The Problems Of Dividing People Into Races
Jim Blair

Affirmative Action: How Many Degrees in a Circle?

How many degrees are there in a circle? When I was in grade school, I was taught that it was the ancient Babylonians who "discovered" that there are 360 degrees in a circle. I recall drawing a blank stare when I asked the teacher what would have happened if they had "discovered" that there are 100, or 1000, degrees in a circle?

For the answer to that question is "any number that you define". But once defined, it takes on a reality: theorems and mathematical tables are based on the definition. I think this is related to the current debate about Affirmative Action (AA) in the USA. The question of AA is premised on the existence of race. So how many races is the human species composed of?

First, Divide and Classify

Before there can be AA there must be different classifications of people. In the US this is based on race and sex- (except for Hispanic). For sex, there is a firm biological basis (but even here there have been a few contested cases you may have read about in athletic competition). But in the case of race, what is the basis?

From the prospective of biology, there is one human species, at least since the extinction of the neanderthal (See NADL, the Neanderthal Anti- Defamation League, on my web page). Is the species divided into races? It can be. How many? Any number you want. Here is a summary of some of the commonly used classifications. None of these has any basis in science: they are political divisions.

The largest grouping has two races: "White People" and "People of Color". When this was explained to me in a "sensitivity training" seminar, I asked for a definition, and was told that "White" people were those of Northern European ancestry. Then Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis and Joe Dimaggio are all "people of color"?

A more common system has 3 races: Black, White and Asian, and the Official US Four Races are these plus Native American, a subdivision of Asian in the three way split. Polynesian is considered a part of "Asian", but there is political pressure to have them moved to "Native American" (so they can have casino gambling in Hawaii-see Tribes Treaties and Libertarians on my page), but in some divisions, Polynesian is given the status of a separate race. And "Native Americans" can be divided into "North" and "Central/South".


The "Black Race" often has Australian Aborigine and Melanesian split off as separate races. When the Belgians ruled central Africa, they found it useful to consider the Watusi (now called Tutsi), Hutu, and Twa (pygmies) to be different races, both to create divisions to help rule, and because the theories of anthropology of the time encouraged it. And a Martian taxonomist looking at a 4 foot pygmy and a 7 foot Watusi would probably think that they were different species of the same family: like African and Asian elephants. Many "Black" (African-American) leaders who went to South Africa after the Mandela election were surprised to discover that in South Africa they would not be classified as "Black" but rather as "Colored" since almost all "Black" Americans have European ancestors. Malcom X and Jesse Jackson both have "White" grandfathers, for example.


What we call the "White" race has in the past been divided into various races: Celtic, Aryan, Slavic, Semite (Arabs and Jews), Germanic/Flemish, etc. I think they became "White" only when they moved to America. See "America: Salad Bowl or Melting Pot?" on my page.

How arbitrary is all this? My favorite was when I heard that in the 1930's, after Germany formed an alliance with Japan, a German "Racial Scientist" discovered that the Japanese were different from other Asians: they are actually Asian Aryans! Well, why not? When the races are all a matter of definition, anything goes. He probably got a promotion for this amazing "discovery".

Your Choices: Pick One

The US government now recognizes the existence of 4 races, plus a "category": Hispanic. "Hispanic" was created in the late 1970's and first used in the 1980 census. It is a classification that does not exist outside of the USA. It is an attempt to divide off from the mainstream, and create a separate category of Americans whose ancestors came from such diverse places as Cuba (typically business oriented Republicans) and Mexico (typically poor and Democrat). I guess a Basque from the south side of the Pyrenees is Hispanic but his cousins from over on the north side (being thus in France rather than Spain) are "White".

When these catagories are used to draw congressional district lines, the practical effect is to reduce the political influence of the effected people. See "Loony Lani and the Newt" on my page for details.

There is a movement to establish another race/category: Multiracial. This is supported by people who have parents/ancestors from more than one of the existing permitted races. They feel that being forced to choose one box on the census form means having to renounce a part of their heritage.

Who decides?

Aside from any considerations about the wisdom or even morality of dividing people into different "races" for political reasons, there is a very practical problem which is starting to enter the picture. Thus far the decision of who IS what has been self-selection. You decide what you are. But now that rewards are being given to people based on the category that they have selected, there is a need to have some way to decide what each one really is.

In California, where "Blacks" are not permitted to take SAT exams (some sort of Civil Right), some "Black" students switched to "Hispanic". In fact, many people who were not "Hispanic" in the 1980 census decided to become "Hispanic" in the 1990 census.

I attended a very good Spanish Flamenco Dance program in Madison a few years ago, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Later there was a big scandal when investigators discovered that the dance company leader "Carlos Montoya" was not really Spanish, but a Dutchman using an alas! And one of the dancers was named Jones! Well Ms. Jones had a mother who was from Mexico, and there was a big debate over just who was ethnically qualified to present a Spanish Dance. Just imaging the outrage if it were discovered that Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant or John Wayne had changed their names to enhance their stage career!

Essays on related topics...

Race and Affirmative Action
Title Author
The Inner City Underclass Jim Blair
America: Melting Pot Or Salad Bowl? Jim Blair
The Problems Of Dividing People Into Races Jim Blair
Race and Culture: A World View Jim Blair
Race Is Not Such An Important Division Jim Blair
Affirmative Action Is Not Quota-Based Reverse Discrimination Steve Kangas [off site]
Ethnic IQ Variation Is Not Genetic Steve Kangas [off site]
The Problems of Multiculturalism Kenan Malik [off site]

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