Tue, May 5, 2009 9:40 PM EDT

Benzopyrene_DNA_adduct_1JDG.jpg When, why and for whom does race matter? Those questions crop up every time the public receives a new batch of data tracing connections between race and inequality, especially in the realm of academic achievement. At Slate, William Saletan, who has written widely on issues of genetics and race, pushes for “color blindness” as a paradigm for assessing human abilities and deficiencies. Using No Child Left Behind statistics as a jumping-off point, Saletan contends that sorting test scores by race is an ineffective approach to education policy. He believes evaluation based on racial background, as opposed to some other marker like genetics or personal characteristics, can lead to dangerous ideological blinders. In a follow-up piece, responding to conservative scholar John McWhorter (renowned foe of Black “victimhood”), Saletan writes, “racializing the problem is unnecessary and unhelpful.” Though he generally agrees with McWhorter on that principle, Saletan also argues that obsessing over race fuels negative stereotyping—e.g. Black kids just can't score as high as white kids, because they're born that way. Such perceptions breed an ugly strain of biological determinism sheathed in science, which would probably make even race-neutrality cheerleaders bristle. To Saletan, the solution lies in looking beyond racial divides and embracing “genetic” diversity. This new framework, he says, would focus on:

“genes that affect mental traits, genes that affect abilities, and variations between populations in the prevalence of these genes. No genetically distinguishable population will be spared. We're sitting in the path of this train, tied to the tracks by a literalist conception of equality that can't accept hereditary differences between group averages. I suggest we free ourselves.”

And who exactly stands to be liberated by this concept? Would advocates for racial justice reject the ideal of a society that judges people purely as individuals, unique and yet equally deserving of dignity? Do they cling to racial categories because they share the fixation of racists on dividing people by color and ethnicity? Saletan makes some cutting points about how certain race-based policies might perpetuate inequality:

“This is what can happen when you constantly look for racial angles in data on crime, IQ, and other measures of the 'quality of people' You start aiming policies at ethnic groups. But I don't think this kind of racism is a product of uneven distribution. It's a product of bad framing.”

Cleverly, Saletan “frames” his own thesis, for categorizing people in terms of innate ability, as an argument against excessive racialization. But he skirts the reality of racial attitudes as a dynamic force, which impacts, and is shaped by, countless other relationships among people and institutions. Activists who apply a racial-justice analysis tend not to elevate race as an effective measure of human value. Quite the opposite. They tend to understand race as a social myth, but a powerful one, with real implications for how humans identify themselves and interact with each other. Today, moving society forward requires confronting race as it is, not just as it should be—working through the myriad ways racialized ideas are manipulated and impressed on people to justify inequality. That's when the difference between equality and equity comes into play. And that's the impetus behind organizing people as change agents in their communities. Post-racial? If only. Image: Wikimedia Commons