A perspective on race

John McKay (mckay@alcor.concordia.ca)
5 Oct 1995 01:37:46 GMT

This article deserves wider dissemination.

From: Les Earnest <les@SAIL.Stanford.EDU>

Can computers cope with human races?
by Les Earnest

Copyright 1989 by the Association for Computing Machinery
[This article appeared in Communications of the ACM, February 1989.
Copying without fee is permitted provided that the copies are not made
or distributed for direct commercial advantage and credit to the
source is given. Abstracting with credit is permitted.]

In trying to apply a computer to a task that humans do, we often
discover that it doesn't work. One common problem is that humans are
able to deal with fuzzy concepts but computers are not -- they need
precise representations and it is hard to represent a fuzzy concept in
a precise way. However, if we look closer at such tasks, we often
discover that the weakness actually lies not in the computer but in
ourselves -- we didn't understand what we were doing in the first

When faced with a problem of this sort, some people refuse to
recognize the conceptual failure. Instead of seeking a better
representation for the task, they thrash away at making the fuzzy
scheme work, insisting that there is nothing wrong with the conceptual

I will illustrate one such problem with a true story.
The central theme is the fuzzy concept of racial and ethnic classification,
as used by the U.S. government and a horde of other bureaucracies.
These organizations have been carrying out elaborate statistical
computations and making major policy decisions based on this concept
for many years and are still doing it, with problematical results.

I begin with my first major encounter with this scheme, some 25 years

White faces in new places

In 1963, after living in Lexington, Massachusetts for 7 years, my
family and I moved to the Washington D.C. area where I helped set up a
new office for Mitre Corporation. After three days of searching, we
bought a house then under construction in a pleasant new suburb called
Mantua Hills, near Fairfax, Virginia. I hadn't noticed it during our
search, but it soon became evident that there were nothing but white
faces in that area. In fact, there were nothing but white faces for
miles around.

We expected to find some cultural differences and did. For example,
people drove much less aggressively than in Massachusetts. The first
time that I did a Boston-style bluff at a traffic circle, the other
cars yielded! This took all the fun out of it and I was embarrassed
into driving more conservatively.

When I applied for a Virginia driver's license, I noticed that the
second question on the application, just after ``Name,'' was ``Race.''
When filling out forms, I have always made it a practice to omit
information that I think is irrelevant. It seemed to me that my race
had nothing to do with driving a car, so I left it blank.

When I handed the application to the clerk along with the fee, he just
looked at me, marked ``W'' in the blank field and threw it on a stack.
I guess that he had learned that this was the easiest way to deal with

It shortly became apparent that on all forms in Virginia, the second
question was ``Race,'' right after ``Name.'' Someone informed me that
as far as the Commonwealth of Virginia was concerned, there were just
two races: ``white'' and ``colored.'' Included in ``colored'' were all
dark-skinned people, including both kinds of Indians. I felt
uncomfortable with this system, knowing that it was part of a scheme
of legal discrimination that still pervaded the laws of many states.
For example, it was still illegal in Virginia for a ``white'' and a
``colored'' person to marry.

Our contractor was a bit slow in finishing the house. We knew that
there was mail headed our way that was probably accumulating in the
post office, so we put up the mailbox even before the house was
finished. The first day we got just two letters -- from the American
Civil Liberties Union and Martin Luther King's organization, SCLC. We
figured that this was the postman's way of letting us know that he was
on to us. Sure enough, the next day we got the rest of our accumulated
mail, a large stack.

When our kids brought forms home from school, I started putting a
``C'' after the second question, leaving it to the authorities to
figure out whether that meant ``Colored'' or ``Caucasian.'' I doubt
that this actually confused anyone -- the entire school was lily

Racing clearance

About this time, my boss and I and another colleague applied for a
special security clearance that we needed. There are certain
clearances that can't be named in public -- it was one of those. I had
held an ordinary Top Secret clearance for a number of years and had
held the un-namable clearance a short time before, so I did not
anticipate any problems.

When I filled out my personal history form, I noticed that question #5
was ``Race.'' In the past I had not paid attention to this question; I
just thoughtlessly wrote ``Caucasian.'' Having been sensitized by my
new environment, I re-examined it.

All of my known forebears came from Europe, mostly from Bavaria and
Bohemia, with a few from England, Ireland, and Scotland. A glance in the
mirror, however, indicated that there was Middle Eastern blood in my
veins. I have a semitic nose and skin that tans so easily that I am
often darker than many people who pass for Black. Did I inherit this
from a Hebrew, an Arab, a Gypsy or perhaps one of the Turks who
periodically pillaged Central Europe? Maybe it was from a Blackfoot
Indian that an imaginative aunt thinks was in our family tree. I will
probably never know.

As an arrogant young computer scientist, I believed that if there is
any decision that you can't figure out how to program, the question is
wrong. I couldn't figure out how to program racial classification, so
I concluded that there isn't such a thing.

I subsequently reviewed some scientific literature that confirmed this
impression. ``Race'' is, at best, a fuzzy concept about typical
physical characteristics of certain populations. At worst, of course,
it provides a basis for more contemptible conduct than any concept
other than religion.

In answer to the race question on the security form, I decided to put
``mongrel.'' It would have been slightly less provocative had I said
``human,'' but I've always enjoyed diddling forms a bit.

Shortly after I handed in the form, I received a call from a secretary
in the security office of the Defense Communications Agency. She said
that she had noticed a typographical error in the fifth question where
it said ``mongrel.'' She asked if I didn't mean ``Mongol.'' ``No
thanks,'' I said, ``I really meant `mongrel.''' She ended the
conversation rather quickly.

A few hours later I received a call from the chief security officer of
D.C.A., who I happened to know. ``Hey, Les,'' he said in a friendly
way, ``I'd like to talk to you the next time you're over here.'' I
agreed to see him later that week.

When I got there, he tried to talk me out of answering the race
question ``incorrectly.'' I asked him what he thought was the right
answer. ``You know, Caucasian,'' he replied. ``Oh, you mean someone
from the Caucasus Mountains of the U.S.S.R.?'' I asked pointedly.
``No, you know, `white.''' ``Actually, I don't know,'' I said.

We got into a lengthy discussion in which he informed me that as far
as the Defense Department was concerned there were five races:
Caucasian, Negro, Oriental, American Indian, and Pacific Islander. I
asked him how he would classify someone who was, by his definition,
7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Negro. He said he wasn't sure. I asked how he
classified Egyptians and Ethiopians. He wasn't sure.

I said that I wasn't sure either and that ``mongrel'' seemed like the
best answer for me. He finally agreed to forward my form to the
security authorities but warned that I was asking for trouble.

A question of stability

I knew what to expect from a security background investigation:
neighbors and former acquaintances let you know it is going on by
asking ``What are they trying to get you for?'' and kidding you about
what they told the investigators. Within a week after my application
for the new clearance was submitted, it became apparent that the
investigation was already underway and that the agents were hammering
everyone they talked to about my ``mental stability.''

Gale, the personnel manager where I worked, was interviewed quite
early and came to me saying ``My God! They think you're crazy! What
did you do, rape a polo pony?'' He also remarked that they had asked
him if he knew me socially and that he had answered ``Yes, we just
celebrated Guy Fawkes Day together.'' When the investigator wanted to
know ``What is Guy Fawkes Day?'' he started to explain the gunpowder
plot but thought better of it. He settled for the explanation that
``It's a British holiday.''

An artist friend named Linda, who lived two houses away from us, told
my wife that she had no trouble answering the investigator's questions
about my stability. She said that she recalled our party the week
before when we had formed two teams to ``Walk the plank.'' In this
game, participants take turns walking the length of a 2 x 4 set on
edge and drinking a small amount of beer. Anyone who steps off is
eliminated and the team with the most total crossings after some
number of rounds wins. Linda said that she remembered I was one of
the more stable participants.

I was glad that she had not remembered my instability at an earlier
party of hers when I broke my watch and bruised my ribs in a fall off
a skateboard. The embarrassing cause of the accident was that I had
run over the bottom of my own toga!

Meanwhile, the investigation continued full tilt everywhere I had
lived. After about three months it stopped and a short time later I
learned that the clearance had been granted. The other two people
whose investigations were begun at the same time did not receive their
clearances until several months later.

In comparing notes, it appeared that the investigators did the
background checks on my colleagues in a much more leisurely manner.
We concluded that my application had received priority treatment.
The investigators had done their best to pin something on me and,
having failed, gave me the clearance.

The lesson was clear: if you want a clearance in a hurry, put
something on your history form that will make the investigators
suspicious but that is not damning. They get so many dull backgrounds
to check that they relish the possibility of actually nailing someone.
By being a bit provocative, you draw priority attention and quicker

After I received the clearance, I expected no further effects from my
provocative answer. As it turned out, there was an unexpected
repercussion a year later and an unexpected victory the year after
that. The repercussion turned out to be an odd side effect of a new
computer application.

Mongrel in a star-chamber

About a year after I had been granted the supplementary security
clearance, I received a certified letter directing me to report to the
Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Suitland, Maryland very
early in the morning on a certain day a month later. To one whose
brain seldom functions before 10 AM, this was a singularly unappealing
trip request.

My wife somehow got me up early on the appointed day and I drove off
in my TR-3 with the top down, even though it was a cold winter
morning. I hoped that the air would stimulate my transition to an
awakened state.

