From Academic Kids

This article is about race as an intraspecies classification. For the many types of competitive sport, see Racing. For racing conditions associated with computer programming, see Race hazard. For the biological race, see race.

A race is a distinct population of humans distinguished in some way from other humans. The most widely observed races are those based on skin color, facial features, ancestry, and genetics. Conceptions of race, as well as specific racial groupings, are often controversial due to their impact on social identity hence identity politics.

Since the 1940s, evolutionary scientists have rejected the view of race according to which a number of finite lists of essential (e.g., Platonic) characteristics could be used to determine a like number of races. By the 1960s, data and models from population genetics called into question taxonomic understandings of race, and many have turned from conceptualizing and analyzing human variation in terms of race to doing so in terms of populations and clines instead. That being said, many scientists still believe that race is a valid and useful concept. Moreover, since the 1990s, data and models from genomics and cladistics have resulted in a revolution in our understanding of human evolution, which has led some to propose a new "lineage" definition of race. These scientists have made related arguments that races are valid when understood as fuzzy sets, clusters, or extended families. Currently, opinions differ substantially within and among academic disciplines.

Many evolutionary and social scientists, drawing on such biological research, think common race definitions, or any race definitions pertaining to humans, are without taxonomic validity. They argue that race definitions are imprecise, arbitrary, derived from custom, and that the races observed vary according to the culture examined. They further maintain that race is best understood as a social construct. Some scientists have argued that this shift is motivated more by political than scientific reasons.



The word entered the English language in the early 16th century, from French race "race, breed, lineage" (which in turn was probably a loan from Italian razza). Meanings of the term in the 16th century included "wines with a characteristic flavour", "people with common occupation", and "generation". The meaning "tribe" or "nation" emerged in the 17th century. The modern meaning, "one of the major divisions of mankind", dates to the late 18th century, but it never became exclusive (cf. continued use of "the human race"). The ultimate origin of the word is unknown; suggestions include Arabic ra'is meaning "head", but also "beginning" or "origin".

Summary of different definitions of race

Main article: Contemporary views on race

Biological definitions of race (Long & Kittles, 2003).
Concept Reference Definition
Essentialist Hooton (1926) "A great division of mankind, characterized as a group by the sharing of a certain combination of features, which have been derived from their common descent, and constitute a vague physical background, usually more or less obscured by individual variations, and realized best in a composite picture."
Taxonomic Mayr (1969) "An aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species, inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of a species, and differing taxonomically from other populations of the species."
Population Dobzhansky (1970) "Races are genetically distinct Mendelian populations. They are neither individuals nor particular genotypes, they consist of individuals who differ genetically among themselves."
Lineage Templeton (1998) "A subspecies (race) is a distinct evolutionary lineage within a species. This definition requires that a subspecies be genetically differentiated due to barriers to genetic exchange that have persisted for long periods of time; that is, the subspecies must have historical continuity in addition to current genetic differentiation."

The United States government has provided definitions regarding race (see for example Race (U.S. Census)). Racial classification in the U.S. 2000 census was based solely on self-identification and did not pre-suppose disjointedness.

Scale of race research

Discussions of race are made more complicated because race research has taken place on at least two scales (global and national) and from the point of view of different research aims. Evolutionary scientists are typically interested in humanity as a whole; and taxonomic racial classifications are often either unhelpful to, or refuted by, studies that focus on the question of global human diversity. Policy-makers and applied professions (such as law-enforcement or medicine), however, are typically concerned only with genetic variation at the national or sub-national scale, and find taxonomic racial categories useful.

These distinctions of research aims and scale can be seen by the example of three major research papers published since 2002: Rosenberg et al. (2002), Serre & Pbo (2004), and Tang et al. (2005). Both Rosenberg et al. and Serre & Pbo study global genetic variation, but they arrive at different conclusions. Serre & Pbo attribute their differing conclusions to experimental design. While Rosenberg et al. studied individuals from populations across the globe without respect to geography, Serre & Pbo sampled individuals with respect to geography. By sampling individuals from major populations on each continent, Rosenberg et al. find evidence for genetic "clusters" (i.e., races). In contrast, Serre & Pbo find that with respect to geography human genetic variation is continuous and "clinal". The research interest of Rosenberg et al. is medicine (i.e., epidemiology), whereas the research interest of Serre & Pbo is human evolution. Tang et al. studied genetic variation within the United States with an interest in whether race/ethnicity or geography is of greater importance to epidemiological research. In contrast to Serre & Pbo, Tang et al. find that race/ethnicity is of greater importance within the United States. Indeed, the contrasting conclusions between global and national levels of analysis were predicted by Serre & Pbo:

