The Question of Race

by Steuart Pennington

racism-sa-good-newsIs the “race question” in South Africa just a black/white thing? When someone is accused of “playing the race card” are they contrasting blacks and whites only? Is someone who is accused of being “racist” always white? Is race a social construct or is it a side-effect of the fact that humanity is still evolving? Is it, as Steven Friedman suggests, our ticking time bomb?

This is such a tricky and contentious issue in our country. I read the contributions of various authors often, and their views differ. Below are some of these views. I hope they are of interest and add value to the debate.

Differing Departure Points

It seems the answer to these questions depend on whether you have a sociological, historical or bio-geographical departure point.

Nicholas Wade, in the Spectator (17 May 2014) “The genome of history”, contrasts the views of social scientists – who proclaim that race is a social, not a biological construct – with that of historians – who argue that races differ only in culture – with that of biological scientists who argue that studies of the human genome prove that human evolution has been extensive, recent and regional.

“Biological research reveals that no less than 14% of the human genome has changed under recent evolutionary pressure. Most of these signals of natural selection date from 30 000 to 5 000 years ago, just an eye-blink in evolution’s three-billion-year timescale,” Wade points out.

“Evolution does not stop” he proclaims. “Is there no reason to suppose human evolution ground to a halt at some decent interval before the present, as historians and social scientists habitually assume?

“Or?” he questions, “Is there an argument to suggest that Africans, East Asians and Caucasians, evolving independently, adapted to their own set of regional challenges?”

“Indeed, it is hard to see anything in the human genome that would support any notion of racism,” says Wade, “but our growing knowledge of genetics does allow us to identify biological differences as a result of the evolutionary process of natural selection”.

“Edward Wilson was pilloried for suggesting in his 1975 book, “Sociobiology” that many human social behaviours might have an evolutionary basis. But research has proved him correct.”

“With human beings, evolution seems to have followed a particular strategy; keep the body as is, but vary social behaviour to let people exploit new niches”.

Different Trajectories?

“Humans are still a single species, but at least three evolutionary changes in social structure seem evident:”

  • The first is the transition from foraging to settled life.
  • The second is the transition from tribalism to modern states.
  • The third from agrarian to modern economies, the Industrial Revolution.

“China was the first state to replace tribalism, the unification in 221 BC marked the emergence of the first modern state, Europeans took another 1 000 years to catch up, notably when the King of the Franks became King of France. Other populations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, are in the throes of achieving this transition. Likewise the Industrial Revolution, which started in England was able “to transform the violent peasant population of the 1200’s into the disciplined workforce of 1800’s”.

“In many respects the evolution of the different population groups in the world has largely been in parallel, but on slightly different timescales, probably because of demographic and bio-geographical factors.

“Clearly no society is intrinsically superior to any other, but inevitably each has periods of greater relative success.

Geography, Institutions and Individuals

“So,” asks Wade, “Why are some countries rich and others persistently poor? Capital and information flow fairly freely, so what is it that prevents poor countries from taking out a loan, copying what rich countries do, and becoming rich and peaceful?”

“The answers to such questions may lie in a hitherto unexamined possibility, that human social nature has been shaped by evolution and that human groups therefore differ slightly in their social behaviour and in the social institutions that depend on that behaviour, variations in which can lead to very different kinds of society.

Significant human differences lie at this level, not at the level of individuals. This explains why people, unlike institutions, can easily migrate from one society to another.

Jared Dymond, in his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel” supports this contention; “Europe’s colonisation of Africa has nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as racists will have it. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography – in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”

“Continents differ in innumerable environmental features affecting the trajectories of human societies. People are not different, the environments in which they have evolved are different.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers” further concurs as he describes the concept of cultural legacies as “powerful forces, with deep roots and long lives. Cultural legacies persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behaviour that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”

So as we consider our own racial ‘issues’ in South Africa, can we conclude that we as individuals do not differ simply because we are people of a different race, and that expression of our individual differences can never be blamed on race, racism, or the race card?

I think we can – differing with each other, and from each other, is not “racist” and those who argue it is are quite simply wrong.

As Wade concludes, “Race may be a troublesome inheritance, but it is better to explore and understand its bearing on human nature and history than to pretend for reasons of political convenience that it has no evolutionary basis.”

What does that mean for us? It means we need to understand whether we are debating race in the context of a sociological, historical or bio-geographical perspective. To do this we need to explore ways of:

  • understanding the recent and regional environments within which we, of different races, have evolved;
  • understanding what the collision of these environments have meant for our cultural legacy and our trajectory as a society;
  • understanding what social institutions we need to develop to ensure that our joint trajectory becomes shared, supported and sustainable.

These are the ingredients of reconciliation as opposed to a racial debate, or a racial divide, or a racial history regarding our many challenges. Reconciliation is about understanding why we are colliding and then building an institutional framework – we started quite well with our constitution – in which we can understand, trust and co-habit with a shared vision of building a country in which we are truly “united in our diversity and determined to improve the quality of life of all citizens”, despite our apparent differences and historical trajectories.

We will never do that if we continue to play the race card when it is convenient, when we disagree, or when we have nothing else.

Steuart Pennington is CEO of and author of SOUTH AFRICA @ 20: For Better or for Worse? (2013)