Marek Kohn

So What Tribe Do You Belong To?

This article first appeared in the New Statesman, 14 September 2002.

When Goran Ivanisevic makes his cosmopolitan joke about having a "Split personality", identifying his psyche with his place of origin, he's barely scratching the surface. A history of his native land observes that many peoples have left their "genetic footprints" upon the Croats, leading not just to differences in appearance but in temperament as well: "The inhabitants of Dalmatia are for the most part tall, lean, dark-haired, tempestuous and somewhat combative; the people of northern Croatia and Slavonia are shorter, rounder, often blond-haired, and generally of a quieter and more reflective disposition." So Ivanisevic the Dalmatian upholds both national pride and racial stereotype.

This style of racial profiling used to be conventional. Europe was seen to be populated by ancient stocks in varying concentrations. Mediterraneans were dark and likely to be found in betting shops; Alpines were round-headed and filled Quaker halls, and so on. Outward appearance and inner temper were both in the blood. After 1945, as part of the post-war settlement, the two were uncoupled. Appearance was to be explained by biology, character by culture. Under UNESCO auspices, scientists were marshalled - with some difficulty - into agreeing a series of Statements on Race. These represented the displacement of the Romantic tradition, in which race and character were inseparable, by a science which was studiously non-committal about mental differences between populations, and always ready to agree that any such differences might be environmentally caused.

In the West, the old racial classifications themselves were discarded as tainted. In central Europe, the heartland of the Romanticism, the older traditions persisted. Until a few years ago, the Natural History Museum in Vienna maintained a Rassensaal - a race gallery - of skulls illustrating racial types from Alpinids to Australids, though it conformed to the post-war disposition by sticking solely to physical traits. As the remarks above illustrate, you may still stumble across Romantic seams in the context of regions such as Croatia, historically part of the German-speaking intellectual hinterland.

What's surprising, though, is that they appear in a setting that could hardly be more western and modern: Croatia, by Marcus Tanner of the Independent, published by Yale University Press in 1997. If the people in question were the darker and fairer inhabitants of a British city, only the most intransigent right-wingers would dare speak of colour, inheritance and temperament in the same sentence. That would be recognised as racist, yet when the same principle is used to distinguish between varieties of Europeans, it can still pass without controversy.

Ivanisevic's ability to make puns in English is an obvious example of modern cosmopolitanism. Tanner's Romantic remarks illustrate a less noticeable aspect of it, the patchwork of standards that are applied in different racial contexts. Matters of race are construed in ad hoc and inconsistent ways, in order to meet varying political and social requirements. Closer to home, the idea that Irish jokes are racist is met with a chorus of derision from the right. But on the other side of the fence, few people who would describe anti-Irish prejudice as racist would be happy to refer to the Irish as a race.

Calling them an ethnic group does not do much to clarify matters either. British law looks for shared cultural traditions when deciding whether a group is ethnic or not. By that yardstick alone the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland are ethnic groups, and if that were not enough, their differing ancestral lineages would seal the case. But by common consent they are identified politically, as nationalists and loyalists. Protestants on the Shankhill Road and Sikhs in Southall have similar qualifications for ethnic status, but they are seen as different kinds of groups, raising different questions in national life.

Then there is the incongruous state of affairs in which Asia has come to mean India, because the republic of India is not the whole subcontinent, yet the entire diaspora of the subcontinent is still routinely lumped together as 'Asian'. This may be changing, but it has endured despite the distinctions made for many years between Asian groups, at both local and professional levels. And if it does change, it will be a piecemeal response to news events. We will continue to fit the categories to the perceived requirements of the moment.

Amid the muddle it is comforting to reflect that at least clarity prevails on the biological side of the issue. Addressing the public, scientists confidently state that racial differences are only skin deep. Variations within racial groups, such as Africans or Europeans, are greater than the differences between them. Groups shade into each other, so racial categories are inevitably artificial. Science, in short, has exposed race as a myth.

Despite its professed success, though, it seems obliged to continue its efforts. Only last week, scientists met in Washington to discuss whether to map the diversity of the human genome. "I think these data have tremendous potential to deconstruct simplistic notions of race and ethnicity," said one of the participants, as scientists are obliged to do whenever they propose to gather such material.

The principal selling point of this project appears to be the tuning of medical treatment to specific populations. Advocates of such research, including African-American scientists, argue that this is essential to avoid discrimination. But this turns out to be as uneven a surface as any other field of racial debate. Sickle-cell anaemia takes its place in the textbooks as an uncontroversial instance in which people of African descent are more susceptible to illness than others. Yet when a similar suggestion is made about hypertension, it is fiercely contested.

Then there is the running question, which is just as inflammatory. Do athletes of African descent have innate advantages over those of different heritage? As with hypertension, this is an argument about scientific hypotheses. It can only be settled by evaluating the relevant data. But the Guardian columnist Gary Younge refuses to consider the evidence until the world is a fair place. "When the stopping, searching, jailing, bailing, executing, excluding, unemploying and underpaying are over - then, and only then, will I listen to talk of 'tendons', 'arm spans' and 'plasma'," he declared last year. In the meantime he will rely on feelings - "So feel free to make the case and I will feel free to be insulted" - instead of facts.

In giving moral and emotional vehemence priority over argument, Younge's rhetoric illustrates the shrill anxiety felt by anti-racists about what may lie beneath the social constructions. And their anxiety is understandable. Despite the reassuring tone adopted by the scientists, nothing they say gives any pause to scientific racists. These are not concerned that groups shade into each other: borrowing a modish phrase, they describe races as "fuzzy sets" (and themselves as "race realists"). Nor are they impressed that variation within groups is greater than that between them: they point instead to the group averages.

And then from the anti-racist side come own goals like that scored by Jared Diamond in the opening pages of Guns, Germs and Steel, his attempt to account for the fortunes of peoples in terms of environment rather than genes. Diamond argues that natural selection in a tough environment has made New Guineans more intelligent than Westerners. He thus begins his argument by endorsing the central plank of scientific racism. Maybe New Guinea, like Croatia, is a place where different rules apply.