Race and society

Social interpretations of race regard the common categorizations of people into different races, often with biologist tagging of particular "racial" attributes beyond mere anatomy, as more socially and culturally determined than based upon biology. Some interpretations are often deconstructionist and poststructuralist in that they critically analyze the historical construction and development of racial categories.

Social interpretation of physical variation

Incongruities of racial classifications

Marks (1995) argued that even as the idea of "race" was becoming a powerful organizing principle in many societies, the shortcomings of the concept were apparent. In the Old World, the gradual transition in appearances from one racial group to adjacent racial groups emphasized that "one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them," as Blumenbach observed in his writings on human variation.[1] In parts of the Americas, the situation was somewhat different. The immigrants to the New World came largely from widely separated regions of the Old World—western and northern Europe, western Africa, and, later, eastern Asia and southern and eastern Europe. In the Americas, the immigrant populations began to mix among themselves and with the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. In the United States, for example, most people who self-identify as African American have some European ancestors—in one analysis of genetic markers that have differing frequencies between continents, European ancestry ranged from an estimated 7% for a sample of Jamaicans to ∼23% for a sample of African Americans from New Orleans.[2] In a survey of college students who self-identified as white in a northeastern U.S. university, the west African and Native American genetic contribution were 0.7% and 3.2%.[3]

In the United States, social and legal conventions developed over time that forced individuals of mixed ancestry into simplified racial categories.[4] An example is the "one-drop rule" implemented in some state laws that treated anyone with a single known African American ancestor as black.[5] The decennial censuses conducted since 1790 in the United States also created an incentive to establish racial categories and fit people into those categories.[6] In other countries in the Americas, where mixing among groups was more extensive, social non racial categories have tended to be more numerous and fluid, with people moving into or out of categories on the basis of a combination of socioeconomic status, social class, ancestry.[7]

Efforts to sort the increasingly mixed population of the United States into discrete racial categories generated many difficulties.[8] Additionally, efforts to track mixing between census racial groups led to a proliferation of categories (such as mulatto and octoroon) and "blood quantum" distinctions that became increasingly untethered from self-reported ancestry.[9] A person's racial identity can change over time. One study found differences between self-ascribed race and Veterans Affairs administrative data.[10]

Race as a social construct and populationism

The notion of a biological basis for race originally emerged through speculations surrounding the "blood purity" of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, eventually translating to a general association of one's biology with their social and personal characteristics. In the 19th century, this recurring ideology was intensified in the development of the racial sciences, eugenics and ethnology, which meant to further categorize groups of humans in terms of biological superiority or inferiority.[11] While the field of racial sciences, also known as scientific racism, has expired in history, these antiquated conceptions of race have persisted throughout the 21st century. (See also: Historical origins of racial classification)

Contrary to popular belief that the division of the human species based on physical variations is natural, there exists no clear, reliable distinctions that bind people to such groupings.[12] According to the American Anthropological Association, "Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic "racial" groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes."[13] While there is a biological basis for differences in human phenotypes, most notably in skin color,[14] the genetic variability of humans is found not amongst, but rather within racial groups – meaning the perceived level of dissimilarity amongst the species has virtually no biological basis. Genetic diversity has characterized human survival, rendering the idea of a "pure" ancestry as obsolete.[11] Under this interpretation, race is conceptualized through a lens of artificiality, rather than through the skeleton of a scientific discovery. As a result, scholars have begun to broaden discourses of race by defining it as a social construct and exploring the historical contexts that led to its inception and persistence in contemporary society.[15]

Most historians, anthropologists,[16] and sociologists[17] describe human races as a social construct, preferring instead the term population or ancestry, which can be given a clear operational definition. Even those who reject the formal concept of race, however, still use the word race in day-to-day speech. This may either be a matter of semantics, or an effect of an underlying cultural significance of race in racist societies. Regardless of the name, a working concept of sub-species grouping can be useful, because in the absence of cheap and widespread genetic tests, various race-linked gene mutations (see Cystic fibrosis, Lactose intolerance, Tay–Sachs disease and Sickle cell anemia) are difficult to address without recourse to a category between "individual" and "species". As genetic tests for such conditions become cheaper, and as detailed haplotype maps and SNP databases become available, identifiers of race should diminish. Also, increasing interracial marriage is reducing the predictive power of race. For example, babies born with Tay–Sachs disease in North America are not only or primarily Ashkenazi Jews, despite stereotypes to contrary; French Canadians, Louisiana Cajuns, and Irish-Americans also see high rates of the disease.[18]

