Race (human categorization)

This article is about human races as a social concept and in anthropology. For the sociological concept, see Race and society. For "the human race" (all of humanity), see Human. For the term "race" in biology, see Race (biology).

Race is the classification of humans into groups based on physical traits, ancestry, genetics or social relations, or the relations between them.[1][2][3][4][5] First used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations, by the 17th century race began to refer to physical (i.e. phenotypical) traits. The term was often used in a general biological taxonomic sense,[6] starting from the 19th century, to denote genetically differentiated human populations defined by phenotype.[7][8]

Social conceptions and groupings of races vary over time, involving folk taxonomies[9] that define essential types of individuals based on perceived traits. Scientists consider biological essentialism obsolete,[10] and generally discourage racial explanations for collective differentiation in both physical and behavioral traits.[11][12][13][14][15]

Even though there is a broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualizations of race are untenable, scientists around the world continue to conceptualize race in widely differing ways, some of which have essentialist implications.[16] While some researchers sometimes use the concept of race to make distinctions among fuzzy sets of traits, others in the scientific community suggest that the idea of race often is used in a naive[11] or simplistic way,[17] and argue that, among humans, race has no taxonomic significance by pointing out that all living humans belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.[18][19]

Since the second half of the 20th century, the associations of race with the ideologies and theories that grew out of the work of 19th-century anthropologists and physiologists has led to the use of the word race itself becoming problematic. Although still used in general contexts, race has often been replaced by less ambiguous and emotionally charged synonyms: populations, people(s), ethnic groups, or communities, depending on context.[6][20]

Complications and various definitions of the concept

A popular view in American sociology is that the racial categories that are common in everyday usage are socially constructed, and that racial groups cannot be biologically defined.[21][22][23][24][25][26][27] Nonetheless, some biologists argue that racial categories correlate with biological traits (e.g. phenotype), and that certain genetic markers have varying frequencies among human populations, some of which correspond more or less to traditional racial groupings. For this reason, there is no current consensus about whether racial categories can be considered to have significance for understanding human genetic variation.[28]

When people define and talk about a particular conception of race, they create a social reality through which social categorization is achieved.[29] In this sense, races are said to be social constructs.[30] These constructs develop within various legal, economic, and sociopolitical contexts, and may be the effect, rather than the cause, of major social situations.[31] While race is understood to be a social construct by many, most scholars agree that race has real material effects in the lives of people through institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination.

Socioeconomic factors, in combination with early but enduring views of race, have led to considerable suffering within disadvantaged racial groups.[32] Racial discrimination often coincides with racist mindsets, whereby the individuals and ideologies of one group come to perceive the members of an outgroup as both racially defined and morally inferior.[33] As a result, racial groups possessing relatively little power often find themselves excluded or oppressed, while hegemonic individuals and institutions are charged with holding racist attitudes.[34] Racism has led to many instances of tragedy, including slavery and genocide.[35]

In some countries, law enforcement uses race to profile suspects. This use of racial categories is frequently criticized for perpetuating an outmoded understanding of human biological variation, and promoting stereotypes. Because in some societies racial groupings correspond closely with patterns of social stratification, for social scientists studying social inequality, race can be a significant variable. As sociological factors, racial categories may in part reflect subjective attributions, self-identities, and social institutions.[36][37]

Scholars continue to debate the degrees to which racial categories are biologically warranted and socially constructed, as well as the extent to which the realities of race must be acknowledged in order for society to comprehend and address racism adequately.[38] Accordingly, the racial paradigms employed in different disciplines vary in their emphasis on biological reduction as contrasted with societal construction.

In the social sciences, theoretical frameworks such as racial formation theory and critical race theory investigate implications of race as social construction by exploring how the images, ideas and assumptions of race are expressed in everyday life. A large body of scholarship has traced the relationships between the historical, social production of race in legal and criminal language, and their effects on the policing and disproportionate incarceration of certain groups.

Historical origins of racial classification

The three great races according to Meyers Konversations-Lexikon of 1885-90. The subtypes of the Mongoloid race are shown in yellow and orange tones, those of the Caucasoid race in light and medium grayish spring green-cyan tones and those of the Negroid race in brown tones. Dravidians and Sinhalese are in olive green and their classification is described as uncertain. The Mongoloid race sees the widest geographic distribution, including all of the Americas, North Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, the entire inhabited Arctic while they form most of Central Asia and the Pacific Islands.
The racial diversity of Asia's peoples, Nordisk familjebok (1904)

Groups of humans have always identified themselves as distinct from neighboring groups, but such differences have not always been understood to be natural, immutable and global. These features are the distinguishing features of how the concept of race is used today. In this way the idea of race as we understand it today came about during the historical process of exploration and conquest which brought Europeans into contact with groups from different continents, and of the ideology of classification and typology found in the natural sciences.[39]

Race and colonialism

According to Smedley and Marks the European concept of "race", along with many of the ideas now associated with the term, arose at the time of the scientific revolution, which introduced and privileged the study of natural kinds, and the age of European imperialism and colonization which established political relations between Europeans and peoples with distinct cultural and political traditions.[39][40] As Europeans encountered people from different parts of the world, they speculated about the physical, social, and cultural differences among various human groups. The rise of the Atlantic slave trade, which gradually displaced an earlier trade in slaves from throughout the world, created a further incentive to categorize human groups in order to justify the subordination of African slaves.[41] Drawing on Classical sources and upon their own internal interactions—for example, the hostility between the English and Irish powerfully influenced early European thinking about the differences between people[42]—Europeans began to sort themselves and others into groups based on physical appearance, and to attribute to individuals belonging to these groups behaviors and capacities which were claimed to be deeply ingrained. A set of folk beliefs took hold that linked inherited physical differences between groups to inherited intellectual, behavioral, and moral qualities.[43] Similar ideas can be found in other cultures,[44] for example in China, where a concept often translated as "race" was associated with supposed common descent from the Yellow Emperor, and used to stress the unity of ethnic groups in China. Brutal conflicts between ethnic groups have existed throughout history and across the world.[45]

Early taxonomic models

The first post-Classical published classification of humans into distinct races seems to be François Bernier's Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l'habitent ("New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it"), published in 1684.[46] In the 18th century the differences among human groups became a focus of scientific investigation. But the scientific classification of phenotypic variation was frequently coupled with racist ideas about innate predispositions of different groups, always attributing the most desirable features to the White, European race and arranging the other races along a continuum of progressively undesirable attributes. The 1735 classification of Carl Linnaeus, inventor of zoological taxonomy, divided the human species Homo sapiens into continental varieties of europaeus, asiaticus, americanus, and afer, each associated with a different humour: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic, respectively.[47][48] Homo sapiens europaeus was described as active, acute, and adventurous, whereas Homo sapiens afer was said to be crafty, lazy, and careless.[49]

The 1775 treatise "The Natural Varieties of Mankind", by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach proposed five major divisions: the Caucasoid race, the Mongoloid race, the Ethiopian race (later termed Negroid), the American Indian race, and the Malayan race, but he did not propose any hierarchy among the races.[49] Blumenbach also noted the graded transition in appearances from one group to adjacent groups and suggested that "one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them".[50]

From the 17th through 19th centuries, the merging of folk beliefs about group differences with scientific explanations of those differences produced what Smedley has called an "ideology of race".[40] According to this ideology, races are primordial, natural, enduring and distinct. It was further argued that some groups may be the result of mixture between formerly distinct populations, but that careful study could distinguish the ancestral races that had combined to produce admixed groups.[45] Subsequent influential classifications by Georges Buffon, Petrus Camper and Christoph Meiners all classified "Negros" as inferior to Europeans.[49] In the United States the racial theories of Thomas Jefferson were influential. He saw Africans as inferior to Whites especially in regards to their intellect, and imbued with unnatural sexual appetites, but described Native Americans as equals to whites.[51]

