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  #1  
Unread March 17th, 2005, 10:39 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

From a NYT March 14 editorial, "A Family Tree in Every Gene," by Armand Marie Leroi—

Leroi writes that although anthropologists and “many geneticists” see race as a “social concept, not a scientific one," that, nevertheless, “looked at the right way, genetic data show that races clearly do exist.”

Leroi notes that the “social construct theory” can be traced back to Richard Lewontin, and his reckoning that “most human genetic variation can be found within any given ‘race,’" and that “the continued popularity of race as an idea was an ‘indication of the power of socioeconomically based ideology over the supposed objectivity of knowledge.’" Leroi adds that that was just what “thoughtful, liberal-minded and socially aware people . . . wanted to hear.”

Leroi notes that: Three decades later, it seems that Dr. Lewontin's facts were correct . . . [but that] his reasoning, however, was wrong . . . [that] his error was an elementary one.”

Funny—kind of like saying that the operation was a success, but the patient died. Leroi is too kind—Lewontin couldn’t possibly have been that stupid.

Anywho, Todd and I, and others, were discussing this topic several years ago, and, as I recall, Todd seemed to lack an appreciation for the obvious politically motivated censorship behind the social construct versus race issue. But now that the NYT seems to be sanctioning the obvious, perhaps the obvious will be even more obvious.
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  #2  
Unread March 25th, 2005, 09:15 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Post Define the term; answer the question; tell me why it matters

Hi Fred,

I don't know what you're talking about regarding my previously expressed opinions, so let me start fresh here.

To me, personally, race is just shorthand for group genetic statistical differences. That is, simplistically, the degree to which a group shares genetic markers that are not shared with other groups. If there are such markers, it tells us that by identifying someone's race we can predict that they are very likely to possess those markers, and possibly the converse, that if we find those markers, we are relatively sure that the person belongs to that racial ancestry. Does that seem right so far?

I think we can define groups socially, but it would be confusing as hell to call that race because the word already has distinct connotations of shared ancestry, not just shared traditions. I'd call it shared tradition or shared culture. We generally say that a child of one race raised by family of another race is still the "race" of their ancestry rather than the "race" of their upbringing and social group. Right?

Or is there some way in which race has to depend on phenotype independently of genetics? Any phenotypic difference, it seems to me, should be traceable back to genetic differences if they are meaningful markers of race. So my preference to simplify the question and be able to answer it empirically is to be very specific and say that race is genetic differences between groups of people with shared ancestry.

In this sense, it seems very likely to me that race does exist. In other words, I think we can very often tell someone's ancestry from their genes (the African tribe with the Jewish Coane gene is an interesting example), and also that we can often tell certain things about their genes by knowing their ancestry (we don't usually bother testing African-American children for Tay Sachs or Jewish children for sickle cell anemia).

To me, going beyond this quickly becomes more political than scientific. We quickly blur the line between our stereotypes of racial groups and the traits closely associated with the unique genetic markers because there is very little relationship between them. There's a real disconnect between genetic group differences and meaningful differences in behavior and socially or politically relevant traits, except as pertains to our stereotypes of each other.

Can you predict someone's politics from their genes? It's an interesting hypothesis, but so far the answer appears to be definitively no. We inherit codes of conduct and values through social learning, and the degree to which our genes do indeed help us decide between rival codes and values, they are individual heritable differences, not genetically heritable group differences, as far as we can tell. It isn't impossible in principle that human beings could have evolved such that differences in shared group behavior were largely due to group genetic differences, but it doesn't appear to be the case of our actual history from the available evidence as I understand it.

Although there are legitimate genetic differences as a result of ancestry, group differences in things that matter, such as behavior and values, is much more closely identified with social learning than genetic inheritance.

