A series of articles on
Main topics
Race and genetics
Human genetic clustering
Human genetic variation
Ancestry and health
Ethnicity and health
Population groups in biomedicine
Race and intelligence
Historical definitions
Race in Brazil
Race in the United States
Social interpretations of race
The Race Question (1950)
Ethnic group
Human evolution
Racism topics
Category: Race

Social interpretation of physical variation

Incongruities of racial classifications

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 group to adjacent 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] Similarly, many people who identify as European American have some African or Native American ancestors, either through openly interracial marriages or through the gradual inclusion of people with mixed ancestry into the majority population. In a survey of college students who self-identified as white in a northeastern U.S. university, ∼30% were estimated to have <90% European ancestry.[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 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, and appearance).[7]

Efforts to sort the increasingly mixed population of the United States into discrete categories generated many difficulties.[8]. By the standards used in past censuses, many millions of children born in the United States have belonged to a different race than have one of their biological parents. Efforts to track mixing between groups led to a proliferation of categories (such as mulatto and octoroon) and "blood quantum" distinctions that became increasingly untethered from self-reported ancestry. A person's racial identity can change over time, and self-ascribed race can differ from assigned race.[9] Until the 2000 census, Latinos were required to identify with a single race despite the long history of mixing in Latin America; partly as a result of the confusion generated by the distinction, 42% of Latino respondents in the 2000 census ignored the specified racial categories and checked "some other race."[10]

Race as a social construct and populationism

Historians, anthropologists and social scientists often describe human races as a social construct, preferring instead the term population, 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, the need to resort to race should diminish. This is fortunate, as increasing interracial marriage is reducing the predictive power of race. For example, most babies born with Tay-Sachs in North America at present are not from Jewish families, despite stereotypes to contrary.

In everyday speech, race often describes populations better defined as ethnic groups, often leading to discrepancies between scientific views on race and popular usage of the term. For instance in many parts of the United States, categories such as Hispanic or Latino are viewed to constitute a race, though others see Hispanic as a linguistic and cultural grouping coming from a variety of backgrounds. In Europe, such a distinction, suggesting that South Europeans are not European or white, would seem odd at least or possibly even insulting. In the United States, in what is referred to as the one-drop rule, the term Black subsumes people with a broad range of ancestries under one label, even though many who are termed Black could be more accurately described as white through simple anthropologic or taxonomic method. In much of Europe groups such as Roma and Turks are commonly defined as racially distinct from White Europeans, though these groups could be considered "Caucasian" by old physical anthropological methods which employed finite nose measurements as the standard form of racial classifaction.

Some 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. Instead of classing people into one "group", say "Caucasians" or Europeans you have Britons, Frenchmen, Germans, Nords, western Slavs and Celts rather than having a term implying a (possible) ancestry group in the Caucasus which is definitely too distant for any real consideration, and moreover reaching to groups including eastern Slavs, Roma, as well as Georgians, and others who differ notably, both in culture, and to a noteworthy extent in physical appearance, from the aforementioned ethnic groups. There can be as much difference between two ethnicities grouped into a single "race" as there can be between ethnicities grouped (often arbitrarily) into an another "race".

These developments had important consequences. For example, some scientists developed the notion of "population" to take the place of race. This substitution is not simply a matter of exchanging one word for another. Populations are, in a sense, simply statistical clusters that emerge from the choice of variables of interest; there is no preferred set of variables.

The "populationist" 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, populationists claim that:

  1. knowing someone's "race" does not provide comprehensive predictive information about biological characteristics, and only absoltuely 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 world-wide 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.

Since the 1960s, some anthropologists and teachers of anthropology have re-conceived "race" as a cultural category or social construct, in other words, as a particular way that some people have of talking about themselves and others. As such it cannot be a useful analytical concept; rather, the use of the term "race" itself must be analyzed. Moreover, they argue that biology will not explain why or how people use the idea of race: history and social relationships will.

Race and intelligence

Main article: Race and intelligence

Researchers have reported significant differences in the average IQ test scores of various ethnic groups. The interpretation and causes of these differences are controversial. Some researchers, such as Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, and Richard Lynn have argued that such differences are at least partially genetic. Some, for example Thomas Sowell, bypass the issue of the origins of categorization and seek to explain test score gaps in terms of social differences that affect how much of one's innate capacities any individual person might achieve.