Experts in the fields of genetics, law, and sociology have offered their opinions on the subject. Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley of Virginia Commonwealth University Institute of Medicine[19] discuss the anthropological and historical perspectives on ethnicity, culture, and race. They define culture as the habits acquired by a society. Smedley states "Ethnicity and culture are related phenomena and bear no intrinsic connection to human biological variations or race" (Smedley 17). The authors state using physical characteristics to define an ethnic identity is inaccurate. The variation of humans has actually decreased over time since, as the author states, "Immigration, intermating, intermarriage, and reproduction have led to increasing physical heterogeneity of peoples in many areas of the world" (Smedley 18). They referred to other experts and their research, pointing out that humans are 99% alike. That one percent is caused by natural genetic variation, and has nothing to do with the ethnic group of the subject. Racial classification in the United States started in the 1700s with three ethnically distinct groups. These groups were the white Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. The concept of race was skewed around these times because of the social implications of belonging to one group or another. The view that one race is biologically different from another rose out of society's grasp for power and authority over other ethnic groups. This did not only happen in the United States but around the world as well. Society created race to create hierarchies in which the majority would prosper most.

Another group of experts in sociology has written on this topic. Guang Guo, Yilan Fu, Yi Li, Kathleen Mullan Harris of the University of North Carolina[20] department of sociology as well as Hedwig Lee (University of Washington Seattle), Tianji Cai (University of Macau) comment on remarks made by one expert. The debate is over DNA differences, or lack thereof, between different races. The research in the original article they are referring to uses different methods of DNA testing between distinct ethnic groups and compares them to other groups. Small differences were found, but those were not based on race. They were from biological differences caused from the region in which the people live. They describe that the small differences cannot be fully explained because the understanding of migration, intermarriage, and ancestry is unreliable at the individual level. Race cannot be related to ancestry based on the research on which they are commenting. They conclude that the idea of "races as biologically distinct peoples with differential abilities and behaviors has long been discredited by the scientific community" (2338).

One more expert in the field has given her opinion. Ann Morning of the New York University Department of Sociology,[21] and member of the American Sociological Association, discusses the role of biology in the social construction of race. She examines the relationship between genes and race and the social construction of social race clusters. Morning states that everyone is assigned to a racial group because of their physical characteristics. She identifies through her research the existence of DNA population clusters. She states that society would want to characterize these clusters as races. Society characterizes race as a set of physical characteristics. The clusters though have an overlap in physical characteristics and thus cannot be counted as a race by society or by science. Morning concludes that "Not only can constructivist theory accommodate or explain the occasional alignment of social classifications and genetic estimates that Shiao et al.'s model hypothesizes, but empirical research on human genetics is far from claiming—let alone demonstrating—that statistically inferred clusters are the equivalent of races" (Morning 203). Only using ethnic groups to map a genome is entirely inaccurate, instead every individual must be viewed as having their own wholly unique genome (unique in the 1%, not the 99% all humans share).

Ian Haney López, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley[22] explains ways race is a social construct. He uses examples from history of how race was socially constructed and interpreted. One such example was of the Hudgins v. Wright case. A slave woman sued for her freedom and the freedom of her two children on the basis that her grandmother was Native American. The race of the Wright had to be socially proven, and neither side could present enough evidence. Since the slave owner Hudgins bore the burden of proof, Wright and her children gained their freedom. López uses this example to show the power of race in society. Human fate, he argues, still depends upon ancestry and appearance. Race is a powerful force in everyday life. These races are not determined by biology though, they are created by society to keep power with the majority. He describes that there are not any genetic characteristics that all blacks have that non-whites do not possess and vice versa. He uses the example of Mexican. It truly is a nationality, yet it has become a catch-all for all Hispanic nationalities. This simplification is wrong, López argues, for it is not only inaccurate but it tends to treat all "Mexicans" as below fervent Americans. He describes that "More recently, genetic testing has made it clear the close connections all humans share, as well as the futility of explaining those differences that do exist in terms of racially relevant gene codes" (Lopez 199–200). Those differences clearly have no basis in ethnicity, so race is completely socially constructed.

Through this small sampling of experts, it is clear that race as a social construction is a common theory. All of the experts in this sampling say that biological race is non-existent. Race therefore must have been created by societies. They were created to do what humans do, to serve the purposes of the majority. The hierarchies created by race have kept the majority "race" in control of everything from public policy to the workforce to law enforcement. They benefit from this construction of race. Yet, the minorities, who are just the same genetically, suffer under this system. Most of the points made by the experts expose this issue, yet none truly suggest a way to fix the problem. Bill Nye weighs in on the issue on the same side as the experts in the sample. He says that humans are humans, we are all one species. We have to fix it. If society created the problem, society has to take it on itself to fix it.

Some[who?] argue it is preferable when considering biological relations to think in terms of populations, and when considering cultural relations to think in terms of ethnicity, rather than of race.

These developments had important consequences. For example, some scientists[who?] developed the notion of "population" to take the place of race. It is argued that this substitution is not simply a matter of exchanging one word for another.

This view does not deny that there are physical differences among peoples; it simply claims that the historical conceptions of "race" are not particularly useful in accounting for these differences scientifically. In particular, it is claimed[by whom?] that:

  1. knowing someone's "race" does not provide comprehensive predictive information about biological characteristics, and only absolutely predicts those traits that have been selected to define the racial categories, e.g. knowing a person's skin color, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the markers of race (or taken as a defining characteristic of race), does not allow good predictions of a person's blood type to be made.
  2. in general, the worldwide distribution of human phenotypes exhibits gradual trends of difference across geographic zones, not the categorical differences of race; in particular, there are many peoples (like the San of S. W. Africa, or the people of northern India) who have phenotypes that do not neatly fit into the standard race categories.
  3. focusing on race has historically led not only to seemingly insoluble disputes about classification (e.g. are the Japanese a distinct race, a mixture of races, or part of the East Asian race? and what about the Ainu?) but has also exposed disagreement about the criteria for making decisions—the selection of phenotypic traits seemed arbitrary.

Neven Sesardic has argued that such arguments are unsupported by empirical evidence and politically motivated. Arguing that races are not completely discrete biologically is a straw man argument. He argues "racial recognition is not actually based on a single trait (like skin color) but rather on a number of characteristics that are to a certain extent concordant and that jointly make the classification not only possible but fairly reliable as well". Forensic anthropologists can classify a person's race with an accuracy close to 100% using only skeletal remains if they take into consideration several characteristics at the same time.[23] A.W.F. Edwards has argued similarly regarding genetic differences in "Human genetic diversity: Lewontin's fallacy".

Race and intelligence

Researchers have reported significant differences in the average IQ test scores of various racial groups. The interpretation and causes of these differences are controversial, as researchers disagree about whether this gap is caused by genetic differences. The social interpretations of the race concept is incompatible with the idea that the IQ gap between racial groups is caused by genetic factors, and those who see race as a social construction posit purely environmental and sociological explanations for the gap. Such explanations include different access to education for different racial groups, different social attitudes towards test-taking, stereotype threat, lack of effort optimism due to low social status and many other proposed explanations. For example, psychologist Jefferson Fish argues that race is a social construction and argues that for this reason the question of racial differences in intelligence is not scientific, though his opinion has been repeatedly disproven[citation needed]. For example, one might want to compare black-white IQ differences in Brazil with those in the United States. Since many people who are considered black in the U. S. would not be considered black in Brazil, and since many people who are considered white in Brazil would not be considered white in the U. S., such a comparison is not possible.[24]

Richard Lynn, however, in his book Race Differences in Intelligence does not define races based on current social classification but on ancestral populations. Many current ethnic groups would be mixtures of several races in this classification. Arthur Jensen and J. Philippe Rushton have also defined race based on ancestral home, although somewhat differently from Lynn, when speaking of Black–White–East Asian IQ differences in the US. "Blacks (Africans, Negroids) are those who have most of their ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa; Whites (Europeans, Caucasoids) have most of their ancestors from Europe; and East Asians (Orientals, Mongoloids) have most of their ancestors from Pacific Rim countries."[25]

Race in biomedicine

There is an active debate among biomedical researchers about the meaning and importance of race in their research. The primary impetus for considering race in biomedical research is the possibility of improving the prevention and treatment of diseases by predicting hard-to-ascertain factors on the basis of more easily ascertained characteristics. The most well-known examples of genetically determined disorders that vary in incidence between ethnic groups would be sickle cell disease and thalassemia among black and Mediterranean populations respectively and Tay–Sachs disease among people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Some fear that the use of racial labels in biomedical research runs the risk of unintentionally exacerbating health disparities, so they suggest alternatives to the use of racial taxonomies.