The significance of that politically is mostly just that we view biological inheritance as permanent and unchangeable and social learning as more under our control and more flexible. We have an unfortunate history in the U.S. of politically legitimized racially based oppression and eugenics, and this is what the opponents of race are particularly concerned about. If we viewed group differences as a matter of social learning rather than biology, it would be much harder to justify the really severe racist policies. It is much easier to justify enslaving a "subspecies" than "a human group with more primitive traditions."

Lewontin's argument, as I understand it, was that there is more genetic variation overall within groups than between them. Lewontin knows a lot more about genetics than most of us, and more than many geneticists, so if that's his argument, I tend to think there is probably some truth to it. Does it really mean that there is no such thing as race in some biological sense? To me it doesn't seem mutually exclusive with the finding that groups may share unique genetic markers within them due to shared ancestry that are not found in other groups.

The question, both political and scientific, becomes whether race is *important* or not, and for what. Do the shared genetic markers of the group matter more than the ratio of intra-group to inter-group variation? Is either of these things as important as the group differences due to social learning? It probably depends on what question you are asking.

Identifying someone's ancestry is not racism, discriminating against them on that basis is racism. The link is claiming that group genetic differences are important to group differences in things that matter to us, and that some of those things justify treating people radically differently based on identification of their biological ancestry.

If we disagree, what part do we disagree about?

kind regards,

Todd
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  #3  
Unread March 26th, 2005, 09:42 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

Todd:
Quote:
Can you predict someone's politics from their genes?
Sure—currently, minorities tend to vote Democrat. And, regarding sports, white guys tend not to do too well as professional basketball players nor as NFL running backs. Regarding any other questions, and/or erroneous perceptions, and/or why it matters, refer to the Leroi NYT article:

From NYT March 14 editorial, A Family Tree in Every Gene, by Armand Marie Leroi—

London — Shortly after last year's tsunami devastated the lands on the Indian Ocean, The Times of India ran an article with this headline: "Tsunami May Have Rendered Threatened Tribes Extinct." The tribes in question were the Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese and Sentinelese - all living on the Andaman Islands - and they numbered some 400 people in all. The article, noting that several of the archipelago's islands were low-lying, in the direct path of the wave, and that casualties were expected to be high, said, "Some beads may have just gone missing from the Emerald Necklace of India."

The metaphor is as colorful as it is well intentioned. But what exactly does it mean? After all, in a catastrophe that cost more than 150,000 lives, why should the survival of a few hundred tribal people have any special claim on our attention? There are several possible answers to this question. The people of the Andamans have a unique way of life. True, their material culture does not extend beyond a few simple tools, and their visual art is confined to a few geometrical motifs, but they are hunter-gatherers and so a rarity in the modern world. Linguists, too, find them interesting since they collectively speak three languages seemingly unrelated to any others. But the Times of India took a slightly different tack. These tribes are special, it said, because they are of "Negrito racial stocks" that are "remnants of the oldest human populations of Asia and Australia."

It's an old-fashioned, even Victorian, sentiment. Who speaks of "racial stocks" anymore? After all, to do so would be to speak of something that many scientists and scholars say does not exist. If modern anthropologists mention the concept of race, it is invariably only to warn against and dismiss it. Likewise many geneticists. "Race is social concept, not a scientific one," according to Dr. Craig Venter - and he should know, since he was first to sequence the human genome. The idea that human races are only social constructs has been the consensus for at least 30 years.

But now, perhaps, that is about to change. Last fall, the prestigious journal Nature Genetics devoted a large supplement to the question of whether human races exist and, if so, what they mean. The journal did this in part because various American health agencies are making race an important part of their policies to best protect the public - often over the protests of scientists. In the supplement, some two dozen geneticists offered their views. Beneath the jargon, cautious phrases and academic courtesies, one thing was clear: the consensus about social constructs was unraveling. Some even argued that, looked at the right way, genetic data show that races clearly do exist.