Race in biomedicine

Main article: 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 thalassaemia among black and Mediterranean populations 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.

Case studies in the social construction of race

Race in the United States

In the United States since its early history, Native Americans, African-Americans and European-Americans were classified as belonging to different races. For nearly three centuries, the criteria for membership in these groups were similar, comprising a person’s appearance, his fraction of known non-White ancestry, and his social circle.[11] But the criteria for membership in these races diverged in the late 19th century. During Reconstruction, increasing numbers of Americans began to consider anyone with "one drop" of "Black blood" to be Black.[12] By the early 20th century, this notion of invisible blackness was made statutory in many states and widely adopted nationwide.[13] In contrast, Amerindians continue to be defined by a certain percentage of "Indian blood" (called blood quantum) due in large part to American slavery ethics. Finally, for the past century or so, to be White one had to have "pure" White ancestry. (European-looking Americans of Hispanic or Arab ancestry are exceptions in being seen as White by most Americans despite traces of known African ancestry.)

Race Definitions in the United States

The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature. They change from one census to another, and the racial categories include both racial and national-origin groups[1].

Race in Brazil

Compared to 19th-century United States, 20th-century Brazil was characterized by a relative absence of sharply defined racial groups. This pattern reflects a different history and different social relations. Basically, race in Brazil was recognized as the difference between ancestry (which determines genotype) and phenotypic differences. Racial identity was not governed by a rigid descent rule. A Brazilian child was never automatically identified with the racial type of one or both parents, nor were there only two categories to choose from. Over a dozen racial categories are recognized in conformity with the combinations of hair color, hair texture, eye color, and skin color. These types grade into each other like the colors of the spectrum, and no one category stands significantly isolated from the rest. That is, race referred to appearance, not heredity.

Through this system of racial identification, parents and children and even brothers and sisters were frequently accepted as representatives of opposite racial types. In a fishing village in the state of Bahia, an investigator showed 100 people pictures of three sisters and they were asked to identify the races of each. In only six responses were the sisters identified by the same racial term. Fourteen responses used a different term for each sister. In another experiment nine portraits were shown to a hundred people. Forty different racial types were elicited. It was found, in addition, that a given Brazilian might be called by as many as thirteen different terms by other members of the community. These terms are spread out across practically the entire spectrum of theoretical racial types. A further consequence of the absence of a descent rule was that Brazilians apparently not only disagreed about the racial identity of specific individuals, but they also seemed to be in disagreement about the abstract meaning of the racial terms as defined by words and phrases. For example, 40% of a sample ranked moreno claro as a lighter type than mulato claro, while 60% reversed this order. A further note of confusion is that one person might employ different racial terms to describe the same person over a short time span. The choice of which racial description to use may vary according to both the personal relationships and moods of the individuals involved. The Brazilian census lists one's race according to the preference of the person being interviewed. As a consequence, hundreds of races appeared in the census results, ranging from blue (which is blacker than the usual black) to pink (which is whiter than the usual white).

However, Brazilians are not so naive to ignore one's racial origins just because of his (or her) better social status. An interesting example of this phenomenon has occurred recently, when the famous soccer player Ronaldo declared publicly that he considered himself as white, thus linking racism to a form or another of class conflict. This caused a series of ironic notes on newspapers, which pointed out that he should have been proud of his African origin (which is obviously noticeable), a fact that must have made life for him (and for his ancestors) more difficult, so, being a successful personality was, in spite of that, a victory for him. What occurs in Brazil that differentiates it largely from the US or South Africa, for example, is that black or mixed-race people are, in fact, more accepted in social circles if they have more education, or have a successful life (a euphemism for "having a better salary"). As a consequence, inter-racial marriages are more common, and more accepted, among highly-educated Afro-Brazilians than lower-educated ones.

