The Social Construction of Race
Race is defined as a category or group of people having hereditary traits that set them apart. While race revolves around the idea of biological traits, ethnicity is based on a shared cultural heritage. Sociologists and other social scientists believe that race is a socially constructed concept. It is an idea that was created in society to justify inequality.
Race is a modern concept. In ancient times, people were more likely to be divided according to religion, language, lineage, and nationality. In ancient Greece, for instance, people were divided by language and culture rather than physical differences. Africans, who may have looked different physically, were accepted into their society as long as they adopted the customs and language of Greek culture. So where exactly does the idea of race originate? In the 16th century, Europeans used three different categories to classify the different groups of people they encountered through continental exploration. The racial categories used at this time were: Mongoloid (Asians), Caucasoid (European) and Negroid (African). Throughout the centuries to follow, the concept of race was used as a means of justifying superiority and colonization.
Geneticists point out that race is not a valid concept. According to the Human Genome Project, humans are 99.9% alike. What makes us appear physically different is determined by one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up!! Even these differences can be arbitrary or unclearly defined. While it is true that some people have different skin color, geneticists point out that the physical traits used to classify people into different races (skin color, eye color, hair texture, facial features) are more varied within a race than between races. In other words, if you were to look at a group of people who are considered Caucasian, you would find more physical differences within that group than you would between a group of Caucasians and a group of African Americans. Also, using skin color as a means of classification can be confusing. Some Caucasians, for instance, have darker skin than people who are considered African American. Some Hispanics, who consider themselves white, have skin color that is darker than African Americans. But race is not always determined by the color of a person’s skin. Usually, we consider ancestry as a means of classification. However, as researchers have pointed out, this can be inaccurate as well. Throughout the centuries, humans have been interbreeding for so many years that it is virtually impossible for a pure race to exist.
Considering this, most sociologists point out that race is something we have made up. It isn’t real. People may look different from one another, but that has more to do with geography than it does biology. Typically, people from warmer climates have darker skin because they have a higher concentration of the pigment known as melanin. This pigment helps protect the body by absorbing ultraviolet radiation. It acts as a shield which protects the body from getting skin cancer or melanoma. This is why people with lighter skin color are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Skin Color Adaptation
So if race is a social construction, where did it originate? The idea of race in the United States has changed somewhat over time. The one-drop rule originated in the South and was eventually adopted by the entire nation. It stated that if a person had one drop of African blood in their ancestry, they were African American. This rule was only applied to people with African ancestry and indicates the deep roots of racism in American history. We still tend to classify race along the same lines today. If a person has even a small percentage of black ancestry, it is more visible. For instance, most people think Tiger Woods is African American but his father is Native American, African American, and Chinese. His mother is from Thailand. Woods rejected the classification system that has been used in the U.S. and came up with his own. He refers to himself as “cablinasian.”
One way that race perpetuates itself in society is through stereotypes. A stereotype is an oversimplified set of beliefs about people from a certain group in society. There are numerous stereotypes for people of all racial and ethnic categories. While most of these stereotypes are negative, the stereotypes for some groups are much more damaging than others. For instance, whites have always been stereotyped as being racist, greedy, and bad dancers. Compare this to some of the more damaging stereotypes of African Americans which include uneducated, lazy, and unemployable. Clearly, these stereotypes are much more damaging.
Some say that stereotypes are based on actual patterns of behaviors. Let’s say that some people do act out their stereotypes. Does this mean they are biologically programmed to behave this way? According to The Thomas Theorem, “situations that are defined as real become real in their consequences.” What this means is that if society defines race as real, it will become real as people internalize these beliefs and act them out. What race and stereotypes do is create Self-Fulfilling Prophecies where individuals believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that they are real.
WATCH>>Sterotypes: “Average Asian” (MadTV)
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law, is the author of "According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family."
Race is not biological. It is a social construct. There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries. Yet, a person who could be categorized as black in the United States might be considered white in Brazil or colored in South Africa.
Unlike race and racial identity, the social, political and economic meanings of race, or rather belonging to particular racial groups, have not been fluid.
Like race, racial identity can be fluid. How one perceives her racial identity can shift with experience and time, and not simply for those who are multiracial. These shifts in racial identity can end in categories that our society, which insists on the rigidity of race, has not even yet defined.
As I explain in my book "According to Our Hearts," whites in interracial black-white marriages or relationships frequently experience a shift in how they personally understand their individual racial identity. In a society where being white (regardless of one’s socioeconomic class background or other disadvantages) means living a life with white skin privileges — such as being presumed safe, competent and noncriminal — whites who begin to experience discrimination because of their intimate connection with someone of another race, or who regularly see their loved ones fall prey to racial discrimination, may begin to no longer feel white. After all, their lived reality does not align with the social meaning of their whiteness.
That all said, unlike race and racial identity, the social, political and economic meanings of race, or rather belonging to particular racial groups, have not been fluid. Racial meanings for non-European groups have remained stagnant. For no group has this reality been truer than African-Americans. What many view as the promising results of the Pew Research Center’s data on multiracial Americans, with details of a growing multiracial population and an increasing number of interracial marriages, does not foreshadow as promising a future for individuals of African descent as it does for other groups of color.
Unlike their multiracial peers of Asian and Native American ancestry who tend to view themselves as having more in common with monoracial whites than with Asians or Native Americans, respectively, multiracial adults with a black background — 69 percent of whom say most people would view them as black — experience prejudice and interactions in ways that are much more closely aligned with members of the black community. In fact, the consequences of the social, political and economic meanings of race are so deep that my co-author Mario Barnes and I have argued that whites who find themselves discriminated against based on racial proxies such as name (for example, Lakisha or Jamal), should have actionable race discrimination claims based on such conduct. In sum, the fact that race is a social construct, defined by markers such as skin color, hair texture, eye shape, ancestry, identity performance and even name, does not mean that racial classifications are free of consequence or tangible effects.
More than 50 years ago, Congress enacted the most comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Half a century later in 2015, the same gaps in racial inequality remain or have grown deeper. Today, the unemployment rate for African-Americans remains more than double that for whites, public schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s and young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than their white male peers. Even a white fourth-grade teacher in Texas, Karen Fitzgibbons, openly advocated for the racial segregation of the 1950s and 1960s on her Facebook page.
Where will we be 50 years from now? Need I answer that question? It definitely won't be in a post-racial society.
Join Opinion on Facebook and follow updates on twitter.com/roomfordebate.