This graphic is taken from W.E.B. Du Bois' study of Black people in rural Georgia presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Concepts and Debates: Race as a social construct

Welcome to Week 2 of Understanding Race. In Week 1, we got to know each other, discussed our own understandings of race  and decided upon the themes we would be covering in the second half of the semester. This week, we will be looking at some of the main concepts and debates in race critical scholarship with a focus on the idea of race as a social construction.  Many of these concepts will be deepened as we move through the semester. In particular, two keys debates – race and signification and the relationship between race and culture – will be examined in depth in Weeks 3 and 4 when we read from Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle. My task here is to introduce these and other concepts.

These are ideas I have developed in my 2017 article on Race, published in the Sage Handbook of Political Sociology. The ideas in this article are based on a wide range of reading by W.E.B. Du Bois, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Patricia Hill Collins, Aileen Moreton-Robisnon, Alexander Weheliye, Hortense Spillers, Alys Eve Weinbaum, Angela Mitropoulos, Barnor Hesse, David Theo Goldberg, Elizabeth Povinelli, Ann Laura Stoler, Jasbir Puar, Gavan Titley, and several others. However, since writing this chapter, I have been reading more widely, in particular for the course I led at The New School for Social Research in 2017, ‘Race Critical & Decolonial Sociology‘, for which I wrote several blog posts on the texts we read for the class. I am also currently writing a book for Polity Press, with the working title Why Race Still Matters?, and will be drawing on ideas I am developing for that purpose in my teaching.

The main problem facing us as students of race and racism is how to understand what we mean by race. There have been many efforts made to discredit race on the basis that it is outdated and dangerous pseudo-science, what Barbara and Karen Fields call a system based on ‘folk thought’ (Fields and Fields 2012, p. 6). However, as has been pointed out by scholars of race, beginning with the prescient work of W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 20th century (Du Bois 1903), merely disregarding race because it is not based in scientific fact, does little to eliminate the force that it continues to have in societies that have been marked by colonialism, slavery, and regimes of the border. In Dusk of Dawn Du Bois called race a ‘badge’. This badge is the one that all those who ‘have suffered a long disaster and have one long memory’ are forced to wear. It is a result of the common memory of those who have shared experiences or who carry forth memories of ‘discrimination and insult.’ Those experiences and memories, for Du Bois, were of slavery, but racism in all contexts engenders similar ‘kinships’ which Du Bois insists are not biological but social: ‘the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge.’

The point to stress at the outset is that we cannot get rid of race as an analytical tool. To say this does not mean agreeing with the idea that human beings are organized according to racial groupings that are grounded in genetic differences between  people that map onto our appearance. However, as a race scholar, I am struck by the fact that, despite the many efforts by social scientists to debunk race, it continues to make sense to so many people.

Assimilating the Natives in the U.S. and Australia
Assimilating the Natives in the U.S. and Australia 

Fields and Fields, for example, remark on the fact that it is quite normal to hear people in the United States talk about blood as a measure of difference. For example, Barack Obama was regularly pilloried for identifying as Black because, having a White mother supposedly made him equally Black and White. Fields and Fields remark that it is utterly impossible to talk about blood quantum because obviously, being a liquid, blood cannot be separated into parts. However, this does not change the fact that, not only do we talk about bloods as separable, but the quantification of different blood ‘parts’ was the basis for laws governing Indigenous populations in colonized countries, such as Australia and the US, as well as the infamous one-drop rule in the US, and the Nazi regime’s assessment of the degree of Jewishness

So, race broadly makes sense to people (despite making no sense) especially in countries where it has been so central to how society and the economy is organized. Even when the language of genetic difference is not used, the fact that we see certain people occupying certain positions (e.g. low paid workers in cleaning, care work, security, food preparation and delivery, fruit picking, etc.) and that those people map onto groups that traditionally have been racialised as inferior creates an association between social location and racial hierarchy. These associations are made even by those who do not think that there is anything intrinsic to the genetic makeup of Black women for example that means that they are more likely to be pushing a pram on behalf of a white CEO than be the CEO.