It is worth noting that the colonization history of the United States has resulted in a "sampling" of the human population made up largely of people from western Europe, western Africa, and Southeast Asia. Thus, studies in which individuals from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia are used... might be an adequate description of the major components of the U.S. population.

The changing meanings of race


Main article: Race (historical definitions)

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Map of skin-color distribution for "native populations" collected by Renato Biasutti prior to 1940.

The division of humanity into distinct "races" can be traced as far back as the Ancient Egyptian sacred text the Book of Gates, which identifies four races of mankind known to the Egyptians. However, this treatment tends to merge "racial" differences, defined by skin color, with tribal and national identity. Ancient Greek and Roman authors also attempted to explain and categorize visible biological differences between peoples known to them. Such categories often also included fantastical human-like beings supposed to exist in far-away lands. Medieval models of race mixed Classical ideas with the notion that humanity as a whole was descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three sons of Noah, producing distinct Semitic (Asian), Hamitic (African), and Japhetic (European) peoples.

The first scientific attempts to categorize race date from the 17th century, along with the development of European imperialism and colonization around the world. The word race was introduced to English from the French in the late 16th century. The first post-Classical published classification of humans into distinct races seems to be Franois Bernier's Nouvelle division de la terre par les diffrents espces ou races qui l'habitent ("New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it"), published in 1684.

In the 19th century a number of natural scientists wrote on race: Georges Cuvier, James Cowles Pritchard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. These scientists made three claims about race: first, that races are objective, naturally occurring divisions of humanity; second, that there is a strong relationship between biological races and other human phenomena (such as social behavior and culture, and by extension the relative material success of cultures); third, that race is therefore a valid scientific category that can be used to explain and predict individual and group behavior. Races were distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and size, texture and color of hair. Moreover, races were almost universally considered to reflect group differences in moral character and intelligence. One of the key debates of the time was whether or not the human races (the number of which varied with each commentator) were separate species or not, and whether or not the crossing of human races was detrimental to their offspring.

Their understanding of race was usually both essentialist and taxonomic. The advent of Darwinian models of evolution and Mendelian genetics, however, called into question the scientific validity of both characteristics, and required a radical reconsideration of race.

20th-Century debates over race

Main article: Validity of human races

Race as subspecies

With the advent of the modern synthesis in the early 20th century, biologists developed a new, more rigorous model of race as subspecies. For these biologists, a race is a recognizable group forming all or part of a species. A monotypic species has no races, or rather one race comprising the whole species. Monotypic species can occur in several ways:

  • All members of the species are very similar and cannot be sensibly divided into biologically significant subcategories.
  • The individuals vary considerably but the variation is essentially random and largely meaningless so far as genetic transmission of these variations is concerned (many plant species fit into this category, which is why horticulturists interested in preserving, say, a particular flower color avoid propagation from seed, and instead use vegetative methods like propagation from cuttings).
  • The variation between individuals is noticeable and follows a pattern, but there are no clear dividing lines between separate groups: they fade imperceptibly into one another. Such clinal variation always indicates substantial gene flow between the apparently separate groups that make up the population(s). Populations that have a steady, substantial gene flow between them are likely to represent a monotypic species even when a fair degree of genetic variation is obvious.

A polytypic species has two or more races (or, in current parlance, two or more sub-types). These are separate groups that are clearly distinct from one another and do not generally interbreed (although there may be a relatively narrow hybridization zone), but which would interbreed freely if given the chance to do so. Note that groups which would not interbreed freely, even if brought together such that they had the opportunity to do so, are not races: they are separate species.

Although this attempt at conceptual precision gained currency with many biologists, especially zoologists, evolutionary scientists have criticized it on a number of fronts.