Race and polygenism

In the last two decades of the 18th century, the theory of polygenism, the belief that different races had evolved separately in each continent and shared no common ancestor,[52] was advocated in England by historian Edward Long and anatomist Charles White, in Germany by ethnographers Christoph Meiners and Georg Forster, and in France by Julien-Joseph Virey. In the US, Samuel George Morton, Josiah Nott and Louis Agassiz promoted this theory in the mid-nineteenth century. Polygenism was popular and most widespread in the 19th century, culminating in the founding of the Anthropological Society of London (1863) during the period of the American Civil War, in opposition to the Ethnological Society, which had abolitionist sympathies.[53]

Modern debate

Models of human evolution

Today, all humans are classified as belonging to the species Homo sapiens and sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens. However, this is not the first species of homininae: the first species of genus Homo, Homo habilis, evolved in East Africa at least 2 million years ago, and members of this species populated different parts of Africa in a relatively short time. Homo erectus evolved more than 1.8 million years ago, and by 1.5 million years ago had spread throughout Europe and Asia. Virtually all physical anthropologists agree that Archaic Homo sapiens (A group including the possible species H. heidelbergensis, H. rhodesiensis and H. neanderthalensis) evolved out of African Homo erectus (sensu lato) or Homo ergaster.[54][55] Anthropologists increasingly support the idea that anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in North or East Africa from H. heidelbergensis and then migrated out of Africa, mixing with and replacing H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis populations throughout Europe and Asia, and H. rhodesiensis populations in Sub-Saharan Africa (a combination of the Out of Africa and Multiregional models).[56]

Biological classification

In the early 20th century, many anthropologists accepted and taught the belief that biologically distinct races were isomorphic with distinct linguistic, cultural, and social groups, while popularly applying that belief to the field of eugenics, in conjunction with a practice that is now called scientific racism.[57] After the Nazi eugenics program, racial essentialism lost widespread popularity. Race anthropologists were pressured to acknowledge findings coming from studies of culture and population genetics, and to revise their conclusions about the sources of phenotypic variation.[58] A significant number of modern anthropologists and biologists in the West came to view race as an invalid genetic or biological designation.[59]

The first to challenge the concept of race on empirical grounds were the anthropologists Franz Boas, who provided evidence of phenotypic plasticity due to environmental factors,[60] and Ashley Montagu, who relied on evidence from genetics.[61] E. O. Wilson then challenged the concept from the perspective of general animal systematics, and further rejected the claim that "races" were equivalent to "subspecies".[62]

According to Jonathan Marks,[39]

By the 1970s, it had become clear that (1) most human differences were cultural; (2) what was not cultural was principally polymorphic – that is to say, found in diverse groups of people at different frequencies; (3) what was not cultural or polymorphic was principally clinal – that is to say, gradually variable over geography; and (4) what was left – the component of human diversity that was not cultural, polymorphic, or clinal – was very small.

A consensus consequently developed among anthropologists and geneticists that race as the previous generation had known it – as largely discrete, geographically distinct, gene pools – did not exist.

The term race in biology is used with caution because it can be ambiguous. Generally, when it is used it is effectively a synonym of subspecies.[63] (For animals, the only taxonomic unit below the species level is usually the subspecies;[64] there are narrower infraspecific ranks in botany, and race does not correspond directly with any of them.)

Population geneticists have debated whether the concept of population can provide a basis for a new conception of race. To do this, a working definition of population must be found. Surprisingly, there is no generally accepted concept of population that biologists use. Although the concept of population is central to ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation biology, most definitions of population rely on qualitative descriptions such as "a group of organisms of the same species occupying a particular space at a particular time".[65] Waples and Gaggiotti identify two broad types of definitions for populations; those that fall into an ecological paradigm, and those that fall into an evolutionary paradigm. Examples of such definitions are:

Morphologically differentiated populations

Traditionally, subspecies are seen as geographically isolated and genetically differentiated populations.[66] That is, "the designation 'subspecies' is used to indicate an objective degree of microevolutionary divergence".[18] One objection to this idea is that it does not specify what degree of differentiation is required. Therefore, any population that is somewhat biologically different could be considered a subspecies, even to the level of a local population. As a result, Templeton has argued that it is necessary to impose a threshold on the level of difference that is required for a population to be designated a subspecies.[66]

This effectively means that populations of organisms must have reached a certain measurable level of difference to be recognised as subspecies. Dean Amadon proposed in 1949 that subspecies would be defined according to the seventy-five percent rule which means that 75% of a population must lie outside 99% of the range of other populations for a given defining morphological character or a set of characters. The seventy-five percent rule still has defenders but other scholars argue that it should be replaced with ninety or ninety-five percent rule.[67]

In 1978, Sewall Wright suggested that human populations that have long inhabited separated parts of the world should, in general, be considered different subspecies by the usual criterion that most individuals of such populations can be allocated correctly by inspection. Wright argued that it does not require a trained anthropologist to classify an array of Englishmen, West Africans, and Chinese with 100% accuracy by features, skin color, and type of hair despite so much variability within each of these groups that every individual can easily be distinguished from every other. However, it is customary to use the term race rather than subspecies for the major subdivisions of the human species as well as for minor ones.[68]

On the other hand, in practice subspecies are often defined by easily observable physical appearance, but there is not necessarily any evolutionary significance to these observed differences, so this form of classification has become less acceptable to evolutionary biologists.[69] Likewise this typological approach to race is generally regarded as discredited by biologists and anthropologists.

Because of the difficulty in classifying subspecies morphologically, many biologists have found the concept problematic, citing issues such as:[18]

Sesardic argues that when several traits are analyzed at the same time, forensic anthropologists can classify a person's race with an accuracy of close to 100% based on only skeletal remains.[70] This is discussed in a later section.

Ancestrally differentiated populations

Cladistics is another method of classification. A clade is a taxonomic group of organisms consisting of a single common ancestor and all the descendants of that ancestor. Every creature produced by sexual reproduction has two immediate lineages, one maternal and one paternal.[71] Whereas Carl Linnaeus established a taxonomy of living organisms based on anatomical similarities and differences, cladistics seeks to establish a taxonomy—the phylogenetic tree—based on genetic similarities and differences and tracing the process of acquisition of multiple characteristics by single organisms. Some researchers have tried to clarify the idea of race by equating it to the biological idea of the clade. Often mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome sequences are used to study ancient human migration paths. These single-locus sources of DNA do not recombine and are inherited from a single parent. Individuals from the various continental groups tend to be more similar to one another than to people from other continents, and tracing either mitochondrial DNA or non-recombinant Y-chromosome DNA explains how people in one place may be largely derived from people in some remote location.