For many, it would be more correct to think about these social facts as more descriptive of differences in social class than race. However, as race scholars and antiracists have argued, we cannot dissociate class from race. As Stuart Hall wrote in response to the Marxist argument that class analyses should trump race-based ones, ‘the structures through which black labour is reproduced […] are not simply “coloured” by race; they work through race’ (Stuart Hall 1980: 340). In other words, race is structured into our understanding of why particular people occupy certain positions in society and experience the world around them as they do. Having a race-based analysis of social relations opens us up to the understanding of why we cannot view the world from one perspective alone.

The dominance of white perspectives in Euro-American-Australasian societies not only perpetuates the view that the way in which white people experience the world can be generalized to everyone, but it also disqualifies racialised people’s narration of their own experience. An Aboriginal, Muslim, or Black worker, for example, might certainly experience workplace exploitation as a worker, but their experience of work is also shaped by how they are perceived as Aboriginal, Muslim or Black which, in a society such as Australia which has been founded on colonial dispossession and foundational whiteness in the guise of the White Australia Policy, cannot be dissociated from their place in the labour market.

As we go through the semester, the ways in which various processes in modernity became imbued with racial meaning will become more clear. Just how ideas about property ownership, citizenship, the family structure, gender relations, democracy, law, media, and knowledge itself came to be read through a racial lens will be delved into in the second half of the course. As we go on, we will be using certain concepts as tools to help us explain the complex processes we are trying to get to grips with. My task now is to introduce some of this terminology. In this post, I will focus on the idea of race as a social construct. In further posts I will look at the following ideas:

  • race and the human
  • race and relationality
  • race as performativity
  • the relationship between race and racism

Race as a social construct 

The view of race as social rather than biological has been at the heart of sociological and anthropological studies of race since W.E.B. Du Bois. The social constructionist approach was fortified in the immediate post-war era when race was officially discredited as wrongheaded science by many academics (though it should be noted that many biologists and others outside the social sciences argued to retain race at this time). As we shall discuss in week 4, the discrediting of race did not get rid of the problem of the need to have a language to describe the differences between human beings. The replacement of the language of race by that of culture has done little to overcome the fact that we still operate with totalising ideas about human difference that draw connections between variations among groups in the human population (geographical location, skin colour, nationality, religion, ethnicity, etc.) and supposedly innate abilities or destinies (intelligence, strength, prowess in sport, etc.).

The orthodoxy in the social sciences is that race is socially constructed, has no basis in biological fact, but that it nonetheless has social meaning. This view is summarized by Charles Mills in the talk below.

Nonetheless, as has been observed by a number of commentators – most prominently Stuart Hall, as we shall discuss next week – saying that race is a social construction may not be as helpful as we would like to think. Barnor Hesse sums the problem up well in his debate with Charles Mills, when he asks, what is race the social construction of?

The usual answer to the question is, ‘race is a construction of the idea that there is a biological racial hierarchy.’ However, this does not answer the question, ‘what is race?’ ‘In effect,’ Hesse remarks ‘social constructionists do not have anything to say about race that is not already said by the biological discourses.’ Hence, in his view, the social constructivist position does little more than to shore up the pseudoscience of biological racial discourse; the biological sciences—the human genome project in particular—have done more than social scientists to disprove the idea of race.

In the debate above, Hesse cites Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? in which he shows that social constructivist critiques usually contain three elements: that the thing being socially constructed is neither natural nor inevitable, that it is undesirable, and that it can be changed. Hesse argues that, to resolve the tautology posed by the formulation, ‘race is a social construction of the idea of biological race’, we need an alternative account of race that goes beyond this unexplanatory circularity because ‘our account of race as a social fact cannot be the same as the very thing we’re discrediting.’ So, race understood materially, for Hesse, is not socially constructed, but ‘colonially assembled over a period of time.’ Hesse explains that the assemblage of race over the past 500 years involves the constitution of Europeanness and non-Europeanness which, in some but not all instances, maps onto whiteness and non-whiteness. What is clear, he says, is that there is no way of reducing these divides to only the ‘bodily or the biological.’

So race acts as a way of summarizing the differences between populations from different parts of the world. But it it is useless to think about it only as an idea; it comes into force as a practice, as a mechanism for sifting and classifying the world, declaring parts of it Terra Nullius (land without people) and placing the populations living there outside the realms of humanity in the aim of colonial domination. Nonetheless, much of the debate about whether race is socially constructed or a biological fact in the social sciences does not take into account the function of race in the colonial context after 1492. Many of the discussions focus on whether or not race exists rather than on what race does, but the very discussion about whether or not race is really descriptive of differences between human groups exists because of the power of race to arrange and structure our understanding of the relationship between the different parts of the world and its people since the invasion of the Americas: a vicious circle.

