Concept of Race
The concept of “race” in the United States was invented to support a particular kind of social system. There were attempts to create a “science of race” in the recent past. However, Biologists and Geneticists reject the idea of biological races. Race is a social construct, not a biological reality.
The notion of “race” rests on three myths that persist to this day:
Many racial traits or characteristics are considered ‘discrete.’ This means certain characteristics such as personality, intelligence, empathy, and work ethic are associated with certain races of people.
Discrete traits do not covary with, or predict, race. They are represented by a small number of well-defined categories. One example of a discrete trait that humans have is the ABO blood group, which is also known as blood type. A person’s blood is either type A, type B, type AB, or type O. This does not correlate with race in any way.
There are no natural breaks in the distribution of human biological variation that produce clear clusters (or races) of people who share certain traits. Human variation is a spectrum of randomly distributed traits. Eye color, hair texture, and facial structures are randomly distributed among all groups. There are gradual changes across the geography based on where humans have adapted to living.
Scientists have observed more genetic and phenotypic (physical) variation between rather than within races. This means there are more traits that make “races” different than the same.
Studies by Richard Lewontin, which range from 1972 to today, showed that 75% of genes for all people are the same. The 25% that is different occurs within populations and makes up the diversity within and among human groups. Human variation is not race.
Traits correlate by race. The presence of one trait is useful for predicting the presence of others. This is known as “covariance.”
Human traits do not covary with the concept of race. The shape of a person’s nose or the texture of their hair is not a determining factor in the color of their skin.
Dr. Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at North Carolina State University stated in a recent article: “In practical terms, race can be wildly misleading in a forensic context. For example, a missing person may have been listed as Black on their driver’s license because of their skin color. But their skeletal remains may not indicate they were of African descent, because their bone structure may reflect other aspects of their ancestry.”
Most anthropologists have agreed for some time that patterns of human variation undermine the idea of well-defined human races. In fact, a race-based analysis of human diversity limits and obscures scientific research into the true origins, patterns, and importance of human variation.
If ‘races’ aren’t real in biological terms, then why do people have different skin tones, facial features, hair textures, etc.?
Skin tones, hair color, and eye color all vary due to a pigment called melanin. Melanin is produced by special cells called melanocytes. The more melanin a person has, the darker their skin. This serves the evolutionary purpose of protecting people from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can cause damage and mutations to skin cells. Populations of people native to places with higher levels of UV radiation have more melanin and therefore have darker skin.
The opposite is also true with locations that are exposed to less UV radiation. Populations of people with less melanin didn’t need this natural sunscreen as protection but rather needed to absorb as much sunlight as possible to help with vitamin D production.
Like most evolutionary adaptations, these traits developed over many generations and thousands of years. However, as humans began to migrate from the location where their skin color trait originated, these traits became less directly tied to the geographic locations. Varying skin tones can still serve the original purpose of a biological sunscreen or vitamin D production assistant today. However, It is not an indicator of biological race.
In the United States from 1619 forward, there was a racial hierarchy system established. This was enforced by race “science,” government laws, and social practices all across the country. In this system, people were classified by skin color, with white being on top. In some historic European societies, light skin became a sign of high status due to the notion that working-class people spent more time outdoors, therefore having tanner skin because of increased sun exposure.
Skin color has been, and continues to be, used as a way to judge and divide people. What once served as a biological form of protection from the environment became an instrument of discrimination. However, understanding that we are more than just the color of our skin while acknowledging the injustices that have occurred because of it will help us move forward to a better future.