Often taxonomists prefer to use phylogenetic analysis to determine whether a population can be considered a subspecies. Phylogenetic analysis relies on the concept of derived characteristics that are not shared between groups, usually applying to populations that are allopatric (geographically separated) and therefore discretely bounded. This would make a subspecies, evolutionarily speaking, a clade – a group with a common evolutionary ancestor population.[66] The smooth gradation of human genetic variation in general tends to rule out any idea that human population groups can be considered monophyletic (cleanly divided), as there appears to always have been considerable gene flow between human populations.[66] Rachel Caspari (2003) have argued that clades are by definition monophyletic groups (a taxon that includes all descendants of a given ancestor) and since no groups currently regarded as races are monophyletic, none of those groups can be clades. Robin Andreasen (2000) proposes that cladistics can be used to categorize human races biologically, and that races can be both biologically real and socially constructed.[72]

For the anthropologists Lieberman and Jackson (1995), however, there are more profound methodological and conceptual problems with using cladistics to support concepts of race. They claim that "the molecular and biochemical proponents of this model explicitly use racial categories in their initial grouping of samples". For example, the large and highly diverse macroethnic groups of East Indians, North Africans, and Europeans are presumptively grouped as Caucasians prior to the analysis of their DNA variation. This is claimed to limit and skew interpretations, obscure other lineage relationships, deemphasize the impact of more immediate clinal environmental factors on genomic diversity, and can cloud our understanding of the true patterns of affinity. They argue that however significant the empirical research, these studies use the term race in conceptually imprecise and careless ways. They suggest that the authors of these studies find support for racial distinctions only because they began by assuming the validity of race. "For empirical reasons we prefer to place emphasis on clinal variation, which recognizes the existence of adaptive human hereditary variation and simultaneously stresses that such variation is not found in packages that can be labeled races."[73]

These scientists do not dispute the importance of cladistic research, only its retention of the word race, when reference to populations and clinal gradations are more than adequate to describe the results.


One crucial innovation in reconceptualizing genotypic and phenotypic variation was the anthropologist C. Loring Brace's observation that such variations, insofar as it is affected by natural selection, slow migration, or genetic drift, are distributed along geographic gradations or clines.[74] In part this is due to isolation by distance. This point called attention to a problem common to phenotype-based descriptions of races (for example, those based on hair texture and skin color): they ignore a host of other similarities and differences (for example, blood type) that do not correlate highly with the markers for race. Thus, anthropologist Frank Livingstone's conclusion, that since clines cross racial boundaries, "there are no races, only clines".[75]

In a response to Livingstone, Theodore Dobzhansky argued that when talking about race one must be attentive to how the term is being used: "I agree with Dr. Livingstone that if races have to be 'discrete units', then there are no races, and if 'race' is used as an 'explanation' of the human variability, rather than vice versa, then the explanation is invalid." He further argued that one could use the term race if one distinguished between "race differences" and "the race concept". The former refers to any distinction in gene frequencies between populations; the latter is "a matter of judgment". He further observed that even when there is clinal variation, "Race differences are objectively ascertainable biological phenomena ... but it does not follow that racially distinct populations must be given racial (or subspecific) labels."[75] In short, Livingstone and Dobzhansky agree that there are genetic differences among human beings; they also agree that the use of the race concept to classify people, and how the race concept is used, is a matter of social convention. They differ on whether the race concept remains a meaningful and useful social convention.

In 1964, the biologists Paul Ehrlich and Holm pointed out cases where two or more clines are distributed discordantly—for example, melanin is distributed in a decreasing pattern from the equator north and south; frequencies for the haplotype for beta-S hemoglobin, on the other hand, radiate out of specific geographical points in Africa.[76] As the anthropologists Leonard Lieberman and Fatimah Linda Jackson observed, "Discordant patterns of heterogeneity falsify any description of a population as if it were genotypically or even phenotypically homogeneous".[73]

Patterns such as those seen in human physical and genetic variation as described above, have led to the consequence that the number and geographic location of any described races is highly dependent on the importance attributed to, and quantity of, the traits considered. Scientists discovered a skin-lighting mutation that partially accounts for the appearance of Light skin in humans (people who migrated out of Africa northward into what is now Europe) which they estimate occurred 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. The East Asians owe their relatively light skin to different mutations.[77] On the other hand, the greater the number of traits (or alleles) considered, the more subdivisions of humanity are detected, since traits and gene frequencies do not always correspond to the same geographical location. Or as Ossorio & Duster (2005) put it:

Anthropologists long ago discovered that humans' physical traits vary gradually, with groups that are close geographic neighbors being more similar than groups that are geographically separated. This pattern of variation, known as clinal variation, is also observed for many alleles that vary from one human group to another. Another observation is that traits or alleles that vary from one group to another do not vary at the same rate. This pattern is referred to as nonconcordant variation. Because the variation of physical traits is clinal and nonconcordant, anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered that the more traits and the more human groups they measured, the fewer discrete differences they observed among races and the more categories they had to create to classify human beings. The number of races observed expanded to the 1930s and 1950s, and eventually anthropologists concluded that there were no discrete races.[78] Twentieth and 21st century biomedical researchers have discovered this same feature when evaluating human variation at the level of alleles and allele frequencies. Nature has not created four or five distinct, nonoverlapping genetic groups of people.

More recent genetic studies indicate that skin color may change radically over as few as 100 generations, or about 2,500 years, given the influence of the environment.[79][80]

Serre & Pääbo (2004) argued for smooth, clinal genetic variation in ancestral populations even in regions previously considered racially homogeneous, with the apparent gaps turning out to be artifacts of sampling techniques. Rosenberg et al. (2005) disputed this and argued that using more data showed that there were small discontinuities in the smooth genetic variation for ancestral populations at the location of geographic barriers such as the Sahara, the Oceans, and the Himalayas.

Genetically differentiated populations

Main article: Race and genetics

Another way to look at differences between populations is to measure genetic differences rather than physical differences between groups. The mid-20th-century anthropologist William C. Boyd defined race as: "A population which differs significantly from other populations in regard to the frequency of one or more of the genes it possesses. It is an arbitrary matter which, and how many, gene loci we choose to consider as a significant 'constellation'".[81] Leonard Lieberman and Rodney Kirk have pointed out that "the paramount weakness of this statement is that if one gene can distinguish races then the number of races is as numerous as the number of human couples reproducing."[82] Moreover, the anthropologist Stephen Molnar has suggested that the discordance of clines inevitably results in a multiplication of races that renders the concept itself useless.[83] The Human Genome Project states "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."[84]

Fixation index

The population geneticist Sewall Wright developed one way of measuring genetic differences between populations known as the Fixation index, which is often abbreviated to FST. This statistic is often used in taxonomy to compare differences between any two given populations by measuring the genetic differences among and between populations for individual genes, or for many genes simultaneously.[85] It is often stated that the fixation index for humans is about 0.15. This translates to an estimated 85% of the variation measured in the overall human population is found within individuals of the same population, and about 15% of the variation occurs between populations. These estimates imply that any two individuals from different populations are almost as likely to be more similar to each other than either is to a member of their own group.[18][66][86] Richard Lewontin, who affirmed these ratios, thus concluded neither "race" nor "subspecies" were appropriate or useful ways to describe human populations.[87] However, others have noticed that group variation was relatively similar to the variation observed in other mammalian species.[88][89]

Wright himself believed that values >0.25 represent very great genetic variation and that an FST of 0.15–0.25 represented great variation. However, about 5% of human variation occurs between populations within continents, therefore FST values between continental groups of humans (or races) of as low as 0.1 (or possibly lower) have been found in some studies, suggesting more moderate levels of genetic variation.[85] Graves (1996) has countered that FST should not be used as a marker of subspecies status, as the statistic is used to measure the degree of differentiation between populations,[85] although see also Wright (1978).[68]

In an ongoing debate, some geneticists argue that race is neither a meaningful concept nor a useful heuristic device,[90] and even that genetic differences among groups are biologically meaningless,[91] because more genetic variation exists within such races than among them, and that racial traits overlap without discrete boundaries.[92][93]

