Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I thought I would talk about the social basis of race. Enjoy!
The commonly understood definition of race is that it is something like a subspecies for humankind. Many people think that humans, much like dogs, may share a common ancestor, but come in distinctly different breeds.
This simply is not the case. In biological terms, race does not exist. That might be Earth-shaking news to you, as it was to me at one point. However, it's commonly accepted knowledge amongst biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and a litany of other social and physical scientists.
Can’t we tell that humans are of different races just by our appearance? Isn’t it as plain as our faces?
Doubtlessly, not all humans look alike, and some humans share certain physical similarities which they do not share with everyone. (For instance, race is often thought to be based on a certain skin pigmentation or skull structure.) However, these things do not reflect meaningful human subspecies. Why? Because in reality, human appearance is something like a big color wheel.
So what’s going on with race? Well, of all the possible physical traits a human can have (skin color, eye color, hand width, finger length, attached or detached ear lobes), we pick and choose certain traits, assign those traits racial significance, and ignore the others. While it's very common to classify people into a certain race based on their skin color, we could just as easily pick out another trait, like height, and assign people a race based primarily on that trait.
Interestingly, the standards for which trait puts you into which race vary from one culture to the next. In fact, a culture may have completely different racial categories altogether. Compare the commonly known and used racial categories in Brazil and the United States:
Maybe the above categories seem strange to you, but consider that even within a single culture, racial definitions will completely change over time. Octoroon isn't really a word you hear very often anymore in the United States, even though it was once so important that it affected an individual’s legal standing. More recently, did you know that for decades Americans thought of Arabs as basically white (Jamal & Neber, 2008, p. 46)? As far as classifications on the U.S. Census Bureau go, they’re still white.
But isn't there genetic evidence for the different races?
No, not really. So far we've mostly discussed phenotype—how a gene ends up being expressed (in this case how a person ends up looking). But there is no genotype that tells us what someone's race is—there's no 'Asian gene' or 'Latino gene'. Sometimes, in a criminal case, the authorities will have genetic evidence on the perpetrator. In such a case, forensic scientists look at the perpetrator’s gene code to figure out what the perpetrator looks like. Then, based on what the suspect looks like, they’re assigned a racial category.
In essence, their race is determined the same way you might guess someone’s race by looking at them as they walk down the street. It’s about how they look, not what’s in their genes.
Genetically speaking, two people of a certain “race” are not necessarily more similar to one another than to someone of a "different" race. After unlocking the genetic code, scientists discovered that a person considered white could be more genetically similar to someone considered black than to a person of their 'own race'.
"two random individuals from any one group are almost as different [genetically] as any two random individuals from the entire world." (Human genome project, p. 182)
So the genetic-biological evidence for race is pretty unsound. But I wonder, is this really news to you? If you’ve ever paid much attention to discussions of race, you’ve probably noticed that it’s never been ‘all about the blood’.
Take the 2007 article in Time magazine, “Is Barack Obama Black Enough?” The article’s author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, did not focus on Obama’s genetic lineage, which was already well established (‘white’ American mom, ‘black’ African dad). Rather, Obama’s blackness was affirmed based on his marriage to a ‘black’ woman, his attendance at a ‘black’ church, and his work with the predominantly ‘black’ poor of Chicago’s South Side.
As Tony Lee put it, America was obsessed with the “authenticity” of Obama’s race. Which begs the question, how can someone’s biology be ‘inauthentic’? – The implication is clear: At the very least, race is not exclusively about biology. At most, it has more to do with a shared experience, perspective, or ethos. This is the kind of thinking that led Andrew Young to claim Bill Clinton was “every bit as black as Barack.”
If you think mixing racial identity with experience or social position is an American peculiarity, think again. Edmund T. Gordon once described how in Nicaragua, because he was American, he was not considered black. People regularly referred to him as “gringo” and called him “white man” (Gordon, 1998, p. 17). His skin color was not the issue in question, and no one inquired about his genes. It’s just that, from the Nicaraguan perspective, Gordon was a privileged American. He couldn’t be ‘black like them’.
"I managed to keep the 'White Man' to a minimum, though I was never able to get a young Creole/Meskitu who ended up working with me... to totally desist. He refused to admit what was to me my obvious blackness. In fact, he thought it ridiculous that I could be black, but bowing to my energetic protest, he began calling me 'Green Man,' and still does." (Gordon, 1998, p. 17)
So then, is race utterly meaningless?
Just because race doesn't actually exist doesn't mean that it has no impact on, or importance to, our lives. By now you may have picked up that race is an example of a social construct.
Consider that the State of California does not exist in nature. If you go to the California-Nevada border, there's no big line or wall separating the two states. (In some states there are so-called ‘natural borders’ such as rivers. But then, why do some rivers demarcate a state while others do not?) Yet California certainly matters, because we all seem to agree that it matters. Race works in a similar way. If you've ever watched the documentary Freakonomics (and you should!), you know that if two identical resumes are sent out, but with the differently perceived racial names Tyrone and Greg, Tyrone gets 33% less callbacks.
Racial prejudice and histories of inequality undoubtedly exist and matter. They're just not founded in anything concrete or biological. If everyone woke up tomorrow and forgot that race existed? Poof! It would be gone. If race does matter, it’s social force alone which creates any meaningful perspective, experience, or ethos...