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Top 10 Facts


About Race

 From Susan Pizarro-Eckert,
Your Guide to Race Relations.
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We all have inherited ideas about race and racial difference. Some of these ideas are based on little more than misinformed stereotypes, others reflect ongoing fears shaped by outdated politics and social policies; usually these are passed on from one generation to the next.

Although many dream of a colorblind world, the truth is that race still matters in today's society. Why race matters and what level of importance we continue to give it will ultimately depend upon our understanding of the history of race and racial hierarchies. Following are 10 facts about race, which you may not be aware of.

1) Race matters today, but the concept of "race" didn't always exist

Fact: The ancient Greeks classified people according to culture and language, not according to physical differences. Foreigners, including Africans, were accepted as Greek citizens so long as they assimilated - i.e. learned the language and adopted similar customs and styles of dress.

2) Slavery is not inextricably linked with the concept of race

Fact: Both Greece and Rome enslaved people on the basis of battles won/lost; this was regardless of appearance. When the concept of "freedom" was introduced during the American Revolution, it shone a spotlight on the young nation's key moral contradiction: how could the concepts of freedom, equality, and natural rights of man stand alongside the practice of slavery? The growing notions of race and racial inferiority helped to resolve this contradiction by depicting Africans as different, separate from, and less deserving of the same rights that European settlers enjoyed.

3) There is no single genetic marker for race - race has no genetic basis

Fact: Throughout history, the search for “race” was fueled by preconceived ideas about “superiority.” Early "scientists" validated racial hierarchy, but modern scientists have discovered and continue to prove that no single gene, trait or characteristic distinguishes one race from another; two reasons: 1) human beings haven't been around long enough to evolve into subspecies, and 2) human beings have always been mobile, mixing genes with different populations. Genes are inherited independently. Race is a socially constructed concept, which over time has served as key support for social and political interests.

4) Although we behave as if race matters a lot, most variation occurs within races

Fact: 85% of human genetic variation exists within any given population - whether Italian, Chinese, or Korean - than between. Two Chinese mean are likely to be as genetically different as a Chinese man and an Italian man.

5) Despite the lack of scientific evidence, race matters

Fact: Race continues to be a powerful factor in determining which groups have access to resources and opportunities. The effects of past divisive social and political policies continue to be felt; the goal of a "colorblind" society will not ameliorate these effects. Pretending that race doesn't matter does not equate with treating people equally. Instead, the identification and reshaping of social policies that continue to advantage or disadvantage certain groups must be undertaken.

6) Race classification is a political, not a scientific or biological matter

Fact: Because race is a political and social issue, definitions and classification systems differ from one country to another. For example, Brazil has many more racial categories than the U.S., and Haiti has a vastly different definition of "white" than the U.S.

7) Race matters today, but the interesting fact is, we are all mixed

Fact: Humans have been mixing for centuries, and when you consider that evolutionary biologists have shown that we are all descendents of the original peoples of Africa, it is easier to understand just how closely connected we all are. New DNA home tests, although they are currently considered controversial, have resulted in fascinating findings for a vast number of Americans who have traced their DNA to foreign countries and cultures all over the globe.

8) Racial classifications have consistently changed over time

Fact: who's white, who's black, who's Asian have all changed just within the highly politicized American racial classification system. A close look at the highly imperfect classification system in use today reveals an incomplete map and an inconsistent application of guidelines and definitions. For example, in order to claim identity as an "American Indian" one must earn it; they must prove tribal membership or a minimum percentage of blood relation. On the other hand, to classify as "Black or African American" all that's necessary is a single "drop," or one ancestor, and the option of choice in identity is removed.

9) Race is a double-edged sword

Fact: Although the system itself lacks any biological or scientific basis and has been used primarily as tool for restricting access to resources and opportunities, we cannot simply do away with it in one fell swoop. The fact remains, that systems and institutions based on these classifications continue to reinforce opportunities (or lack thereof) among certain groups. Without tracking the effects of these institutions and biased systems, we would not have any way to identify whether or not we, as a society, had truly reached the goal of equality.

10) Racial categories lack neutrality and objectivity

Fact: racial categories (along with their definitions) were constructed and reconstructed to support shifting political goals and, most often, specifically for the purpose of excluding certain groups. For example, in the 1900s U.S. courts decided who was legally "white" to determine naturalization rights; these ever-shifting decisions were most often arbitrary and/or contradictory.

Posted by Joe Anybody at 8:01 PM PST
Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007 5:05 PM PST

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