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Deconstructing “Race”

October 25th, 2007 by Jason · 3 Comments

Recently a couple of articles, one about DNA pioneer Dr. Watson getting suspended for tying race and intelligence together and another about renewed opposition to school integration, are evidence that “race” as a valid concept is alive and well. So, it seems worth saying what’s been said may times before: race is a myth, an illusion, a social construct with no basis in genetics or biology. That’s not to say that the illusion of race doesn’t still have tremendous power. It does. Humans are still classified as Brown or Black or White or some other “race” and values attached to that designation. Part of the reason racism is alive and well is because the idea that race has a biological basis which affects things like intelligence or athletic ability is still widely prevalent.

Race didn’t arise as a concept until the 18th century when scientists and anthropologists started trying to classify the “varieties of the human race” based on physical attributes. The word “race,” in fact, derives from the Latin “ratio” which was used to designate species. A race was characterized by a common gene pool which was arbitrarily defined by some physical marker such as color of skin or shape of head. For example, The Natural History of Mankind is a book written in 1848 (that Google has put online), sets out to describe the races of the world. While aiming to be primarily descriptive it is laden with value judgments like these:

The Caucasian is characterized by the greatest perfection of external form. He has an oval skull, a high and ample forehead…. (p. 8 )

[T]he shape of the skull bears a more or less close relation to the perfection of the mental endowments…. (p. 105)


It isn’t difficult to see how race, which began as a descriptive term, quickly became an explanatory concept. Differences between abilities, such as intelligence, morality, or athletic ability were accounted for by racial membership. Immoral and disastorous enterprises like European colonization, American slavery, and white supremacy now had an intellectual and moral “justification.”

In the last few decades the concept of race has come under scrutiny with the conclusion that it has no basis in biology. Three main reasons have been given (in this book):

  1. Genetic variation within so-called races is as great as that of between racial groups. In fact, humans have some of the lowest genetic variation among all species. Two fruit flies have as much genetic variation as the difference between a human and a chimpanzee.

  2. The only difference between people which can be attributed to biological heredity with any degree of coonfidence is blood type; but people with the same blood type do not coincide with racial groups.

  3. Human characteristics, both physical and social, are not inherited in any simple fashion but are the result of complex interactions of numerous genes, environment, and training.

Just as race proves not to be a useful concept for classifying people, so with the other terms often used to group people. “Culture” is another popular classifying term; attributing the differences among humans to the “soil” of the environment in which they live and grow up. As with race, the variation within so-called cultures is as great as the variation between them. “Ethnicity” is another popular term; one that carries multiple meanings. The more technical meaning is that of a subculture, and thus it functions by grouping people around a common geographical origin, language, religious faith, shared traditions, and “culture.” The earlier and more popular meaning is that of “otherness.” Thus, in 1660 in The Leviathan Thomas Hobbes could exhort Christian converts to continue obeying their “ethnic” rulers. To most, an “ethnic group” is a group besides ones own—it designates the other. A final and more recent term used to classify people is their citizenship in a nation-sate. Not much needs to be said about the artificiality of this concept, despite its widespread usage, since the concept of a nation-state has only existed for a few hundred years.

My attempt to deconstruct the words we use to classify and group people is not done in order to deny that differences exist between human beings. Nor is it to deny that humans form groups and communities which have common characteristics. In other words, I am not advocating a trek back to the Tower of Babel where the perfect world is a monolingual, homogeneous humanity. Rather, it is a reminder that the groupings of humans are as complex and organic as the genes and environments that make up the people in them. The point is that I am wary of the easy classifications which our language enables us to make of other people, whether by race, ethnicity, culture, or national citizenship because these classifications have been and still do function as ways of legitimating hierarchies of power and prejudice.

Tags: race & ethnicity · science

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Oct 26, 2007 at 3:59 am

    Good genealogical work.

    One of my professors always made the point that race in this country is refracted through the slave block. It’s on the colonial town slave block that race is displayed and created. When the Africans (and whoever else) got off the ships, they were individually pushed atop a block in the middle of town so people could see them and purchase them. That’s how America was taught to see race.

    He also links the creation of cosmetics to this display of race. Cosmetics were made to make skin lighter. No one wanted to look like one of those people just off the ships now on display in the middle of their town. The whiter the better, so the cosmetic story goes.

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