So, we need better discussions of race, ones that are more historically grounded and that take us beyond the Catch 22 that Hesse describes the race as a social construction argument leaves us. As Jason Antrosio argues, it is not that it is incorrect to say that race is a social construct, but that ‘should have never been a stopping point, but as a way to analyze the particular circumstances that result in current configurations.’ He quotes what he suggests is a more nuanced definition of race from John Relethford:

‘Race is a “culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation”.’

The problem is that because race-thinking has been put to such genocidal ends, there has been confusion between opposing racism and observing difference. The fact is that there are differences between groups of people from different geographical locations across the world; this is an observable fact. The problem that race-thinking produces is a) that they are conceptualized by white Europeans in reference to themselves; in other words, racial schema are always thought about in terms of difference from whiteness. So, in the context of expanding European power on the global stage in the 16th century, this cannot be neutral; b) because of this reference to whiteness, race evolved as a hierarchical scheme, with whites placing themselves at the top. So, observing differences between human beings is not the same as being racist. Indeed, it can be quite problematic when you refuse to notice the differences between people, because this leads to a colourblind approach where everyone is treated as though they all had the same experiences and opportunities when in fact we know that this is not the case.

Why is race even still discussed? As Jonathan Marks writes in his blog post, ‘A Rant on Race and Genetics‘,

‘the discovery that people in different places are different is a trivial one.  At issue is the pattern of those differences and its relation to the classification of the human species.  To equate the existence of between-group variation to the existence of human races  is to miss the point of race entirely.  Race is not difference; race is meaningful difference.’

So, what do we mean by meaningful difference? As Marks again says, ‘at issue is (cultural) decision about how much difference and what kinds of difference “count” in deciding that this kind of a person is categorically different from that kind of a person.’ In other words, we make differences in skin colour or religious practices mean something. The meaning that race gives is the association between appearance or religious practice, in these two cases, and a natural, recurring and transferable destiny that is said to be written into the very genetics of those we have categorized as race X or Y.

Antrosio in his discussion of the limits of the idea of race as a social construction, points out that the biggest problem facing those of us who are opposed to the consequences of race is that, ‘the most basic issues are ones of power and inequality that have not budged a bit (or worsened) since race was originally debunked as a biological-genetic category.’ So, he asks, we have to judge ‘race as a social construction’ on the merits of whether or not it has been successful in ‘budging’ power and inequality; the answer for him is unequivocally, it has not. A principal reason for this is that race as a social construction is amenable to being a talking point for the Right. He writes that focusing our arguments on whether race is or is not about biology is meaningless outside of academia because ‘underlying socioeconomic structural racism is unaltered.’

Because I am a sociologist, and an antiracist, I am a lot less interested in the minutiae of the arguments about race and genetics that Antrosio writes about on his blog, and a lot more interested in the political implications he draws from them. So my attention was drawn to his blog post on race as a social construct as a ‘conservative goldmine‘. In it he revisits a 2009 symposium in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology entitled ‘Race Reconciled’. Antrosio reviews the whole symposium here and although, as he remarks, the symposium does conclude that ‘race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation’ (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2), he claims that the authors do not have a good enough understanding of the political implications of their discussions. The problem is that for many scientists, discussing whether or not biological races exist (whatever conclusion is drawn) is just another academic debate, but this is dishonest, according to Antrosio – and I agree – because in the case of race (unlike other ways in which human beings are physically differentiated, e.g. height) we must draw attention to ‘how these classifications are politically, economically, and socially enforced.’

One of the articles in particular, by Clarence Gravlee, ‘How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality,’ drew my attention because, I agreed with Antrosio, that it is a ‘fantastic article’ (see Antrosio’s discussion). It helps us to understand why debates about whether race is social or biological are largely using the wrong terminology. Gravlee writes that much of the problem of dealing with the persistence of race in societies, such as the US with which he is concerned, is because they constantly turn on the question, ‘does race exist?’ This leads to interminable debates about whether race has a basis in biology. In actual fact, we should be asking,  ‘in what ways race exists as a sociocultural phenomenon that has force in people’s lives—one with biological consequences.’ So, race is not biology but it may become biology. What does this mean?

Gravelee begins with defining race as ‘‘a culturally structured, systematic way of looking at, perceiving, and interpreting’ reality (Smedly 2007). Race, also ’emerged from unique material circumstances in English North America (Harris, 1964), and racism remains embedded in social, political, and economic structures in the United States (Feagin, 2006)’ (Gravelee 2009: 48).

Gravlee explains that discussions about race and biology vs. culture  operate on a confusion between genetics and biology. He illustrates this by turning to the biomedical research literature which, driven as it is by US-based scientists, often operates on the basis of there being an equivalence between the prevalence of certain diseases among particular racial groups and ‘underlying genetic makeup’. He gives the following example,

‘Consider a recent, widely publicized study of racial inequalities in preterm birth. The study claimed to provide evidence for ‘‘important genetic contributors to the timing of birth’’ (Kistka et al., 2007, p 131.e1) and was featured in the New York Times under the headline, ‘‘Study points to genetics in disparities in preterm births’’ (Bakalar, 2007). However, the study actually presented no genetic data. Instead, researchers inferred a genetic cause from the residual difference between black and white mothers, after controlling for a few health behaviors and crudely measured socioeconomic variables. This finding does not warrant the conclusion that racial inequalities are genetic in origin; genetic hypotheses require genetic data. Yet, in a published roundtable discussion, several commentators agreed that ‘‘the genetic link is very strong’’ and that the black–white gap ‘‘may best be explained by a genetic etiology’’ (Stamilio et al., 2007, p e4, e5).’

Gravlee proposes that we are faced with three challenges if we want to refute the reduction of genetics to biological race and go beyond repeating that race is merely a social construct and give this statement some meaning.

First, it is necessary to show why recent population genetic studies do not actually refute the claim that race does not account for ‘global human genetic diversity’ (Gravlee, p. 49-50).  Second, we need to look more seriously at the ‘complex, environmental influences on human biology’ (ibid. p. 50). Third, we need to return to the ‘conventional view of race as a cultural construct to stimulate new research on the sociocultural dimensions of race and racism’ (ibid.).

On the first point, the argument is a little technical for those of us who are not well-versed in population genetics. The paragraph outlining the major problems identified by Gravlee are in the screenshot. To summarize, current evidence from population genetics, while demonstrating that there are more similarities than differences between groups traditionally defined as races, and that existing genetic variation does not map neatly onto these racial groups, they still allow for some degree of variation between them. This opens the door to those who want to retain race as a useful way of thinking about human genetic variation. The important point made by Gravlee is that saying that it is possible to identify clusters within the human population that can be mapped onto ‘races’ does not mean that these clusters are naturally occurring as racial theory implies. He also points out that more or less clusters have been identified by different people over time, further proving that there is nothing natural about identifying these clusters.

Further, according to Gravlee, it is not enough for proponents of the social construction of race position to point out that there is not enough genetic variation between groups traditionally thought of as races to prove their existence. As he says, the ‘argument that conventional racial classification accounts for only 5–10% of human genetic variation (Lewontin, 1972; Brown and Armelagos, 2001)’ allows those who believe in race to say that there is at least some consistency between human population genetic variation and race – enough to argue to maintain the idea of race!

At this point, it is useful to pause and think about why it would be useful for some researchers to continue to use race as a way of distinguishing between groups in the population. There are several reasons. But a major one, identified also by Gravlee, is the utility of this approach to the biomedical profession. Fields and Fields discuss this in their book Racecraft when they write about the ways in which diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, are presented as ‘black diseases’. They argue that this is underpinned by ‘folk’ assumptions about the particularities of ‘black blood’, because sickle cell disease, as defined in the 1972 Sickle Cell Control Act brought into effect in the US under Richard Nixon, is ‘an inherited blood disorder’ (Fields and Fields 2012). Because of the aforementioned popular confusion between race, genetics and blood, this entered into the public consciousness through the tacit endorsement of scientists despite the fact that sickle cell anemia also affects groups who are not Black, often leading to their misdiagnosis. [As an aside, see my discussion of Gil Anidjar’s fascinating book on Blood].