The dominance of the social construct theory can be traced to a 1972 article by Dr. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, who wrote that most human genetic variation can be found within any given "race." If one looked at genes rather than faces, he claimed, the difference between an African and a European would be scarcely greater than the difference between any two Europeans. A few years later he wrote that the continued popularity of race as an idea was an "indication of the power of socioeconomically based ideology over the supposed objectivity of knowledge." Most scientists are thoughtful, liberal-minded and socially aware people. It was just what they wanted to hear.

Three decades later, it seems that Dr. Lewontin's facts were correct, and have been abundantly confirmed by ever better techniques of detecting genetic variety. His reasoning, however, was wrong. His error was an elementary one, but such was the appeal of his argument that it was only a couple of years ago that a Cambridge University statistician, A. W. F. Edwards, put his finger on it.

The error is easily illustrated. If one were asked to judge the ancestry of 100 New Yorkers, one could look at the color of their skin. That would do much to single out the Europeans, but little to distinguish the Senegalese from the Solomon Islanders. The same is true for any other feature of our bodies. The shapes of our eyes, noses and skulls; the color of our eyes and our hair; the heaviness, height and hairiness of our bodies are all, individually, poor guides to ancestry.

But this is not true when the features are taken together. Certain skin colors tend to go with certain kinds of eyes, noses, skulls and bodies. When we glance at a stranger's face we use those associations to infer what continent, or even what country, he or his ancestors came from - and we usually get it right. To put it more abstractly, human physical variation is correlated; and correlations contain information.

Genetic variants that aren't written on our faces, but that can be detected only in the genome, show similar correlations. It is these correlations that Dr. Lewontin seems to have ignored. In essence, he looked at one gene at a time and failed to see races. But if many - a few hundred - variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so. Indeed, a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia - more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.

One of the minor pleasures of this discovery is a new kind of genealogy. Today it is easy to find out where your ancestors came from - or even when they came, as with so many of us, from several different places. If you want to know what fraction of your genes are African, European or East Asian, all it takes is a mouth swab, a postage stamp and $400 - though prices will certainly fall.

Yet there is nothing very fundamental about the concept of the major continental races; they're just the easiest way to divide things up. Study enough genes in enough people and one could sort the world's population into 10, 100, perhaps 1,000 groups, each located somewhere on the map. This has not yet been done with any precision, but it will be. Soon it may be possible to identify your ancestors not merely as African or European, but Ibo or Yoruba, perhaps even Celt or Castilian, or all of the above.

The identification of racial origins is not a search for purity. The human species is irredeemably promiscuous. We have always seduced or coerced our neighbors even when they have a foreign look about them and we don't understand a word. If Hispanics, for example, are composed of a recent and evolving blend of European, American Indian and African genes, then the Uighurs of Central Asia can be seen as a 3,000-year-old mix of West European and East Asian genes. Even homogenous groups like native Swedes bear the genetic imprint of successive nameless migrations.

Some critics believe that these ambiguities render the very notion of race worthless. I disagree. The physical topography of our world cannot be accurately described in words. To navigate it, you need a map with elevations, contour lines and reference grids. But it is hard to talk in numbers, and so we give the world's more prominent features - the mountain ranges and plateaus and plains - names. We do so despite the inherent ambiguity of words. The Pennines of northern England are about one-tenth as high and long as the Himalayas, yet both are intelligibly described as mountain ranges.
So, too, it is with the genetic topography of our species. The billion or so of the world's people of largely European descent have a set of genetic variants in common that are collectively rare in everyone else; they are a race. At a smaller scale, three million Basques do as well; so they are a race as well. Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences.

But it is a shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between "ethnic groups." Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word "race," the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding, for the term "ethnic group" conflates all the possible ways in which people differ from each other.

Indeed, the recognition that races are real should have several benefits. To begin with, it would remove the disjunction in which the government and public alike defiantly embrace categories that many, perhaps most, scholars and scientists say do not exist.

Second, the recognition of race may improve medical care. Different races are prone to different diseases. The risk that an African-American man will be afflicted with hypertensive heart disease or prostate cancer is nearly three times greater than that for a European-American man. On the other hand, the former's risk of multiple sclerosis is only half as great. Such differences could be due to socioeconomic factors. Even so, geneticists have started searching for racial differences in the frequencies of genetic variants that cause diseases. They seem to be finding them.

