Race is a social construct, not an innate biological classification. Modern science has long called into question the validity of racial categories. For example, large genetic studies have demonstrated that most variation exists within racial groups, not between them. And a growing body of medical and scientific literature has highlighted the harmful effects of using racial classifications in research, diagnostics and treatment.
But despite these findings, it is still possible to find many people who believe that race is a fact and that racial categories reflect differences in biological health and behavior. This is due in part to the persistence of cultural assumptions and beliefs that have been influenced by a combination of the Enlightenment ideals of universal human rights and the reality of European colonization, the slave trade and immigration patterns.
The concept of race evolved as a political tool to justify and rationalize slavery and to control the distribution of land, resources, wealth, jobs and power among different groups. It is a system of categorization that divides people into racial categories, which then create boundaries that have real consequences for how we live our lives today.
Whether someone identifies as White, Black, Asian or Native American, these racial categories have meaning and are used to assign privileges and disadvantages that affect people’s access to education and health care, housing, work opportunities, and relationships with other people. These effects are the result of structural racism, a systemic pattern of racial bias across institutions and society that gives privileges to White people and disadvantages to those of other races.
A key element of the racial hierarchy is that members of a racial group must satisfy two criteria: one, they must have physical features that are evidence of particular ancestry from geographically distinct areas; and two, they must be observed as having these traits by others, thereby qualifying them for membership in the group and justifying their systemic subordination or privilege. This concept of racial groups is the foundation for the concept of race in the United States and other countries around the world.
This explains why some people feel so strongly about maintaining the status quo and even feel offended when other people point out that there is no biological basis for the racial distinctions they use to define themselves and their neighbors. It is also why some people feel frustrated when they achieve success and are unable to escape from the barriers that have kept them from achieving full equality with other Americans, much like the secessionists in South Carolina in the 1840s and ’50s.
But what if we were to abandon the idea that we can tell people’s races by looking at their bodies? Would that change how we think about the racial hierarchy and the harms it causes in our everyday lives? This is the challenge that confronts us as we consider how to move forward. The answers will be complex, but we should begin by taking into account the profound impact that the racial categories we use today have on each of us.