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Web Letter

Patricia Williams brings up some interesting issues in her article. I am in agreement with her point that awarding the Andrews' family monetary damages for the "black" "race" of their baby is setting a dangerous legal and social precedent. The idea that "race" is somehow tied to skin colour has had a long history in the United States, although in many places in the world and through time (even in the U.S.) it was not always necessarily so.

For years science has been steadily moving away from the concept of "race" as biological and has come to see it as an invented concept. Invented not in that it is not real, but in the sense that it is a cultural and social construction that has been formed by ideas and practices through time. The very idea that there are three (or four, or five, or sixteen) "races" is one that comes directly from a past in which groups of people attempted to justify the enslavement (or harsh colonization) of other groups of people by positing essential differences based on certain physical characteristics. These racist categories are still used to this day as if there were actually separate "races" of people living on the planet. While in some very specific situations they have uses (for instance because they have been employed for so long as "fact" in the U.S. they have taken on a social relevance), for the most part we should be moving away from such outmoded and racist conceptions of difference between and among human population sets.

As geneticists truly begin to dive into the world of phenotypic and genotypic human variation we have begun to see how these old concepts are truly in the realm of eugenics and other pseudo-science. One discovery is that there is more genetic variation within Africa itself than in the rest of the world combined. What this means essentially is that one particular person in Africa could have a far greater genetic similarity to someone whose origins are in Asia than to someone perhaps who traces their origins to the same general vicinity in the continent of Africa.

Another point of interest is that in forensic anthropology "race" has long been attempted to infer phenotype data from human skeletons (for instance in helping the police to discover what a murder victim may have looked like). This is now being currently largely discredited in the midst of much evidence that shows that many mistakes are made in identifying the "race" of a skeleton and that it can be as often as not that such a classification does more harm than good in determining a person's physical appearance.

It is high time that what has been taken as junk science for over 30 years by cultural anthropologists (and for almost as many years by physical anthropologists and biologists) be brought out into the mainstream in the ongoing discussions of "race" going on in the U.S. and the world. Only then will we be able to perhaps begin to move away from certain ideas that had their place among theories about the world being flat and the sun rotating about the Earth.

Kevin Cassidy

San Francisco, Noord Holland, The Netherlands

Apr 15 2007 - 7:38am

Web Letter

Colorstruck? Williams is a pretentious fool. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews made a contract with the fertility clinic that she be impregnated with her husband's sperm - not any sperm that happened to be lying around the lab. Williams feels racially insulted by the white/mulatto couple's distress, but if Mrs. Andrews had been married to a black man and gave birth to a blue-eyed blond after being accidentally impregnated by Scandinavian sperm, Williams and her comrades would howl that they deserved millions of dollars in damages.

Williams also ignores the issue of the clinic's incompetence. Who knows how often mistakes like this happen? Cases where the husband and the accidental sperm donor have very different racial phenotypes attract a lot of publicity, but they are only the cases where the mistake was discovered fairly quickly instead of many years later.

A.D. Powell

Madison, WI

Apr 15 2007 - 4:03am

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