The rejection of race and the rise of "population" and "cline"

At the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists questioned, and eventually abandoned, the claim that biologically distinct races are isomorphic with distinct linguistic, cultural, and social groups. Then, the rise of population genetics led some mainstream evolutionary scientists in anthropology and biology to question the very validity of race as scientific concept describing an objectively real phenomenon. Those who came to reject the validity of the concept, race, did so for four reasons: empirical, definitional, the availability of alternative concepts, and ethical (Lieberman and Byrne 1993).

The first to challenge the concept of race on empirical grounds were anthropologists Franz Boas, who demonstrated phenotypic plasticity due to environmental factors (Boas 1912), and Ashley Montagu (1941, 1942), who relied on evidence from genetics. Zoologists Edward O. Wilson and W. Brown then challenged the concept from the perspective of general animal systematics, and further rejected the claim that "races" were equivalent to "subspecies" (Wilson and Brown 1953).

One of the crucial innovations in reconceptualizing genotypic and phenotypic variation was anthropologist C. Loring Brace's observation that such variations, insofar as it is affected by natural selection, migration, or genetic drift, are distributed along geographic gradations; these gradations are called "clines" (Brace 1964). This point called attention to a problem common to phenotypic-based descriptions of races (for example, those based on hair texture and skin color): they ignore a host of other similarities and difference (for example, blood type) that do not correlate highly with the markers for race. Thus, anthropologist Frank Livingstone's conclusion that, since clines cross racial boundaries, "there are no races, only clines" (Livingstone 1962: 279). In 1964, biologists Paul Ehrlich and Holm pointed out cases where two or more clines are distributed discordantly—for example, melanin is distributed in a decreasing pattern from the equator north and south; frequencies for the haplotype for beta-S hemoglobin, on the other hand, radiate out of specific geographical points in Africa (Ehrlich and Holm 1964). As anthropologists Leonard Lieberman and Fatimah Linda Jackson observe, "Discordant patterns of heterogeneity falsify any description of a population as if it were genotypically or even phenotypically homogeneous" (Lieverman and Jackson 1995).

Finally, geneticist Richard Lewontin, observing that 85 percent of human variation occurs within populations, and not between populations, argued that neither "race" nor "subspecies" were appropriate or useful ways to describe populations (Lewontin 1973). This view is purportedly debunked as Lewontin's Fallacy. Some researchers report the variation between racial groups (measured by Sewall Wright's population structure statistic FST) accounts for as little as 5% of human genetic variation2. However, because of technical limitations of FST, many geneticists now believe that low FST values do not invalidate the suggestion that there might be different human races (Edwards, 2003).

These empirical challenges to the concept of race forced evolutionary sciences to reconsider their definition of race. Mid-century, anthropologist William Boyd defined race as:

A population which differs significantly from other populations in regard to the frequency of one or more of the genes it possesses. It is an arbitrary matter which, and how many, gene loci we choose to consider as a significant "constellation" (Boyd 1950).

Lieberman and Jackson (1994) have pointed out that "the weakness of this statement is that if one gene can distinguish races then the number of races is as numerous as the number of human couples reproducing." Moreover, anthropologist Stephen Molnar has suggested that the discordance of clines inevitably results in a multiplication of races that renders the concept itself useless (Molnar 1992).

Alongside empirical and conceptual problems with "race" following the Second World War, evolutionary and social scientists were acutely aware of how beliefs about race had been used to justify discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and genocide. This questioning gained momentum in the 1960s during the U.S. civil rights movement and the emergence of numerous anti-colonial movements worldwide.

In the face of these issues, some evolutionary scientists have simply abandoned the concept of race in favor of "population." What distinguishes population from previous groupings of humans by race is that it refers to a breeding population (essential to genetic calculations) and not to a biological taxon. Other evolutionary scientists have abandoned the concept of race in favor of cline (meaning, how the frequency of a trait changes along a geographic gradient). (The concepts of population and cline are not, however, mutually exclusive and both are used by many evolutionary scientists.)

In the face of this rejection of race by evolutionary scientists, many social scientists have replaced the word race with the word "ethnicity" to refer to self-identifying groups based on beliefs in shared religion, nationality, or race. Moreover, they understood these shared beliefs to mean that religion, nationality, and race itself are social constructs and have no objective basis in the supernatural or natural realm (Gordon 1964).

