It should not come as a surprise to me that race is not a biological reality. It makes sense from what I know about biology that humans are all part of the same species. There are no humanoid sub-species—those only exist in science fiction. Having said that, I found myself amazed at the idea that race has no genetic basis as I watched a PBS series called “Race: The Power of an Illusion” (Herbes-Sommers, Strain, & Smith, 2003). Geneticists compared human DNA and found just as many variations between two people from the same race as between two people with different skin color and facial features. In other words, race is only skin deep. All human DNA examined up until now contains all the same components with only variations on the same theme: blue or brown eyes, straight or curly hair, long or short legs, a tongue that does or does not curl, etc.
So what is race? How have we arrived at the concept of different group of people who are divided by the way that they look instead of language and/or a shared culture? Why is it that a person of Chinese descent, who speaks English and eats pizza on a regular basis, should select “Asian” on the U.S. census survey? Or that someone living the U.S. who has dark skin and is not Hispanic or Asian will be referred to as “black” whether they have “white” ancestry or not? Why is “whiteness” viewed as a monolithic racial category when the concept has changed over time (e.g. Irish immigrants in the 1900s were not considered white)?
If race is not “real,” then why are there a multitude of euphemisms we to talk about other groups of people? For example, in St. Louis the mention of geographic locations calls to mind specific racialized contexts. If someone mentions “South County” it is usually in reference to a specific group of people, namely middle-class white people. Conversely, the mention “Jefferson County” is often the punch line to some comment about impoverished white people. A reference to “the city” or “North County” generally translates to “the area where black people live,” and more often than not signals recognition of some level of poverty. Similarly, the words “urban,” “inner city,” “diverse” and “multicultural” indicate the presence of people of color. On the other hand, why is it that obviously racialized comments (e.g. white church, black neighborhood) elicit such perplexing responses accompanied with intense feelings?
“It’s not so much race as it is culture.” “Why can’t we just be ‘race neutral’?” “I prefer to be ‘color-blind.’” “I’m not racist—I have black/Asian/Hispanic friends.” “The U.S. isn’t the only country that has race problems, you know.” “Hey, black people can be racist, too.” “White people just don’t get it.”
Are we living in a “post-racial” society? Does race matter? And if so, how does it matter? One does not have to look very hard to find reports of disparity with regards to race. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that white people earned more than three-fourths of the total income in the U.S. (Morello, 2012). The article cites higher levels of education for non-Hispanic whites and Asians as one of the primary reason for this inequity. Another example, and the topic of my friend’s dissertation, is that black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women in the U.S. (Pittman, 2012). It seems that while race does not exist as a biological reality, it can make a difference in terms of life outcomes, academic and economic achievement, as well as health and well-being. Why is this so? Does culture contribute to these inequalities? What about the role of education? The following series of blogs will examine the social construction of race, racial inequality in urban education, white privilege, and racism.
Herbes-Sommers, C., Strain, T. H., & Smith, L. (2003). Race: The power of an illusion [Television Series]. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel & Independent Television Service.
Morello, C. (2012, May 31). Whites earn more than three-fourths of the nation’s income. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/whites-earn-more-than-34-of-the-nations-income/2012/05/31/gJQA1rrk4U_story.html
Pittman, G. (2012, March 21). Black women more likely to die of breast cancer. Reuters. New York. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/21/us-black-women-breast-cancer-idUSBRE82K1CZ20120321