So, although the identification of a person by race is far more fluid and flexible in Brazil than in the U.S., there still are racial stereotypes and prejudices. African features have been considered less desirable; Blacks have been considered socially inferior, and Whites superior. These white supremacist values were a legacy of European colonization and the slave-based plantation system. The complexity of racial classifications in Brazil is reflective of the extent of miscegenation in Brazilian society, which remains highly, but not strictly, stratified along color lines. Henceforth, Brazil's desired image as a perfect "post-racist" country, composed of the "cosmic race" celebrated in 1925 by José Vasconcelos, must be met with caution, as sociologist Gilberto Freyre demonstrated in 1933 in Casa Grande e Senzala.

Race in politics and ethics

Michel Foucault showed the popular historical and political use of a non-essentialist notion of "race" used in the "race struggle" discourse during the 1688 Glorious Revolution and under Louis XIV's end of reign (See above). In Foucault's view, this discourse developed in two different directions: Marxism, which seized the notion and transformed it into "class struggle" discourse, and racists, biologists and eugenicists who paved the way for 20th century "state racism".

During the Enlightenment, racial classifications were used to justify enslavement of those deemed to be of "inferior", non-White races, and thus supposedly best fitted for lives of toil under White supervision. These classifications made the distance between races seem nearly as broad as that between species, easing unsettling questions about the appropriateness of such treatment of humans. The practice was at the time generally accepted by both scientific and lay communities.

Arthur Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-1855) was one of the milestones in the new racist discourse, along with Vacher de Lapouge's "anthroposociology" and Herder, who applied race to nationalist theory to develop militant ethnic nationalism. They posited the historical existence of national races such as German and French, branching from basal races supposed to have existed for millennia, such as the Aryan race, and believed political boundaries should mirror these supposed racial ones.

Later, one of Hitler's favorite sayings was, "Politics is applied biology". Hitler's ideas of racial purity led to unprecedented atrocities in Europe. Since then, ethnic cleansing has occurred in Cambodia, the Balkans, Palestine, Sudan, and Rwanda. In one sense, ethnic cleansing is another name for the tribal warfare and mass murder that has afflicted human society for ages, but these crimes seem to gain intensity when believed to be scientifically sanctioned.

Racial inequality has been a concern of United States politicians and legislators since the country's founding. In the 19th century most White Americans (including abolitionists) explained racial inequality as an inevitable consequence of biological differences. Since the mid-20th century, political and civic leaders as well as scientists have debated to what extent racial inequality is cultural in origin. Some argue that current inequalities between Blacks and Whites are primarily cultural and historical, the result of past and present racism, slavery and segregation, and could be redressed through such programs as affirmative action and Head Start. Others work to reduce tax funding of remedial programs for minorities. They have based their advocacy on aptitude test data that, according to them, shows that racial ability differences are biological in origin and cannot be leveled even by intensive educational efforts. In electoral politics, many more ethnic minorities have won important offices in Western nations than in earlier times, although the highest offices tend to remain in the hands of Whites.

In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.

Dr. King's hope, expressed in his I Have a Dream speech, was that the civil rights struggle would one day produce a society where people were not "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Because of the identification of the concept of race with political oppression, many natural and social scientists today are wary of using the word "race" to refer to human variation, but instead use less emotive words such as "population" and "ethnicity." Some, however, argue that the concept of race, whatever the term used, is nevertheless of continuing utility and validity in scientific research. Science and politics frequently take opposite sides in debates that relate to human intelligence and biomedicine.

Race in law enforcement

In an attempt to provide general descriptions that may facilitate the job of law enforcement officers seeking to apprehend suspects, the United States FBI employs the term "race" to summarize the general appearance (skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and other such easily noticed characteristics) of individuals whom they are attempting to apprehend. From the perspective of law enforcement officers, it is generally more important to arrive at a description that will readily suggest the general appearance of an individual than to make a scientifically valid categorization. Thus in addition to assigning a wanted individual to a racial category, such a description will include: height, weight, eye color, scars and other distinguishing characteristics, etc. Scotland Yard use a classification based in the ethnic background of British society: W1 (White-British), W2 (White-Irish), W9 (Any other white background); M1 (White and black Caribbean), M2 (White and black African), M3 (White and Asian), M9 (Any other mixed background); A1 (Asian-Indian), A2 (Asian-Pakistani), A3 (Asian-Bangladeshi), A9 (Any other Asian background); B1 (Black Caribbean), B2 (Black African), B3 (Any other black background); O1 (Chinese), O9 (Any other).

