Kevin Berger in Nautilus:
When Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, talks about race, his authority is based on more than academic research. Every day he straddled the lines of race in the New York City housing project where he grew up in 1970s, a white kid, son of bohemian artists. The apartment complex, Masaryk Towers, then and now stands in a largely Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhood on the Lower East Side. As Conley explained when he stopped by the Nautilus office last week for an interview, his childhood was like a social science experiment. “Even when you flip the script and you are the minority, you see the stark advantages of whiteness and the divisions of social and cultural capital,” he said. Traversing the flagrantly unequal means of living in Manhattan shaped the path of Conley’s career. “I made a daily journey from my home neighborhood to the wealthier area in New York’s Greenwich Village, where we were lying about our address so I could go to school,” he said. “I think that’s what really made me aware of socioeconomic disparities and made me even as a child start to realize the kind of level of inequality and lack of social mobility and lack of equal opportunity we have in the United States.”
…Are you saying there’s no genetic component to race?
There are definitely genetic ancestry signals in our genomes that are easily recognizable. For example, if someone is 100 percent, 50 percent, 25 percent, or even 12.5 percent Ashkenazi Jewish, that is very identifiable in the genome. If someone has African ancestry we can recognize that in the genome. The more fine-grain you get, either you need really detailed genotyping information or a big sample size to really identify small differences, like, say, between Swedish and German, or something like that. But there are definitely signals of our historical origins in the genome. There’s no denying that. My point is that they don’t actually reinforce what we call race socially, and what we act on in our daily lives in the United States or elsewhere, for that matter.
How do you define race?
I define race as a social identity in which you do not choose your identity, unlike ethnicity. Ethnicity is something that’s affiliational. I’m actually an eighth Irish but on St. Patrick’s Day, especially given my last name is an Irish last name, I can choose to be 100 percent Irish, drink green beer, and wear all green. But if I said, “Well, I’m also English,” or “I’m also Jewish,” people wouldn’t say, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. Which is it? Choose.” It’s individual, it’s affiliational, you can have multiple ethnic identities. Race is something that’s socially determined. I don’t choose my race. Society around me, how people react to me, defines my race. Generally, even though there is a robust multiracial movement, you can only have one race. In fact, to the extent to which the scholars and activists are pushing the idea of multiracial classification, especially since the 2000 census allowed more than one choice, that’s pushing what we call race more toward what sociologists would call ethnicity.