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The touchy subject of


Key concepts
Racism and racists

The term race refers to the scientifically-obsolete idea that it is possible to divide humanity into clear, well-defined groups based on a haphazard variety of traits, most commonly in terms of physical characteristics having to do with skin color. Besides physical characteristics, ideas about racial identity may be based on things like a hypothesized common ancestry, language and self-identification.

While people have and continue to ascribe assumptions about mental aptitude and moral characteristics onto individuals based on their racialized identity, the main biological difference between darker-skinned humans and lighter-skinned humans is that the latter will be more prone to sunburn but will be able to more quickly produce usable vitamin D from sunlight.

Well into the twentieth century, it was common to think of "the French race" or "the German race." Nowadays, these identities are more likely to be thought of as manifestations of ethnicity or ethnic group. This isn't just the same concept disguised with political correctness. The idea of ethnicity takes into account cultural identification, language, and religious beliefs — you can, in principle, belong to multiple ethnic groups — whereas an individual's race is thought to be essential based on physical difference.[1] Ethnicity is still as arbitrary and useless as a system of classification as "race," but used in context it doesn't really pretend not to be.

"Race" — in the sense of ancestry — is still used when assessing suitability for bone marrow transplants and other medical purposes.[2]


Identification of "races"

The ancient Egyptians (4) saw themselves as differing both from Caucasians (1, 3) and Nubians (2).

The races as we know them are products of relatively recent history. When the intellectual center of Europe was located in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, it was generally perceived that skin colors formed a continuum. The ancient Egyptians placed themselves between Nubians and Greeks in skin color, and noted that they had features that did not appear in either. Aristotle observed that "(t)he nations inhabiting the cold places and those of Europe are full of spirit but somewhat deficient in intelligence and skill, so that they continue comparatively free, but lacking in political organization and capacity to rule their neighbors."[3] Pliny the Elder tells of an African, the boxer Nicaeus, who married a white Greek woman; their children appeared white, but darker skins appeared in the second generation.[4] Race as we know it is a post-classical and western European phenomenon. It owes its existence in part to the fact that a vast, sparsely inhabited desert fills inland western Africa, and that during the rise of Western Europe as a global power, the western African coast was populated by hostile Muslims. The dark Africans of the equatorial regions of west Africa were seen as vastly different.

As Western Europeans began to exert power around the globe, they directly encountered people of a variety of different appearances. At that time, geographical origins were a more likely way for Europeans to classify people than was "race." As European colonization and the trans-Atlantic slave trade began to define global relationships in the modern world, Europeans began to rely on the idea of "biologically distinct races," including such constructions as "Negroids," "Caucasoid," and "Mongoloids," a classification system which was developed by Blumenbach based on his studies of skull morphology.

This simple classification system failed in one significant area, however. Darker-skinned Europeans from southern Italy and southern Spain, Indians, and significantly Dravidic Indians clearly were not "Caucasian" but they were also not "Negroid." To the "American," these peoples, who increasingly emigrated to the United States in the early 20th century, were clearly "not like us," but were also "more like us than primitive blacks." Depending on the needs of the day, they would be tossed in with the "Negroid," or tossed in with "Caucasian." Jews, Arabs and Indians (from India, not Native Americans - they were just "savages"... unless they happened to be Algonquin, in which case they were "white" because the most powerful families from Plymouth had intermarried with the natives) fell into this strange place of not belonging to any "race." The US Supreme Court even ruled in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) that Caucasian Indians were not "white" within the meaning immigration law, as, despite anthropologists classifying them with "white" Europeans, they were not considered that in the view of the "common man" which is apparently what counted. Seriously.

This not only led to Caucasian Indians now being ineligible for naturalized citizenship, but denaturalization of some immigrants already made citizens. Congress did not lift this restriction until 1946, when India was on the verge of becoming an independent country.[5]

"Race" vs. species

As there is only one extant human species, each human is genetically and physically capable of breeding with a fellow human (of the opposite sex and barring infertility obviously). Therefore it is difficult to see, from an objective taxonomical view, how humanity can be conclusively and objectively sub-divided into "races" based on the varying definitions that different societies have applied over time. Even if "race" is taken to mean subspecies, no modern subspecies of humans have been reliably identified.[6] Even if humans might have been divided into subspecies in the past, this is not the case today; with very few exceptions human populations are not isolated from one another, and no matter how upset some people might get at the idea, this means human populations are not genetically isolated either. A hundred generations from now, virtually all humans will have ancestors from virtually all "races". More recent (2009) studies from HUGO have determined significant shared ancestry patterns between Indians and Europeans (Caucasians) and East Asians.[7] Essentially, the term "race" is no more than a social invention, one which changes depending on the society and over time. Most people in the west will recognize "Chinese" as a "race," but in China you will find Hui, Han, Miao, Zhuang, and almost countless other "races" which are — to the Chinese — just as distinguishable as black and white is in America and Europe.