Jeffrey Long and Rick Kittles give a long critique of the application of FST to human populations in their 2003 paper "Human Genetic Diversity and the Nonexistence of Biological Races". They find that the figure of 85% is misleading because it implies that all human populations contain on average 85% of all genetic diversity. They claim that this does not correctly reflect human population history, because it treats all human groups as independent. A more realistic portrayal of the way human groups are related is to understand that some human groups are parental to other groups and that these groups represent paraphyletic groups to their descent groups. For example, under the recent African origin theory the human population in Africa is paraphyletic to all other human groups because it represents the ancestral group from which all non-African populations derive, but more than that, non-African groups only derive from a small non-representative sample of this African population. This means that all non-African groups are more closely related to each other and to some African groups (probably east Africans) than they are to others, and further that the migration out of Africa represented a genetic bottleneck, with much of the diversity that existed in Africa not being carried out of Africa by the emigrating groups. This view produces a version of human population movements that do not result in all human populations being independent; but rather, produces a series of dilutions of diversity the further from Africa any population lives, each founding event representing a genetic subset of its parental population. Long and Kittles find that rather than 85% of human genetic diversity existing in all human populations, about 100% of human diversity exists in a single African population, whereas only about 70% of human genetic diversity exists in a population derived from New Guinea. Long and Kittles argued that this still produces a global human population that is genetically homogeneous compared to other mammalian populations.[94]

Cluster analysis
World map based on a genetic principal component analysis of human populations from Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza's book The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994).[95]

In his 2003 paper, "Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin's Fallacy", A. W. F. Edwards argued that rather than using a locus-by-locus analysis of variation to derive taxonomy, it is possible to construct a human classification system based on characteristic genetic patterns, or clusters inferred from multilocus genetic data.[96][97] Geographically based human studies since have shown that such genetic clusters can be derived from analyzing of a large number of loci which can assort individuals sampled into groups analogous to traditional continental racial groups.[98] Joanna Mountain and Neil Risch cautioned that while genetic clusters may one day be shown to correspond to phenotypic variations between groups, such assumptions were premature as the relationship between genes and complex traits remains poorly understood.[99] However, Risch denied such limitations render the analysis useless: "Perhaps just using someone's actual birth year is not a very good way of measuring age. Does that mean we should throw it out? ... Any category you come up with is going to be imperfect, but that doesn't preclude you from using it or the fact that it has utility."[100]

Early human genetic cluster analysis studies were conducted with samples taken from ancestral population groups living at extreme geographic distances from each other. It was thought that such large geographic distances would maximize the genetic variation between the groups sampled in the analysis and thus maximize the probability of finding cluster patterns unique to each group. In light of the historically recent acceleration of human migration (and correspondingly, human gene flow) on a global scale, further studies were conducted to judge the degree to which genetic cluster analysis can pattern ancestrally identified groups as well as geographically separated groups. One such study looked at a large multiethnic population in the United States, and "detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population." (Tang et al. (2005))

Witherspoon et al. (2007) have argued that even when individuals can be reliably assigned to specific population groups, it may still be possible for two randomly chosen individuals from different populations/clusters to be more similar to each other than to a randomly chosen member of their own cluster. They found that many thousands of genetic markers had to be used in order for the answer to the question "How often is a pair of individuals from one population genetically more dissimilar than two individuals chosen from two different populations?" to be "never". This assumed three population groups separated by large geographic ranges (European, African and East Asian). The entire world population is much more complex and studying an increasing number of groups would require an increasing number of markers for the same answer. The authors conclude that "caution should be used when using geographic or genetic ancestry to make inferences about individual phenotypes."[101] Witherspoon, et al. concluded that, "The fact that, given enough genetic data, individuals can be correctly assigned to their populations of origin is compatible with the observation that most human genetic variation is found within populations, not between them. It is also compatible with our finding that, even when the most distinct populations are considered and hundreds of loci are used, individuals are frequently more similar to members of other populations than to members of their own population."[101]

Anthropologists such as C. Loring Brace,[102] the philosophers Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Winther,[103][104][105][106] and the geneticist Joseph Graves,[17] have argued that while there it is certainly possible to find biological and genetic variation that corresponds roughly to the groupings normally defined as "continental races", this is true for almost all geographically distinct populations. The cluster structure of the genetic data is therefore dependent on the initial hypotheses of the researcher and the populations sampled. When one samples continental groups, the clusters become continental; if one had chosen other sampling patterns, the clustering would be different. Weiss and Fullerton have noted that if one sampled only Icelanders, Mayans and Maoris, three distinct clusters would form and all other populations could be described as being clinally composed of admixtures of Maori, Icelandic and Mayan genetic materials.[107] Kaplan and Winther therefore argue that, seen in this way, both Lewontin and Edwards are right in their arguments. They conclude that while racial groups are characterized by different allele frequencies, this does not mean that racial classification is a natural taxonomy of the human species, because multiple other genetic patterns can be found in human populations that crosscut racial distinctions. Moreover, the genomic data underdetermines whether one wishes to see subdivisions (i.e., splitters) or a continuum (i.e., lumpers). Under Kaplan and Winther's view, racial groupings are objective social constructions (see Mills 1998[108]) that have conventional biological reality only insofar as the categories are chosen and constructed for pragmatic scientific reasons. In earlier work, Winther had identified "diversity partitioning" and "clustering analysis" as two separate methodologies, with distinct questions, assumptions, and protocols. Each is also associated with opposing ontological consequences vis-a-vis the metaphysics of race.[109]

Guido Barbujani has written that human genetic variation is generally distributed continuously in gradients across much of Earth, and that there is no evidence that genetic boundaries between human populations exist as would be necessary for human races to exist.[110]

Social constructions

Main articles: Race and society and Racialism

As anthropologists and other evolutionary scientists have shifted away from the language of race to the term population to talk about genetic differences, historians, cultural anthropologists and other social scientists re-conceptualized the term "race" as a cultural category or social construct— i.e. a way among many possible ways in which a society chooses to divide its members into categories.

Many social scientists have replaced the word race with the word "ethnicity" to refer to self-identifying groups based on beliefs concerning shared culture, ancestry and history. Alongside empirical and conceptual problems with "race", following the Second World War, evolutionary and social scientists were acutely aware of how beliefs about race had been used to justify discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and genocide. This questioning gained momentum in the 1960s during the U.S. civil rights movement and the emergence of numerous anti-colonial movements worldwide. They thus came to believe that race itself is a social construct, a concept that was believed to correspond to an objective reality but which was believed in because of its social functions.[111]

Craig Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome in 2000. Upon examining the data from the genome mapping, Venter realized that although the genetic variation within the human species is on the order of 1–3% (instead of the previously assumed 1%), the types of variations do not support notion of genetically defined races. Venter said, "Race is a social concept. It's not a scientific one. There are no bright lines (that would stand out), if we could compare all the sequenced genomes of everyone on the planet." "When we try to apply science to try to sort out these social differences, it all falls apart."[112]

Stephan Palmié asserted that race "is not a thing but a social relation";[113] or, in the words of Katya Gibel Mevorach, "a metonym", "a human invention whose criteria for differentiation are neither universal nor fixed but have always been used to manage difference."[114] As such, the use of the term "race" itself must be analyzed. Moreover, they argue that biology will not explain why or how people use the idea of race: History and social relationships will.

Imani Perry has argued that race "is produced by social arrangements and political decision making."[115] Perry explains race more in stating, "race is something that happens, rather than something that is. It is dynamic, but it holds no objective truth."[116]

Some scholars have challenged the notion that race is primarily a social construction by argeuing that race has a biological basis.[117] One of the researchers, Neil Risch, noted: "we looked at the correlation between genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] versus self-description, we found 99.9% concordance between the two. We actually had a higher discordance rate between self-reported sex and markers on the X chromosome! So you could argue that sex is also a problematic category. And there are differences between sex and gender; self-identification may not be correlated with biology perfectly. And there is sexism."[118]


Main article: Race in Brazil
Portrait "Redenção do Can" (1895), showing a Brazilian family each generation becoming "whiter".

Compared to 19th-century United States, 20th-century Brazil was characterized by a perceived relative absence of sharply defined racial groups. According to anthropologist Marvin Harris, this pattern reflects a different history and different social relations.