When I arrived and identified myself, I was immediately ushered into a
long narrow room with venetian blinds on one side turned to block the
meager morning light. I was seated on one side of a table on which
there were two goose-neck lamps directed into my eyes. There was no
other light in the room, so I could barely see the three inquisitors
who took positions on the opposite side of the table.

Someone punched on a tape recorder and the trio began taking turns at
poking into my past. They appeared to be trying to convince me that I
was in deep trouble. While the pace and tone of their questions were
clearly aimed at intimidation, they showed surprisingly little
interest in my answers. I managed to stay relaxed, partly because I
was not yet fully awake.

They asked whether I had any association with a certain professor at
San Diego State College, which I had attended for one year. I
recognized his name as being one who was harassed by the House
Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era. He was an
alleged Communist. I answered that I did not know him but that I might
have met him socially since he and my mother were on the faculty
concurrently. They wanted to know with certainty whether I had taken
any classes from him. I said that I had not.

They next wanted to know how well I knew Linus Pauling, who they knew
was a professor at Caltech when I was a student there. I acknowledged
that he was my freshman chemistry professor and that I had visited his
home once or twice. I did not mention that Pauling's lectures had so
inspired me that I decided to become a chemist. It was not until I
took a sophomore course in physical chemistry that I realized I wasn't
cut out for it.

I recalled that Pauling had been regularly harassed by certain
government agencies during the McCarthy Era because of his leftist
``peacenik'' views. He was barred from overseas travel on occasion and
the harassment continued even after he won the Nobel Prize in
chemistry, but seemed to diminish after the second one, the Peace

The inquisitors wanted to know how often I got together with one of my
uncles who lived nearby. I acknowledged that we met occasionally, the
last time being a short time earlier when our families dined together.
It sounded as though they thought they had something on him. I knew
him to be a very able person with a distinguished career in public
service. He had been City Manager of Fort Lauderdale and several
other cities and had held a number of positions in the State
Department. It occurred to me that they might be planning to nail him
for associating with a known mongrel.

The questions continued in this vein for hours without a break. I kept
waiting for them to bring up a Caltech acquaintance named Bernon
Mitchell, who had lived in the same student house as me. Mitchell had
later taken a position at the National Security Agency, working in
cryptography, then defected to the Soviet Union with a fellow
employee. They were apparently closet gays.

In fact, the inquisitors never mentioned Mitchell. This suggested that
they may not have done a very thorough investigation. A more likely
explanation was that Mitchell and his boyfriend represented a serious
failure of the security clearance establishment -- one that they would
rather not talk about.

After about three and a half hours of nonstop questioning I was
beginning to wake up. I was also beginning to get riled over their
seemingly endless fishing expedition. At this point there was a short
pause and a rustling of papers. I sensed that they were finally
getting around to the main course.

``We note that on your history form you claim to be a mongrel,'' said
the man in the middle. ``What makes you think you are a mongrel?''
``That seems to be the best available answer to an ill-defined
question,'' I responded. We began an exchange that was very much like
my earlier discussion with the security officer in the Defense
Communications Agency. As before, I asked how they identified various
racial groups and how they classified people who were mixtures of
these ``races.''

The interrogators seemed to be taken aback at my asking them
questions. They asked why I was trying to make trouble. I asked them
why they would not answer my questions. When no answers were
forthcoming, I finally pointed out that ``It is clear that you do not
know how to determine the race of any given person, so it is
unreasonable for you to expect me to. I would now like to know what
you want from me.''

The interrogators began whispering among themselves. They had
apparently planned to force me to admit my true race and were not
prepared for an alternative outcome. Finally, the man in the center
spoke up saying, ``Are you willing to sign a sworn statement about
your race?'' ``Certainly,'' I said. They then turned up the lights
and called for a stenographer.

She appeared with notebook in hand and I dictated a statement: ``I
declare that to the best of my knowledge I am a mongrel.'' ``Don't you
think you should say more than that,'' said the chief interrogator.
``I think that covers it,'' I replied. The stenographer shrugged and
went off to type the statement.

With the main business out of the way, things lightened up --
literally. They opened the venetian blinds to let in some sunlight
and offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted. We had some friendly
conversation, then I signed the typed statement, which was duly

Punch line

My former tormentors now seemed slightly apologetic about the whole
affair. I asked them what had prompted this investigation. After some
glances back and forth, one of them admitted that ``We were putting
our clearance data base on IBM cards and found that there was no punch
for `mongrel'.''

I thought about this for a moment, then asked ``Why didn't you add a
new punch?'' ``We don't have any programmers here'' was the answer.
``We got the program from another agency.''

I said, ``Surely I am not the only person to give a non-standard
answer. With all the civil rights activists now in government
service, some of them must have at least refused to answer the race
question.'' The atmosphere became noticeably chillier as one of them
answered, with clinched teeth, ``You're the only one. The rest of
those people seem to know their race.''

I was surprised to learn that nearly everyone believed in the concept
of racial classification. It appeared that even people who were
victims of discrimination acknowledged it as part of their identity.

It was clear that the security people believed I had caused this
problem, but I felt that it was the result of a stupid question and
the common programmer's blunder of creating a categorization that does
not include ``Other'' as an option.

They apparently found it impractical to obtain the hour or two of a
programmer's time that would have been needed to fix the computer
program, so they chose instead to work with their standard tools. This
led to an expenditure of hundreds of man-hours of effort in gathering
information to try to intimidate me into changing my answer.

Some important political developments occurred during the period
between my rapid security clearance and the later inquisition. Civil
rights workers from all over the country worked on voter registration
in the South. Three of them disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi
on June 22, 1964 and were later found to have been murdered by local

A federal omnibus civil rights act happened to be signed into law one
week later. It banned discrimination in voting, jobs, and public
accomodations and generally removed the last vestiges of legal support
for racial discrimination at the national level.

I never did find out how the security investigators coped with the
fact that I remained a mongrel, but in 1966 I discovered that
something very good had happened: the ``race'' question had
disappeared from the security clearance form. In fact, this question
disappeared from nearly all government forms then. I liked to think
that I helped that change along.

Feeling naked without chains

For a short period in the mid-'60s, just after the race question
disappeared from the forms, it became socially unacceptable in certain
circles to talk about a person's race, but then an odd thing happened.
Those who had been discriminated against for so long began to think of
their racial identity as something to be proud of and those who wished
to end discrimination decided that they needed to classify people into
racial groups in order to be able to statistically measure compliance
with anti-discrimination laws and to actively right earlier wrongs.

In support of the latter goals, government bureaucrats invented an
``ethnic'' classification system that identified the minorities that
they felt might be discriminated against. They never bothered to
define their terms because, like the earlier racists, they had only a
hazy notion of where the boundaries were. Thus, the fuzzy old concept
of racial classification that had been a tool of racists for so long
came to be embraced by their former victims and those who believed
that in order to combat discrimination, you had to classify everyone
and compile statistics.

Beginning in 1965, I helped John McCarthy organize the the Stanford
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and remained as principal
bureaucrat of that organization for 15 years. My first encounter with
the new classification system was in the late '60s, when I received a
form that called for a matrix of numbers to be filled in for the lab,
with job levels in one dimension and ethnic and sex classifications
the other way. The classifications made no more sense to me than
those used by the armed services earlier, but being at a place like
Stanford gave me access to expert advice on a wide range of subjects,
so I decided to seek help.

I happened to know Joshua Lederberg, who had received a Nobel Prize
for his work in genetics. This seemed to qualify him as an expert, so
I asked him how he determined the ethnic classes of his staff members.
Josh laughed and said, ``That classification is nonsensical. I just
let them choose whatever they would like to be.''

This sounded like good advice, but a problem arose when I applied it.
Among the listed ethnic classes were ``Spanish surname'' and
``Black,'' but one of my secretaries happened to be black and had a
Spanish surname and she felt that she should be listed in both places.
I did as she requested, which meant that the rows and columns of the
matrix didn't add up right. I left it that way just to see what would
happen. I never heard a word about it.

Ethnic emperor's new clothes

After a few years of having us fill out ethnic matrices, somebody in
the Stanford administration figured out that they could save a lot of
fuss by simply adding ethnic classifications to their personnel
database, so that the computer could generate all the statistics that
the government might want. Furthermore, the rows and columns of
computer-synthesized matrices would always add up correctly -- truly a
conceptual breakthrough! Thus was born the idea of adding individual
ethnic codes to the IBM cards that contained our personal data. Sound

The Stanford administration managed to avoid one mistake that the Defense
Department security folks had made: they didn't ask anyone to classify
themselves, thus bypassing troublemakers like me. Everyone was secretly
classified by certain key administrators. These administrators must have
been remarkably well trained, because they did their classifying just by
looking at people -- I never found anyone who was interviewed to determine
their ethnic classification.

I later obtained a copy of the instructions for determining new ethnic
code. Here is the full text.
ETHNIC CODE Required for all employees. The codes are:
1 = Black, not of Hispanic origin
2 = Asian or Pacific Islander (persons having origins in any of the
original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian
Subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands.)
3 = American Indian or Alaskan Native.
4 = Hispanic (persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or
South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of
5 = Non-Minority (persons having origins in any of the original peoples
of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.)

I learned that this classification scheme came from the federal
government. I believe that it is still in use throughout the United
States today.

Interestingly, there were still five categories, just as the security
folks claimed in the early '60s, though the categories had shifted. I
was glad to see that the problem with Hispanic blacks had been solved,
but there were still some mysteries.

According to the definitions, people from Spain were both Code 4 and
code 5. Were we to assume that 4 takes precedence over 5? Not clear.

Once again, there was no code for ``mongrel'' or ``undefined'' or
``mixed'' or ``other.'' Notice that ``Non-Minority'' is defined as
people from certain specific parts of the world and so it does not
function as the ``other'' category. The designers of this system
obviously believed that everyone belonged to some unique ethnic
category, though they didn't describe exactly how to put them there.

In fact, there were no instructions given on how to classify people
who are mixtures of things. For example, where would I place my three
grandchildren who are half Yup'ik Eskimo and half whatever we are?
They were born in Alaska, so I guess that they qualify as ``Alaskan
Native'' (code 3).

I believe that the failure of this ethnic code to deal with people of
mixed origins is not accidental. It is part of a persistent conspiracy
in the United States to deny that there are such people. Instead of
being accurately identified, they are forced to choose membership in
one of the traditional racial groups. Needless to say, there are no
reliable statistics on the number of such people, but it is certainly
very large and getting larger.

``Black'' and ``White'' are relative

We know that nearly all of the people in the U.S. who call themselves
``black'' are genetic mixtures of African and European peoples.
Because our culture is predominently European, anyone who has
detectably African features is called ``black,'' even if they are
genetically, say, 7/8 European. If we were a predominently African
country, these same people would likely be called ``white'' because
they have detectably European features. In other words, these racial
classifications seem to be made relative to the norm, which makes them
intrinsically subjective and rather unreliable.

I understand that South Africa, which has an African majority and a
dominant European culture, distinguishes between ``Black,'' ``White,''
``Asian,'' and ``Colored,'' the last being the catchall for mongrels.
I find their racial policies abominable, but their racial
classification system is slightly more logical than ours; of course,
it too is senseless if you look a bit deeper.

Sometime after Stanford undertook the secret ethnic classification
project, I saw one of my personnel forms and discovered that I was
code 5. I seriously considered protesting. After all, some of my
ancestors were Huns, a fierce nomadic tribe of Asian warriors. In the
5th Century A.D., under the leadership of Attila, they swept over most
of Asia and Europe as far West as Gaul, raping, pillaging, and
spreading their genes everywhere. Thus I qualify as code 2.

On the other hand, based on the best available anthopological
evidence, we can all trace our ancestry back to Africa at an earlier
time. Thus if ``Black'' means anyone whose ancestors came from
sub-Sahara Africa, we all qualify as code 1.

While it was clear that logic would be on my side if I made a fuss
over my ethnic code, I had to consider the potential consequences of
such an action. One possibility, was that I would have another run-in
with the ethnic police. I figured that I could handle that. On the
other hand, I had become older and, presumably, wiser and did not wish
to expend energy on hopeless crusades. Everyone else seemed to believe
in this absurd scheme, so I finally decided to live with the shame of
being a code 5 ``Non-minority.''

What are we doing here?

``So what?'' you may say, ``Nobody takes this ethnic stuff seriously
anyway.'' Wrong! Ethnic codes determine eligibility for certain
scholarships and which schools our children are bussed to. Large
employers must exhibit ethnic statistics within certain ranges in
order to avoid charges of discrimination. Under some Affirmative
Action programs approved by the courts, people who are identified as
members of certain ethnic groups are given hiring or promotion
preferences, supposedly to rectify past discrimination. If you own a
business, your ethnic code determines your eligibility for certain
kinds of low interest loans and may give you preferential access to
many kinds of government contracts. And so forth.

I have made fun of racial and ethnic classification systems not
because I disagree with the goals of those who have created these
schemes (even though I do disagree in some cases) but because our
society as a whole continues to treat these schemes as if they had
substance, somehow ignoring the fact that they are, and have always
been, nonsense. We continue to build ever more elaborate bureaucratic
structures atop this rotten foundation.

Suppose that we continue building, presumably because it is for a good
cause. Do you think that these structures will be dismantled once the
original purpose has vanished or has been forgotten? From what I know
of the way bureaucracies work, I am sure that the answer is ``No.''
Fighting racism with ``benign'' racism leads to indefinite racism that
will end only when another process intervenes. Something will
eventually intervene, as I discuss later, but it seems silly to wait
that long.

Problems and alternative solutions

Great progress has been made in reducing racial discrimination in my
lifetime. I grew up in a racist society that had laws prohibiting
blacks in the South from eating in the same restaurants, attending the
same schools, using the same restrooms, drinking from the same
fountains, riding in the same part of a bus or train, sitting in the
same part of theaters, or entering the same public parks as whites. I
attended public high school in Louisville, Kentucky, where we were
segregated three ways: white boys, white girls, and colored.

Job discrimination pervaded all of the U.S., not just the South.
Almost the only jobs that were available to blacks, who were then
called ``negro'' or ``colored'' or something more derogatory, were as
cooks, domestic servants, or bootblacks. Professional sports were
closed to them and few could get jobs in the entertainment industry,
though some made their living as singers, dancers, or musicians.

