The word “race” evokes strong emotions and is often used to describe social and historical events such as slavery, segregation, integration, discrimination or equal employment policy. The term is also invoked when discussing the impact of these events on specific groups such as African Americans, Hispanics or whites. Invoking the concept of race can help clarify the differences between people and highlight the negative impact of racial prejudice in our country.
Despite a lack of scientific validity, the concept of race continues to be widely held and has significant social implications. It is a belief that some physical traits, such as skin color or facial features, reflect fundamental biological differences between different peoples. The concept of race has been deeply embedded in our society and is central to the enduring legacy of inequality, oppression and injustice in our country.
Sociologists believe that, rather than a biological category, race is a social construct. Many people with superficial differences in physical characteristics, such as curly hair or blue eyes, can trace their ancestry to multiple ethnicities. For example, a person with dark skin may have white, Native American and African ancestry.
Because of these overlapping genetic traits and the inability of scientists to cluster peoples into discrete racial categories, most researchers now consider it impossible to distinguish any biological difference between people based on their skin pigmentation or other physical features. Furthermore, studies of human genomes have shown that people share many common genes and, therefore, are essentially identical.
Regardless, the idea of race persists in popular culture, media and in official government classifications. For example, on US census forms, there are questions asking respondents to indicate whether they are white, black or Hispanic/Latino. The current form includes a box for listing other racial categories, such as Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. In fact, the Obama administration is considering adding a sixth box to the Census for people who want to specify Middle Eastern or North African ancestry.
It’s important to understand the distinction between race and ethnicity. This understanding is particularly vital when it comes to evaluating efforts to address the effects of centuries of racism in our country. Too often, politicians and others confuse the concepts of race and ethnicity and use a muddled notion of diversity to justify inequitable policies or programs. For example, they may support affirmative action programs that promote forward-looking rationales, such as promoting diversity at a university, but refuse to endorse programs designed to remedy general societal discrimination, even when the evidence is clear. It is important that we recognize and address this confusion in order to move toward a more equitable society. Posted by Darren Swindle, Ph.D., a NYU professor of sociology and the author of the forthcoming book An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in the United States and Italy. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenSwindle.