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American Caste System? New ‘Gene Theory’ Dangerously Puts People of Color in Our Place

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

As if racism weren’t bad enough, here comes another “–ism” to make your day.

Are you ready for gene-ism? The coinage is mine, but it’s not my theory.

Our problems go deeper than race. It’s our genes.

The idea belongs to Gregory Clark, a professor at UC-Davis who published an essay in The New York Times this past Sunday that’s sure to get those in the diversity battle buzzing.

According to Clark, there’s a simple reason people are where they are in the social ladder and it has nothing to do with winning or losing the fight against racial discrimination.

No, the map of our life is all in our genetic makeup. The DNA of success is pre-determined. In other words, upward mobility, success, all the good things in life are all about your genes.

And not just your Calvin Kleins or your Gloria Vanderbilts (although those would be good genes, indeed).

The theory as advanced by Clark is you can’t fight your genes. Period.

Oh, sure, individual effort still counts for something. But Clark says this boldly: “Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper, and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited. We can’t know for certain what the mechanisms of that inheritance are, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role. Alternative explanations that are in vogue — cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks — don’t hold up to scrutiny.”

So says Clark. But here’s how he comes to his conclusion. He looked at surnames. He claims to have looked at “reams of data on surnames in Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the U.S. going back for centuries. It’s a purposefully diverse and large sample size to thwart those appalled by his conclusion.

“To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great grandparents,” writes Clark. “My colleagues and I estimate that 50-60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage.”

Even with the inevitable rise and fall of high-status families, Clark believes the process of equaling out can take “10-15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.”

How’s that for an all-encompassing, game-over shut-down defense against racial equity advocates.

If you believe in Clark, it’s pretty easy to simply say, “Sorry, can’t help you. Have you checked out your genes? You’re a loser.”

In the U.S., Clark used two indicators for status: the names from the American Medical Association’s directory of physicians and registries of licensed attorneys.

I’m not sure if I buy the idea that doctors and lawyers alone are a decent benchmark of success. For example, such limited data may actually undercut the idea of a rising Black middle class (small business folks/well-paid government workers) that we’ve seen because of affirmative action in the last 40 years.

But because medicine and the law require massive doses of education, Clark may give us a sense of just how big a problem we are facing as we seek more minority students in our medical and law schools.

According to Clark, the task is daunting. When it comes to Black doctors, “even 200 years from now the descendants of enslaved African-Americans will still be underrepresented.”

So keep fighting for things like affirmative action, right?

Maybe not.

Like other theories in the past, Clark’s controversial take is similar to ideas on bell curves, brain/organ/body size, or other socio-biological attempts to explain who’s successful and why.

Ultimately, however, they are only used to try to “scientifically” explain why minorities are inferior to others.

This approach doesn’t make Clark’s views racist necessarily, but his findings could be used in racist ways.

“We are not suggesting that the fact of slow mobility means that policies to lift up the lives of the disadvantaged are for naught — quite the opposite,” writes Clark.

That’s good. So he won’t necessarily be for dumping “entitlements.”

And he’s apparently not for an American caste system, though the notion of predetermination comes close.

But then Clark writes: “Large-scale, rapid social mobility is impossible to legislate.”

Really? So I guess that does mean he believes in cutting back on help to the poor and ending affirmative action.

He continues: “What governments can do is ameliorate the effects of life’s inherent unfairness. Where we will fall within the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. Given that fact, we have to decide how much reward, or punishment, should be attached to what is ultimately fickle and arbitrary, the lottery of your lineage.”

That’s how his article ends.

So what reward do you give a poor person with bad genes? More than a rich person with good ones? Is that a good “bet” for society?

Now here’s where we get into the real insidious stuff. What is “ameliorating the effects of life’s inherent unfairness”?

Putting us out of our misery?

Or is Clark suggesting something advocated by some smart Californians, and others in the south ― eugenics?

Wouldn’t the forced sterilization be a way to put some of us out of our misery and make sure society isn’t burdened?

The “impossible to legislate” line is a hint.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you start hearing the GOP mouthing off the new “gene theory” as a way to justify regressive policies toward the poor and the underprivileged, a large number of them people of color.

Harmless article in The New York Times? Hardly.


Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (  Like him at ; twitter@emilamok

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