The US and other colonial countries has a long history of experimentation on racially marginalized populations. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for example, tested the ‘belief that syphilis killed black and white patients differently-though the test involved black subjects only’ (ibid.). The experiment ran by the US Health Service between 1932 and 1972 and involved making black syphilis sufferers believe they were being given a cure for the disease while actually not being given the necessary penicillin, leading to their deaths. The study was supposed to have lasted 6 months but actually lasted 40 years during which time researchers studied understand the disease’s natural history throughout time.

When looked at from the perspective of the pharmaceuticals industry, this also raises some pertinent questions. One of the most widely discussed examples is the marketing of the heart failure drug, BiDil, specifically to Black patients. As Chimyere Agbai argues, most drugs developed in the US are tested exclusively on whites yet are not marketed only to them.

BiDiLYet, in the case of BiDil, black patients were studied, leading to the development of a specific drug for them which is marketed at seven times the cost of similar drugs that are not aimed exclusively at white patients. Therefore,

‘The fact that this clinical trial, one of a small number with a statistically significant number of Black participants, resulted in the development of a drug marketed to Black people, suggests that Whites are the norm in clinical trials.’

The point is that it can be highly profitable to suggest that groups designated as races suffer from particular diseases or suffer from then in particular ways based on a problematic connection drawn between race and genetics, and an even more problematic assumption that different ‘races’ have different kinds of blood!

The point according to Gravlee is that refuting the existence of race is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as human biodiversity. Furthermore, different groups in the population – traditionally thought of as races – do suffer from diseases differently and may have higher prevalence of certain diseases that others; a good example in Australia is diabetes among certain Aboriginal people. So how do we explain this without relying on the idea of race which would imply that there is a natural predisposition of Aboriginal people to diabetes, rather than a socioeconomically and culturally produced health effect?

Gravlee’s position is summarized by the statement, race is not biology, but race becomes biology. In other words, the very real fact that ideas of race produce inequities between racialised groups means that people, such as Aboriginal people in Australia or Black people in the US, get sick. Racism literally can make you sick. So, there is a biological effect of racism on the body, and moreover, this can be transmitted through the generations. So, to be clear, Black or Aboriginal people do not start off with a genetic predisposition to getting a particular disease which can be seen in generation after generation since time immemorial, as those who stick to their belief in ‘race=genetics’ would have it, rather the effects of colonization, slavery and the resultant inequality and discrimination can begin to make generation after generation sick.

The problem from the viewpoint of the social sciences, is that most of us simply do not have a good understanding of how race is mobilized, both in popular discourse and in the natural sciences, particularly biomedicine. As Gravlee points out, the discrediting of race, particularly in anthropology, led to a silence about race. This has done us a disservice in our efforts to understand the continuing use of race and how to dismantle it. Gravlee makes two suggestions for his discipline of anthropology. First, we need to stop denying human biological diversity. As he puts it, simply claiming that human beings are genetically honogeneous is not enough:

‘Part of the reason people are not convinced by the claim of homogeneity is that it is false. We are indeed a less variable species than are our closest relatives, but genetic variation exists’ (Gravlee 2009: 53).

The point is what do we do with the knowledge of this diversity. The diversity is not the problem, as such; the problem is the persistence of white supremacy based on the belief that this diversity is unequal. We cannot discuss diversity neutrally because it has itself become imbued with racial meaning. This is something we shall return to when we discuss race and culture in Week 4.

Gravlee returns to the point that saying race is a cultural construct does not make it any less real. We should turn our attention to how it is made real; in other words to the uncomfortable truth that race is real because it has been endowed with meaning that has real effects in people’s lives. This is a major point in Stuart Hall’s lecture, Race, the floating signifier which we shall discuss in Week 3.

I would argue that the sociology of race has always been focused on demonstrating how race is made real by examining its effects from a variety of perspectives with a central focus on the reproduction of race in institutions. However, within race theory, the question of whether race is biological or cultural and the connected discussion of the social construction of race has sometimes hindered a fuller exploration of the question of why race persists to undergird so many of the social, economic, cultural and political structures of colonial and former colonizing societies.

Now, we must turn to asking what race does, what its various functions are and how it adapts to the various circumstances in which it intervenes.

Additional resources:

The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’

Postracial Fantasies and the Reproduction of Scientific Racism

Race Face ID Research Project

‘It made me question my ancestry’: does DNA home testing really understand race?


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