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

Race Abater

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.

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."

So Graves wrote The Emperor's New Clothes for a lay audience. Highly literate readers will grasp his message, though the tome bears the imprimatur of academe.

And Graves is venturing out of the halls of science to take his message to the masses. He'll go almost anywhere to expound on his theory. (I saw him -- and was captivated by him -- on the City of Phoenix's cable channel, giving a presentation to a group of city workers.)

The book has not yet been reviewed in the scientific journals, though one is due next month in Nature. He doesn't expect The Emperor's New Clothes to ignite much controversy among scientists, though he knows one bloc of scholars is certain to criticize it.

"There is a racial biology brotherhood," Graves says. "They all know each other, and they all collaborate. There's good information that their research is funded by right-wing groups. . . . That's one reason I felt I needed to write my book."

He blames that pervasive "brotherhood" for hindering his own advancement. He matriculated under many of the professors who form the nucleus of the genetics community. He often sat in class, incredulous at their myopia. Many of them treated him like a freak, he says.

Even African Americans can be confounded by his career choice and trajectory.

"I'm kind of an oddball," he explains. "I'm isolated from African Americans for being in science, and not fully accepted by Euro-Americans for being in science."

He concedes that some "Afro-centric" black leaders will not be receptive to his book.

"Some factions amongst the African American political spectrum will be opposed to my message, particularly those invested in separatism, divisiveness and racial identity," he says. "To these people, I answer that Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King and indeed Malcolm X would have sided with me in supporting the unity of humankind."

His own household is a laboratory in diversity. His wife is Korean. With a chuckle, he notes that when his two sons are with him in public, strangers think the kids are black. When they're with his wife, everyone assumes the boys are Asian.

Life seems comfortable in Arizona, far better for his kids than he had it. His job allows him to spend much more time with his youngsters than either of his own parents could. The neighborhood where the Graveses live seems progressive and open-minded, he says.

Yet the notoriety that's sure to come with his book is likely to make Graves a commodity at more prestigious institutions. Don't expect Graves to stay much longer at ASU.

While his doleful stare and ardor may never wane, his methods have mellowed with age.

"There's a part of me that still has a righteous indignation. I think racism is evil," he says. "One can rail against racism or one can propose solutions. My focus is on being positive and trying to envision a society where our physical appearances are not used to limit opportunity."

Alas, scholarship and sagacity are no fortresses against bigotry.

"I still hear racial epithets every day," Graves says.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >