Culture or Race? Does it matter?
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
In this society we often confuse culture and race.
Race is something you are born with and you are not able to change it. If both of your parents are white, by golly, you are too (or Black, or Asian or American Indian or whatever). Race is defined as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” It is immutable.
Culture on the other hand includes just about everything that many people associate with race, but culture can be changed. Culture is a word for the 'way of life' of groups of people, meaning "the way they do things."
OK, let's talk about this. For example Asians do very well academically, and are over represented in competitive academic programs. They get admitted into prestigious academic colleges at a higher rate than whites and blacks. Does this mean that Asians as a group are smarter than other races? Are they born with bigger brains? Or brains that work better? Are they smarter?
Of course not. You could take a thousand babies of whatever color and place them individually in Asian families, where they would be raised with the Asian focus on education, raised with Asian values, and these non-Asian kids would end up with the same academic performance. Because that academic performance is based on the Asian CULTURE, not their race.
Similarly you could take a thousand Asian babies and place them in white and black households, and they would tend to take on the academic success of the culture, IE the households, they were raised in. Just the fact that the babies were born Asian, does not guarantee superior academic performance. They are not inherently more intelligent.
But Asian babies do benefit from the Asian culture which tends to pay off when it comes to getting into the right college. Take the culture away and there is no race advantage.
Now culture is not universal or static. Every person and every family does not participate in every aspect of the culture associated with their race. There are Asian families that don’t care about education and by and large their kids will do about as well academically as other groups that don’t care about education.
So the real question is: what is your personal and family culture? You will not be guaranteed success or failure in any area of your life based on your race, or the dominant culture of your race, if you don’t implement that culture in your life. Culture is the way people do things: but if you don’t do those things, you don’t get the benefit or disadvantage of doing those things.
White privilege? No such thing. Blacks destined for failure? Ridiculous. Asians guaranteed admission into ivory tower colleges? Preposterous.
Ben Carson is a good example. He was raised in a single parent household. Statistically, children, particularly sons, of single parent households are more likely to become criminals and drug addicts and live in poverty than children of two parent households. That is culture, not race, and it applies equally to white, black and brown households. So things weren’t looking at all that great for Ben.
But his mother was a maid in a rich white household. And she noticed that rich people had books in their home and they read the books. She wanted her kids to grow up and be rich and successful, so she decided her kids needed to start reading books. She adopted that value into the personal culture of her family. She assigned Ben and his older brother Curtis to check out 2 books each week from the library and write reports on them.
Ben’s older brother became an aeronautical engineer, and Ben went on to become a world class neurosurgeon. Ben and Curtis weren't held back because of race. They went where their natural talents and the culture (in this case, the adopted culture) of their family took them.
Politicians and policy makers often try to fix society's problems without addressing the cultural issues that create the problem.
For example in 2004, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich proposed mailing a book each month to each child starting at birth until they entered Kindergarten, to help them be successful academically. Just like Ben Carson's mom, he figured out that kids that did well in school, had books at home. Kids that did poorly didn’t have books at home. The Governor attributed the academic success to possession of the books. He didn’t understand that it was the culture of the parents that brought books into the home that promoted academic success. The books were a sign of the family culture.
But the Governor thought of the books as some kind of magic talisman that would bestow academic success. So it was perfectly logical, in his thinking, to send books to the kids homes, rather than address the culture in their homes. Unfortunately, just having the books wouldn't make any difference, if the parents didn't turn off the TV and insist the kids read the books, if the culture didn't change.
Another example: the Washington State legislature recently tried to bring back race based college admission quotas. They saw that certain races were underrepresented in colleges and universities. So failing to recognize the cultural issues leading to this discrepancy, they assumed this was a racial issue. They passed legislation to create a race based college admission quota system to fix this problem.
Not surprisingly, the Asian community saw this as an attempt to use quotas to admit less Asians, so that there would be more slots left for white and black kids. The Asian community was the first to speak out against this legislation. When the new legislation was put to a vote of the people it was defeated in November of 2019.
Certain people said “If black and white kids want to get into college at the same rate as the Asian kids, maybe they should develop the same focus on education and homework.” The legislature wanted to address a cultural difference by setting race based quotas, rather than changing the culture.
In reality, these families that want to increase their kids' chances at getting admitted into a prestigious college need to make basic changes in their family culture. Change what the family does: turn off the TV, read to their children daily, put homework as the highest family priority, reward and praise good grades, etc.
Almost all so-called racial differences are due to culture, not race. If we want to deal with different outcomes, we need to look at changing the culture that leads to those different outcomes. Simply instituting racial quotas will just produce college kids with less preparation, less study, and less expertise.
Does this matter? Well yes! When the bridge falls down, because it was designed by an engineer that filled a quota, it makes a difference. When your life saving surgery is botched by a lesser qualified, quota admitted surgeon, it makes a difference.
The take home lesson is that when we see something in society we don’t like, before we blame racism, we must ask ourselves, “are there cultural differences that explain this?” If there are easily identifiable cultural issues, then we must address those issues, rather than falsely blaming racism.