The Complexity of Race

Race is a term that divides humans into groups based on shared physical characteristics, such as skin color. While modern science largely views the concept of race as a social construct with no biological meaning, it is still an important part of our national dialogue, as evidenced by recent events and enduring challenges faced by many Americans of all races. Educators can help students understand the complexity of the impact of this word and its ongoing relevance to our society by providing accurate, culturally sensitive information about this contested topic.

As the nation’s demographics change, we face new issues around race and ethnicity. In the past, generations of ideas about race shaped legal and social policies that continue to shape the lives of many Americans. It can be tempting to try to get people to stop believing in race by simply not talking about it. However, our country has decades of history to consider, and the lingering effects of these ideas can be found throughout American culture, including in policing practices and racial disparities in educational achievement and the economy.

During the nineteenth century, the idea of race was used to categorize people into hierarchical groups for purposes of European colonization and oppression of non-European populations. This concept of a discrete genetically distinct race served to justify enslavement, discrimination and the medicalization of Africans, such as the forced sterilization of black women, the Henrietta Lacks syphilis experiment and the Tuskegee syphilis study.

By the end of the twentieth century, it was widely accepted by scientists that the idea of a biologically distinct human race is not supported by the evidence. Studies showed that most of the differences between individuals are a result of their environment, rather than their innate genetics. Scientists also realized that the concept of a tree-like structure for human evolutionary genetics, which includes a division into separate branches of a species, is not scientifically valid, and that the concept of a racial continuum is also unfounded.

In addition, the majority of adaptive traits are found in all individuals and do not distinguish between racial groups. Adaptive traits are also not useful for defining a grouping in humans, as different adaptive traits define discordant groups.

The emergence of these new realities has heightened the need for a public education program to address these issues and provide the facts about race. The sensitivity and seriousness of the response of many Americans of all races to the recent incidents involving police brutality against blacks suggest that our nation is ready for fresh leadership on this issue, as it has been on other difficult problems, such as immigration, healthcare reform and economic inequality.

Use the resources on this page to help students learn about the origins and development of race as a scientifically, socially and culturally constructed category for sorting human variation. They can compare the ways that the word “race” was viewed and interpreted during three time periods (1808, 1908 and 2008). They can examine how these changes affected the experiences of different individuals, and what opportunities might have been open to them.