Sonia Sotomayor, the most recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, whose race is, I think, Hispanic, if Hispanic actually qualifies as a race, got the race-baiting political ball rolling last week with her dissent in Schuette v BAMN. The case is a challenge to an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution that banned the consideration of race, individually or collectively, in the dispensation of government goodies, like admission to state-funded institutions of higher education such as the University of Michigan. The amendment effectively banning Affirmative Action in university admissions decisions arose out of a previous Supreme Court case (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003) brought against the University of Michigan which had effectively upheld them. In other words, the Court had previously upheld UM’s consideration of race in admissions (the law school’s actually) that prompted the people of Michigan to overthrow the scheme through an amendment to the state’s constitution, which the Court said this time was a perfectly legitimate exercise of political processes in resolving such issues. Judge Sotomayor vociferously disagreed, from her dissent in Schuette:
Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grows up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from,” regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”
That makes such perfect, heart-felt sense, that I just can’t help but agree. In fact, I would go one further and say that race is actually all that matters, because if race matters at all it is clearly the case that it matters the most. The potential student body should therefore be carved into racial groups and awarded admissions according to quotas meted out to each group. Each racial group should be represented exactly in proportion to the overall population. In effect, the University of Michigan, and places like it, should have admissions criteria that create several sub-classes, based solely on racial categories under which an applicant is admitted, within each year’s admitting class. The groups should also be kept together when they arrive, treated differently according to racial group needs. After all, race matters.
It would first be necessary under such a regime to ascertain what constitutes a racial group, and define who can claim membership in it. It appears from the cultural clatter about race that defining racial groups must heavily depend on ancestry, or perhaps culture, which is inherited, too, in sort of the same manner that species are demarcated in biology according to the ability or not to breed among different types. So, perhaps we should ask the biologists how a human racial group might be identified. What’s that, they say? There are no biologically determinative means of identifying members of H. sapiens according to racial groups? What H. sapiens considers to be innate biological differences are really just superficialities caused by adaptations to local climatic variations? Indeed, African skin is dark because Africa sits astride the equator; the same goes for Indian, Pakistani and Latino skin. All these places are near the equator which causes H. sapiens skin color to be darker (and vice versa for the skin tone of Inuit in the Arctic, for example), a trait which has been selected as favorable for such climates enough times that it remains durable several generations removed from the climate that caused it.
But doesn’t their naturally-selected skin color indicate their biological distinctiveness? Sort of, the biologists would answer, in the same way that a beagle is distinctive from a cocker spaniel. Both are dogs, with all the internal plumbing that make a dog a dog, in particular that they can successfully mate with each other, but they have been artificially bred to look different and have other attributes that differ, perhaps in their hunting strategies (beagles are chase hounds; spaniels are pointers). But to do this, the dog breeders had to breed them purely, i.e., breeding two with the same traits together, and their progeny, etc., for a great many generations, which is quite different from the human experience. There has been no such restriction on human breeding. Nature has done the selecting, and only for climatic variations. There are no breeders managing the human stock. There has been only natural selection and geographical dispersion yielding brief breeding isolation, which ended roughly five hundred years ago, when the two strands, east and west, of dispersing humans finally and conclusively closed the daisy chain of migration with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. And there were no purebreds even then. The purest light-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swede still had some African blood in her. Through DNA analysis, we know this to be true. There are no pure-bred humans, and for that matter, all the dogs we also know to be descendants of wolves, so there aren’t really any purebred spaniels or beagles, either. Or, it might be more accurate to describe purity in breeding as a relative matter, as the absolutist’s idea does not exist in nature. Human races, like dog breeds, aren’t biologically distinctive.
(But I wonder, if several individual beagles, i.e., dogs who didn’t already know each other, were released into a common pen with a solitary spaniel, or vice versa, would the solitary dog of its breed feel isolated and sense the fear he elicits in the other dogs? Would the majority breed attack the loner? All that I’ve ever seen of dogs is that they haven’t a clue that they are anything except dogs, but who knows?)
Where does that leave us? The only biological traits that seem relevant to identifying racial groups are purely superficial; the dark slanted eyes and straight black hair of the East Asians; the Mediterranean eyes, dark to mulatto skin tones and straight black hair of the Indian subcontinent peoples; the lightly colored hair, pale skin and blue eyes of the Northern Europeans countries; the dark skin, dark eyes and fuzzy curls of the Africans; the dark hair and eyes and olive skin of the Mediterranean countries; the reddish skin and Asian facial and follicular features of the American natives, including Latinos; the mocha-to-olive skin and Mediterranean hair and eyes of Semitic peoples in North Africa and the Middle East (yes, to include both Jews and Arabs), and finally (though the list is hardly exhaustive), the blubbery Asian faces and bodies of the Inuit and other Arctic peoples. That makes eight different groups, and no uniformly-differing characteristic to distinguish among them. How to proceed?
