The Fiction of Race

The complainant, Chris Edwards, thought an Ideas exploration of the notions of race and identity violated CBC policy of balance and did not provide a wide enough range of views on an important issue. The panel was a follow up of the 2013 Massey Lectures delivered by Lawrence Hill. The panelists explored race and identity and accepted the scientific consensus that race has no biological diversity. Mr. Edwards thought that this conclusion is a matter of opinion and a case for biologically determined race should have been made. But not all ideas are equal and balance is not about false equivalence. The scientific consensus renders other views marginal, and need not be mentioned, although the program effectively did review historical understanding of race and the scientific assumptions behind it.

COMPLAINT

As a follow up to the 2013 Massey Lectures, delivered by author Lawrence Hill, Ideas convened a panel to discuss notions of race and identity. The December 4, 2013 broadcast was entitled “Is Race a Fiction?” This built on Hill’s reflections on the significance of blood, in the course of the five lectures, entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, in which he explored the “scientific and social history of blood” as it relates to issues of race and gender and identity.

It was the latter the panelists were asked to pick up on. The discussion was based largely on their own experiences but it started with the premise that there is scientific consensus that there is no biological basis for a definition of race. You found this unacceptable. You believe that it is merely one opinion, and because other views were not represented the Ideas episode violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices:

“Rather than present a balanced argument showing support for and against the biological existence of race, the CBC demonstrated a clear editorial slant in support of one side only. Rather than ‘contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest’, the CBC provided a forum for one ideological side to proselytize a narrow view.”

You felt that the Ideas episode did not live up to its commitment to present a range of opinions on a matter of public interest. The only attempt at balance was the use of a clip of the late Philip Rushton, who speaks about IQ and race. But you felt this also failed because “this was not an attempt to be balanced. It was prefaced and given a disclaimer aimed at discrediting all scientific inquiry into racial uniqueness, past, present, and future.”

When you received an answer from the Ideas producers, you cited various studies and articles that back up your point of view that there are indeed racial differences. One example you cite is that “Medical research is finding susceptibility and immunity to certain maladies differs across races (melanoma cancer in whites, for example, or sickle cell in sub-Saharan blacks).”

You stated that there is a great deal of research and a “growing scientific and philosophic community dedicated to studying human biodiversity.” Because of this, you think it “a disservice to Canadians for the CBC to be an agent in a culture war which certain participants use censorship to squelch real diversity of opinion.” You cite traits associated with certain groups as proof of existence of race. “Race may be nebulous and definitions arguable, but its use cannot be denied. Furthermore, you think that CBC is “glaringly schizophrenic to glorify racial diversity…while denying its existence.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The producer of the segment “Is Race a Fiction?” responded to your complaint on behalf of Greg Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ideas. He said that there is scientific support for the notion that there is no such thing “identifiable as race”:

“However, the proposition that there is something identifiable as ‘race’ is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of science. This proposition, that race is a marker of human distinctiveness, is now provable, and it’s been proven to be wrong. Blumenbach's 18th century formulation of five distinct races has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. Specifically, recent DNA research reveals, as the programme pointed out, that human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA. We are all, in effect, a ‘soup’, with our genes inextricably blended together from millennia of miscegenation.

There seem to be distinct blood groups among humans, but that's about it: we humans are one species. Unlike most other species, there are no sub-species of modern Homo Sapiens. By extension, we are one race: all humans have a common ancestor originating from Africa, and any superficial differences are due to adaptation to the environment, not to race. On this point, there is general scientific consensus. Outside of certain genetic characteristics like skin colour, hair type, and so forth, there seem to be no fundamental physical differences across human groups.”

He concluded by saying that since there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, the program was not “obliged…to report on various arguments in support of what now are discredited notions of race.”

REVIEW

You correctly expected CBC news and current affairs to live up to its stated mission and goals laid out in its Journalistic Standards and Practices. You felt that this broadcast failed to “contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest,” and did not reflect the views of all Canadians because all the panelists supported the “opinion” that science has rejected a concept of race and racial difference.

The commitment to reflection of a wide range of views of all Canadians also must be understood within the context of the Journalistic Standards and Practices commitment to fairness, accuracy and impartiality. It is not a commitment to merely providing a platform for any and all thoughts. There is not an equivalence to every idea or opinion. In fact, frequently news organizations and journalists are criticized for a kind of mindless “he said, she said” approach when clearly the arguments or positions are not equally weighted.

Journalists are obliged, by policy, to analyze and synthesize and weigh the value and accuracy of a position.

The policy on accuracy says:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.

The policy on balance states that:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.

Note that the policy qualifies the requirement to reflect a range of views taking into account how widely held and how relevant to the debate they are.

And finally, and equally relevantly, the policy on impartiality assumes that the reporters and producers should “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.”

“Is Race a Fiction?” was a rhetorical title for the broadcast. But it did explore that concept. While it dismissed a notion of race-based science, it explored what notions of race mean, and how people take on identity based on notions of race, culture and ethnicity. It was a wide ranging intelligent conversation based on the experience of four people who were actually described as “mixed race” or of mixed ancestry, addressing what that meant to them.