Basically, race in Brazil was "biologized", but in a way that recognized the difference between ancestry (which determines genotype) and phenotypic differences. There, racial identity was not governed by rigid descent rule, such as the one-drop rule, as it was in the United States. A Brazilian child was never automatically identified with the racial type of one or both parents, nor were there only a very limited number of categories to choose from,[119] to the extent that full siblings can pertain to different racial groups.[120]

Over a dozen racial categories would be recognized in conformity with all the possible combinations of hair color, hair texture, eye color, and skin color. These types grade into each other like the colors of the spectrum, and not one category stands significantly isolated from the rest. That is, race referred preferentially to appearance, not heredity, and appearance is a poor indication of ancestry, because only a few genes are responsible for someone's skin color and traits: a person who is considered white may have more African ancestry than a person who is considered black, and the reverse can be also true about European ancestry.[121] The complexity of racial classifications in Brazil reflects the extent of miscegenation in Brazilian society, a society that remains highly, but not strictly, stratified along color lines. These socioeconomic factors are also significant to the limits of racial lines, because a minority of pardos, or brown people, are likely to start declaring themselves white or black if socially upward,[122] and being seen as relatively "whiter" as their perceived social status increases (much as in other regions of Latin America).[123]

Self-reported ancestry of people from
Rio de Janeiro, by race or skin color (2000 survey)[124]
Ancestry brancos pardos pretos
European only 48% 6%-
African only 12%25%
Amerindian only 2%-
African and European 23% 34%31%
Amerindian and European 14% 6%-
African and Amerindian 4%9%
African, Amerindian and European 15% 36%35%
Total 100% 100%100%
Any African 38% 86%100%

Fluidity of racial categories aside, the "biologification" of race in Brazil referred above would match contemporary concepts of race in the United States quite closely, though, if Brazilians are supposed to choose their race as one among, Asian and Indigenous apart, three IBGE's census categories. While assimilated Amerindians and people with very high quantities of Amerindian ancestry are usually grouped as caboclos, a subgroup of pardos which roughly translates as both mestizo and hillbilly, for those of lower quantity of Amerindian descent a higher European genetic contribution is expected to be grouped as a pardo. In several genetic tests, people with less than 60-65% of European descent and 5-10% of Amerindian descent usually cluster with Afro-Brazilians (as reported by the individuals), or 6.9% of the population, and those with about 45% or more of Subsaharan contribution most times do so (in average, Afro-Brazilian DNA was reported to be about 50% Subsaharan African, 37% European and 13% Amerindian).[125][126][127][128]

If a more consistent report with the genetic groups in the gradation of miscegenation is to be considered (e.g. that would not cluster people with a balanced degree of African and non-African ancestry in the black group instead of the multiracial one, unlike elsewhere in Latin America where people of high quantity of African descent tend to classify themselves as mixed), more people would report themselves as white and pardo in Brazil (47.7% and 42.4% of the population as of 2010, respectively), because by research its population is believed to have between 65 and 80% of autosomal European ancestry, in average (also >35% of European mt-DNA and >95% of European Y-DNA).[125][129][130][131]

Ethnic groups in Brazil (census data)[132]
Ethnic group white black pardo
1872 3,787,289 1,954,452 4,188,737
1940 26,171,778 6,035,869 8,744,365
1991 75,704,927 7,335,136 62,316,064
Ethnic groups in Brazil (1872 and 1890)[133]
Years whites pardos blacks Indians Total
1872 38.1% 38.3% 19.7% 3.9% 100%
1890 44.0% 32.4% 14.6% 9% 100%

This is not surprising, though: While the greatest number of slaves imported from Africa were sent to Brazil, totalizing roughly 3.5 million people, they lived in such miserable conditions that male African Y-DNA there is significantly rare due to the lack of resources and time involved with raising of children, so that most African descent originarily came from relations between white masters and female slaves. From the last decades of the Empire until the 1950s, the proportion of the white population increased significantly while Brazil welcomed 5.5 million immigrants between 1821 and 1932, not much behind its neighbor Argentina with 6.4 million,[134] and it received more European immigrants in its colonial history than the United States. Between 1500 and 1760, 700.000 Europeans settled in Brazil, while 530.000 Europeans settled in the United States for the same given time.[135] Thus, the historical construction of race in Brazilian society dealt primarily with gradations between persons of majoritarily European ancestry and little minority groups with otherwise lower quantity therefrom in recent times.

European Union

According to European Council:

The European Union rejects theories which attempt to determine the existence of separate human races.
Directive 2000/43/EC[136]

The European Union uses the terms racial origin and ethnic origin synonymously in its documents and according to it "the use of the term 'racial origin' in this directive does not imply an acceptance of such [racial] theories".[136][137] Haney López warns that using "race" as a category within the law tends to legitimize its existence in the popular imagination. In the diverse geographic context of Europe, ethnicity and ethnic origin are arguably more resonant and are less encumbered by the ideological baggage associated with "race". In European context, historical resonance of "race" underscores its problematic nature. In some states, it is strongly associated with laws promulgated by the Nazi and Fascist governments in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, in 1996, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that "the term should therefore be avoided in all official texts".[138]

The concept of racial origin relies on the notion that human beings can be separated into biologically distinct "races", an idea generally rejected by the scientific community. Since all human beings belong to the same species, the ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) rejects theories based on the existence of different "races". However, in its Recommendation ECRI uses this term in order to ensure that those persons who are generally and erroneously perceived as belonging to "another race" are not excluded from the protection provided for by the legislation. The law claims to reject the existence of "race", yet penalize situations where someone is treated less favourably on this ground.[138]


Since the end of the Second World War, France has become an ethnically diverse country. Today, approximately five percent of the French population is non-European and non-white. This does not approach the number of non-white citizens in the United States (roughly 28–37%, depending on how Latinos are classified (see Demographics of the United States). Nevertheless, it amounts to at least three million people, and has forced the issues of ethnic diversity onto the French policy agenda. France has developed an approach to dealing with ethnic problems that stands in contrast to that of many advanced, industrialized countries. Unlike the United States, Britain, or even the Netherlands, France maintains a "color-blind" model of public policy. This means that it targets virtually no policies directly at racial or ethnic groups. Instead, it uses geographic or class criteria to address issues of social inequalities. It has, however, developed an extensive anti-racist policy repertoire since the early 1970s. Until recently, French policies focused primarily on issues of hate speech—going much further than their American counterparts—and relatively less on issues of discrimination in jobs, housing, and in provision of goods and services.[139]

United States

In the United States, views of race that see racial groups as defined genetically are common in the biological sciences although controversial, whereas the social constructionist view is dominant in the social sciences.[140]

The immigrants to the Americas came from every region of Europe, Africa, and Asia. They mixed among themselves and with the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. In the United States most people who self-identify as African–American have some European ancestors, while many people who identify as European American have some African or Amerindian ancestors.

Since the early history of the United States, Amerindians, African–Americans, and European Americans have been classified as belonging to different races. Efforts to track mixing between groups led to a proliferation of categories, such as mulatto and octoroon. The criteria for membership in these races diverged in the late 19th century. During Reconstruction, increasing numbers of Americans began to consider anyone with "one drop" of known "Black blood" to be Black, regardless of appearance.3 By the early 20th century, this notion was made statutory in many states.4 Amerindians continue to be defined by a certain percentage of "Indian blood" (called blood quantum). To be White one had to have perceived "pure" White ancestry. The one-drop rule or hypodescent rule refers to the convention of defining a person as racially black if he or she has any known African ancestry. This rule meant that those that were mixed race but with some discernible African ancestry were defined as black. The one-drop rule is specific to not only those with African ancestry but to the United States, making it a particularly African-American experience.[141]

The decennial censuses conducted since 1790 in the United States created an incentive to establish racial categories and fit people into these categories.[142]

The term "Hispanic" as an ethnonym emerged in the 20th century with the rise of migration of laborers from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America to the United States. Today, the word "Latino" is often used as a synonym for "Hispanic". The definitions of both terms are non-race specific, and include people who consider themselves to be of distinct races (Black, White, Amerindian, Asian, and mixed groups).[143] However, there is a common misconception in the US that Hispanic/Latino is a race[144] or sometimes even that national origins such as Mexican, Cuban, Colombian, Salvadoran, etc. are races. In contrast to "Latino" or "Hispanic", "Anglo" refers to non-Hispanic White Americans or non-Hispanic European Americans, most of whom speak the English language but are not necessarily of English descent.

