nina_jablonski's picture
Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University

Race has always been a vague and slippery concept. In the mid-eighteenth century, European naturalists such as Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, and Johannes Blumenbach described geographic groupings of humans who differed in appearance. The philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant both were fascinated by human physical diversity. In their opinions, extremes of heat, cold, or sunlight extinguished human potential. Writing in 1748, Hume contended that, "there was never a civilized nation of any complexion other than white."

Kant felt similarly. He was preoccupied with questions of human diversity throughout his career, and wrote at length on the subject in a series of essays beginning in 1775. Kant was the first to name and define the geographic groupings of humans as races (in German, Rassen). Kant's races were characterized by physical distinctions of skin color, hair form, cranial shape, and other anatomical features and by their capacity for morality, self-improvement, and civilization. Kant's four races were arranged hierarchically, with only the European race, in his estimation, being capable of self-improvement.

Why did the scientific racism of Hume and Kant prevail in the face of the logical and thoughtful opposition of von Herder and others? During his lifetime, Kant was recognized as a great philosopher, and his status rose as copies of his major philosophical works were distributed and read widely in the nineteenth century. Some of Kant's supporters agreed with his racist views, some apologized for them, or—most commonly—many just ignored them. The other reason that racist views triumphed over anti-racism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that racism was, economically speaking, good for the transatlantic slave trade, which had become the overriding engine of European economic growth. The slave trade was bolstered by ideologies that diminished or denied the humanity of non-Europeans, especially Africans. Such views were augmented by newer biblical interpretations popular at the time that depicted Africans as destined for servitude. Skin color, as the most noticeable racial characteristic, became associated with a nebulous assemblage of opinions and hearsay about the inherent natures of the different races. Skin color stood for morality, character, and the capacity for civilization; it had become a meme. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rise of "race science." The biological reality of races was confirmed by new types of scientific evidence amassed by new types of scientists, notably anthropologists and geneticists. This era witnessed the birth of eugenics and its offspring, the concept of racial purity. The rise of Social Darwinism further reinforced the notion that the superiority of the white race was part of the natural order. The fact that all people are products of complex genetic mixtures resulting from migration and intermingling over thousands of years was not admitted by the racial scientists, nor by the scores of eugenicists who campaigned on both sides of the Atlantic for the improvement of racial quality.

The mid-twentieth century witnessed the continued proliferation of scientific treatises on race. By the 1960s, however, two factors contributed to the demise of the concept of biological races. One of these was the increased rate of study of the physical and genetic diversity human groups all over the world by large numbers of scientists. The second factor was the increasing influence of the civil rights movement in the United States and elsewhere. Before long, influential scientists denounced studies of race and races because races themselves could not be scientifically defined. Where scientists looked for sharp boundaries between groups, none could be found.

Despite major shifts in scientific thinking, the sibling concepts of human races and a color-based hierarchy of races remained firmly established in mainstream culture through the mid-twentieth century. The resulting racial stereotypes were potent and persistent, especially in the United States and South Africa, where subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned labor had been the cornerstone of economic growth.

After its "scientific" demise, race remained as a name and concept, but gradually came to stand for something quite different. Today many people identify with the concept of being a member of one or another racial group, regardless of what science may say about the nature of race. The shared experiences of race create powerful social bonds. For many people, including many scholars, races cease to be biological categories and have become social groupings. The concept of race became a more confusing mélange as social categories of class and ethnicity. So race isn't "just" a social construction, it is the real product of shared experience, and people choose to identify themselves by race.

Clinicians continue to map observed patterns of health and disease onto old racial concepts such as "White", "Black" or "African American", "Asian," etc. Even after it has been shown that many diseases (adult-onset diabetes, alcoholism, high blood pressure, to name a few) show apparent racial patterns because people share similar environmental conditions, grouping by race are maintained. The use of racial self-categorization in epidemiological studies is defended and even encouraged. In most cases, race in medical studies is confounded with health disparities due to class, ethnic differences in social practices, and attitudes, all of which become meaningless when sufficient variables are taken into account.

Race's latest makeover arises from genomics and mostly within biomedical contexts. The sanctified position of medical science in the popular consciousness gives the race concept renewed esteem. Racial realists marshal genomic evidence to support the hard biological reality of racial difference, while racial skeptics see no racial patterns. What is clear is that people are seeing what they want to see. They are constructing studies to provide the outcomes they expect. In 2012, Catherine Bliss argued cogently that race today is best considered a belief system that "produces consistencies in perception and practice at a particular social and historical moment".

Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won't be easy, but is necessary.