ResearchBlogging.orgBlack is beautiful, without a doubt. We are all versions of Africans with varying degrees and patterns of non-adaptive and often unfortunate mutations owing to chance, inbreeding, or genetic isolation, and we are all subject to clinally manifest selective forces resulting in clinally distributed phenotypes. Here and there there may be a pocket of people who really stand out from the rest of the species, but that is rare and is presumably a short term phenomenon, and the level of difference if actually measured between such groups and their neighbors remains far less than typical levels of difference between subspecies (races) in other mammals. For them most part, we are a race-less continuum of variation.

But that is not what everybody else thinks, and you will not be surprised to learn that racialized thinking has an effect.


On top of this fluid genetic pattern are two other forces that contributed to the diversity of humanity: Phenotypic plasticity and socially constructed, culturally mediated perception. The plasticity is generally more widespread than people think. Many features of our made-up races are actually things that change with diet, activity level, or other environmental shifts.

Social construction is almost always self serving to someone, and thus, denigrating, disparaging, disempowering to others.

One of the most interesting and at the same time insidious aspects of this pattern is that certain subgroups vehemently assert utter denial of the fluid, African-based, clinal diversity of the human species. These groups are often those at the phenotypic twigs and geographical margins of the population. White Europeans (perhaps especially that subset emigrated to North America) and Japanese are obvious, well known examples. A deeply ingrained racist trope has emerged in some of these societies with several common elements including the insistence of clear difference between “us” and “them,” the assertion that humans can be readily classified into neat groups (usually graded by darkness), and ultimately, the unwavering belief that the marginal group (ego’s group) is intellectually or morally superior to other, darker, more naturalistic or animalistic, groups.

Within the US and western culture more broadly, whiteness is a thing that grows or otherwise changes to be inclusive of the groups that manage to buy into it, and at the same time, blackness (or darkness) is a place to which certain things, deeds, or ideas are relegated. Think: dark arts, the dark side of the matter, blacklisting, white hats vs. black hats, and so on and so forth. This is an old story getting new attention in recent years.

And speaking of that recent attention, a new paper coming out in the next issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at “How social status shapes race.” From the abstract:

We show that racial perceptions are fluid; how individuals perceive their own race and how they are perceived by others depends in part on their social position. Using longitudinal data from a representative sample of Americans, we find that individuals who are unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished are more likely to be seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white, regardless of how they were classified or identified previously. This is consistent with the view that race is not a fixed individual attribute, but rather a changeable marker of status.

Now, gaze at the following graph and spend a little time with the caption.


i-011c2e7627edc3c53158586c8cb7ebd1-social_construction_of_race_graph.jpg

Fig. 1. Racial classification by interviewer and current social status, 1979 -1998. Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

A The percentage of respondents perceived to be white by the survey interviewer in the current year, restricted to respondents who were classified as white in the previous year.

B The percentage of respondents perceived to be black in the current year, restricted to respondents classified as black in the previous year. Incarcerated indicates whether the respondent was interviewed while in prison; unemployed indicates whether the respondent was unemployed at the time of the interview; and impoverished indicates whether the respondent’s household income was below the poverty line. Observations are person-years. Error bars, 1SE.

In other words, when you do bad you become black.

This kind of negativity in association with racializiation of social interaction comes out in all sorts of ways. We see it in the driving while black phenomenon, we see it in the vitriol that is often spewed by racists when they are called on their racism, we see it when a black man gets very close to being president among the racists attending the other guy’s rally.

A. M. Penner, A. Saperstein (2008). How social status shapes race Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805762105

Comments

  1. #1 BZ
    December 9, 2008

    Next time I get you on the horn I have some q’s for you

  2. #2 lylebot
    December 9, 2008

    In other words, when you do bad you become black.

    The reverse (when you do good you become white) seems to be true as well. There are some people out there on the blogz now trying to claim that Barack Obama does not identify as black, or that he’s not black because he looks more like his white grandfather than his black grandparents.

    (blogz was a typo, but I decided to leave it.)

  3. #3 Stacy
    December 9, 2008

    My teachers in elementary school pointed this out to me 30+ years ago.

    In movies – the man on the white horse is the hero and the man wearing black is the villain, etc…

    Now, the Brits are the bad guys. ;-)

  4. #4 Sigmund
    December 9, 2008

    Unfortunately the paper itself is terrible. The methodology is inconsistent and highly subjective. It’s surprising that PNAS would accept a manuscript of that standard particularly as its an interesting topic to address.
    Stacy, if you want the one place there is 100% racial integration in the cinema then look no further than gangs of New York muggers from 1980s movies (it was always one black guy and one long haired white guy, both in denim).