Views across disciplines over time

In Poland, the race concept was rejected by 25 percent of anthropologists in 2001, although: "Unlike the U.S. anthropologists, Polish anthropologists tend to regard race as a term without taxonomic value, often as a substitute for population."[145]

Wang, Štrkalj et al. (2003) examined the use of race as a biological concept in research papers published in China's only biological anthropology journal, Acta Anthropologica Sinica. The study showed that the race concept was widely used among Chinese anthropologists.[146][147] In a 2007 review paper, Štrkalj suggested that the stark contrast of the racial approach between the United States and China was due to the fact that race is a factor for social cohesion among the ethnically diverse people of China, whereas "race" is a very sensitive issue in America and the racial approach is considered to undermine social cohesion - with the result that in the socio-political context of US academics scientists are encouraged not to use racial categories, whereas in China they are encouraged to use them.[148]

Lieberman et al. in a 2004 study researched the acceptance of race as a concept among anthropologists in the United States, Canada, the Spanish speaking areas, Europe, Russia and China. Rejection of race ranged from high to low, with the highest rejection rate in the United States and Canada, a moderate rejection rate in Europe, and the lowest rejection rate in Russia and China. Methods used in the studies reported included questionnaires and content analysis.[16]

Kaszycka et al. (2009) in 2002–2003 surveyed European anthropologists' opinions toward the biological race concept. Three factors, country of academic education, discipline, and age, were found to be significant in differentiating the replies. Those educated in Western Europe, physical anthropologists, and middle-aged persons rejected race more frequently than those educated in Eastern Europe, people in other branches of science, and those from both younger and older generations." The survey shows that the views on race are sociopolitically (ideologically) influenced and highly dependent on education."[149]

United States

One result of debates over the meaning and validity of the concept of race is that the current literature across different disciplines regarding human variation lacks consensus, though within some fields, such as some branches of anthropology, there is strong consensus. Some studies use the word race in its early essentialist taxonomic sense. Many others still use the term race, but use it to mean a population, clade, or haplogroup. Others eschew the concept of race altogether, and use the concept of population as a less problematic unit of analysis.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Sociology professor at Duke University, remarks,[150] "I contend that racism is, more than anything else, a matter of group power; it is about a dominant racial group (whites) striving to maintain its systemic advantages and minorities fighting to subvert the racial status quo."[151] The types of practices that take place under this new color-blind racism is subtle, institutionalized, and supposedly not racial. Color-blind racism thrives on the idea that race is no longer an issue in the United States.[151] There are contradictions between the alleged color-blindness of most whites and the persistence of a color-coded system of inequality.

U.S. anthropology

The concept of biological race has declined significantly in frequency of use in physical anthropology in the United States during the 20th century. A majority of physical anthropologists in the United States have rejected the concept of biological races.[152] Since 1932, an increasing number of college textbooks introducing physical anthropology have rejected race as a valid concept: from 1932 to 1976, only seven out of thirty-two rejected race; from 1975 to 1984, thirteen out of thirty-three rejected race; from 1985 to 1993, thirteen out of nineteen rejected race. According to one academic journal entry, where 78 percent of the articles in the 1931 Journal of Physical Anthropology employed these or nearly synonymous terms reflecting a bio-race paradigm, only 36 percent did so in 1965, and just 28 percent did in 1996.[153]

The "Statement on 'Race'" (1998) composed by a select committee of anthropologists and issued by the executive board of the American Anthropological Association as a statement they "believe [...] represents generally the contemporary thinking and scholarly positions of a majority of anthropologists", declares:[154]

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic "racial" groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within "racial" groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. [...]

With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, ... it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. [...] Given what we know about the capacity of normal humans to achieve and function within any culture, we conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called "racial" groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.

A survey, taken in 1985 (Lieberman et al. 1992), asked 1,200 American scientists how many disagree with the following proposition: "There are biological races in the species Homo sapiens." The responses were for anthropologists:

The figure for physical anthropologists at PhD granting departments was slightly higher, rising from 41% to 42%, with 50% agreeing. Lieberman's study also showed that more women reject the concept of race than men.[156] This survey, however, did not specify any particular definition of race (although it did clearly specify biological race within the species Homo sapiens); it is difficult to say whether those who supported the statement thought of race in taxonomic or population terms.

The same survey, taken in 1999,[157] showed the following changing results for anthropologists:

However, a line of research conducted by Cartmill (1998) seemed to limit the scope of Lieberman's finding that there was "a significant degree of change in the status of the race concept". Goran Štrkalj has argued that this may be because Lieberman and collaborators had looked at all the members of the American Anthropological Association irrespective of their field of research interest, while Cartmill had looked specifically at biological anthropologists interested in human variation.[158]

According to the 2000 edition of a popular physical anthropology textbook, forensic anthropologists are overwhelmingly in support of the idea of the basic biological reality of human races.[159] Forensic physical anthropologist and professor George W. Gill has said that the idea that race is only skin deep "is simply not true, as any experienced forensic anthropologist will affirm" and "Many morphological features tend to follow geographic boundaries coinciding often with climatic zones. This is not surprising since the selective forces of climate are probably the primary forces of nature that have shaped human races with regard not only to skin color and hair form but also the underlying bony structures of the nose, cheekbones, etc. (For example, more prominent noses humidify air better.)" While he can see good arguments for both sides, the complete denial of the opposing evidence "seems to stem largely from socio-political motivation and not science at all". He also states that many biological anthropologists see races as real yet "not one introductory textbook of physical anthropology even presents that perspective as a possibility. In a case as flagrant as this, we are not dealing with science but rather with blatant, politically motivated censorship".[159]

In partial response to Gill's statement, Professor of Biological Anthropology C. Loring Brace argues that the reason laymen and biological anthropologists can determine the geographic ancestry of an individual can be explained by the fact that biological characteristics are clinally distributed across the planet, and that does not translate into the concept of race. He states:

Well, you may ask, why can't we call those regional patterns "races"? In fact, we can and do, but it does not make them coherent biological entities. "Races" defined in such a way are products of our perceptions. ... We realize that in the extremes of our transit—Moscow to Nairobi, perhaps—there is a major but gradual change in skin color from what we euphemistically call white to black, and that this is related to the latitudinal difference in the intensity of the ultraviolet component of sunlight. What we do not see, however, is the myriad other traits that are distributed in a fashion quite unrelated to the intensity of ultraviolet radiation. Where skin color is concerned, all the northern populations of the Old World are lighter than the long-term inhabitants near the equator. Although Europeans and Chinese are obviously different, in skin color they are closer to each other than either is to equatorial Africans. But if we test the distribution of the widely known ABO blood-group system, then Europeans and Africans are closer to each other than either is to Chinese.[160]

"Race" is still sometimes used within forensic anthropology (when analyzing skeletal remains), biomedical research, and race-based medicine.[161][162] Brace has criticized this, the practice of forensic anthropologists for using the controversial concept "race" out of convention when they in fact should be talking about regional ancestry. He argues that while forensic anthropologists can determine that a skeletal remain comes from a person with ancestors in a specific region of Africa, categorizing that skeletal as being "black" is a socially constructed category that is only meaningful in the particular context of the United States, and which is not itself scientifically valid.[163]

Other fields

In the same 1985 survey (Lieberman et al. 1992), 16% of the surveyed biologists and 36% of the surveyed developmental psychologists disagreed with the proposition: "There are biological races in the species Homo sapiens."

