Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Ethon Lowe | Race: a troublesome inheritance

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2020 | 12:21 AM
An anti-racism protest in central London on Sunday.  The recent death in America of a black man, George Floyd, continues to prompt protests for an anti-racist agenda across all sectors of society.
An anti-racism protest in central London on Sunday. The recent death in America of a black man, George Floyd, continues to prompt protests for an anti-racist agenda across all sectors of society.

With George Floyd’s final nine minutes and the heavy-handed US police response to the ensuing public rage, solidarity marches took place all over the world to protest against black inequality and police abuse.

Statues and memorials celebrating the racist past were pulled down. The 1939 movie Gone with the Wind was removed because of its depiction of slavery and a ‘mammy’ caricature by the black American actress Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but at the Oscar ceremony she was seated at, where else, the segregated table. In Jamaica, an image on a British badge worn by our own governor general of a black man in chains with a white man standing on his neck: was this a harbinger of today’s racist image of the policeman’s neck-hold on George Floyd, or simply a white Archangel Michael subduing a black Satan? What a difference colours make. African Americans, while protesting in their numbers, should give a moment’s thought to the fact that their ancestors were not entirely blameless. About 90 per cent of slaves were enslaved by their fellow Africans in Africa, who then sold them to European slave traders.

‘Race’ – that contentious word – is the fulcrum of the human rights revolution unfolding now. It doesn’t have to be contentious. My friend Andre is black with curly hair and is African Jamaican. Yours truly is Chinese Jamaican and supposedly yellow. Demoted? (East Asians were once considered white up to the 17th century). You would never mistake him for me. Being yellow, admittedly, has certain disagreeable connotations, but I am happy to report that we have not been any worse off. Thank you. Endowed as I am with straight black hair, it would be interesting to see who is better looking, but we’ll let the girls decide. Unfortunately, racial classification has gone hand in hand with racial prejudice, and there is no bigger minefield in human biology than the question of race. Some scientists even argue (to avoid controversy) that human races have no biological reality, but are merely sociopolitical constructs. There are anywhere from three to 30 races recognised by anthropologists, but only one human species. Facial features, hair colour and form, and skin colour are what everyone focuses on in identifying race. But looks can be deceiving. Genetically, Australian aborigines are closest to Asians and most distant from Africans, because from an evolutionary perspective, humans first migrated from Africa, and came in contact with the Far East before reaching Australia after thousands of years.

No significant genetic difference

Looking at genes, there is a lack of sharp differences between races. Virtually all the genetic variations correlate only weakly with the combinations of physical traits, such as skin colour and hair type, commonly used to determine race. Also, there are more genetic variations in individuals within a group or race than in individuals between groups or races.

In 1994, a book called The Bell Curve generated a furore among scientists claiming that intelligence was inherited and IQ (intelligence quotient) tests were the best method of measuring intelligence. Following this information, blacks were thought to have lower IQs, more aggressive, greater frequency of sexual intercourse and larger male genitalia (inversely proportionate to IQ; the data for this revelation was collected through condom distributors). Today, IQ tests are notoriously unreliable for measuring innate intelligence. Environmental and cultural factors play a more dominant role.

Races, of course, differ in having unique genetic traits which are evolutionary protective or advantageous to the group. The darker skin of tropical groups protects against intense ultraviolet light that produces skin cancer, while pale skin of higher-latitude groups allows penetration of light necessary for synthesis of vitamin D to prevent rickets. Carriers of the sickle-cell mutation are protected from malaria, a disease prevalent in Africa. In sports, at every Olympic Games since 1980, every finalist in the men’s 100-metre race has had West African ancestry. This is believed to be due to a genetic variant in a gene in the muscles called the ACTN3 gene, which is responsible for muscle cells contracting quickly, an advantage for sprinters.

We tend to confound race and culture. For instance, ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ is parallel to ‘Swedish American’ but not, to say, ‘Korean American’. The former roughly indicates a racial or genetic makeup, while ‘Swedish American’ acknowledges a cultural heritage. ‘American’ and ‘Jamaican’ are not races, so labels such as ‘African American’ and ‘African Jamaican’ are examples of our confusion of culture and race. If the out-of-Africa concept holds true that all humans are from Africa, next time I fill out one of those forms, I am going to check ‘others’ and write ‘African Chinese Jamaican’.

Overall, genetic differences among human populations are minor. It’s more than a soothing platitude to say, we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin.

Dr Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Email: ethonlowe@gmail.com.