  5. #5 the real blue-eyed-african
    December 9, 2008

    “Social construction is almost always self serving to someone, and thus, denigrating, disparaging, disempowering to others.”

    And isn’t this true also when we say that ‘we are all Africans’ too?
    Because we are Pangeans, if we trace our roots to the primal muck, right? Why do we use this modern idea of a ‘continent of Africa’ as if there was no other before it? So who does the social construction of ‘we’ are all ‘Africans’ serve and empower/disempower, etc?
    I see, said the blue eyed monkey…

    Sigmund: don’t forget the wonderful diversity of those 70′s-80′s After-School specials, and Sesame Street.

    Just full of diversity-except for that the whitemenz was seldom, if ever present, unless he was sycophantically/romanticaly attached to a singlemom, gay, crippled, or Mr. Rogers.

  6. #6 Rob
    December 9, 2008

    The “we are all Pangeans” comment is not used because Pangea split up millions of years before humans and their direct ancestors came about. We might as well say we are all earthlings. “We are all Africans” speaks directly to the evolution of our lineage. Further, by claiming African ancestry, it points out the absurdity of racist comments based on more recent migrations to places like Europe, the Americas, etc.

  7. #7 Henry Harpending
    December 9, 2008

    Greg, where did you get this:

    “…the level of difference if actually measured between such groups and their neighbors remains far less than typical levels of difference between subspecies (races) in other mammals.”

    Henry

  8. #8 watercat
    December 9, 2008

    I recently read a book on Rwanda that outlined how Tutsis and Hutus never existed as separate groups until the British colonial policies created them. I believe this has happened in other times and places, although I don’t have the facts with me. ??

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 9, 2008

    Henry: Do you want to show us some data which contradicts this claim?

    One good comparison would be among chimp subspecies. There are a number of published genetic distance measures for these groups, and they are substantially greater than for human groups.

    A simple approach would be to take any set of published FST values for any of the many recent population studies looking at lions, elephants, apes, whatever … (I’m thinking here mainly of large bodied mammals as one species on a single continent, to make it simple). Compare that to FST values from whatever your favorite source is. Excellent undergraduate paper project.

    By supplying the right data, you can probably come up with any conclusion you want. But if you look fairly at most of the data, you’ll see that my generalization applies.

  10. #10 the real blue-eyed-african
    December 9, 2008

    Rob: “millions of years before humans and their direct ancestors came about.”

    You meant “billions”, right? But after all, the actual slime that made the protozoan, that made the toad, that made the monkey that made us all African higher order princes came from Pangean mud!

    and:
    “Further, by claiming African ancestry, it points out the absurdity of racist comments based on more recent migrations to places like Europe, the Americas”

    Ah. That’s what I was getting at. So, calling all humans “Africans” is another political and social construct.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerso
    December 9, 2008

    I wonder if there is a correlation between status and familiarity? One time my chair asked me how many minorities I had in class. I told him one, thinking of a girl I did not know. Later I corrected myself and told him two. The other was a black man I had known for some time. I just didn’t think of him when first asked about minority numbers.

  12. #12 Henry Harpending
    December 9, 2008

    Greg writes: “Henry: Do you want to show us some data which contradicts this claim? ”

    Sure, http://www.goodrumj.com/RFaqHTML.html. A famous paper by Alan Templeton in the American Anthropologist made the claim you are making, but he compared Fst from human nuclear data to mtDNA Fst from other mammals, and the two are not commensurable. Comparison of human mtDNA vs. other mammal mtDNA or human and other mammal nuclear DNA shows that humans are more rather than less differentiated than other large mammals, in both cases.

    Henry

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    December 9, 2008

    generally, human FsT differences run under about 0.20 (liberally, really much less) and other lg. mammal continental-wide or intercontinental differences are over 0.25 (conservatively).

    I’m not physically in a place where I can lay my hands on this (wrong office) and in fact I’m in a meeting … but chimp-chimp sub species mtDNA is way way more different than any inter ‘racial’ human comparison.

  14. #14 BrokenSymmetry
    December 9, 2008

    White is beautiful too! What Im seeing is an attempt to smear a phenotypical group composed of at least 2 major y chromosome markers, both with subsets. That being white Europeans, Indigenous People of Europe, I guess makes it ok?? No it doesnt. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the common ancestry we all share in East Africa 130000 years ago, the migratory journey out of Arica 80000 years ago by one of the 15 lines, and the journey from modern Khazakstan 40000 years ago by people who would later find themselves in Europe in two major waves.

    Our ancestors, distant African and more recent central Asian and eventually European, do not deserve to be maligned , nor do we their decendents, because of ancient mentalities coupled with high technology, that culminated in planetary polirtical and economic domination. We have no reason to wish it had been someoe else’s ancestors either. Had the Aztecs of the 1400′s, or Mongols of 1200′s, or Bantu of 1100′s had steam engines and associated combat capabilites, metalurgy etc, I dare say our planet would have faired worse. There is not one shred of hard genetic evidence presented by such ‘slam the Euroman’ editorials, to show that we are deserved of a modern browbeating as is often attempted by ‘politically correct’ academia. If we ever held another group to the standards our own academia holds us to we would be considered vile and racist.

    I am tired of my ancestral group being maligned. We have given the world most of the technology used to sequence and analyse DNA and a host of other methods now used to show our human inheritance, as well as our regional ancesttral peculiarities. We can accept and celebrate both without contradicton and without shame. We have no right to hate others for not being part of our recent ancestral migratory event, and we have every reason to be proud of our forefathers who first crossed the rivers and mountains of Europe, and their decendents that built Western Civilization, a foundation for the techno-complex that developed computers we are all on right now!

  15. #15 Right Hand
    December 9, 2008

    Broken Symmetry: So far no one has put you in the oven and turned on the heat or rounded you up in concentration camps and infected you with small pox. So you are getting off pertty darn easy if you ask me. Your assumption that the Aztec would have caused our species to fare worse and that other ‘races’ would not have invented your favorite toy easily smacks of white supremacy in action.

  16. #16 Azkyroth
    December 9, 2008

    You meant “billions”, right? But after all, the actual slime that made the protozoan, that made the toad, that made the monkey that made us all African higher order princes came from Pangean mud!

    Vaalbaran, actually.

  17. #17 Skemono
    December 9, 2008

    We show that racial perceptions are fluid; how individuals perceive their own race and how they are perceived by others depends in part on their social position. Using longitudinal data from a representative sample of Americans, we find that individuals who are unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished are more likely to be seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white, regardless of how they were classified or identified previously. This is consistent with the view that race is not a fixed individual attribute, but rather a changeable marker of status.

    Indeed, in some court cases in this country race was defined partly (or even mostly) by one’s social status. I recall several cases where a person’s race was in question and the court declared that they could be found white because they were in good social standing. I may do a post on this myself later.

  18. #18 moneduloides
    December 9, 2008
  19. #19 the real me
    December 9, 2008

    “Had the Aztecs of the 1400′s, or Mongols of 1200′s, or Bantu of 1100′s had steam engines and associated combat capabilites, metalurgy etc, I dare say our planet would have faired worse”

    Um…really” Why? Because at least the Aztec are rumored to have given there torture victims drugs before they tore their hearts out? Or, Um, because the bantu were stupid enough to nearly single handedly finance that other fanatical religion, via their homage to Mansa Musa? Surely you can’t be serious!!??

    I would gladly welcome an equally slanted/distorted race/social construct debate with , um, Islamic fanatics and Israelis as I relish this one with recovering Catholics, self hating (but somehow blameless) foreskin foregone Jews and the antiChrist of Atheists…

    RightHand:If we ever held another group to the standards our own academia holds us to we would be considered vile and racist.

    “So far no one has put you in the oven and turned on the heat or rounded you up in concentration camps and infected you with small pox”

    Um, no, but there was that little thing with that damned proto-Converso DeTorqemada and the hot nipple clips…and then too, was that darned ChenJiSiHan dealie bobber with those Mongolian hordes…Hmmm…and who was leading the Russian secret police when slaughtering “white Christians” wholesale was in fashion…and, um….um…who WERE King Solomons slaves?And, um…um… was Hitler only half joking when he took the advice of Goebbels and used Freud and Bernays as a tool of “mass communication” to organize the masses?

    “infected you with small pox”

    Which reminds me: where DID AIDS originate anyways? Oh, yeah..at my cousins-cousins-cousins hut in the Congo…

  20. #20 the real me
    December 9, 2008

    Azkyroth: you’re off your craton!
    …but yes, we are all Vaalbaran at heart, one big happy non-politicized, non-socially constructed body of well-wishers-fer-the-human-race, free of propagandized constructs, and singin’ “We are the ..AFRICANS…we are the chil’renz..”
    kumbayahoo, KuuUUmbaAYyahoos……..

  21. #21 Skemono
    December 12, 2008

    Been a couple days, but I got around to writing that post I said I would.

  22. #22 Ben
    January 15, 2009

    “level of difference if actually measured between such groups and their neighbors remains far less than typical levels of difference between subspecies (races) in other mammals.”

    I thought there was actually greater variation between human population groups than between dog breeds? See “Race” by Vince Sarich & Frank Miele.