How to Argue with a Racist (book)

Adam Rutherford, British geneticist and writer, has a new book, How to Argue with a Racist. I have read it and think it is an educational, interesting and well written book. It comes at a good time because there is now a lot of talk about racism and what to do about it. We often have conversations about race and racism based on our personal experiences, intuitions, norms and values, and common sense.

This book adds something valuable in that it explains what the science of genetics and the science of evolution show about races and supposed differences between races. That makes the book very interesting. But I also have two critical thoughts about the book.

How we conveniently talk about race

People are different from each other. There are differences both between individuals and also between groups. These differences are partly due to differences in our genes. To talk about differences between groups, we often divide people into races. Many think that people's race can be seen by what they look like. As we do that we tend to rely mainly on skin color. Also, many people assume that there are fundamental differences in abilities and talents between members of different races.

This way of classifying people into races, mainly on the basis of skin color, started during the time of the European colonization and was supported by pseudo scientific race theories of people like Francis Galton.

No scientific basis for race

But how we conveniently talk about races doesn't correspond with genetic differences between humans and populations and with what we know about evolution. A certain geographic clustering on the basis of genetic material is possible, but the boundaries of these clusters are vague, overlapping and changeable.

Culture or DNA?

We often attribute differences between people of different origins to genetic differences, but is this justified? It is undeniably true that people from different backgrounds may differ greatly in how well they perform in different activities. For example, people of Ashkenazi Jewish background are hugely over-represented in the group of Nobel laureates, and people of West African immigration ancestry completely dominate the sprint events in athletics. (As an aside, these kinds of differences often seem to 'neatly' confirm prejudices along the lines of 'black brawn and white brains').

But when you study the data carefully (read the book for this) you see that the basis for these types of group performance differences cannot be found in DNA but in culture. People from different ethnic groups and from different geographic areas have different customs, often value different things and therefore cultivate different things within their subculture. These are precisely the things in which representatives from their groups can come to excel.

Race exists because we perceive it?

While I find the book interesting and well-written, I also have two critical thoughts about it. The first is about the use of terms like race, black, white, Jewish, etc. On the one hand, Rutherford says race is an ill-defined concept and there is no biological basis for it. On the other hand, he says that race certainly does exist because it is a social construct. He says, "Race exists because we perceive it."

I think this is a curious reasoning. Interpretation plays a major role in perception and our interpretation can often be wrong about anything. So, the fact that we perceive something does not mean that it exists. I don't really understand why Rutherford isn't saying: "Because race is such a poorly defined concept, we'd better stop using it." I can already see the racist respond: “Ah, Mr. Scientist (Rutherford) agrees: races exist because we perceive them. My friends and I also perceive that races are fundamentally unequal to each other so that must be true, too!”

Black and white people?

The same is true of the use of terms such as 'white people' and 'black people'. Rutherford believes that these types of terms are bad scientific indications of the immense diversity within these billions of people and that it is ironic that we know roughly what these descriptors mean in the vernacular when they are incoherent in terms of scientific taxonomy. At the same time, however, he keeps using them. 

Why not make an explicit case for minimizing the use of these terms? Is it not the continued use of terms like these that will continue the problem of thinking in boxes? Shouldn't we protest against these simplifications at every opportunity and argue for more realistic and nuanced language?

Rutherford himself is the child of an English father and mother of Indian descent. In the book he writes that he is biracial and that half of his genetic material resembles that of people of Indian descent and the other half that of people of English ancestry. So that would make him half Indian and half European. But I sympathize much more with what he himself writes a little later: “I do not consider myself to be half-caste, or half anything.”

How to talk to dissenters?

A second critical thought about the book concerns the title. "How to argue with a racist" is not a great title and does not accurately reflect what is in the book. "How do you argue with a racist" suggested to me that the book also discusses how to effectively talk to people with racist ideas. But the book doesn't do that much. It does provide important basic knowledge, which can of course be very useful in conversations with people with different ideas about this subject.

I would certainly have found it interesting if the book would have gone into how to have constructive conversations with people with outdated ideas about race. Confronting them with facts may not be enough or even effective. Perhaps there are good ways to make them think and look at the subject differently (think of epistemological interviewing, for example).