Earlier, when I lived in San Diego, some acquaintences who happened to
be members of a ``dangerous'' race were rounded up by the government
and placed in concentration camps, though I was not aware at the time
of what had happened to them -- my parents told me that they had
``moved away.'' Only recently have we learned of atrocities that
happened in those camps, such as the elderly man who went outside the
fence to retrieve a ball that had been thrown there by his grandson
and was machine-gunned to death by a guard.

We can take some pride in the fact that our government did not systematically
murder people in our concentration camps, but then neither did the Germans
in the beginning. I shudder to think what might have happened if our war
in the Pacific had gone badly. U.S. Government propaganda had already
convinced most citizens that Japanese were a sub-human species who bred
themselves to serve the Japanese national purpose by flying kamikaze
missions or otherwise serving as cannon fodder and that one of our
national goals was to ``Kill Japs!''

Some of these prejudicial feelings seem to have resurfaced recently in
response to Japanese economic success. Nevertheless, we seem to have
made substantial progress in eradicating prejudice and discrimination
during the last 40 years. Still, it is clear that this problem is not

My vision of the future is a colorblind society. I know that we will
not reach it in my lifetime because old habits die hard. In fact, we
will never entirely escape this problem because of a peculiarity of
human nature: wherever there are distinguishable groups of people,
tribal instincts can take root and turn it into an ``us'' versus
``them'' situation. This phenomenon is not just racially based -- if
you have any doubt, attend a high school basketball game and observe
the fans on both sides.

There was a short time in the mid-'60s when I thought we were headed
in the right direction. Essentially all of the legal underpinnings of
racial discrimination had been knocked out of the law books. Then
certain anti-discrimination forces mobilized, claiming that it was
insufficient to simply outlaw discrimination. They believed that it
was also necessary to measure it statistically by classifying

I disagree. I think that all the important issues can be addressed
without resorting to the absurd exercise of trying to assign ethnic
codes to everyone. For example, one way to homogenize school
composition is to assign students in some area to schools in that area
in accordance with a random number generator. This would achieve
racial balance without resorting to classification foolishness.

The most direct way to fight discrimination in housing or employment
is to send a well-qualified minority applicant to a suspect and, if
the applicant is refused, send a less well-qualified majority
applicant. If that person is accepted, repeat the experiment once or
twice to be sure, then nail them! This scheme has been tested and it

Back to basics

Please understand that I do not claim that the concept of ``race'' is
totally meaningless. People in certain parts of the world do bear
physical similarities to one another and racial terms are sometimes
useful as labels for those similarities, provided that we do not
pretend that these terms have well-defined meanings. Ashley Montagu
[1] and others have pointed out that most popular racial concepts are,
in fact, myths. What is truly nonsensical is to turn the fuzzy
concept of race around and and try to classify all individuals as
being members of some particular race.

Also, I do not claim that there necessarily have to be logical
inconsistencies in racial and ethnic codes, though all that I have
seen to date do exhibit such properties. Simply including a ``mixed
blood'' or ``mongrel'' category would solve a lot of problems, but for
some reason that idea does not seem to occur to most people who design
these codes.

Though many people clearly believe that racial and ethnic
classifications are somehow linked to science, I observe that their
relationship to genetics is a lot like astrology's link to astronomy.
The analogy is imperfect, however; very few government officials are
willing to publicly admit that they plan their lives around astrology
(though some apparently do), but nearly all of them publicly plan
their programs around ethnic classifications. Indeed, the government
pours millions of dollars each year into reaffirmation of this belief
and requires that private industry join in the massive delusion.

The widespread delusion about racial and ethnic classification has not
been confined to the nonscientific world, unfortunately. As Lancelot
Hogben remarked 56 years ago [2]: ``Geneticists believe that
anthopologists have decided what a race is. Ethnologists assume that
their classifications embody principles which genetic science has
proved to be correct. Politicians believe that their prejudices have
the sanction of genetic laws and the findings of physical anthropology
to sustain them.''

While there often are visible differences between people from areas
that are widely separated, these differences are very small compared
with the physical similarities of all humans [3]. Genetic studies
indicate that all modern humans evolved from a single population about
100,000 years ago, possibly less than half that time. On the
evolutionary time scale, this is a very short period.

As these people spread out, the genetic compositions of widely
separated groups moved apart to some degree, but there have always
been gradations and mixtures of characteristics in between them; in
other words, there are no clear boundaries between groups. Europeans
and Africans are genetically somewhat closer to each other than to
their cousins in the Far East, but there are all kinds of variations
in between.

