When most people think of race, they imagine distinct biological categories. But anthropologists and geneticists have found that the notion of race is not an innate biological classification, but rather a social construct that emerged from colonialism, slavery and migration patterns.
The idea of “race” became a popular concept in the 17th and 18th centuries as Europeans began exploring, expanding and colonizing the world. People were divided into groups based on their skin color, hair texture and other physical characteristics. These distinctions served as the foundation of a system that rewarded some with economic and political power while oppressing others.
Even today, we continue to use the category of race to determine who is and is not welcome in our communities, who will be able to access opportunities and who will be incarcerated. This is why many scholars argue that there is a strong moral case for tackling systemic racism. It is also why they believe that there is a need to talk more openly about the existence of race and its implications for society.
Although there is a lot of work to be done to reduce racial disparities in education, health care and criminal justice, the first step toward addressing these issues is acknowledging that systemic racism exists. And that means recognizing that we are all responsible for perpetuating it.
We must stop using a false scientific categorization to discriminate, impose power and control, and enslave others. This includes not only addressing the many ways in which we still categorize and discriminate by race, but also understanding the historical context of why this classification was created and how it has evolved over time.
Throughout history, scholars and the public alike have been conditioned to view human races as separate and natural divisions in the human species based on superficial physical traits. However, the massive expansion of scientific knowledge over this century has shown that the idea of racial distinctions in humans is flawed. Research has shown that most of the differences between so-called racial groups is due to cultural influences and genetic variation is greater within conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings than it is between them.
The only ‘racial’ distinction that may remain useful is the one used by law enforcement agencies to describe the general appearance of an individual (skin color, hair texture, eye shape etc.) when attempting to apprehend them. These general descriptions are much easier for a police officer to understand than a detailed genetic or DNA test.
The anthropologists and geneticists who study the human genome have been at the forefront of a movement to shift our language from the language of ‘race’ to ‘ethnicity.’ It is our hope that this will help us all to recognize the harmful effects of racism and move forward together as a more united nation.