Can computers cope with human races?

by Les Earnest <les at>

© 1989 by the Association for Computing and Machinery

Published 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 place.

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 base. 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 ago.

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 outlanders.

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 white.

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 reexamined 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 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 gun-powder 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 service.

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 Prize.

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 non-stop 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 notarized.

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 officials. A federal omnibus civil rights act happened to be signed into law one week later. It banned discrimination in voting, jobs, and public accommodations 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 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 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. 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 familiar?

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 race.)

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 predominantly European, anyone who has detectably African features is called “black,” even if they are genetically, say, 7/8 European. If we were a predominantly 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 anthropological 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 acquaintances 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 solved.

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 everyone.

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 works.

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 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 anthropologists 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 certain 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 absorption 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 unraveled, 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 differ.

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 [5].

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 43 = 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 foreseeable 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 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 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 bigotry. 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 “homogeneous” modern human populations seen today. In the United States, future white supremacists 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.

Conclusions. 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.

Acknowledgement. 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.