Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real

I get all kinds of email about this blog, a good portion of it is what you might call “hate” mail.  Basically, some people who come across this blog (I assume they don’t stay around as regular readers), find it objectionable that we write about race at all.  We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.”   I’ve been meaning to address this old argument here for awhile.  Just recently, I was reminded of a scholarly article* that does just that and takes on this flawed logic.    So, this post is for those haters in my inbox.

I ♥ Haters
Creative Commons License photo credit: The Infatuated

Race as Biology. When I first started teaching “race and ethnicity” at a large state university in the early 1990s, many of the textbooks in sociology defined “ethnicity” as cultural (e.g., language, religion, clothing, food, rituals) and “race” as, at least partially, “biological” (e.g., skin color, hair texture, “phenotype” – roughly face shape).  Most scholars and textbooks within sociology have moved away from this crude definitional distinction, but the notion that race is a biological one has deep historical roots.

The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category emerged beginning in the 17th century (1600s) and solidified in the 19th century (1800s), often based on armchair-speculation about different cultures encountered through colonialism.  These baseless claims were used as ideological justification for enslaving people to steal their labor so that white colonists could extract (illegal) profit from that labor.  This is the part that people miss when they argue “there’s always been racism, and there always will be.”  Racist ideology has a specific history, it started a a moment in time (for a discussion of what the world was like before that, see this book).  This is important because if racist ideology was created it can also be dismantled.

The rise in the idea that race is a biological category very closely tied to the development of science, but that’s different than saying race is biological. The vast majority of those doing research in this area that race is a social construction.   Certainly, biology matters.  And, there are physical differences between people.   But what’s significant about these when it comes to race is not the biology of those differences, but the social weight we attach to them.    The fact is that race still matters because racism is a real social problem.

Racism as Social Problem. So, if race isn’t a meaningful biological category, shouldn’t we just stop talking about it?  No, because the fact is that race as a social category remains a significant predictor of which groups get access to goods and resource and which groups face barriers.  While the Civil Rights Act outlawed de jure forms of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education, the fact is that de facto discrimination persists.  While overt individual discrimination is often easier to identify, it’s also part of that de jure discrimination that was outlawed.  More pervasive today in many ways is institutional discriminationthe uneven access by group membership to resources, status, and power that stems from seemingly neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions.

There are lots of examples of this form of racism today.  The educational system is failing, and its failing black and brown kids more than any other.   This failure is what one scholar has called “the educational debt.” Unemployment among blacks in the U.S. is expected to reach a 25-year high this year, hovering between 17.2% and 20%, double the unemployment rate for whites, which is around 9.8% nationally.   The criminal justice system is perhaps the leading example of institutional racism.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are African American. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell, while powerful corporations like CCA profit from this system.

These systems work together, as well.  There’s an excellent – if chilling – example of this in the recent documentary, “The Lottery,” (a better film about educational inequality than the Gates-promoted “Waiting for Superman”).   In the film, Susan Taylor former editor of Essence magazine and now a philanthropist, tells of a story of having a rich, white woman (unnamed) in her living room for a fund-raiser for her charity. The woman tells Taylor, “I want you to put my husband’s corporation out of business.  They build prisons.  To estimate the number of cells they’ll need they find the number of black boys failing fourth grade and project from the number of prison cells they’ll need based on that number.”   Taylor says she’d heard that before but didn’t believe it until then.   There’s also powerful research that explores the way the school-to-prison pipeline words for young, black boys.  Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Pedro Noguero’s The Trouble with Black Boys (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) are just two examples of this growing research field.

One final aspect of this racism as a social problem is that within each of these areas – education, employment, and criminal justice – is that race as biology is often used as a justification by haters to explain the inequality caused by systemic discrimination.

So, once more, for all those haters in my inbox… race and racism are not the same thing, but I know that haters are gonna hate.

*This post draws on an article [pdf] by scholars Audrey Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Brian Smedley (Institute of Medicine) with the same title as this blog post (subtitle: “Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race”) in the January 2005 issue of American Psychologist.


  1. Nquest

    We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.”

    Well, the first way to contend with that charge is to simply ask: HOW SO?

    So often people regurgitate cliches they never even think about and seem to employ because they are cliches — i.e. popular statements/sentiments assumed to have some self-evident meaning. It would be interesting to see if the “haters” could actually make a coherent argument to support the idea that talking about something that “doesn’t exist” causes problems and/or makes things worse.