Race can also affect treatment. African-Americans respond poorly to some of the main drugs used to treat heart conditions - notably beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. Pharmaceutical corporations are paying attention. Many new drugs now come labeled with warnings that they may not work in some ethnic or racial groups. Here, as so often, the mere prospect of litigation has concentrated minds.

Such differences are, of course, just differences in average. Everyone agrees that race is a crude way of predicting who gets some disease or responds to some treatment. Ideally, we would all have our genomes sequenced before swallowing so much as an aspirin. Yet until that is technically feasible, we can expect racial classifications to play an increasing part in health care.
The argument for the importance of race, however, does not rest purely on utilitarian grounds. There is also an aesthetic factor. We are a physically variable species. Yet for all the triumphs of modern genetics, we know next to nothing about what makes us so. We do not know why some people have prominent rather than flat noses, round rather than pointed skulls, wide rather than narrow faces, straight rather than curly hair. We do not know what makes blue eyes blue.

One way to find out would be to study people of mixed race ancestry. In part, this is because racial differences in looks are the most striking that we see. But there is also a more subtle technical reason. When geneticists map genes, they rely on the fact that they can follow our ancestors' chromosomes as they get passed from one generation to the next, dividing and mixing in unpredictable combinations. That, it turns out, is much easier to do in people whose ancestors came from very different places.

The technique is called admixture mapping. Developed to find the genes responsible for racial differences in inherited disease, it is only just moving from theory to application. But through it, we may be able to write the genetic recipe for the fair hair of a Norwegian, the black-verging-on-purple skin of a Solomon Islander, the flat face of an Inuit, and the curved eyelid of a Han Chinese. We shall no longer gawp ignorantly at the gallery; we shall be able to name the painters.

There is a final reason race matters. It gives us reason - if there were not reason enough already - to value and protect some of the world's most obscure and marginalized people. When the Times of India article referred to the Andaman Islanders as being of ancient Negrito racial stock, the terminology was correct. Negrito is the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia. They are very small, very dark, and have peppercorn hair. They look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo's jungles to take up life on a tropical isle. But they are not.

The latest genetic data suggest that the Negritos are descended from the first modern humans to have invaded Asia, some 100,000 years ago. In time they were overrun or absorbed by waves of Neolithic agriculturalists, and later nearly wiped out by British, Spanish and Indian colonialists. Now they are confined to the Malay Peninsula, a few islands in the Philippines and the Andamans.

Happily, most of the Andamans' Negritos seem to have survived December's tsunami. The fate of one tribe, the Sentinelese, remains uncertain, but an Indian coast guard helicopter sent to check up on them came under bow and arrow attack, which is heartening. Even so, Negrito populations, wherever they are, are so small, isolated and impoverished that it seems certain that they will eventually disappear.

Yet even after they have gone, the genetic variants that defined the Negritos will remain, albeit scattered, in the people who inhabit the littoral of the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. They will remain visible in the unusually dark skin of some Indonesians, the unusually curly hair of some Sri Lankans, the unusually slight frames of some Filipinos. But the unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct, and the human species will be the poorer for it.
Armand Marie Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Imperial College in London, is the author of "Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body."
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  #4  
Unread March 31st, 2005, 09:06 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Question where's the beef?

Fred,

Thanks for posting the article. He and I seem to agree on the basics. We both make the central assumptions that:

Quote:
Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences. ... Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word "race," the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding, for the term "ethnic group" conflates all the possible ways in which people differ from each other.
Since we both agree with the author on the central ideas (?), I'm still missing where you disagree.

