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Taking Off the Color Blinders

There was at least one geneticist on hand who wasn't quite ready to do away with race entirely. "It's been said that race is biologically meaningless, and I disagree with that," Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah told a reporter. He provoked much debate in the meeting with his talk about "clusters" of genetic markers that correspond to geographic origin or ancestry. These clusters are correlated with some traditional concepts of race, he said, though there is too much genetic overlap to support the notion that some people are simply white, black, etc.

Still, talk of any biological element to race drew rebukes from some participants. Evolutionary geneticist Joseph Graves, author of "The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America," said scientists have misunderstood the nature of human genetic variation. It doesn't translate into racial categories. "There are no races in anatomically modern humans," Graves said.

Social scientists and geneticists gathered in Alexandria this week to take part in a brainstorming session for a museum project on race, sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said that people tend to pay far too much attention to just a few of the morphological differences among humans. People vary in dozens of different ways, he said.

"We tend to fetishize the shape of the eyes, the shape of the nose, the color of the skin and the texture of the hair," he said.

But he made a prediction: If all the experts in the world suddenly announced that there's no such thing as race, and if newspapers ran the story on the front page, it still wouldn't change the way whites and blacks interact in Alabama.

The conundrum for the experts is finding a way to explain to the lay public why race doesn't exist in one way but in another way is critically important. There was little sympathy here for creating a "colorblind" society, a notion advanced most often by political conservatives.

At one point Fatimah Jackson, a University of Maryland anthropologist, criticized the government practice of gathering racial statistics. Former U.S. Census Bureau official Kenneth Prewitt stood up and asked if that meant the census should have no question about race. Jackson answered that she didn't know why the government should spend money getting data on something that has no biological basis.

"Civil rights!" someone said.

This was all very stimulating, and intellectually enriching, and by the end of the second day, the Earth didn't seem as flat. But no one would go so far as to call the meeting clarifying.

"It is difficult to sort through," said museum consultant Deborah Mack.

"We welcome this kind of all-over-the-place discussion," said Robert Garfinkle, of the Science Museum of Minnesota, putting the best spin on things.

"How can all this be distilled?" asked one of the organizers, Yolanda Moses, speaking to everyone at the end of Monday's marathon session of talks.

She reminded the participants that the museum people "came here to hear clarity around these issues."

And everyone, of all shades and shapes and textures, laughed.

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