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Race is mostly a state of mind

Imagine standing at the edge of a mile-long city you need to evaluate to decide if it's a good place to live, work or visit.

From where you stand, you can see 20 yards ahead before a building obstructs your view of the rest of the town.

But without taking a step, without moving to the side for as much as a peek around the building, you decide the town's no good, that you don't want to go near it, that it's dangerous.

Of course, no rational person would make such a ludicrously uninformed decision when the rest of his life will be affected by it. No rational person would judge a city that is 5,280 feet long by just glancing at the first 60.

But we do the equivalent all the time.

That's about what our preoccupation with matters of race amounts to.

We are making judgments about mile-long people by looking no further than their first 60 feet.

Studies have determined that only 0.012 percent of genetic material, the body's blueprint, carry traits that are racially distinguishable. That means that 99.988 percent of what we are has nothing to do with race.

Factor in the degree of race mixing that has occurred over centuries _ evident in the wide range of colors among people who call themselves black, and estimated to be 15 percent or higher among people who call themselves white _ and the need for distinguishing between races becomes even more ludicrous.

As far as genetics goes, it would be about as valid to classify people by the structure of their fingerprints, a special report in the latest issue of Discover magazine said. Instead of black or white, people would be grouped as arches or swirls, according to the pattern of lines on their fingers.

Why, then, if fingerprints represent as much genetic difference as skin color, do we allow the latter to occupy so much of our time and play such a big role in our lives?

The Discover article conjectures that it's because people are so visually oriented. We react to what we see.

But that doesn't seem to go far enough.

What we see is little more than skin pigment, hair color and texture, and often a few facial features.

That doesn't explain our irrationality when it comes to race. Nor does it explain the debate that's raging again over the influence race has on intelligence, the subject of a controversial book recently published and the catalyst of the series of articles in Discovery.

Whatever else enters into discussions of race, one thing is eminently clear when the trace amounts of difference used to distinguish one race from another are considered: Race is more a state of mind than a state of being. Race is a social distinction more than it is a biological one.

A child is not black or white because of 0.012 percent of his inherited traits. A child is black or white because society sees him that way and teaches him to see himself that way. He is black or white because the world around him treats him that way.

Race is a flawed concept man has driven to such a degree of perpetuation, it is almost impossible to ignore. Chances are good that race is treated as an element of many of the stories in this newspaper.

Although its actual significance _ its genetic significance _ is on the order of bowlegs, we have inflated it to a point where it plays a decisive role in determining where we live, who our friends are, whom we can marry, how much money we make, sometimes whom we let live or die.

Now, esteemed scholars are debating the notion that race can predict one's intellectual achievement. The discussion is infuriating at times but enlightening.

In the end, perhaps it will be healthy.

Perhaps, in the end, more of us will go beyond the 60 feet and at least take a peek at the cities we've been judging so hastily.

Some of us may even walk the whole mile.

If we do, perhaps we'll put an end to the distortions race has made of our lives. Shuttling students so the appropriate blend is at each school would be obsolete; jobs would go to the best qualified; political candidates would earn votes with their credentials.

But that won't happen anytime soon. Too many of us are content to stand at the edge of the city and believe whatever we hear about what lies beyond.