The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few months ever since receiving in the mail a new book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History,” by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade.
Here’s what I wrote in my review of this book for Slate:
The word “inequality” does not appear in the book’s index, but what Wade is offering is essentially a theory of economic and social inequality, explaining systematic racial differences in prosperity based on a combination of innate traits (“the disinclination to save in tribal societies is linked to a strong propensity for immediate consumption”) and genetic adaptation to political and social institutions (arguing, for example, that generations of centralized rule have effected a selection pressure for Chinese to be accepting of authority).
Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics. His explanations seem to me simultaneously plausible and preposterous: plausible in that they snap into place to explain the world as it currently is, preposterous in that I think if he were writing in other time periods, he could come up with similarly plausible, but completely different, stories.
I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans.
We don’t hear much these days about the Celtic, Gallic, Teutonic, and Slavic races, but these used to be a big deal. Now that Europe as a whole is relatively prosperous, Wade can lump “the West” into a single category.
In any era, racism is typically supported by comparing two groups that are socially unequal and with clear physical differences. But both these sorts of comparisons are moving targets. . . .
That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture. . . .
But I think the themes of a book like Wade’s are necessarily contingent both on the era when it is written and the audience to which it is addressed. At the start of his last chapter, Wade speaks to his readers: “Imagine you, as an English speaker of European descent …” In the spirit of modern ideas in theoretical physics, one might imagine a multiverse of possible Nicholas Wades, writing in all possible epochs and for all possible audiences, dividing up humans into groups at different levels of coarseness and focusing on different economic and social outcomes. The racial explanation tuned to our social group and our time period will look oh so reasonable, while all the others will just look silly, like either historical relics or desperate attempts to shore up the status quo. . . .
At any given time, racial explanations are a convenient and natural way to explain social and economic inequality. Then, as relations between and within societies change, the racial explanations change alongside. The terms of race are simply too flexible given the limited information we have regarding the connections between genes and behavior.
P.S. The most interesting comment I got on all of this was not in the Slate comment section but by email, from Jonathan Falk, who reacted to a place in the review where I wrote, “Indeed, Wade writes, ‘Without Western production efficiencies, the countries of East Asia might still be locked in stagnant autocracies.’ Maybe, but I don’t think Toyota got where it is today by copying the production efficiencies of General Motors.” Falk informed me:
That’s certainly wrong as to the beginnings of Toyota (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Type_A_engine) in which Toyota not only copied the engine, but sourced the parts from GM’s manufacturers (who weren’t GM). The copied everything they could from the the (then) most successful automaker in the world.
Actually, that fits very nicely into the theme of your essay — We associate GM today with bloat and lethargy, but they got where they are by being a very different company, an efficient juggernaut which surpassed Ford by out-Fording them.
I remember how crappy American cars used to be in the 70s and how much better the Japanese cars were. It makes sense: U.S. auto executives were making tons of money producing the same sort of cars over and over, and Japanese executives had different incentives as they were trying to break into the market.
The funny thing is that, just as economists are trying (in my view, often in silly ways) to apply the principles of economic exchanges to all sorts of other areas of life, based on the principle that “Everyone is fundamentally alike”), here we have a science reporter doing the opposite, trying to use evolution and group differences to explain phenomena such as interest rates and business success, that seem fundamentally economic.
In both cases, there is some intellectual joy at explaining an outcome in one area based on a theory coming from somewhere else, and the sense of unlimited possibilities as all the pieces click into place. Perhaps because of my own background (and inclinations) as a statistician and political science, I’m skeptical of these all-encompassing theories. As Nate Silver might say, call me a fox.
One thing that the economists and the racists can agree on, though, is to hate on anthropology. So there should be some room for common ground here.
P.P.S. Cosma Shalizi points me to an excellent bit of old-style racism from 1377: “It has even been reported that most of the Negroes of the first zone dwell in caves and thickets, eat herbs, live in savage isolation and do not congregate, and eat each other. The same applies to the Slavs. . . .”
P.P.P.S. X points me to this very reasonable review by Arthur Allen.