This is how program host Paul Kennedy introduced the broadcast:

Is race a fiction? In the 2013 CBC Massey Lectures novelist Lawrence Hill explored the story of blood. Some of it was about the science of blood. But perhaps the more important part of what he had to say centred around the cultural significance of blood. Blood and violence, blood and gender, blood and race. We humans have a nasty history of putting each other in categories: black, white Chinese, Native. While the truth of the matter is, as science has revealed, as Lawrence Hill discussed in his lectures, that we are a stew of DNA, every one of us with bits and pieces of every other one of us. We are one species. Science has pretty much killed the idea of separate races and that’s a profound concept. On the heels of Lawrence Hill’s Massey Lectures, we organized a conversation between Lawrence Hill and three Canadians with a personal interest in the idea of race – all about this sensitive subject. What are the implications for society and for individual identity if race is out of the window … To get things started I asked Lawrence Hill to briefly outline how, in his Massey Lectures, he came to the conclusion that race is a fiction.

Lawrence Hill: I don't actually believe that race is a fiction, I believe that race is a fiction if we are talking about plasma and white blood cells and red blood cells, the stuff that's inside our bodies. Though that might seem obvious, we actually in western society, certainly in Canada, have talked about race as if it could be quantified through our blood and many formal bodies have done so too, our courts and our legislatures, it's not just people talking. So I think it's a fiction biologically and genetically, race, but it is not a fiction socially. Talk to any person who’s been affected profoundly in any one of social or economic ways by dint of their race and those people are not going to accept, most of them, I certainly wouldn't, that race is a fiction socially. So it is a fiction in my opinion biologically but it is not a fiction socially.

A review of the literature supports Mr. Hill’s position. There is a strong scientific consensus that there is no biological basis for a definition of race. This is an excerpt from a University of California at Berkley website:

With the advent of gene-sequencing technology, scientists have confirmed Dobzhanksy’s discovery of variability between populations. But it turns out that some species have another sort of variation as well, variation within populations rather than between them. Humans are a spectacular example. Human races were once thought to be distinct, so much so that some even went so far as to claim that they represented separate species. Research on human genetics shows that it is indeed possible to trace back the ancestry of different ethnic groups for thousands of years. But genes have also managed to cross the boundaries of these groups so often that there is much more variability within the people in any given population than between populations. The distinctions that we conventionally use to divide the species into races—skin color, hair, and the shape of faces—are controlled only by a few genes, while most other variable genes do not respect so-called racial boundaries.

Dr. Gary Bader, a geneticist at University of Toronto Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, explained it to me this way:

… it is definitely outdated and not relevant for human genetics because the idea of race doesn't relate very strongly to what we know about population variation from the human genome project. However, a broader concept of ethnicity e.g. Caucasian, Yoruban, Japanese is important. Ethnicity defines a population of related individuals that could be from the same geographical origin historically and were thus more likely to interbreed. Differences between ethnicities are tiny compared to the normal variation in the population i.e. two people who are Caucasian could be much more different at the DNA level than a Caucasian and Japanese person. However, an ethnic group often has a few characteristic differences that are typically found more often among that population. For this reason, it is important to know the ethnicity of the individuals being studied in a human genetics study (e.g. finding genes related to autism spectrum disorder) to be able to separate out the characteristic ethnic differences and focus on just the differences related to the disease under study.

So the fact that there is emphasis in biodiversity, as you mentioned in your complaint, does not in any way contradict the understanding of geneticists and anthropologists. They are not mutually exclusive.

There is a tipping point in scientific debate. When there is this level of consensus, then there is no obligation to create a false equivalence by presenting other views, no matter how passionately held by some.

In this case there is a consensus that race is a social, rather than a scientific construct. Jonathan Marks, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in his book, Human Diversity, Genes Race and History, published in 1995 states:

By the 1970s, it had become clear that (1) most human differences were cultural; (2) what was not cultural was principally polymorphic – that is to say, found in diverse groups of people at different frequencies; (3) what was not cultural or polymorphic was principally clinal – that is to say, gradually variable over geography; and (4) what was left – the component of human diversity that was not cultural, polymorphic, or clinal – was very small.

A consensus consequently developed among anthropologists and geneticists that race as the previous generation had known it – as largely discrete, geographically distinct, gene pools – did not exist.

While you seem to think there was an ideological bent to their positions, it is hard to find ideology in refuting notions of race which, as one of the contributors stated, has frequently been used to “name a power relationship,” one that has been historically used to assert superiority of one group over another. You felt it ironic that CBC would run such a program because it celebrates racial diversity. The policy actually states:

We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our Values.

The panellists did not assert, in the light of this new understanding of race, that humans are all the same or that differences do not matter. The entire program was based on exploring notions of identity, and what defines us – our ethnicity, our ancestry, our shared experience. I found it to be an intelligent and reflective program offering insights based on the lived experience and observations of a group of Canadians – poets, novelists and thinkers and educators who reflected a range of experience and views in an appropriate way.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman