The last great battle over racism

After interviewing James Watson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. concludes his article The Science of Racism with this reflection:

As I drove away from Cold Spring Harbor, I realized that my conversation with Dr. Watson only confirmed something I already, with great trepidation, have come to believe: That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA.  It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.

Click for the full articleThe Science of Racism – or here for the full interview with James Watson.

When asked if Watson is a racist, Gates answers:

I don’t think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the “gene” is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly “measures” or “determines” is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences. The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. . .

. . . Yet precisely because of the misuses of science and pseudoscience since the 18th century, which put into place fixed categories of  four or five “races” to justify an economic order dependent upon the exploitation of blacks (and other people of color) as cheap sources of labor, starting with slavery and continuing through Jim Crow and beyond, it has never been possible for a person of African descent to function in American society simply and purely as an “individual.” And if the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has taught him, and us, anything at all, it is that this perhaps ideal state of affairs—to function as an individual and to be judged on your individual merits—still remains a most elusive and somewhat naïve dream.

Watson’s error is that he associates individual genetic differences (which, of course, do in fact exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable). . .