- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2013

I read “Obama backs race, gun debate after Zimmerman trial” (Web, July 17) with great interest. This country’s social crisis is made more dangerous by words that are poorly defined, have no common meaning and are little understood. Principal among these is “race.”

The government uses race to identify kinds of people in its demographic reports as though they were pure distinctions. They are not. “Race,” used as a social term, has come to infer that physical characteristics are obvious markers of the way a person is likely to think or behave. That’s patent nonsense. Using physical characteristics to define groups implies that there is no individual choice. Barack Obama, Al Sharpton and Thomas Sowell are each race-classed as black, but have little in common, other than skin color, and have chosen to lead very different lives.

I suggest that when the word “race” is used in the perverted social rather than the biological, taxonomic sense, what people mean is culture. Given the indecisive nature of the social use of the term (the scientific is not much clearer), it’s not surprising that it becomes a verbal firebomb whose formal definition has become irrelevant and whose meaning is solely inferred, almost invariably as a negative.

President Obama and Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. admonish us to engage in a national discussion of race. Fair enough, but what do the words “race” and “racist” mean? In the taxonomic sense, we are all Homo sapiens, one species and without races. Any meaningful differences are cultural, not racial.

Before engaging in a national discussion, shouldn’t we stipulate at the beginning that we must have at least a general and reasonably firm understanding of what we are talking about? At this point, I have serious doubts that we do.

NORTON RUBENSTEIN

Richmond, Va.