The term “race” has historically been used to divide peoples based on the visible differences between their skin color, hair texture and facial features. In recent decades, however, scientific advances and other social factors have challenged the notion that humans can be divided into distinct biological groups. Today, most scientists and many people in other disciplines accept that there is no biological basis for racial distinctions in human beings. Instead, scholars have come to view race as a social invention that has had profound consequences in the real world.
The idea of distinct human races has been in decline since the mid-19th century, when genetic studies disproved the concept of biologically fixed racial categories. While some scientists have attempted to use the term to describe genetically distinct subspecies, others have viewed it as a method of categorizing people with shared cultural traits (the “Arab race,” the “Latin race,” the “Jewish race”). Still other researchers have applied the concept of racial classification to linguistic groups or political, national, or ethnic groups that share very few physical characteristics and which do not fit into any known racial category (the “black race” or the “Hispanic race”).
Scientists continue to debate the role of genetic differences in the formation of racial categories and whether there is evidence of these differences in modern human populations. Some scholars argue that racial categories were created by European colonization and the subsequent spread of Christianity and Western culture throughout the world. This has resulted in a number of sociological and cultural groupings that have no clear racial origins, but which are nevertheless perceived as racial by most individuals.
These socially construed racial and ethnic categories are the foundation of racism, the belief that people can be classified by their innate biological differences and that certain groups are superior to other people. Many social science scholars have studied the ways in which this belief has been manipulated to influence politics and economic policy. These theories have included racial formation theory and critical race theory.
The underlying problem of race remains at the heart of many of the issues facing our society. In particular, it is important to understand how the belief in the existence of biologically distinct racial groups can contribute to inequality in a wide range of areas, including health and education.
Despite the fact that the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) should have triggered a review of the appropriateness of using a definition of race and ethnicity in biomedical research, it appears that researchers and clinicians are slow to abandon old assumptions. For example, a recent review of genetic studies found that the majority of papers citing epidemiological data as justification for a genetic approach to identifying risk factors for disease either preceded the HGP or failed to address its findings.
It is time for all individuals to reexamine their beliefs about race and ethnicity, and to replace them with a sound understanding of evolutionary biology and a correct view of federal directives. This will require a significant amount of learning for many individuals, especially those with strongly held beliefs and assumptions about the validity of the race/ethnic concept.