The authors of the study also examined 77 college textbooks in biology and 69 in physical anthropology published between 1932 and 1989. Physical anthropology texts argued that biological races exist until the 1970s, when they began to argue that races do not exist. In contrast, biology textbooks did not undergo such a reversal but many instead dropped their discussion of race altogether. The authors attributed this to biologists trying to avoid discussing the political implications of racial classifications, instead of discussing them, and to the ongoing discussions in biology about the validity of the concept "subspecies". The authors also noted that some widely used textbooks in biology such as Douglas J. Futuyma's 1986 "Evolutionary Biology" had abandoned the race concept, "The concept of race, masking the overwhelming genetic similarity of all peoples and the mosaic patterns of variation that do not correspond to racial divisions, is not only socially dysfunctional but is biologically indefensible as well (pp. 5 18-5 19)." (Lieberman et al. 1992, pp. 316–17)

A 1994 examination of 32 English sport/exercise science textbooks found that 7 (21.9%) claimed that there are biophysical differences due to race that might explain differences in sports performance, 24 (75%) did not mention nor refute the concept, and 1 (3.12%) expressed caution with the idea.[164]

In February 2001, the editors of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine asked "authors to not use race and ethnicity when there is no biological, scientific, or sociological reason for doing so."[165] The editors also stated that "analysis by race and ethnicity has become an analytical knee-jerk reflex."[166] Nature Genetics now ask authors to "explain why they make use of particular ethnic groups or populations, and how classification was achieved."[167]

Morning (2008) looked at high school biology textbooks during the 1952-2002 period and initially found a similar pattern with only 35% directly discussing race in the 1983–92 period from initially 92% doing so. However, this has increased somewhat after this to 43%. More indirect and brief discussions of race in the context of medical disorders have increased from none to 93% of textbooks. In general, the material on race has moved from surface traits to genetics and evolutionary history. The study argues that the textbooks' fundamental message about the existence of races has changed little.[168]

Gissis (2008) examined several important American and British journals in genetics, epidemiology and medicine for their content during the 1946-2003 period. He wrote that "Based upon my findings I argue that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on".[169]

33 health services researchers from differing geographic regions were interviewed in a 2008 study. The researchers recognized the problems with racial and ethnic variables but the majority still believed these variables were necessary and useful.[170]

A 2010 examination of 18 widely used English anatomy textbooks found that they all represented human biological variation in superficial and outdated ways, many of them making use of the race concept in ways that were current in 1950s anthropology. The authors recommended that anatomical education should describe human anatomical variation in more detail and rely on newer research that demonstrates the inadequacies of simple racial typologies.[171]

Political and practical uses


Main article: Race and health

In the United States, federal government policy promotes the use of racially categorized data to identify and address health disparities between racial or ethnic groups.[172] In clinical settings, race has sometimes been considered in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. Doctors have noted that some medical conditions are more prevalent in certain racial or ethnic groups than in others, without being sure of the cause of those differences. Recent interest in race-based medicine, or race-targeted pharmacogenomics, has been fueled by the proliferation of human genetic data which followed the decoding of the human genome in the first decade of the twenty-first century. There is an active debate among biomedical researchers about the meaning and importance of race in their research. Proponents of the use of racial categories in biomedicine argue that continued use of racial categorizations in biomedical research and clinical practice makes possible the application of new genetic findings, and provides a clue to diagnosis.[173][174]

Other researchers point out that finding a difference in disease prevalence between two socially defined groups does not necessarily imply genetic causation of the difference.[175][176] They suggest that medical practices should maintain their focus on the individual rather than an individual's membership to any group.[177] They argue that overemphasizing genetic contributions to health disparities carries various risks such as reinforcing stereotypes, promoting racism or ignoring the contribution of non-genetic factors to health disparities.[178] International epidemiological data show that living conditions rather than race make the biggest difference in health outcomes even for diseases that have "race-specific" treatments.[179] Some studies have found that patients are reluctant to accept racial categorization in medical practice.[174]

Law enforcement

Main article: Racial profiling

In an attempt to provide general descriptions that may facilitate the job of law enforcement officers seeking to apprehend suspects, the United States FBI employs the term "race" to summarize the general appearance (skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and other such easily noticed characteristics) of individuals whom they are attempting to apprehend. From the perspective of law enforcement officers, it is generally more important to arrive at a description that will readily suggest the general appearance of an individual than to make a scientifically valid categorization by DNA or other such means. Thus, in addition to assigning a wanted individual to a racial category, such a description will include: height, weight, eye color, scars and other distinguishing characteristics.

Criminal justice agencies in England and Wales use at least two separate racial/ethnic classification systems when reporting crime, as of 2010. One is the system used in the 2001 Census when individuals identify themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic group: W1 (White-British), W2 (White-Irish), W9 (Any other white background); M1 (White and black Caribbean), M2 (White and black African), M3 (White and Asian), M9 (Any other mixed background); A1 (Asian-Indian), A2 (Asian-Pakistani), A3 (Asian-Bangladeshi), A9 (Any other Asian background); B1 (Black Caribbean), B2 (Black African), B3 (Any other black background); O1 (Chinese), O9 (Any other). The other is categories used by the police when they visually identify someone as belonging to an ethnic group, e.g. at the time of a stop and search or an arrest: White – North European (IC1), White – South European (IC2), Black (IC3), Asian (IC4), Chinese, Japanese, or South East Asian (IC5), Middle Eastern (IC6), and Unknown (IC0). "IC" stands for "Identification Code;" these items are also referred to as Phoenix classifications.[180] Officers are instructed to "record the response that has been given" even if the person gives an answer which may be incorrect; their own perception of the person's ethnic background is recorded separately.[181] Comparability of the information being recorded by officers was brought into question by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in September 2007, as part of its Equality Data Review; one problem cited was the number of reports that contained an ethnicity of "Not Stated."[182]

In many countries, such as France, the state is legally banned from maintaining data based on race, which often makes the police issue wanted notices to the public that include labels like "dark skin complexion", etc.

In the United States, the practice of racial profiling has been ruled to be both unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights. There is active debate regarding the cause of a marked correlation between the recorded crimes, punishments meted out, and the country's populations. Many consider de facto racial profiling an example of institutional racism in law enforcement. The history of misuse of racial categories to impact adversely one or more groups and/or to offer protection and advantage to another has a clear impact on debate of the legitimate use of known phenotypical or genotypical characteristics tied to the presumed race of both victims and perpetrators by the government.