(see the American Anthropological Association's Statement on Race [1] (

Models of human evolution

see also single-origin hypothesis, multiregional hypothesis.
Missing image
Map of human genetic diversity, from the dust jacket of The History and Geography of Human Genes, (Cavalli-Sforza 1994). "The color map of the world shows very distinctly the differences that we know exist among the continents: Africans (yellow), Caucasoids (green), Mongoloids (purple), and Australian Aborigines (red). The map does not show well the strong Caucasoid component in northern Africa, but it does show the unity of the other Caucasoids from Europe, and in West, South, and much of Central Asia."

Any biological model for race must account for the development of racial differences during human evolution. For much of the 20th century, however, anthropologists relied on an incomplete fossil record for reconstructing human evolution. Their models seldom provided a firm basis for drawing inferences about the origin of races. Modern research in molecular biology, however, has provided evolutionary scientists with a whole new kind of data, which adds considerably to the knowledge of our past.

There has been considerable debate among anthropologists as to the origins of Homo sapiens. About a million years ago Homo erectus migrated out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. The debate hinges on whether Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens more or less simultaneously in Africa, Europe, and Asia, or whether Homo sapiens evolved only in Africa, and eventually supplanted Homo erectus in Europe and Asia. Each model suggests different possible scenarios for the evolution of distinct races.

The multiregional model

Advocates of the first scenario (see Frayer et al. 1993), the multiregional continuity evolution model, cite as evidence anatomical continuity in the fossil record in South Central Europe (Smith 1982), East Asia and Australia (Wolpoff 1993) (anatomical affinity is taken to suggest genetic affinity). They argue that very strong genetic similarities among all humans do not prove recent common ancestry, but rather reflect the interconnectedness of human populations around the world, resulting in relatively constant gene flow (Thorne and Wolpoff 1992). They further argue that this model is consistent with clinal patterns (Wolpoff 1993).

The most important element of this model for theories of race is that it allows a million years for the evolution of Homo sapiens around the world; this is more than enough time for the evolution of different races. Leiberman and Jackson (1995), however, have noted that this model depends on several findings relevant to race: (1) that marked morphological contrasts exist between individuals found at the center and at the perimeter of Middle Pleistocene range of the genus Homo; (2) that many features can be shown to emerge at the edge of that range before they develop at the center; and (3) that these features exhibit great tenacity through time. Regional variations in these features can thus be taken as evidence for long term differences among genus Homo individuals that prefigure different races among present-day Homo sapiens individuals.

The displacement from Africa model and the rise of cladistics

See also human migration, human evolution.

Since the 1990s, it has become common to use multilocus genotypes to distinguish different human groups and to allocate individuals to groups (Bamshad et al. 2004). These data have led to an examination of the biological validity of races as evolutionary lineages and the description of races in cladistic terms. The technique of multilocus genotyping has been used to determine patterns of human demographic history. Thus, the concept of "race" afforded by these techniques is synonymous with ancestry, broadly understood.

Studies of human genetic variation imply that Africa was the ancestral source of all modern humans, and that Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and displaced Homo erectus between 140,000 and 290,000 years ago (Cann et al. 1987). Australian aborigines are believed to be an early out-group that remained isolated. Most other groups, including Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans, were found to be a single related (monophyletic) group resulting from a later out-migration from Africa, which could reasonably be divided into West and East Eurasian groups.

Missing image

A phylogenetic tree like the one shown above is usually derived from DNA or protein sequences from populations. Often mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome sequences are used to study ancient human demographics. These single-locus sources of DNA do not recombine and are inherited from a single parent. Individuals from the various continental groups tend to be more similar to one another than to people from other continents. The tree is rooted in the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, which is believed to have originated in Africa. Horizontal distance corresponds to two things:

  1. Genetic distance. Given below the diagram, the genetic difference between humans and chimps is roughly 2%, or 20 times larger than the variation among modern humans.
  2. Temporal remoteness of the most recent common ancestor. Rough estimates are given above the diagram, in millions of years. The mitochondrial most recent common ancestor of modern humans lived roughly 200,000 years ago, latest common ancestors of humans and chimps between four and seven million years ago.