Some of the geographical variations in human characteristics appear to
be environmental adaptations. For example, having a relatively large
amount of melanin in the skin not only makes it dark but also protects
against intense solar radiation, which reduces the frequency of skin
cancer and other skin disorders. On the other hand, having very fair
skin facilitates the absorbtion of sunlight and the production of
vitamin D, which inhibits rickets and other diseases. Thus, the Nordic
complexion is well suited to life at the higher latitudes where there
is less sunlight available. Some people's skin has the ability to
bleach out if it is not exposed to much sun or to become very dark if
it is. This adaptation would have been useful to nomadic groups that
periodically migrated from one zone to the other.

Other interpretations of visible differences in people are more
speculative. The semitic nose, for example, has a larger moist
interior that could be advantageous when breathing hot, arid air. The
relatively small noses and other features of Far Eastern people could
have been an adaptation to an extremely cold environment. Perhaps
their ancestors evolved in one of the nastier parts of Siberia.

Some of the visible differences in widely separated groups are
certainly not environmental adaptations but are the result of genetic
``drift.'' For example, a small population with a chance collection
of genetic characteristics may happen to grow into a very large
population that then further propagates these characteristics.

How do we describe people?

In addition to the use of ethnic classifications as an alleged tool
for fighting discrimination, ethnic terms are also used for visual
identification by police and the media, though with different
conventions. While police reports are usually specific, such as
``Male Caucasian, 5 feet 10,'' newspapers usually report only
departures from the racial norm. In other words, if the person's race
is not mentioned, it is presumably ``white.'' Almost never does either
group identify people as being of mixed blood, even though a very
large portion of the people they deal with actually are.

While there are many people in the U.S. who visually match certain
racial stereotypes, there are also a lot who do not and the proportion
in the latter category is increasing year-by-year. People who don't
fit any racial stereotypes can cause serious problems for those who
try to identify them in racial terms. For example, I know a lady with
very dark skin and bright orange-red hair. How do you suppose she
should be classified? I saw some comely ladies in Amsterdam a few
years ago with pale skin and bright green hair. To which racial group
would you say they belong?

Obviously, the police and others who use racial terms for
identification have no clearer understanding of these terms than do
the bureaucrats. For the most part, they seem to use racial terms as
synonyms for skin color. Thus, it is reasonable to ask why they don't
use a more precise vocabulary that already exists: artists' terms for
skin color. The reason seems to be rooted in history; racial terms
were adopted for individual identification at a time when our entire
society was racist, including police and newspaper reporters. Old
habits die hard.

Fortunately, for those who long for a way out of the classification
morass, help is on the way!

Fuzzy concept made precise

Given that human genetic codes are now in the process of being
unravelled, it will soon be possible to accurately classify people
into racial groups. All we need do is measure the distance between a
given individual's genetic code and those of various racial standards
and assign that person to the nearest racial group. There are several
schemes under development for measuring genetic distance [4]. One of
the more straightforward methods uses an adaptation of Hamming
distance, as follows.

The basic genetic material, DNA, is composed of strings of
nucleotides, each of which consists of one of four bases: adenine,
thymine, guanine, or cytosine. In computer terms, then, the genetic
information can be represented as a string of bytes, each having one
of four values. The distance between two such codes can be taken as
simply the number of corresponding positions in which the two codes

The word ``corresponding'' is a bit tricky. Considerable analysis may
be needed to align elements that have the same or similar functions,
given that there may be gaps or additions in one code or the other

The principal function of DNA is to control the fabrication of
proteins using various kinds of RNA as intermediaries, but only about
1% of the DNA sequences represent protein formulas. Some of the
remaining material apparently represents control structures, which
determine when the various fabrication events happen, but there also
appears to be a lot of ``garbage'' -- codes that do nothing. About 10%
of the material is so-called satellite DNA, which consists of the same
sequence concatenated over and over up to thousands of times. Another
20% consists of the same sequence repeated in many scattered places.
The functions of these repeated sequences, if any, are unknown.

If you consider the above scheme to be a byte-level metric, there is
also a word-level distance measure that can be used. Genetic
mechanisms interpret the code in three-byte words, called ``codons''
by geneticists, each of which specifies one of 20 amino acids or a
``stop'' code. Thus, another plausible distance measure is simply a
count of the number of corresponding codons in which there is a
difference in the amino acid specified. Note that each word could
designate one of 4^3 = 64 actions, but a number of codes yield the
same action, leaving just 21 possibilities. The designer apparently
left no undefined codes for future use.

Unfortunately, it will not be practical to routinely analyze
individual genetic codes in their entirety for the forseeable future
-- the current practical limit is to determine a few thousand
nucleotide sequences at a time, whereas human DNA contains about 3
billion. There are plans to map the entire sequence for some
individual, but that will be a major undertaking that could not be
done routinely for many people any time soon.