The one thing you responded to in my long post was that you said that politics are linked to genes because "minorities" tend to vote Democrat. So you seem to think that people are divided politically by race (rather than by the perception of race), and I think it is very different from what the article is saying, and in my opinion it is probably not accurate. The article doesn't really address that directly in any way, and obviously "minority" is not a race at all, it cuts across many ancestries. If there is a commonality to them it is clearly not simply one of race as we are defining it. I don't even see the relevance of the sports question. Does it have broad social or political significance if Watusi's are better basketball players than Pygmies because they tend to be taller? I don't see why it should matter very far.

In addition, a great deal of sociological data supports the secularization and modernization theories which predict that all else being equal, increasing wealth and resources and a shift from agriculture to industry and service economies should result in a shift from traditional values to secular-rational values, and from survival to self-expression values. This is exactly what has happened throughout the world, with the proviso that the trajectory of the shift seems to be shaped by cultural heritage (for example, the path is different in traditionally Protestant nations than in traditionally Catholic nations). There is one main exception to all of this. The United States retains its core of traditional values more than any other nation, while at the same time also moving toward self-expression values. This is what unites us more than either race or even the perception of race.

I think the most plausible explanation for our uniqueness is that the United States in particular is not united by either "ethnicity" or race, or even language or culture, but by a shared ideology with certain core traditional values at the center.

Objectively measured, I think race has become less significant politically over time rather than more important. Americans have actually converged over time on social issues rather than diverged along racial or even cultural lines, except in the case of the issue of abortion.

[Partly based on values survey data reviewed in Wayne Baker, "America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception"]
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  #5  
Unread March 31st, 2005, 11:08 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Thumbs up Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

Todd—it seems that we now agree that, as you note, “race is . . . about genetic . . . differences.” I’m delighted that we now agree that race is about genetic differences, that races clearly do exist. (And I assume that you now also recognize the politically motivated censorship behind the social construct versus race issue.)


However, I suspect that your belief, that “race has become less significant politically over time rather than more important,” may be less than realistic—you probably shouldn’t go into politics. And regarding your notion that the “broad social or political significance [of] Watusis [being] better basketball players than Pygmies” probably doesn’t “matter very far” . . . sure, whatever . . . but if Pygmies are underrepresented in the NBA, might that suggest some sort of discrimination?

Last edited by Fred H.; March 31st, 2005 at 11:39 AM.
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  #6  
Unread March 31st, 2005, 06:46 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Genes for Politics

"Can you predict someone's politics from their genes? It's an interesting hypothesis, but so far the answer appears to be definitively no." ... Todd Stark

Check: Martin, N. G., Eaves, L. J., Heath, A. C., Jardine, R., Feingold, L.M., & Eysenck, H.J. (1986) Transmission of social attitudes. Proceedings National Academy of Science, 83: 4364-4368.

Definite G loadings exist for conservatism/liberalism and about 30 (?) other "socially-transmitted" viewpoints.

JB
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  #7  
Unread April 1st, 2005, 05:25 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Thumbs down Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

I understand that conclusion and the data it is drawn from, but it really seems to me that's your conclusion is a little like shooting an arrow into some arbitrary place on the side of a barn and then drawing a circle around it and saying you hit the target! You're defining "predicting people's politics" in some narrow way that you can show is genetically loaded rather than looking realistically at the way people reason about social issues. That's not very informative from my perspective.

For example, well-validated survey data has repeatedly shown that moral orientation ("absolutism/relativism") shifted dramatically in the U.S. in the 1980's, intragenerationally, across all demographics. Now according to the prevailing American view of values and beliefs, that shift supposedly maps to the "conservativism/liberalism" scale. Unless you think that our genes somehow mutated during the 1980's, either the prevailing assumption that values, beliefs, and social attitudes are tightly linked is nonsense or the hypothesis of genetic conservatism and liberalism is invalidated. Either way, your and Fred's reasoning doesn't seem to me to stand to empirical scrutiny, and politics aren't predicted by genes. There are far too many different lines of evidence against such an idea to take to take narrow behavior genetics correlations very far, in my opinion.