Chimpanzees and humans belong to different genera, indicated in red. Formation of species and subspecies is also indicated, and the formation of "races" is indicated in the green rectangle to the right (note that only a very rough representation of human phylogeny is given, and the points made in the preceding section, insofar as they apply to an "African race", are understood here). Note that vertical distances are not meaningful in this representation.

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Map of early human migrations according to mitochondrial population genetics (numbers are years before present).

Since the 1980s, there have been indications that human genetic diversity is low as compared to other species that have been studied. For example, two random humans are expected to differ at approximately 1 in 1000 nucleotide pairs, whereas two random chimpanzees differ at 1 in 500 nucleotide pairs. This is interpreted to mean that the human species is relatively young, perhaps too young to evolve subspecies. However, with a genome of approximate 3 billion nucleotides, on average two humans differ at approximately 3 million nucleotides. Most of these single nucleotide polymorphisms are neutral, but some are functional and influence the phenotypic differences between humans. It is estimated that about 10 million SNPs exist in human populations, where the rarer SNP allele has a frequency of at least 1% (see International HapMap Project).

In the field of population genetics, it is believed that the distribution of neutral polymorphisms among contemporary humans reflects human demographic history. It is believed that humans passed through a population bottleneck before a rapid expansion coinciding with migrations out of Africa leading to an African-Eurasian divergence around 100,000 years ago (ca. 5,000 generations), followed by a European-Asian divergence about 40,000 years ago (ca. 2,000 generations).

The rapid expansion of a previously small population has two important effects on the distribution of genetic variation. First, the so-called founder effect occurs when founder populations bring only a subset of the genetic variation from their ancestral population. Second, as founders become more geographically separated, the probability that two individuals from different founder populations will mate becomes smaller. The effect of this assortative mating is to reduce gene flow between geographical groups, and to increase the genetic distance between groups. The expansion of humans from Africa affected the distribution of genetic variation in two other ways. First, smaller (founder) populations experience greater genetic drift because of increased fluctuations in neutral polymorphisms. Second, new polymorphisms that arose in one group were less likely to be transmitted to other groups as gene flow was restricted.

Such new data on human genetic variation has reignited the debate surrounding race. Most of the controversy surrounds the question of how to interpret these new data, and whether conclusions based on existing data are sound (see validity of human races). A large majority of researchers endorse the view that continental groups do not constitute different subspecies. However, other researchers still debate whether evolutionary lineages should rightly be called "races". These questions are particularly pressing for biomedicine, where self-described race is often used as an indicator of ancestry (see race in biomedicine below).

Arguments for races as lineages
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Human population structure can be inferred from multilocus DNA sequence data (Rosenberg et al. 2002). Individuals from 52 populations were examined at 377 DNA markers. This data was used to partitioned individuals into K = 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 clusters. In this figure, the average fractional membership of individuals from each population is represented by vertical bars partitioned into K=6 colored segments. The K=2 analysis separated Africa and Eurasia from East Asia, Oceania, and America. K=3 separated Africa and Eurasia. K=4 separated America. K=5 separated Oceania (green). K=6 separates the Kalash population (yellow). This kind of analysis forms the basis for the lineage definition of race.
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Triangle plot shows average admixture of five North American ethnic groups. Individuals that self-identify with each group can be found at many locations on the map, but on average groups tend to cluster differently.

Genetic data can be used to infer population structure and assign individuals to groups that often correspond with their self-identified geographical ancestry.

The inference of population structure from multilocus genotyping depends on the selection of a large number of informative genetic markers. These studies usually find that groups of humans living on the same continent are more similar to one another than to groups living on different continents. Many such studies are criticized for assigning group identity a priori. However, even if group identity is stripped and group identity assigned a posteriori using only genetic data, population structure can still be inferred. For example, using 377 markers, Rosenberg et al. (2002) were able to assign 1,056 individuals from 52 populations around the globe to one of six genetic clusters, of which five correspond to major geographic regions.

However, in analyses that assign individuals to group it becomes less apparent that self-described racial groups are reliable indicators of ancestry. One cause of the reduced power of the assignment of individuals to groups is admixture. Some racial or ethnic groups, especially Hispanic groups, do not have homogenous ancestry. For example, self-described African Americans tend to have a mix of West African and European ancestry. Shriver et al. (2003) found that on average African Americans have ~80% African ancestry. Likewise, many white Americans have mixed European and African ancestry, where ~30% of whites have less than 90% European ancestry. In this context, it is becoming more common place to describe "race" as fractional ancestry. Without the use of genotyping, this has been approximated by the self-described ancestry of an individual's grand-parents.

Nevertheless, recent research indicates that self-described race is a near-perfect indicator of an individual's genetic profile, at least in the United States. Using 326 genetic markers, Tang et al. (2005) identified 4 genetic clusters among 3,636 individuals sampled from 15 locations in the United States, and were able to correctly assign individuals to groups that correspond with their self-described race (white, African American, East Asian, or Hispanic) for all but 5 individuals (an error rate of 0.14%). They conclude that ancient ancestry, which correlates tightly with self-described race and not current residence, is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.

Genetic techniques that distinguish ancestry between continents can also be used to describe ancestry within continents. However, the study of intra-continental ancestry may require a greater number of informative markers. Populations from neighboring geographic regions typically share more recent common ancestors. As a result, allele frequencies will be correlated between these groups. This phenomenon is often seen as a cline of allele frequencies. The existence of allelic clines has been offered as evidence that individuals cannot be allocated into genetic clusters (Kittles & Weiss 2003). However, others argue that low levels of differentiation between groups merely make the assignment to groups more difficult, not impossible (Bamshad et al. 2004).

Arguments against races as lineages

For some people, the very claim that all human beings share one ancestor is sufficient to demonstrate that the only "race" is the human race.

Rachel Caspari (2003) argued that clades are by definition monophyletic groups (a taxon that includes all descendents of a given ancestor); since races are not monophyletic, they cannot be clades.

For anthropologists Lieberman and Jackson (1995), however, there are more profound methodological and conceptual problems with using cladistics to support concepts of race. They emphasize that "the molecular and biochemical proponents of this model explicitly use racial categories in their initial grouping of samples" (emphasis added). For example, the

large and highly diverse macroethnic groups of East Indians, North Africans, and Europeans are presumptively grouped as Caucasians prior to the analysis of their DNA variation. This limits and skews interpretations, obscures other lineage relationships, deemphasizes the impact of more immediate clinal environmental factors on genomic diversity, and can cloud our understanding of the true patterns of affinity.

They argue that however significant the empirical research, these studies use the term race in conceptually sloppy ways. They suggest that the authors of these studies find support for racial distinctions only because they began assuming the validity of race.

For empirical reasons we prefer to place emphasis on clinal variation, which recognizes the existence of adaptive human hereditary variation and simultaneously stresses that such variation is not found in packages that can be labeled races.

Indeed, recent research reports evidence for smooth, clinal genetic variation even in regions previously considered racially homogeneous, with the apparent gaps turning out to be artifacts of sampling techniques (Serre & Pbo 2004). These scientists do not dispute the importance of cladistic research, only its retention of the word race, when reference to populations and clinal gradations are more than adequate to describe the results.

The current lack of consensus among evolutionary scientists

The result of these developments is that the current literature on human variation is often confusing. Some studies use the word race in its previously essentialist taxonomic sense. Many use the term race, but are using it to gloss a populationist or cladistic approach. Others eschew the word race altogether, and use the word population.

A 1985 survey (Lieberman et al. 1992) asked 1,200 scientists how many disagree with the following proposition: "There are biological races in the species Homo sapiens." The responses were:

  • biologists 16%
  • developmental psychologists 36%
  • physical anthropologists 41%
  • cultural anthropologists 53%

At PhD granting departments, the figure for physical anthropologists was slightly higher

  • agree 50%
  • disagree 42%

(This survey did not specify any particular definition of race; it is impossible to say whether those who supported the statement thought of race in taxonomic or population terms.)

Since 1932, college textbooks introducing physical anthropology have increasingly come to reject race as a valid concept: from 1932 to 1976, only seven out of thirty-two rejected race; from 1975 to 1984, thirteen out of thirty-three rejected race; from 1985 to 1993, thirteen out of nineteen rejected race.

Nevertheless, the belief that human races exist remains almost universal amongst lay audiences and, like any widely held belief, is significant regardless of its scientific validity. Moreover, some social and natural scientists argue that new studies in molecular genetics support a nomenclature strongly reminiscent of traditional racial and ethnic terminology.

