Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Race, part 1

Because Phil's definition of race is on the long side, I'm dividing it into two parts--the first presented here this week, and the second presented next week (I post every Wednesday in case you hadn't noticed). If this is your first time here and you don't know who Phil is, please scroll down to my first post, in which I introduce him and the ideas behind this blog. Thanks.

race. In its biological sense, the term refers to a category of people distinguished by such inherited physical characteristics as skin color, certain facial features, and quality or form of hair. Race may also signify the prejudices, beliefs, and policies called racial or racist. Behind the term is an extremely vague, misleading, and intrac­table folk concept about how people are to be categorized.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dic­tionary (1993) derives race from the Middle French word meaning "genera­tion," from Old Italian razza (1580). It has also been said to stem from the Arabic word ras (chief, head, origin). European seafaring voyages of explo­ration of the late fifteenth century brought an increasing awareness of the "racial otherness" of the peoples of the world newly encountered by Westerners. By the eighteenth century, certain classes of human beings were referred to as races, a term that had earlier been used for plant and animal populations. The many schemas of "race" that eventually emerged often consisted of extremely broad, arbitrary, biologically defined groups such as negroid, mongoloid, and caucasoid. These were once referred to by largely inaccurate color term--black, yellow, and white--and viewed by many scien­tists as subspecies of the human popula­tion. For years, scientists and laypeople alike tended to rank such groups behav­iorally, culturally, and intellectually.

The biological concept of race has fallen from grace in anthropology be­cause it forces human populations into a few discrete categories of only ex­tremely crude scientific validity. One problem is that the characteristics believed to define a race do not adhere. Many people of India, for example, have the straight hair of Caucasians but dark skin. For thousands of years, groups have intermingled their genes, making it im­possible to speak of genetically isolated "races." The biological similarities be­tween groups are more obvious to the scientist than the differences: genetic research has shown that less than 2 per­cent of our genes differ from one indi­vidual to another. Because there are no innate, unchangeable features that define groups, anthropologists now favor alter­native terms. Among these are population. gene frequencies, and vari­ability.

The pertinent question about race is not what it is but how the concept is used and the significance it carries in a soci­ety. In general, race has provided U.S. society with an important way of think­ing about (and dominating) certain groups and a way groups have for iden­tifying themselves. In other societies, such as Brazil's, where, although racial discrimination exists, social class is be­lieved to be more important in distin­guishing people than skin color, the term has a different significance and may even be irrelevant.

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