    Truth be told, people employ those cliches because they don’t have an effective argument against the mountains of evidence of individual and institutional racism referenced on this blog. So the comfort of the nonsense “race doesn’t exist” cliche is sought because the “haters” — who, again, don’t seem to be able to make substantive arguments against individual post-entries here — because the popularity of the often purposely disingenuous “race doesn’t exist” rhetoric allows them to dismiss every specific argument/entry here in one convenient, catch-all swipe.

    The rhetoric-as-argument cliche “race doesn’t exist” can be full exposed by exploring the assumed wisdom the “haters” believe they are forwarding by using it. Surely those who don’t belong to or have an affinity for White nationalist/supremacist groups would more than likely agree that in the period in American history when most [White] people supposedly believed there were real and significant biological differences between groups that there was such a thing as racism or racial discrimination.

    The funny thing about that is, despite the fact that most White people supposedly believed in race-biology, RACE DID NOT “EXIST” THEN anymore than it does now.

    So the belief in race-biology is irrelevant to and not determinative of the existence of so-called racism or racial discrimination. “RACE” has NEVER existed. So these “haters” who walk around like Mr.Know-It-All because scientist in the last few decades have concluded something that some people knew, even if only intuitively, centuries ago if not always — that “race doesn’t exist” — really show how utterly pathetic they are as rhetorical opportunists.

    To put it more crudely (as I’ve long since concluded), now that “race” has been perceived as something less than a 100% win-win for White people (see perceptions of affirmative action) — it’s clear that it was/became socially convenient and politically expedient to claim belief in race-biology during the White supremacy regimes of American race-slavery and segregation (i.e. Whites benefited economically, psychologically, etc. from holding or claiming to hold such beliefs) — “race” has to be dispensed with.

    And that’s what this is all about, to me… Whites feel like talking about “race”, let alone eradicating the effects of past and present White racism, puts them at a position of disadvantage.

    It’s pretty clear to me that the “haters” feel like the “race doesn’t exist” card is the best way to win the “race” argument.

  2. DJohnson

    Jesie, your argument against race as a biological fact is a bit of a straw man. It’s the word “discrete” that lets you squirm off the hook (“The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category…”). Nobody important argues that races are discrete categories – that each person is exactly one race. On the other hand, geneticists are able to identify a person’s ancestors by looking at his genome. In other words, your genes show where you came from and whom you are related to. Your race.

    Of course, most of us are mixes of multiple races to one degree or another. If we stop thinking of race as a discrete category and start thinking of it as a very large, inbred family (HT: Steve Sailor), the idea that it doesn’t exist at all except as a social construct seem absurd.

    Why does it matter? Maybe it shouldn’t. But it would explain why racism – the preference for those of our own race – is ubiquitous. It’s an evolutionary adaptation. By preferring those who look like us, we increase the probability that our own genes will be passed on. Isn’t that more plausible than the idea that all the races got along fine until the 1600s when white people got the idea of capturing Africans as slaves? I mean, have you read the Old Testament?

    If I’m right, it might be good for you, Jessie. It means that racism will never, ever go away no matter what we do. There will always be enough racial tension to lend credibility to your contention that racism is always and everywhere the cause of disparate outcomes among races.

  3. parvenu

    I strongly aagree with your conclusion that American racism is a societal disease. Unfortunately, out of the thousands of studies which attempt to understand racialist America, emotion is always inherent in the discussion of racist behavior and obscures the search for the facts. I have completed a paper which I have titled “American Racism Dissected”.

    As an elderly African American male, I have been forced to attend “real Time” classes all of my life on the subject of race relations, a subject by now that I have become quite expert. Complementing my professional engineering background, my 24 page document attempts to “reverse engineer” the essence and promulgation of American racism. My goal in this project was to isolate and identify the causal forces and their respective interconnected relationships that ultimately result in the widespread sociological phenomena loosely categorized as American racism.

    I am currently in search of an individual grant sufficient to expand the material to the serve as a course book under this title.


  4. Will

    Nice article, Jess.

    Basically, it comes down to the idea of white supremacy through pseudo-science as a way to excuse racism in this society. It’s useful when one uses such arguments to deflect any sense of responsiblity in order to live in or maintain the oppressive system.

  5. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    @ Darin – No, you’re wrong. Racial prejudice hasn’t always been around. It only came about as a consequence of rationalizing slavery and to keep white indentured servants and black slaves from joining together to fight exploitation of both whites and blacks.

    It is possible to unlearn racism and train away stereotypes. The fact remains, however, that white Americans have yet to do the work to rid themselves and US/Canadians institutions of racism.


  1. Tweets that mention Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real :: racismreview.com -- Topsy.com
  2. White Bread – Embarrassment of Riches

Leave a Reply