Race and Structural Racism


Race is a concept that’s both a scientific construct and a social construction that influences real-world outcomes. Its power is profound: Many studies show that, despite the fact that most scientists agree that race is not biologically valid, racial categories on official forms still have the effect of assigning privileges or disadvantages in our society.

The word “race” refers to an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, but primarily historically, based on skin color or other physical characteristics. It also may refer to a shared culture, a historic or ethnic affiliation, or a genetic linkage.

During America’s formation, Europeans began to use the category of race to sort human beings and create the social hierarchy that justified colonization and the enslavement of Africans. Over time, people whose skin appeared to be white erroneously believed that the characteristics of their race innately made them smarter, morally superior, and more capable than those who did not.

In the end, most variation exists within, rather than between, groups, and most of it can be traced back to geography or culture. As a result, two random people from the same continent, whether they are Italians, Kurds, Koreans, or Cherokees, may be as genetically similar to each other as two randomly selected individuals from the other side of the world, such as an Asian and a European.

Yet despite the fact that most scientists have rejected the idea of a single biological race, people are convinced of its existence because the concept has been deeply embedded in our society. It has been ingrained in how our government operates, how we view the people around us, and the policies that we make.

Race, like other forms of discrimination, has been perpetuated by structural racism, which refers to the overarching system of societal and institutional bias that gives advantages to white people in the form of unearned privileges and disadvantages for people of color. Many experts disagree about how best to tackle structural racism, with some favoring a focus on individual beliefs and actions (e.g., “microaggressions”) while others believe that we should seek to remove structural barriers from our society altogether (e.g., “comprehensive reform”).

No matter how you approach the issue of structural racism, it’s important to be aware that the misunderstanding of the science of race continues to fuel racist assumptions and attitudes in our society. To counter these beliefs, we need to engage in an open and honest discussion about the role that the concept of race plays in our lives, and the ways that it shapes our communities. Join others committed to talking about race by joining the Center on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation at Duke. We lead events and discussions to address the myths about race that are so prevalent in our society. You can learn more about our work here. You can also take the pledge to commit to ending racial stereotypes in our communities and workplaces.