The word ‘race’ has largely been discredited in academic and policy discussions. You will notice that in this course, as elsewhere in the course, we have adopted the now common practice of putting the term ‘race’ in inverted commas, or ‘scare quotes’ as they are sometimes tellingly known. This is to indicate that, in current thinking, the idea of there being distinct ‘races’ and that human beings can be divided up on ‘racial’ grounds has been discredited. Racial thinking was at its height in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was associated with the ideologies of empire and colonialism. Ideas about distinct racial groups with distinct characteristics were developed to support the notion that some ‘races’ (those of white, European origin) were innately superior to others (usually ‘non-white races’ of African or Asian origin).
Many writers in this field argue that ‘race’ is socially constructed, as part of a process in which individuals are assigned to particular ‘racial’ categories (Banton, 1977; UNESCO, 1980; Miles, 1982, 1989). Certain physical characteristics, such as skin colour, become markers of social difference, as part of a process of ‘racialisation’ in which the concept of ‘race’ is given specific social meaning. People assigned to a particular ‘racialised’ group are perceived to have specific characteristics: for example, black people may be deemed to be better at some sports than white people, but also not as intelligent. In fact a great deal of early scientific research on ‘race’ focused on trying to determine intelligence by examining the size of the brain in different ‘racialised’ groups (Huxley and Haddon, 1935; Jensen, 1969; Eysenck, 1971; Banton, 1977; Barkan, 1992). This research was inconclusive and no ‘racial’ differences were found.
However, there are some genetic differences between groups of people which seem to have a geographical origin. For example, some inherited disorders are more prevalent in certain areas of the world and in communities that have migrated (Weatherall, 2001). Thalassaemia is more prevalent in Greek-Cypriot communities, whereas cystic fibrosis is more prevalent in North European communities (Ward, 2001). Some writers (for example Jensen, 1969; Eysenck, 1971) argue that this demonstrates the reality of ‘racial differences’. However, others have argued that such ‘differences’ are largely insignificant, and that in fact there are more genetic differences within ‘racial groups’ than between them (Woodward, 1997). According to the sociologist and psychodynamic writer Michael Rustin:
‘Race’ is both an empty category and one of the most destructive and powerful forms of social categorization … differences of biological race are largely lacking in substance. Racial differences go no further, in their essence, than superficial variations in bodily appearance and shape – modal tallness of different groups, colour of skin, facial shape, hair, etc. Given the variations that occur within so-called racial groups … it is hard to find any significance in these differences except those which are quite arbitrarily assigned to them … Racial differences depend on the definition given to them by the other – that is to say, on the definition of the other- and the most powerful definitions of these kinds are those which are negative – definitions that we can call racist.
Rustin, 2000, pp. 183, 184
More significant than any minor genetic differences is the way in which supposed ‘racial’ differences have been used to explain people’s behaviour and to place them in a hierarchy in society. To quote social policy writer Esther Saraga:
From a social constructionist perspective what is important is the ways in which these terms link together to produce a social relation, which organizes how people are placed in society. From this viewpoint, to construct groups of people into ‘races’ involves a threefold process:
Human populations are divided into discrete categories on the basis of variations in physical features.
Meaning is ascribed to this physical variation and it is then said to be possible to know the potentialities, behaviours, needs and abilities of a person on the basis of their ‘racial’ belonging.
This social process of categorization and classification is then said to be a product of nature – that is, racial division is said to be natural.
Saraga, 1998, pp. 99–100