In many countries, the state is legally banned from maintaining data based on race, which often makes the police issue wanted notices to the public that include labels like "light skin complexion", etc. There is controversy over the actual relationship between crimes, their assigned punishments, and the division of people into the so called "races." In the United States, the practice of racial profiling has been ruled to be both unconstitutional and also to constitute a violation of civil rights. There is active debate regarding the cause of a marked correlation between the recorded crimes, punishments meted out, and the country's "racially divided" people. Many consider de facto racial profiling an example of institutional racism in law enforcement.

More recent work in racial taxonomy based on DNA cluster analysis (See Lewontin's Fallacy) has led law enforcement to pursue suspects based on their racial classification as derived from their DNA evidence left at the crime scene[2]. While controversial, DNA analysis has been successful in helping police determine the race of both victims and perpetrators. [3]. In an attempt to be less subjective, this classification is called "biogeographical ancestry" rather than "race"[4] , but the terms for the BGA categories are the same. The difference is that ancestry-informative DNA markers identify continent-of-ancestry admixture, not ethnic self-identity. Hence, they cannot match the U.S. "races". For example, the DNA of an Arab-American, an African-American, and a Hispanic of precisely the same Afro-European genetic admixture would be "racially" indistinguishable. And a "White" woman with, say, 12 percent African ancestry (like Carol Channing) would show exactly the same BGA as a "Black" man of the same admixture (like Gregory Howard Williams).


  1. ^ J. Marks, Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995), 54.
  2. ^ Esteban J. Parra and others, "Estimating African American Admixture Proportions by Use of Population-Specific Alleles," American Journal of Human Genetics 63 (1998): 1839-51.
  3. ^ Mark D. Shriver and others, "Skin Pigmentation, Biogeographical Ancestry, and Admixture Mapping," Human Genetics 112 (2003): 387-99.
  4. ^ Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America, New ed. (New York: Oxford University, 1997).
  5. ^ F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation's Definition (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991).
  6. ^ M. Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford: Stanford University, 2000).
  7. ^ Magnus Mörner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Boston: Little Brown, 1967).
  8. ^ P.R. Spickard, "The illogic of American racial categories," in M.P.P. Root, ed., Racially mixed people in America (Newbury Park CA: Sage, 1992), 12–23.
  9. ^ N.R. Kressin, et al., "Agreement between administrative data and patients' self-reports of race/ethnicity," American Journal of Public Health, 2003 Oct;93(10):1734-9.
  10. ^ V.M. Mays, N.A. Ponce, D.L. Washington, S.D. Cochran, "Classification of race and ethnicity: implications for public health," Annual Rev Public Health (2003) 24:83–110.
  11. ^ See "Chapter 9. How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s" in Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule by Frank W. Sweet, ISBN 0-939479-23-0. A summary of this chapter, with endnotes, is available online at How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.
  12. ^ See chapters 15-20 of Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule by Frank W. Sweet, ISBN 0-939479-23-0. Summaries of these chapters, with endnotes, are available online at The Invention of the One-Drop Rule in the 1830s North.
  13. ^ See chapters 21-20 of Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule by Frank W. Sweet, ISBN 0-939479-23-0. Summaries of these chapters, with endnotes, are available online at Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule.

Other References

  • Collins-Schramm HE, et al., (2004) Mexican American ancestry-informative markers: examination of population structure and marker characteristics in European Americans, Mexican Americans, Amerindians and Asian. Human Genetics 114:263-71
  • Condit CM, Parrott R, Harris TM (2002) Lay understandings of the relationship between race and genetics: development of a collectivized knowledge through shared discourse. Public Understand Sci 11:373–387
  • Cornell S, Hartmann D (1998) Ethnicity and race: making identities in a changing world. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA
  • Dikötter F (1992) The discourse of race in modern China. Stanford University Press, Stanford
  • Elliott C, Brodwin P (2002) Identity and genetic ancestry tracing. BMJ 325:1469–1471
  • Goldenberg DM (2003) The curse of ham: race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press, Princeton
  • Huxley J, Haddon AC (1936) We Europeans: a survey of racial problems. Harper, New York
  • Isaac B (2004) The invention of racism in classical antiquity. Princeton University Press, Princeton

See also

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Social interpretations of race. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.