Race is one of the most pervasive features of American social life; neglecting the concept of race would be like questioning the existence of gravity. Though we would like to consider our nation a post-racial society, we still place great importance on race by asking for it on forms ranging from voter registration to the PSAT. However, many would be surprised to realize that race does not have a biological basis – there is no single defining characteristic or gene that can be unequivocally used to distinguish one race from another.1 Rather, it is a manmade concept used to describe differences in physical appearance. Yet, we have internalized the social construct of race to such a degree that it seems to have genetic significance, masking the fact that race is actually something we are raised with. That a simple internalized ideology creates disparities in contemporary American society, from socioeconomic status to healthcare accessibility, illustrates the urgency of exposing this myth of race.
Throughout American history, racial connotations have been fluid, with different ethnographic groups falling in and out of favor based upon societal views at a given time. Race was originally conceived as a way to justify colonialism. European colonizers institutionalized their ethnocentric attitudes by creating the concept of race in order to differentiate between the civilized and the savage, the Christians and the heathens. This dichotomy facilitated mercantilism, the economic policy designed to accrue astronomical profits for the European countries through the exploitation of “inferior” races. Scholars of Critical Race Theory show, more generally, that the boundaries of racial categories shift to accommodate political realities and conventional wisdom of a given time and place.2
This definition of race changed in the United States over the centuries. For example, when the Irish and Italians first immigrated in the early 20th century, they were seen as “swarthy drunkards” – clearly not part of the white “elite.” Within two generations, however, these same people were able to assimilate into the Caucasian-dominated culture while African-Americans were still considered a separate entity. Similarly, during the era of the Jim Crow laws, courts had the power of determining who was black and who was not; in Virginia, a person was considered to be black if he or she was at least 1/16th African-American; in Florida, a black person was at least 1/8th African-American; and in Alabama, having even the smallest sliver of African-American heritage made a person black.3 Thus, a person could literally change race by simply moving from one state to another. Today, the commonly defined race classifications, as specified by the US Census, include White, Black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian, Other, and Multiracial. Because there is no scientific cut-offs to determine what race a person is, racial data is largely based on self-identification, which points to its lack of biological legitimacy. For example, 30% of Americans who label themselves as White do not have at least90% European ancestry.4
We may think our conceptualization of race is based upon biological makeup, but it is actually an expression of actions, attitudes, and social patterns. When examining the science behind race, most scholars across various disciplines, including evolutionary biology, sociology, and anthropology, have come to the consensus that distinctions made by race are not genetically discrete, cannot be reliably measured, and are not meaningful in the scientific sense.5
Some argue that race is a genetic concept based upon a higher incidence of particular diseases affecting certain races. However, purely hereditary diseases are extremely rare. For example, 1/2300 births for cystic fibrosis, 1/10000 births for Huntington’s disease, and 1/3000 births for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.6 Rather, diseases often reflect shared lifestyles and environments instead of shared genes, because factors such as poverty and malnutrition are also often “inherited” through family lines. Even genetic polymorphisms in hemoglobin, which lead to populations with lower susceptibility to malaria, can be partly explained by environmental factors.6-8 Thus, diseases traditionally tied to certain races cannot be explicitly attributed to genes, discrediting the idea that races are genetically disparate. Genetic differences are better described as percentages of people with a particular gene polymorphism, which change according to the environment.6
Racial groupings actually reflect little of the genetic variations existing in humans. Studies have shown that about 90% of variations in human genetics is present within a population on a continent, while around 10% of genetic variation occurs between continental populations.1 Variation in physical characteristics, the traditional basis for determining race, does not imply underlying genetic differences. When we internalize the false ideology that race is genetic, we are mistakenly implying that there are human subspecies.
Although race is a social construct, it has a widespread influence on society, especially in the United States. In particular, minorities face disadvantages in numerous areas ranging from healthcare to education.7,8 Reports about Mitt Romney’s rumored adoption of a darker skin tone when addressing Latino voters or statistics indicating that the median household wealth of whites is 20 times that of blacks reinforces the existence of a racialized society.5 This is shocking and disturbing; race may not be real, but its effects contribute to real inequality. Once everyone understands this racial illusion, we can begin making effective change.
- Bamshad, M. J.; Olson, S. E. Does Race Exist? Scientific American, New York City, Nov. 10, 2003, p. 78-85.
- Calavita, K. Invitation to Law and Society: An Introduction to the Study of Real Law. University of Chicago Press: Boston, MA, 2007.
- Rothenberg, P. S. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, 7th ed.; Worth Publishers: New York, NY, 2007.
- Lorber, J.; Hess, B. B.; Ferree, M. M.; Eds. Revisioning Gender; AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek, CA, 2000.
- Costantini, C. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/mitt-romneys-tan-draws-media-fire-makeup-artist/story?id=17290303 (Accessed Oct. 26, 2012).
- Pearce, N. BMJ. 2004, 328, 1070-2.
- Stone, J. Theor. Med. Bioethics. 2002, 23, 499-518.
- Witzig, R. The Medicalization of Race: Scientific Legitimization of a Flawed Social Construct. Ann. Intern. Med. 1996, 125, 675-9.
- Tavernise, S. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/us/26hispanics.html?_r=0&pagewan (Accessed Oct. 26, 2012).