Nevertheless, it is practical to measure genetic distance based on
comparisons of selected genes. In order to do this, we will need to
select the set to be used and define corresponding code sequences for
the various racial standards, such as a standard Black, standard
White, standard Chinese, etc. Of course, some people will want to
carry this a step further and define a standard Texan or even a
standard South Philadelphian.

The process of choosing which races will be ``standard'' will no doubt
generate a lot of heat, but suppose that we manage to do that. Then
everyone can be classified as being a member of the racial group whose
standard is closest to their own.

With either of the two distance measures discussed above or one of the
others that are under development [4], it will be possible to assign
everyone unambiguously to a racial group except for the rare
individuals who happen to be exactly equidistant from the two closest
standards. To deal with these rare exceptions, we can probably devise
some tie-breaking rules.

While this marvel of future science will yield exact and unambiguous
racial classifications, such a scheme clearly will not be useful for
visual identification. In fact, I can't think of anything that it
would be good for, other than to provide a formalized basis for

For the purpose of identification, the individual's genetic codes will
be far more useful than any racial classification derived from them.

Urge to merge

Whether or not we solve the problem of racial discrimination through
education, political action, and law enforcement, human biology will
apparently solve it for us in the long run. If there are no more major
influxes of foreign populations into the United States,
distinguishable racial groups will essentially disappear in this
country within a few centuries because of the ``urge to merge.'' In
other words, the U.S. seems destined to become a nation of mongrels.

This blending process has almost certainly happened in other parts of
the world in the past, producing many of the ``homogenious'' modern
human populations seen today. In the United States, future white
supremicists and black power advocates must inevitably reconcile
themselves to being members of shrinking minorities. I predict that as
the mongrels become dominant, new rallying cries will be heard;
perhaps, ``Beige is beautiful.'' Before that happens, though, they
must learn to identify themselves as members of the new breed rather
than as members of traditional races. The U.S. government currently
denies them that right.


I have argued that all historical and present racial and ethnic
classification systems for individuals are nonsensical and so are the
laws, court decisions, computer applications, and bureaucratic
superstructures that have been built on top of them.

The attempt to use computers to assist in racial classification tasks
has helped sharpen the issues because computers can't deal with fuzzy
concepts. If you try to define an ethnic code that is logically
complete, consistent, and determinable for every person using current
technology, you find that you can't.

There seems to be a silent conspiracy to deny the existence of mixed
racial groups in the United States. Most such people have acquiesced
to this conspiracy and don't even think of themselves in those terms.
Instead, they go along with the idea that they are members of one of
the races recognized by the government. In fact, they often identify
with a traditional race that represents only a small fraction of their
genetic heritage!

It appears that rigorous racial classification will soon be possible
through advances in genetics and the development of computerized
racial stereotypes, though the usefulness of such schemes is suspect.
Thus one answer to the title question, ``Can computers cope with human
races?'' is: ``Not yet, but soon -- but who cares?''

Even if we fail to deal effectively with the racial issues, it appears
that the ``urge to merge'' will eventually settle this problem for our
descendents. It is encouraging to know that nature will handle it if
we screw up.

Many people have quietly resisted the persistent nonsense of racial
classification by either refusing to answer such questions or by
listing themselves as ``human.'' Over the last 25 years, I have
consistently answered ``mongrel.'' In order to turn back the
classifiers, I believe that it will be necessary to form an
identifiable movement with a distinctive title. As long as we're
choosing a name, why not identify with the long term winners? I
propose USA Mongrels.

I invite others to join in self-declassification, with the hope and
expectation that the bureaucrats and politicians will eventually be
forced to quit playing with this issue and will recognize that the
United States of America is a nation of egalitarian mongrels. I
believe that we will all be better off. So will the computers.

Finally, computer scientists who encounter problems in adapting human
concepts to computer use should not assume that the source of such
problems necessarily lies in the limitations of computers. There is a
real possibility that the concept itself may be flawed.


Thanks to B. Edwin Blaisdel of the Linus Pauling Institute for
guidance on the topic of genetic distance measures and to Peter
Denning, CACM Editor in Chief, for suggesting that I turn some of my
electronic ``flames'' into an article and for a number of helpful
suggestions on the manuscript.


[1] Ashley Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth, New York, Oxford University
Press, 1974.

[2] Lancelot Hogben, ``The Concept of Race'' in his Genetic Principles in
Medicine and Social Science, New York, Knopf, 1932.

[3] Joshua Lederberg, ``The Genetics of Human Nature,'' Social Research,
Vol. 40, pp. 375-406, 1973.

[4] Joseph Felsenstein, ``Numerical methods for inferring evolutionary trees,''
Quart. Rev. Biology, Vol. 57, pp. 379-404, 1982.

[5] M.S. Waterman, ``General methods of inferring sequence comparison,''
Bull. Math. Biology, Vol. 46, pp. 473-500, 1984.

Deep ideas are simple.
Odd groups are even.
Even simples are not.