From Biology to Culture: A New Racism?

What follows is an attempt to discuss some central concepts used in public debate "race", racism and culture."Race" Does it Exist ?The word race is still used in evryday speech, nearly as a matter of course, and generally in connection with skin colur; black, brown, white or yellow. Biologically, however, what one usually thinks of as race does not exist. Four points are important here: Originallythere was no such thing as "Race". Humanity is basic. We have common ancestral fathers and mothers. This manifests itself biologically in that people with different skin colours produce children and that these children are fertile. All attempts to divide human kind according to biologically defined " Races", "Sub-groups" and so on, contradict with one another, and all such attempts havefocused on arbitrary chareceristics, such as hair colur, height or head shape.

The determing factor among living creatures is not their species, but rather the stuff of hereditary genes which are linked to individuals, not groups. Of all the pshycial, genetic dissimilarties among people, 85 % are differences between individuals, 8 % are variations within groups of people who appear similar but live in different regions, and 7 % variations between groups as regards appearance which is what one usually is referring to when speaking about "Race".

There is no connection between the body`s physical traits and mental characteristics, behaviour or abilitites. The expression that something is in "one`s blood" is nonsense. Differences purported to have been measured can be accounted for by features within the tests themselves. On the other hand, natural selection over time may have created certain characteristics in West Africa; over time more inidviduals with genes providining immunity to forms of fever have survived. Many Japanese people have difficulty digesting
dairy products.

What remains of the concept of race, is that people look somewhat different. The skin of more people from Northern Europe than people from Tamil, turns red when exposed to the sun. "Race" as a scientific term is no longer in use, the concept of phenotype is used to denote differences in appearence. It remains the case that what is referred to in the vernacular as "Race" has been attributed great significance historically.

Biological Racism

Asserting that "Race" exists does not necessarily imply racism; one may be misinformed. Racism is a way thinking and acting; ascribing certain fixed traits to groups which are perceived as "Races". Racist thinking may "escalate " according to how extreme the assertions are: "Races have both hereditary and mental characteristics. Races are not only different, but of unequal worth. They can be ranked above and beneath one another according to their worth". "Race is a basic an central factor and one which explains many
other aspects of Society"- " Because of differences in characteristics and worth, certain races should have dominance over others".

"Races ought to be discriminated; even to the extent that a certain group ought to be annihilated". his traditional biological racism lost its legitimacy in the West after World War 2 following the extermination of the Jews. Even if there is some renwed interest in related Biology, such as the alleged difference in the intelligence of Afro-Americans as compared to Caucasians, it is no longer the central element in ideological Racism. Many have noted that Culture today has begun to function as a subsitute for Biology.

Culture. A subsitute for Biology?

One hears talk of foreign cultures or of "Norwegian culture", what is meant is not "culture" as in say "Art", but something closer to opinions (views and values) which are shared by a group have a certain durability, follow a certain pattern and can communicated. All the elements of this definition of culture may be debated. How extensive is the group? A continent? Nation? Region? Class? Gender? Subgroup? Are the specific ways of thinking limited to one special group? And how widely held are the values? Do some values arise from the groups position of power? Are they in dispute?

And: How rigid is the context? How many contradictory ways of thinking may exist within what is nonetheless considered to be the same culture? Such objections have led some people to reject the entire concept of culture. I, myself, find it useful both historically and currently, there exists variety in ways of thinking and, to some degree, in social values. Some ideas about the world appear more often in certain societies and groups than in others. And some values are granted a different status in different societies -" honor" "security" "profit".

Even if we can demonstrate that cultural elements are shared by all or many societies, these may still be combined in unique ways.

Or, they may acquire a distinctive twist so that it becomes meaningful to say, for example, that something has become historically "Norwegian". We need a word to express such idiosyncrasies and distinctions-culture, as in "a pattern of opinion" is good enough.

If we think about "culture" in this way, the concept begins to function in the same way as did "race". It is as if we have found a "culture gene", so to speak, a feature of a group which is deemed specific, immutable and determinant, just as "race" earlier was considered to be. Does it then become appropriate to speak of racism also when differences are being explained in terms of culture?

Yes and no. My answer is : it is not racist to say that ways of thinking and values may vary between groups. Nor it is racist to say that one considers certain values to be more important than others, it might well be racist, however, to build a rigid hierarchy among groups on that basis. It is racist if the political and cultural requirements of the state systematically privileges certain groups while marginalizing others, as when, for example , accrediting degrees from only certain foreign Universities. And it is racist if "culture" is used nearly as a euphemism for appearance, as when a certain skin color is routinely associated with certain attitudes and characteristics.

That does not mean that the patterns are static, , sharply defined unambiguous or unique to that particular group.
A Cultural Racism? Traditionally, we have become accustomed to believing that emphasizing culture or environment is an alternative to stressing biology or heredity to explain human actions. Many probably consider cultural explanationsto be both fairer and more sensible politically.The concept gets more difficult if we believe that culture represents a system of ideas which is distinct, in fact, unique to one society or group, has a clear boundry demarcating what is included or not included in the system; is internally consisting; took shape early on, actually , at the very beginning of the groups history -and which is quite consistent, nearly immutable; greatly determines the actions o the groups members.

If we think about "culture" in this way, the concept begins to function in the same way as did "race". It is as if we have found a "culture gene", so to speak, a feature of a group which is deemed specific, immutable and determinant, just as "race" earlier was considered to
be. Does it then become appropriate to speak of racism also when differences are being explained in terms of culture?

Yes and no. My answer is : it is not racist to say that ways of thinking and values may vary between groups. Nor it is racist to say that one considers certain values to be more important than others, it might well be racist, however, to build a rigid hierarchy among groups on that basis. It is racist if the political and cultural requirements of the state systematically privileges certain groups while
marginalizing others, as when, for example , accrediting degrees from only certain foreign Universities. And it is racist if "culture" is used nearly as a euphemism for appearance, as when a certain skin color is routinely associated with certain attitudes and characteristics.

- Knut Kjelstadli