Perhaps the government could simply use skin tone. It could make a scale, something like the Mohs scale of mineral hardness which physicists use to classify the relative hardness of various substances, and classify individual skin tones according to the closeness with which they match prototype skin tones for each race. The problem with skin tone, though, is that they vary not only according to these contrived racial groups, but also within the groups. A dark-skinned Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Indian can be darker in color than a light-skinned North African. And what about the odd duck, the Northern European whose ancestors migrated to Africa but retains a pale, if more tanned, skin tone? Is he to be considered African by race? What climatological heritage should determine a person’s race? Race matters, indeed, but rather quickly gets confusing in its application.
What about hair texture? Anyone with the fuzzy, tightly wired curls of Africans would be considered racially African. But what about the rest? Asians and Indians have essentially the same texture to their hair, and among the melted pot of Europeans in America, there is just no telling what might turn up in the way of hair texture and color. The same is true of the Semitic peoples of North Africa. Race matters, but how it matters is fuzzier and fuzzier to grasp.
What about language? Identify the language of the people to identify their race. That certainly sounds plausible, as language is intricately entwined with culture and we already know culture and race go hand in hand. But, while language seems a greater cultural bond than anything could otherwise be imagined, with people willing to die for another who sounds the same, regardless their looks (or in Vladimir Putin’s case, to ‘rescue’ others who speak the same language from Ukrainian fascists) , language differences only last a generation. Latinos speaking Spanish who come to the US may never fluently know the local language. But their children will. So language won’t work, either, as a distinguishing feature to make race matter.
If the aim of making race matter is equable outcomes, why not just forget about individual attributes, racial, intellectual and otherwise, and take the stack of applications received of the University of Michigan and pull names at random, until a student body that matches the population is achieved? But that doesn’t get past the problem of what to match, and of course, the proper population to match would need be decided. Is it the population of the state of Michigan? Does Big Blue really want to be that parochial? Perhaps the whole of the United States. But why stop there? Isn’t the US the destination for some portion of all the world’s people? Why not make the University of Michigan a microcosm of the whole world, perfectly reflective of the world’s various racial groups? They would have to vastly increase the representation among Africans, East Asians, Middle Asians (Indian, Pakistani, etc.) and Latinos, while reducing the representation among Northern and Mediterranean Europeans, if the groups are properly contrived.
And a further problem arises if we use our eight or so racial categories—we are ignoring racial differences within the categories. The East Asians, lumped together as one big racial group, would vociferously object if they didn’t belong to the subgroup, that they were the same as Japanese or Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese or Cambodian or Thai, or Malay, etc., etc., etc. The average Northern European might not be able to tell the difference between the average Japanese and Chinese, but the average East Asian surely can. And where the average African wouldn’t be able to tell a Frenchman from a German, the average Northern European could and would, with centuries of blood to prove it.
It is optimistic romanticism to think the vast bureaucratic machinery of the federal government is big enough to resolutely solve this problem of race; that it can make right the feelings of the young man or woman who feels, “I don’t belong here.” But the reality seems a trifle more challenging. It sure sounds truthy to say “race matters”, but how does a government salve someone’s hurt feelings? How is a government, even one as big and powerful as is the US government (though its reach does not apparently extend past Ukraine in the West and Japan in the East), capable of such a thing?
The happy ending is that the reason it would be so difficult as a practical matter to establish that ‘race matters’ is because, in the end, it doesn’t much. Racial bigotry is as superficial as the markers through which racial identities are awkwardly established. It might matter to a group of homeys when a kid from another group, racial or otherwise, strolls through their neighborhood, but that’s always been the case. People form groups out of a multitude of distinguishing attributes—locals/outsiders; male/female; young/old; English/Spanish speakers, and yes, the skin/eye/hair color and texture of racial superficialities. But racial bigotry is as superficial as the attributes it depends upon. When there is a task at hand that a person is particularly talented at (take, for instance, playing basketball), the racial bigotry will be cast aside for the benefits that come through ignoring them. Even Bob Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who is alleged to have revealed a very bigoted racial heart to his former girlfriend, has a payroll full of black NBA stars, and just hired a black general manager and perhaps the best active NBA coach to lead them. If race matters to him, it doesn’t matter so much that he’s willing to lose at basketball to express it.
Race matters, but not as much as Sonia Sotomayor argues it should. Race matters for hurt feelings and all, but really, anyone who wants to feel they belong in these United States of America simply needs to decide that they do. People were deciding as much for decades before the Supreme Court came along to try and occasionally make the federal government the final arbiter of hurt feelings.