Progressive discourse often repeats the mantra that race is a “social construct.” This suggests that race only exists because society has said that it does, not unlike the concept of money. Without the widespread agreement that money has value, it’s just paper. As such, the thinking goes, race only exists in our minds and has no material basis in reality.
So where did this idea come from? And is it true?
In the 1990s, an era that took an optimistic attitude toward the idea of “color blindness,” the commonplace narrative was not that race is a “social construct” but that race is unimportant. Academics, in particular, who supported this argument were countering previous racial theories, many of which held that there were racial “essences”—or, that there were ways in which all white people, for instance, were different from all black people, and that these “essences” were inherited. This was largely based on stereotypes—many of which cast people of African descent, in particular, in a negative light—and so academics formed new narratives to counter this thinking.
In the past two decades or so, the tide has shifted once again. Color Blindness is no longer en vogue (and is often considered problematic). Instead, the need has arisen for a theory to explain why race is important: You can’t address oppression unless you acknowledge that race exists. The solution to this philosophical conundrum was the theory that race doesn’t exist on a material level but does exist as a social construct, particularly one that leads to individual bigotry as well as systemic oppression.
But what about genetics? Doesn’t the fact that DNA testing can predict someone’s race mean there is at least some biological underpinnings to the concept of race?
Well, yes. As Nicolas Wade, a former science editor for The New York Times and the author of A Troublesome Inheritance, wrote in 2014, “Analysis of genomes from around the world establishes that there is a biological basis for race, despite the official statements to the contrary of leading social science organizations. An illustration of the point is the fact that with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome, and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality.”
The above box shows genetic differences, color coded by regions of descent, showing the substantial genetic differences between what we call “races”
What’s more, there are particular disorders that affect some populations (or races) more than others, including sickle cell disease, which impacts vastly more people of African descent than caucasians. The same is true of Tay-Sachs disease, which primarily affects Ashkenazi Jews. So not only does this demonstrate the existence of race, it demonstrates that race can be useful in adequately screening for—and treating—disease.
Even if they are wrong in claiming there is no biological basis for race, social constructions do get one thing right: The value we place on racial groups does matter. If we were truly able to live in a colorblind society, as the optimists of the ‘90s (and Martin Luther King, Jr.) desired, racism might actually disappear.