The Concept of Race and Its Implications


The concept of race is a social construct, meaning that it does not have a biological basis. However, the idea of race remains deeply rooted in our culture and has powerful implications for the way that people live and interact with each other. Historically, races have been defined by physical characteristics such as skin color and facial shape. The term “ethnicity” is a more accurate description of how people connect with each other, such as language, traditions, and beliefs.

It is important to understand the difference between race and ethnicity because the terms are used differently in different contexts. For example, drawing unnecessary attention to someone’s ethnicity could be interpreted as bigotry. This is why it is best to use AP Stylebook guidance when referring to an individual by their ethnicity. Likewise, it is important to consider carefully before classifying someone by their race or addressing issues of racism and racial justice when talking with students.

Many scientists and scholars have come to realize that the concept of race does not have a biological basis. Instead, large genetic studies have shown that the variation that exists within groups of people is much greater than that between groups. These findings have challenged traditional ideas about human biology and fueled longstanding criticism of using the concept of race to explain health differences.

Despite the lack of a scientific definition, society continues to use the concept of race to create and justify systems of power, privilege, and oppression. For example, the Western concept of race has been used to support European colonization and to promote theories of biological inferiority for non-Europeans. It has also been a tool to justify medical practices that have resulted in the sterilization of Black and Native American women, the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her knowledge or consent, and the Tuskegee Syphilis study.

In addition to its moral implications, systemic racism carries economic costs. For example, the wealth gap between Whites and African Americans is projected to cost the US economy $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion by 2028.

This is a complex and challenging topic, but it is worth exploring with students because the legacy of race has created vastly different socioeconomic realities for groups of people in our country. The gap has led to lower levels of economic success for many minority groups and increased exposure to crime, environmental injustices, and other societal ills.

In class, it can be helpful to have students work with a graphic representation of the different ancestry percentages of some countries to help them understand how the genetic diversity of individuals is far more complex than the traditional idea of a single, biologically determined race. It is also a good idea to discuss the history of race in the United States, including the role it has played in supporting the colonization of other parts of the world and the systematic oppression of people of color. Students can also explore the ways in which they can personally challenge assumptions about other cultures or backgrounds by considering how they talk and act around those different identities.