Typically, "race" is only used by more powerful groups in an attempt to provide some legitimacy for denigrating, controlling or exploiting others. It would be more difficult to start an effective slave trade, for example, if there wasn't a way of distinguishing people (however arbitrarily) in a way to legitimise it.


See the main article on this topic: Racism

Racists exist and thrive in nearly every, if not every, country in the world. Along with religious affiliation/discrimination and nationalism, racism is among the most popular forms of tribalism in the world. Since "race" is arbitrary, any group of people that seek to identify "otherness" in another group of people can use racism to their own ends, by labeling the group they don't like as belonging to a certain "race."

The concept of "reverse racism" is an exceptionally silly one, implying that there is one correct or even one predominant way in which racism flows (usually assumed in the Western world to be whites discriminating against non-whites, especially blacks). If you take the definition that racism involves purely holding views of the superiority or inferiority of certain "races", no one group of people have a monopoly on racism. This gets more complicated, however, when bringing in the concept of privilege and social power- essentially, some sociologists, usually members of various social justice movements, define racism as "prejudice plus power", meaning that members of underprivileged ethnic groups who are racially prejudiced against the dominant ethnic group are not defined as racists.

Racist works

Apart from the various awful screeds such as Mein Kampf and the The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, there have been several scientific attempts to link "race" and IQ (even though both are extremely imprecise measures). The Bell Curve, a book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is a recent attempt at this flawed concept.

"Race-based medicine" and geographic ancestry

A topic that has been controversial (for both social and scientific reasons) is so-called "race-based medicine." Currently, some doctors may use racial profiling as a proxy for determining the geographic origins of the patient's lineage to diagnose and treat certain diseases.[8] However, this is not the same thing as "race." The researchers at the Human Genome Project sum it up:

DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.[6]

The word cline[wp] is sometimes used to describe this. To put it more succinctly, as the leader of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins does:

'Race' and 'ethnicity' are poorly defined terms that serve as flawed surrogates for multiple environmental and genetic factors in disease causation, including ancestral geographic origins, socioeconomic status, education and access to health care.[9]

Sickle-cell anemia is a famous example of how "race" can mislead. It was originally classified as a "negro disease" due to its high incidence in blacks. However, it was later found that sickle-cell anemia, being an adaptation to the risk of malaria, was also more common in central and western Africans (but not southern Africans) as well as Mediterraneans (Turks, Greeks, etc.) and Indians. Thus, the disease was not an indication of "race," but of geographic ancestry (in this case, areas where malaria was more common).[10]

It should be noted that all human classifications used in medicine are considered probabilistic heuristics and not perfectly deterministic. While research has shown that many people are extremely effective at classifying themselves based on ethnic origin[11] and so researchers may find "race" to be a convenient label, it fails as a source of attribution: "[R]ace as a social construct may result in differences in treatment that affect health outcomes, but such descriptive use does not imply that "race" can be used as a proxy for biological difference."[12]

"Race" will continue to exist as a cultural phenomenon; while great care should be taken in using this construct in medicine, it would be counter-productive to discard potentially useful information, such as the way in which racial identity shapes social, legal and economic outcomes. Unfortunately, the knotty history of "race" makes even the language used into a potential source of error - "race realists" often point to a news headline or study that uses "race" sloppily and declare it to be "evidence" of the truth of "race," mastering sufficient jargon to talk about the reality of "genetic clines" and missing the fundamental mismatch between "race" as culture and "race" as genetic destiny.

See also

External links


  1. Which is why people of mixed racial background are so unsettling to the system.
  2. Bone Marrow Transplants: When Race Is an Issue
  3. Aristotle, Politics, book 7.
  4. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book VII.
  5. Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians
  6. 6.0 6.1 Human Genome Project Information: Minorities, Race, and Genomics at the Wayback Machine (archived April 30, 2013)
  7. Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia, The HUGO Pan-Asian SNP Consortium, 2009
  8. Race-Based Medicine: A Recipe for Controversy, Scientific American
  9. Francis S. Collins. What We Do and Don't Know About 'Race', 'Ethnicity', Genetics, and Health at the Dawn of the Genome Era. Nature Genetics Supplement, vol. 36, no. 11, Nov. 2004
  10. Race and Gene Studies: What Difference Makes a Difference? by Larry Adelman
  11. "Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding in Case-Control Association Studies", American Journal of Human Genetics. Hua Tang, Tom Quertermous, et al. 2005.
  12. "Defining Human Differences in Biomedicine", PLoS Medicine. Brown M. 2007. 4 (9): e228.
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