The Fictoid of Race

March against racism in Kiev, Ukraine © 2009 Marfucha | Wikimedia Commons

After a couple of centuries of errors, today we know that there is greater genetic variation within races than across them. Racial groups differ in more or less 6 percent of their genes, which means that ninety four percent of variation occurs within conventional racial categories. Race is thus a construct without genetic basis. To be sure, it is not a biological fact, the American Anthropological Association says, but “a social mechanism invented during the 18th century” in part to justify the European colonial expansion. The notion that there are human subspecies stems primarily from colonial ideologies, particularly from the idea that nature, and thus God, ordained a hierarchy of races, a belief that justified slavery and underpinned the laws and the logic that governed colonial economies.

Consider the notion that there is a “white race,” which is generally defined in the U.S. as “descent from any of the original peoples of Europe,” as census folk say. The idea that a white race naturally stems from any European roots is very recent. Bear in mind that the Romans, the Greeks, the Gauls, the Franks, etc., never thought of themselves as “white,” as sharing the same racial boat by virtue of being “Europeans.” Julius Caesar could never think of himself as white. A direct descendant from Aphrodite, he was, instead, of the race of the gods. To find folks who believe that European ancestry, broadly conceived, endows them with a race, we have to go all the way to the 20th century. We have to picture a time when the children and grandchildren of European immigrants to the U.S. melted into a common culture and eventually into a common “white race.”

This happened by the middle of the 20th century. In 1922, Jim Rollings, a black man from Alabama, was dragged to a court accused of the crime of miscegenation, of having had very consensual sex with a white woman, one Edith Labue. Luckily for the defendant, the woman in question was Italian. As soon as the judge discovered that important piece . . .

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