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The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America
Joseph L. Graves, Jr.
New York: Dutton, 2004.
$24.95, 285 pages, 0-525-94825-2

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago

The Race Myth is an occasionally engaging text that relies on gratuitous repetition. Graves tends to restate his fairly obvious argument about the intellectual bankruptcy of race as a biological construct as if he were the first individual to come to this conclusion. He also tends to repeat his argument as if there were discernible layers to it needing to be unpacked. The reader, who knows that race is a myth designed to allow the powerful to hold sway over the powerless and little else, has a tendency to feel turned off by both the repetition as well as the insinuation that something innovative and of value is on offer.

Inexplicably, the first third of the text repeats the argument that race is a myth while adding hardly any new flavor to the mix. It’s not that these chapters—“How Biology Refutes Our Racial Myths,” “’Great Is Our Sin’: A Brief History of Racism,” and “Sexual Selection, Reproduction and Social Dominances”—lack interest, so much as the reader is already familiar with Graves’s argument which suggests that race is a mythic social construction, albeit one with considerable consequences for many of the world’s inhabitants. Perhaps the problem can be extended to include the title of the text in addition to the repetition in these chapters. The reader comes to the text fully aware that race is a myth. By that light, it doesn’t help that the first three chapters insist on repeating that point ad infinitem. Indeed, it is only when Graves addresses the second half of his title—the pretence of race as a biologically valid trait that Americans are inclined to rely on—that the text begins to show signs of merit.

The first instance of Graves speaking to the pretence of race as holding validity occurs in the fourth chapter, “Jungle Fever: Race, Sexuality, and Marriage.” Here, the author cites examples intended to support his argument that the reader is immediately inclined to question, given that the examples do not seem particularly well thought out. A case in point is his reference to the alleged trial of the century, the People v. OJ Simpson. Graves reads the criminal trial as solely a black/white issue, which presupposes, amongst other things, that there weren’t blacks who thought the Juice was guilty of murdering his wife and her friend [68]. While he rightly attributes many black individuals’ jubilation about the not-guilty verdict to a sense of vindication for the disquieting Rodney King verdict from a few years earlier, he seems determined to read the Simpson trial as a black/white issue, obfuscating the numerous diverse and complicated counter-narratives.

Shortly after his questionable interpretation of the OJ Simpson trial, Graves offers the following remarks about marriage:

If Americans were to marry and have children without regard to socially constructed races, the physical distinctions within our nation would disappear within eight generations, or 240 years. The resultant population would be a mixture of all the physical features exhibited from humans around the world. [93]

It troubles the reader that marriage is positioned here as a feasible panacea to the problem (perhaps) of race, as well as how that cure-all is later re-invoked to deconstruct the problem, e.g. during the discussion of which individuals have benefited the most from affirmative action programs. According to Graves’s research, white women have achieved the most measurable gains:

To be sure, affirmative action has helped minorities enter professions where they have been barred and underrepresented, but the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs to date have been European-American women. Due to affirmative action, women increased from 1.2 percent of the top earning corporate officers in 1995 to 5.2 percent in 2002. [196]

The reader feels indebted to Graves for pointing out this thought-provoking statistic. Nonetheless, the next sentence comes across as jarring: “These women usually end up marrying European-American men” [ibid]. Consider as well that this postulation follows a longer treatise about the history of (inter)marriage patterns in the US [99-102], which concludes with the observation, “In the thirteenth century, the French nobleman Pierre DuBois argued that intermarriage of the Christian and Muslim nobility was far more sensible than the Crusades. He was right […] love really is the answer” [102]. Of course, DuBois’s conception of marriage would have been based on class considerations and the ownership/passing down of property through generations, not love. Marriage for love is a very recent concept in the Western World, having been in vogue for only a little over a century. Graves seems curiously unaware of the recent nature of marriage for love, opting to construct his own misleading version of history and using that false history to bolster his argument. That interracial marriage has a fraught history in the US is an undeniable fact. What is problematic is not Graves’s linking of the often race-dependent social contracts (like marriage) that have (in)formed the teleological experience of the “races” in America, but his emphasis on love as the underpinning of marriage as well as the implication that marriage can be read as a solution for the social problems caused by perceived differences between races.

Much to the reader’s chagrin, the fifth chapter in The Race Myth, “America Is Enough to Make You Sick: Differential Health and Mortality for Racial Minorities,” reverts to Graves’s penchant for drawing on the obvious. He offers a richer analysis in chapter six, “Europeans, Not West Africans, Dominate the NBA: The Social Construction of Race and Sports.” One reason this analysis strikes the reader as a richer one is the inclusion of class considerations. This is not to suggest that class is not a social construct like race; rather, it is meant to convey the advantages of recognizing how race consciousness in concert with an awareness of class considerations can lead to a broader understanding of cultural oppression. As Graves notes, the obsession with the composition of the National Basketball Association, as well as the presupposed biological superiority of those who play in that organization, is predicated on the fact that it is a money-rich line of work: “the more we examine sports that don’t happen to be popular in the United States because they lack major financial rewards (such as soccer), the less case can be made for any sort of African or African-American dominance of sports performance” [141]. Having said this, Graves returns to his role as repetitive social scientist, describing how race is a myth that has a virtual stranglehold on the collective American consciousness. The difference in this instance of repetition is that the reader can and arguably should choose to read the remainder of the chapter with the aforementioned class considerations firmly in mind. Doing so helps the reader parse excerpts such as the following with more meticulousness:

[U]nless all the subjects in these testosterone measurements [referring to earlier, biased studies of performance level differences between African-American and European-American athletes] experienced the same environments, the same social conditions, and had displayed the same psychological responses to them, such studies are meaningless. We know full well that American society does not treat African- and European-American males equally so, until that is true, we cannot take any measurement of hormone levels in these groups by which we can prove has any relationship to any supposed genetic differences between them, let alone posit that hormonal levels determine success in any specific sport. [149]

This passage specifically alludes to differences in the way American society treats its African and European subjects, differences predicated on class in addition to race.

