set of characteristics not found in other such groups of people," he says. "Or we could imagine that a group of people had maintained a unique ancestry, without substantial intermixture with other groups of people. Neither of these conditions is true within our species today."

Graves' book traces a grim history of racism, dating (perhaps simplistically) its advent to the development of sea travel and the first significant encounters between people of different colors. Europeans' voyages of discovery, the wholesale enslavement of Africans and colonization of Africa and the Americas spawned a culture of racism that has indelibly marked science -- and vice versa -- and given rise to a doctrine that science has been unable or unwilling to rebuke.

He says the scientific footing for his thesis has been known for 50 years, but cultural biases have kept them from our consciousness. Recent books such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America, which held that genetic differences between the races contribute to their measured IQ differences, inspired him to produce The Emperor's New Clothes on his own time. He calls many claims made in The Bell Curve "unscientific and false."

"Scientists have produced the data that show the socially constructed racial categories of our society do not mirror the genetic variability within our species," he explains. "We have an obligation to tell people that. This is a powerful revelation, and with it biological racism cannot stand."

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