Todd
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Unread April 1st, 2005, 06:11 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Cool Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

I suspect that your belief, that “race has become less significant politically over time rather than more important,” may be less than realistic

The survey data is what it is. I'm not defending it, I just find empirical data more persuasive than your "realism," and it may well be that being "unrealistic" regarding the ridiculously polarized state of American politics rather than falling in line with it is probably a sign of wisdom right now.

One possibility I consider likely is that people who see radical polarization between themselves and others to the extent that they demonize them may be reacting to something they don't like in themselves, yet which may be an important and even essential part of them.

The "conservative/liberal" split seems to me one of the best examples of this. Neither of these orientations or "visions" by itself captures human moral reasoning adequately, and we have trouble integrating them, so we alternate between them depending on economic and technological conditions, and periodically polarize over them.

kind regards,

Todd
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Unread April 1st, 2005, 08:15 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Unhappy Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

Todd
Quote:
. . . your and Fred's reasoning doesn't seem to me to stand to empirical scrutiny, and politics aren't predicted by genes.
Damn Todd, thought you finally agreed, at least after reading the Leroi article, with what the empirical data clearly shows—that races clearly do exist.

And what’s this persuasive “empirical data” you refer to regarding your perceived decrease in the political significance of race? My “realism” is simply the way things are, and as far as I can tell, pretty much always have been—African-Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat . . . in, as you call it, our “ridiculously polarized state of American politics.” Pretty much always been that way, hasn’t it?

Last edited by Fred H.; April 2nd, 2005 at 09:21 AM.
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Unread April 2nd, 2005, 08:27 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Arrow Re: Shocking: NYT—Races clearly do exist!

Quote:
Damn Todd, thought you finally agreed, at least after reading the Leroi article, with what the empirical data clearly shows—that races clearly do exist.
Hi Fred,

I'm sorry, it must be frustrating to get so close to agreement and then have the rug pulled out. It wasn't my intention to do that do you.

Yes, we've agreed to define race as genetic group differences due to lines of ancestry and not to quibble over whether such a thing might exist.

We agree that race exists in some sense, but not that it is or should be important for very much other than certain medical or forensic tests or trying to compensate for the effects of bias.

I'm not a big fan of making much of group genetic differences even though they are real because that was very notoriously the slippery slope that led to the American eugenics movement that still has some horrible echoes today.

I believe race as we define it is far less important socially than is identity. Identity can be based on all sorts of things, including race. When the Soviet collective fell apart, the first thing that happened was that the various ethnic divisions became dramatically obvious. Identity, not race, is the root of social and political dymamics, in my opinion. And I believe that in the United States, we have shifted from race to common ideology in our own sense of identity (although obviously it still matters to many people, as you know).

Quote:
African-Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat . . . in, as you call it, our “ridiculously polarized state of American politics.” Pretty much always been that way, hasn’t it?
Fred, I'm sorry we seem to be off on a tangent, but I suggest that maybe the party that promotes reform based on civil rights would be more attractive to people who view themselves as disenfranchised, regardless of race. Yes, African-Americans are and view themselves as disenfranchised at least largely because of race (overlapping with the perception of race). However, this is because of how people view racial differences, not because of racial differences themselves. African-Americans weren't enslaved specifically because they were different, they were enslaved because they were assumed to be different, in the same was as the ancient Greeks viewed women and other races as simply destined for inferior roles in their society and incapable of participating politically in the same way as "citizens."

My point is that African Americans join with many groups that are not genetically related to them in being perceived as and perceiving themselves as "minorities." So I understand the correlation you are making, but I don't see how it is directly correlated to race as we have defined it biologically.

And acccording to most political scientists, the American political parties have become significantly more polarized over time. I can offer specifics, but my guess is that if you don't trust my word, you wouldn't trust the authors I'd cite either.

Last, and more trivia than anything else, Lincoln was a Republican, so I'm not quite sure that African-Americans, given the choice, would always have voted Democrat.

kind regards,

Todd
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