Is Race Real or Not?
The idea of race is just that, an idea — a social construct that began developing in the Enlightenment’s 1600s fervor to classify nature in to a “natural order.”
The idea became codified in 1691 in the new world when, for the first time, labeling groups by race was used to drive a wedge between the multiethnic working class to protect the owning class. At that point in history, a unified working class of indentured, free, and enslaved people had begun uprising with demands for more access to property rights and wealth building. By naming one group of people “white” and giving them special privileges over those not classified as “white,” the institutionalization of white privilege began. Rights given to newly minted “white” people included the right to be tried in separate courts, own and bear arms, demand of a “non-white” person a certificate of freedom or off-plantation pass, and to get paid for apprehending and returning runaway slaves. Meanwhile, enslaved Africans lost all indenture rights rendering them and their offspring lifetimes as perpetual property, unable to seek justice for rape, torture, murder, and abuse. Additionally, free Blacks became subject to the whims of “white” people, suddenly their superiors in the eyes of the law.
These legal maneuvers, intended to protect the owning class’s interests were, and still are, justified by a false narrative that “white” people are biologically superior and therefore most fit to lead. Despite DNA’s 21st century ability to dispel notions that race is based in biology (as opposed to political and economic strategy) and is attached to inherent human differences such as intelligence, criminality, sexuality, ambition, morals, emotional make up, musicality, and athletic ability, the old story endures in large part because it continues to protect the interests of those most benefiting from it.
The differences we observe along racial lines today are due not to biological difference as much as the result of centuries of racISM, the system of an elite minority controlling the narrative, creating and promoting stereotypes, in order to justify unequal allocation of rights and resources. An unspoken narrative embedded in white superiority (a.k.a. white supremacy) is a narrower narrative that the most superior of all are not only white, they are also elite, heterosexual, Protestant, able, Anglo, and male. One of the many ironies in white supremacist ideology and design is the enlistment of non-elite white people to feel threatened by and police Black and brown people, thereby distracting “the masses” from where the real threat lives – in the power and wealth hoarding built into the US racial hierarchy, where able, elite, white, Christian, heterosexual males dominate.
Though race is not real, racISM is real, divisive, traumatizing, and still a mechanism that functions to prevent a unified, multiracial working class from challenging the owning class’s self-interested wealth, comfort, and power hoarding. Ironically, the mythology of race actually hurts working class “white” people who believe they are members of a superior race, believe that Black and brown people are a threat to that imagined superiority, and as a result shun their closest potential allies in the struggle to create a freer, fairer, more humane world.
How White People Got Made: Quinn Norton, explores where the term “white people” comes from and which ethnic groups have and have not been able to become “white” through US history.
American Anthropological Association Statement on Race: Explains how the biological understanding of race has changed with the advancement of DNA testing.
How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference, geneticist Adam Rutherford explains what genetics can and cannot tell us about human differences regarding body type, athleticism, musicality, and intelligence.