Mass incarceration in the United States disproportionately impacts African American and Latino communities. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), argues that mass incarceration is best understood as not only a system of overcrowded prisons. Mass incarceration is also, "the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison."[183] She defines it further as "a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls", illustrating the second-class citizenship that is imposed on a disproportionate number of people of color, specifically African-Americans. She compares mass incarceration to Jim Crow laws, stating that both work as racial caste systems.[184]

Recent work using DNA cluster analysis to determine race background has been used by some criminal investigators to narrow their search for the identity of both suspects and victims.[185] Proponents of DNA profiling in criminal investigations cite cases where leads based on DNA analysis proved useful, but the practice remains controversial among medical ethicists, defense lawyers and some in law enforcement.[186]

Forensic anthropology

Main article: Forensic anthropology

Similarly, forensic anthropologists draw on highly heritable morphological features of human remains (e.g. cranial measurements) to aid in the identification of the body, including in terms of race. In a 1992 article, anthropologist Norman Sauer noted that anthropologists had generally abandoned the concept of race as a valid representation of human biological diversity, except for forensic anthropologists. He asked, "If races don't exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them?"[187] He concluded:

[T]he successful assignment of race to a skeletal specimen is not a vindication of the race concept, but rather a prediction that an individual, while alive was assigned to a particular socially constructed "racial" category. A specimen may display features that point to African ancestry. In this country that person is likely to have been labeled Black regardless of whether or not such a race actually exists in nature.[187]

In a different approach, anthropologist C. Loring Brace said:

The simple answer is that, as members of the society that poses the question, they are inculcated into the social conventions that determine the expected answer. They should also be aware of the biological inaccuracies contained in that "politically correct" answer. Skeletal analysis provides no direct assessment of skin color, but it does allow an accurate estimate of original geographical origins. African, eastern Asian, and European ancestry can be specified with a high degree of accuracy. Africa of course entails "black", but "black" does not entail African.[188]

In association with a NOVA program in 2000 about race, he wrote an essay opposing use of the term.

A 2002 study found that about 13% of human craniometric variation existed between regions, while 81% existed within regions (the other 6% existed between local populations within the same region). In contrast, the opposite pattern of genetic variation was observed for skin color (which is often used to define race), with 88% of variation between regions. The study concluded that "The apportionment of genetic diversity in skin color is atypical, and cannot be used for purposes of classification."[189]

Commercial determination of ancestry

New research in molecular genetics, and the marketing of genetic identities through the analysis of one's Y chromosome, mtDNA, or autosomal DNA to the general public in the form of "Personalized Genetic Histories" (PGH) has caused debate. Typically, a consumer of a commercial PGH service sends in a sample of DNA, which is analyzed by molecular biologists, and receives a report on ancestry. Shriver and Kittles remarked:

For many customers of lineage-based tests, there is a lack of understanding that their maternal and paternal lineages do not necessarily represent their entire genetic make-up. For example, an individual might have more than 85% Western European 'genomic' ancestry but still have a West African mtDNA or NRY lineage.[190]

They noted that the general public was increasingly interested in such tests despite their lack of knowledge in some cases of what the results represent.[190]

Through these reports, advances in molecular genetics are used to create or confirm stories individuals have about social identities. Abu el-Haj argued that genetic lineages, like older notions of race, suggest some idea of biological relatedness. But, unlike older notions of race, they are not directly connected to claims about human behaviour or character. She said that "postgenomics does seem to be giving race a new lease on life."

Race science was never just about classification. It presupposed a distinctive relationship between "nature" and "culture", understanding the differences in the former to ground and to generate the different kinds of persons ("natural kinds") and the distinctive stages of cultures and civilizations that inhabit the world.

Abu el-Haj argues that genomics and the mapping of lineages and clusters liberates "the new racial science from the older one by disentangling ancestry from culture and capacity." As an example, she refers to recent work by Hammer et al., which aimed to test the claim that present-day Jews are more closely related to one another than to neighbouring non-Jewish populations. Hammer et al. found that the degree of genetic similarity among Jews shifted depending on the locus investigated, and suggested that this was the result of natural selection acting on particular loci. They focused on the non-recombining Y-chromosome to "circumvent some of the complications associated with selection".[191]

As another example, she points to work by Thomas et al., who sought to distinguish between the Y chromosomes of Jewish priests (Kohanim), (in Judaism, membership in the priesthood is passed on through the father's line) and the Y chromosomes of non-Jews.[192] Abu el-Haj concluded that this new "race science" calls attention to the importance of "ancestry" (narrowly defined, as it does not include all ancestors) in some religions and in popular culture, and people's desire to use science to confirm their claims about ancestry; this "race science", she argues, is fundamentally different from older notions of race that were used to explain differences in human behaviour or social status:

As neutral markers, junk DNA cannot generate cultural, behavioural, or, for that matter, truly biological differences between groups ... mtDNA and Y-chromosome markers relied on in such work are not "traits" or "qualities" in the old racial sense. They do not render some populations more prone to violence, more likely to suffer psychiatric disorders, or for that matter, incapable of being fully integrated – because of their lower evolutionary development – into a European cultural world. Instead, they are "marks", signs of religious beliefs and practices… it is via biological noncoding genetic evidence that one can demonstrate that history itself is shared, that historical traditions are (or might well be) true."[193]

Stephan Palmié has responded to Abu el-Haj's claim that genetic lineages make possible a new, politically, economically, and socially benign notion of race and racial difference by suggesting that efforts to link genetic history and personal identity will inevitably "ground present social arrangements in a time-hallowed past", that is, use biology to explain cultural differences and social inequalities.[194]

One problem with these assignments is admixture. Many people have a highly varied ancestry. For example, in the United States, colonial and early federal history were periods of numerous interracial relationships, both outside and inside slavery. This has resulted in a majority of people who identify as African American having some European ancestors. Similarly, many people who identify as white have some African ancestors. In a survey in a northeastern U.S. university of college students who identified as "white", about 30% were estimated to have up to 10% African ancestry.[45]

On the other hand, there are tests that rely on correlations between allele frequencies; often when allele frequencies correlate, these are called clusters. These sorts of tests use informative alleles called Ancestry-informative marker (AIM). These tests use contemporary people sampled from certain parts of the world as references to determine the likely proportion of ancestry for any given individual.

In a recent Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programme on the subject of genetic ancestry testing, the academic Henry Louis Gates, who identifies as African American, said that he "wasn't thrilled with the AIM results (it turns out that 50 percent of his ancestors are likely European)."[195] He said there had been family stories of white ancestors, but this was a higher proportion than he expected.[195]

In 2003, Charles Rotimi, of Howard University's National Human Genome Center, argued that "the nature or appearance of genetic clustering (grouping) of people is a function of how populations are sampled, of how criteria for boundaries between clusters are set, and of the level of resolution used." As these decisions may each bias the results, he concluded that people should be very cautious about relating genetic lineages or clusters to their personal sense of identity.[196]

On the other hand, Rosenberg (2005) argued that if enough genetic markers and subjects are analyzed, then the clusters found are consistent.[197] How many genetic markers a commercial service uses likely varies, although new technology has continually allowed increasing numbers to be analyzed. In the end, people usually base their individual identity more on family and personal relationships of community than data.

See also


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  166. See program announcement and requests for grant applications at the NIH website, at nih.gov.
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  174. 1 2 Condit et al. 2003 In summary, they argues that, in order to predict the clinical success of pharmacogenomic research, scholars must conduct subsidiary research on two fronts: Science, wherein the degree of correspondence between popular and professional racial categories can be assessed; and society at large, through which attitudinal factors moderate the relationship between scientific soundness and societal acceptance. To accept race-as-proxy, then, may be necessary but insufficient to solidify the future of race-based pharmacogenomics.
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  177. Harpending 2006, p. 458 "On the other hand, information about the race of patients will be useless as soon as we discover and can type cheaply the underlying genes that are responsible for the associations. Can races be enumerated in any unambiguous way? Of course not, and this is well known not only to scientists but also to anyone on the street."
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  179. Kahn 2011, p. 132 "For example, what are we to make of the fact that African Americans suffer from disproportionately high rates of hypertension, but Africans in Nigeria have among the world's lowest rates of hypertension, far lower than the overwhelmingly white population of Germany? Genetics certainly plays a role in hypertension. But any role it plays in explaining such differences must surely be vanishingly small. (citing Richard Cooper et al., 'An International Comparative Study of Blood Pressure in Populations of European vs. African Descent,' BMC Medicine 3 (January 5, 2005): 2, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/3/2 (accessed March 9, 2010).)"
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