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To sociologists, race is a system of stratification based on physical differences (“phenotypes”) that are seen as essential and permanent. These differences may be real or they may be imagined. Though individuals can and do come to identify in racial terms, race is most important as a system of categorization which is externally imposed. The fact that race is imposed externally is the major difference between it and the concept of ethnicity.
The concept of race emerged relatively recently in human history. Many historians of race believe that the concept of race emerged with modernity and was the consequence of two major developments in European society: first, the development of a capitalist ethos which blamed those who did not progress for their own fate; and second, the British experience of colonizing the Irish, which prepared them for future experiences in colonization and racial hierarchies. Others point to the important role of Christian religious thought, particularly the Myth of Ham, a biblical tale which tells how Noah’s son Ham and his descendants were condemned to servitude because Ham ”looked upon the nakedness of” his father. This story was used by some Christian religious authorities to justify the enslavement of black Africans, since they were seen as the racial descendants of Ham.
With the arrival of the Enlightenment and rational-scientific thought, people turned to scientific methods to seek an understanding of racial differences and to justify their conceptions of racial hierarchies. One of the first scientific projects for racial scholars was the development of comprehensive taxonomies of racial difference. First attempted by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, scholars developed classification schemes which specified the number and variety of human races, ranging from a low of 3 (African, European, and Mongolian) to a high of over 30. These taxonomies were generally based on ideas of the physical, but also included some attributes which we would not today think of as biologically-based, such as clothing and cultural behavior.
As the modern scientific method developed, scientists who studied human variation came to believe that it was not sufficient to label races based on classifiers’ superstitions or beliefs. Instead, they pushed for the development of scientific techniques and experiments that were carefully designed to measure the degree of racial difference and inferiority. The earliest techniques, called craniometry, involved measuring skull capacity and other dimensions of the head. By the late 1800s, most of these techniques had been discredited or were in doubt. After the IQ test was invented in 1905, it was used to demonstrate racial difference and inferiority. IQ tests were successful at producing results that lined up with people’s expectations about race and intelligence.
While most contemporary social and biological scientists do not believe that there is any biological or genetic evidence for racial difference, some geneticists have turned to the field of population genetics to look for patterns of genetic expression among supposed racial groups. These geneticists believe that the differences they find may be useful in medical and forensic applications. However, new evidence about the degree of mixing between people from different continents over time casts doubt on this conclusion. In fact, some researchers have suggested that as many as 80 percent or more of American blacks may have some white ancestors in their family tree.
The contemporary image of racial difference varies across national and cultural contexts. In particular, the conception of the dividing lines between racial groups is not the same everywhere. In the USA, race has traditionally been perceived through the lens of the ”one-drop rule,” meaning that anyone with any degree of black ancestry (even so little as one thirty-second of one’s ancestry, and even when the individual appears white) is seen as black. This racial ideology is related to a history in the USA of cultural and legal barriers against miscegenation, or marital and sexual relationships across the color line. Though the rigidity of the one-drop rule has declined as interracial marriage has grown, it still shapes how Americans view racial classifications.
Not all nations and societies stick to such a rigid system of racial classification. In many Caribbean and Latin American societies, there are gradations of race between black and white. Individuals’ own places on these scales can vary according to class, education, and skin color, not just ancestry. In many of these countries, miscegenation was not considered to be an especially big problem. Mixing between races and a less rigid color line do not mean that race is any less important in regulating the life chances of individuals in these nations, however. Another variation in the conception of racial difference could be found in South Africa during the time of Apartheid. South Africa’s racial order was predicated upon restricting the mixing of races. However, instead of declaring all of those of mixed racial backgrounds to simply be black, in South Africa a new racial category called ”colored” was created to take in those who were considered to be neither black nor white.
Race continues to play an important role in individuals’ daily lives. According to the American Sociological Association’s 2003 statement on race, the effects that it has can be classified into three major categories: sorting people into categories on the basis of which they chose appropriate family members and friends; stratifying people in terms of their access to resources; and organizing people into groups through which they seek to challenge or maintain the racial status quo.
- American Sociological Association. (2003) The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Research on Race. Washington, DC.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003) Racism without Racists: ColorBlind Racism and the Persistence ofRacial Inequality in the United States. Rowman and Littlefield, New York.
- Gould, S. J. (1996) The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edn. W. W. Norton, New York.
- Smedley, A. (1999) Race in North America, 2nd edn. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
- Winant, H. (2002) The World is a Ghetto. Basic Books, New York.