The value of this chapter is, undeniably, its inclusion of the class analysis, as demonstrated in these closing words: “a measure of our society’s progression toward social justice may be found in the degree that sports such as tennis, golf, and swimming begin to reflect our cultural diversity” [162-163]. Sports, then, can be viewed as one barometer of a society trying to come to terms with its history in order to shape its present and future. Those sports that are associated with privileged races and classes, e.g. golf, can be analyzed in an effort to identify the cultural barriers that preclude other races and classes from participating in them. In the same way, sports that are associated with less-privileged races and classes, e.g. basketball, can be analyzed in an effort to suss out the lack of barriers that have allowed these less-privileged races and classes to participate in them.

The penultimate chapter, “On Whose Nature Nurture Never Could Stick: Race, Genetics and Intelligence in the New Millennium,” finds the author continuing his repetitive shenanigans. Fortunately by this time, the reader knows what to expect insofar as the depth of argument is concerned. One passage in particular is worth mentioning for its revealing of the possible limitations of Graves’s scope:

If America had made a determined and conscientious effort to eliminate poverty, social bigotry, and environmental pollution, and, if after this task was accomplished, IQ deficits persisted between the races, there might be some utility to such research [that suggests that biological differences exist in the mental capacity of different races]. [182-83]

Here, the reader senses that a broader conception of the issue at hand is warranted given the reality that many of the conundrums he lists are not problems limited to the US, a conceit reinforced by the US focus of his title.

In the concluding chapter, “Two Paths […] Choosing up Sides or Joining Hands,” Graves offers practical, perhaps tenable solutions to some of the issues he has raised. A memorable example is his encouragement of a shorter work week, which would benefit workers and employers alike [202]. Examples such as this bring the reader to a somewhat greater appreciation of the text, as the reader remembers that Graves has offered several fairly well-conceived responses/queries to societal ills all along. For instance, discussing the inefficacy of the health care delivery system, a failure that is not predicated solely on the issue of race, he posits:

Despite all the high-sounding rhetoric of the health disparity initiative, it seems that historical social factors do a better job of explaining the racial patterns we see in mortality as opposed to genetic differences in disease systems. If our goal is really reducing health disparity, then why not address the patterns of social dominance that relegate some people to inferior housing, greater exposure to toxic pollution, lower educational opportunities, and, so, less chance of entering higher-income professions? [135]

If there is a saving grace in The Race Myth it would have to be its tone which is a largely inviting one throughout. Graves has a penchant for taking relatively abstruse scientific models and explicating them in a way that almost makes them sound interesting. Consider this passage:

Remember those twisting ladders of DNA molecules from high-school biology? The DNA of each gene is made up of letters, which are pairs of molecule combinations. There are three billion letters in the human genome. At the Technology Center of Silicon Valley […] scientists built a model of what this looks like. Think of a spiral staircase and each step as a telephone directory. Now, wind a staircase around the first to make a double spiral. Every phonebook is a gene, and the contents are the letters. If you have 100,000 phonebooks and the information in them isn’t listed alphabetically, and you aren’t sure which phonebook goes where along the spirals, you’ve got a big project on your hands. [1]

At other times, there are distinct and appreciable flashes of humor: “Charles Darwin threw a monkey wrench into [this line of thought] when he showed that natural selection was responsible for both the origin of species and for their varieties” [20], as well as his parenthetical clarification of a particularly memorable (especially considering the text’s focus on race) name: “James Crow (yes, that is his name)” [3]. Careful proofreading might have resulted in the avoidance of grammatical errors, particularly unintentionally humorous ones, e.g., the deployment of the term “European-American” [2], which, given the text’s partial aim of displacing whiteness as the racial norm, is quite an amusing gaffe.

The Race Myth cannot be considered a wholly valuable text primarily due to its irritating repetition. Nonetheless, there are passages that are worth the effort of weeding through all of the repetition. One of those passages is the following:

We also know that within sub-Saharan African populations, everything from skin color to skull types to total genetic diversity is more variable than in any other of the world’s populations. In other words, a person from the Congo and a person from Mali are more likely to be different genetically from each other than either is from a person from Belgium. Yet, if everyone from this region got up and moved to the United States, we’d call them all African-Americans and see them as members of the same race. [17]

Here, Graves emphasizes how shaky a construct race is. What is noteworthy for the reader is the verbs in the final sentence, “we’d call them […] and see them.” These verbs underscore the text’s overarching idea that just because one calls a subject by a name and sees that subject in a certain light does not make the subject that name and certainly is no guarantee that the subject considers himself in the same or even a similar light.






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