Case studies in the social construction of race

Race in the United States

In the United States since its early history, Native Americans, Africans and European-Americans were classified as belonging to different races. But the criteria for membership in these races were radically different. The government considered anyone with "one drop" of "Black blood" (or indigenous African ancestry) to be Black. In contrast, Indians were defined by a certain percentage of "Indian blood" due in large part to American slavery ethics. To be White, one had to have "pure" White ancestry. These differing criteria for assignation of membership to particular races had relatively little to do with biology and far more to do with White supremacy—the social, geopolitical and economic agendas of dominant Whites vis--vis subordinate Blacks and Native Americans—and racism. At the time, Blacks were valuable commodities as slaves; and Native Americans, whose vast lands were the ultimate target of acquisition in a doctrine of Manifest Destiny, were subject to marginalization and multiple episodic localized campaigns of extermination.

According to such anthropologists as Gerald Sider, the goal of such racial designations was to concentrate power, wealth, privilege and land in the hands of Caucasians in a society of White hegemony and White privilege (Sider 1996; see also Fields 1990). Using the "one drop" rule, it was easy for someone to be categorized as Black. The offspring of an African slave and a White master or mistress was considered Black. Significant in terms of the economics of slavery, such a person also would be a chattel slave, adding to the wealth of the slaveowner. By comparison, it was harder for someone to be classified as Indian. A person of Indian and African parentage automatically was classified as Black. By contrast, the offspring of only a few generations of miscegenation between Indians and Whites likely would not have been considered Indian at all—at least not in a legal sense. Indians could have treaty rights to land, but because an individual with one Indian great-grandparent no longer was classified as Indian, they lost any legal claim to Indian land. The irony is that the same individuals who could be denied legal standing because they were "too White" to claim property rights, were still Indian enough to be considered as "breeds," stigmatized for their Native American ancestry. In an economy that benefited from slave labor, it was useful to have as many Blacks as possible. Conversely, in a nation bent on westward expansion, it was advantageous to diminish the numbers of those who could claim title to Indian lands by simply defining them out of existence. At a time when Whites wielded power over both Blacks and Indians and widely believed in their inherent superiority over people of color, it is no coincidence that the hardest racial group in which to prove membership was the White one.

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 biologized, but in a way that recognized the difference between ancestry (which determines genotype) and phenotypic differences. There, 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 would be 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.

One of the most striking consequences of the Brazilian system of racial identification was that 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 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 green (which is whiter than the usual white).

Consequently, people change their racial identity over their lifetimes. To do so is not the same as "passing" in the U.S. It does not require the secrecy and the agonizing withdrawal from friends and family that are necessary in the United States and among Indians of highland Latin America. In Brazil, passing from one race to another can occur with changes in education and economic status. Moreover, a light-skinned person of low status is considered darker than a dark-skinned person of high status.

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 seem to be an obvious 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.

Politics and ethics of race

Racial classifications were used during the Enlightenment 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.

In Blumenbach's time, followers of Johann Gottfried von Herder 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 and East Africa. 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 racism, slavery and segregation, and could be redressed through such programs as affirmative action and Head Start. Other 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 race to describe human variation. Some, however, argue that race 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 and intelligence

Main article: Race and intelligence

Many researchers have reported significant differences in the average I.Q. test scores of various ethnic groups. The existence and causes of these differences are controversial. Some researchers, such as Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein, have argued that such differences are at least partially genetic. Others, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, believe these differences are purely the result of cultural factors. Most researchers in the field acknowledge a role for both, for example, the concept of genetic-environment covariance.

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. 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.

Race in law enforcement

Missing image
The FBI identifies fugitives by gender, physical features, occupation, nationality, and race. From left to right, the FBI identifies the above as belonging to the following races: White, Black, White (Hispanic), Asian. Top row males, bottom row females.

In an attempt to provide general descriptions that may facilitate the job of 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. 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.

In many countries the state is legally banned from handling race data, which often makes the police issue wanted notices to press including labels like "dark skin complexion", etc. There is some controversy over the relationship between race and crime and whether it justifies racial profiling; however, in the United States, the practice has been ruled unconstitutional and violative of civil rights. Many consider racial profiling an example of institutional racism in law enforcement.

See also



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External links


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