Image description: A close up of a purple and blue DNA model

Race is a Social Construct

The phrase, “race is a social construct” is thrown around frequently amongst liberal college students and often met with generous amounts of eye rolling — perhaps as much as “gender is a spectrum.” This concept, however, is crucial to the understanding of racial relations in the United States and its denial is a large part of how racism is still able to function. In Fatal Invention, Dorothy Roberts defines race as “a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations.”[1] This definition serves to not only invalidate the idea of a “biological race,” but also systematically exposes the contradictions that lie within.

From the very beginning, Roberts states that race is a political category, not a biological one. The flexibility of racial categories in the public mind, as well as the government census, can be presented as evidence. In 1850, the only racial categories were White, Black, and Mulatto.[2] Later in history, new categories such as Chinese, Indian, Quadroon, and Hindu were created as racial categories. The creation of new categories did not mean that new biological races had emerged; rather, their invention shows how society was forced to shift its notions of race as it sought novel ways to accommodate these new bodies that challenged existing racial structures.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

As Roberts’s definition states, race is also used to “govern” others and thus, can be understood as a tool of power. History shows us that this political category has been invoked to not only ascribe citizenship, power, and authority to Whites, but simultaneously take them away from people of color.  Howard Zinn’s piece on “Drawing the Color Line” gives a clear example of how being categorized as White resulted in tangible benefits: “Virgina’s ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them.”[3] Thus, the shifting of racial categories can also illustrate the evasive maneuvers of white supremacy, as it sought to maintain tight control over power.

Josiah Nott (1868) uses science to "prove" his racist idea that Africans are closer to primates and thus, more primitive.
Josiah Nott (1868) uses science to “prove” his racist idea that Africans are closer to primates and thus, more primitive.

The final part that I would like to analyze from Roberts’s definition of race is its basis on “invented biological demarcations.” This is perhaps where false ideas of biological races arise. However, as Roberts states, the biological basis of race is nothing more than an invention. Many scientists have stated that there is no biological basis for race. In fact, recent genetic research and human genome mapping have shown that all humans are 99.9% identical genetically and more differences exist amongst people of the same race than between people of different races.[4] Others may still argue that race is based on biological traits such as skin color, eye shape, or nose shape. For example, Asians are thought to have peachy skin, monolid eyes, flatter faces, and dark hair—all of which are biological characteristics. However, race’s failing as a biological category can be seen through the exceptions. Asians as a racial group encompasses not only East Asians with the above stated traits, but also people descending from India, Philippines, as well as various minority groups in China that bear very little resemblance to each other. Thus, racial categories are not based on clearly demarcated biological or physical characteristics. Rather, race is a political category in biological disguise.

Ascribing a false sense of scientific knowledge to race is a powerful and dangerous practice. As biology and more broadly, science, are considered to be factual and based on hard truth, biological determinism renders race—as well as its accompanying stereotypes and racism—to be not only true but also inevitable. Race, thus, becomes a foolproof “biological fact” on which institutional and systemic practices of racism can be justified. Much of this can be seen playing out in welfare politics, where Black folks are thought to make up a large portion of welfare recipients because they are inherently lazy or hyperfertile. Such a manner of deeming a race “biologically” disposed to poverty voids the government of responsibility and excuses them for the racist social policies that led to such economic disparities in the first place. In this way, the biological race argument can be seen as another component of this supposed post-racial society that we exist in, where the inner racist workings of the system are rendered invisible

As shown through the arguments above, race is not a biological, genetic or “natural” category but a social construct. However, it should be noted that deeming race a “social construct” does not mean race is not real. Race and racism still has very real social impacts in people’s lives. Especially in a society with increasing affinity for racial genetic testing and discovering the “race” gene, we must be more critically aware of how the rhetoric of biological race serves to further the social impacts of racism.


[1] Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, (New York: The  New Press, 2012), 13.

[2] Steven Riley, “US Census Race Categories, 1790-2010,”Mixed Race Studies (blog), 2009, http://www.mixedracestudies.org/wordpress/?page_id=4590.

[3] Howard Zinn, “Drawing the Color Line,” A People’s History of the United States, pg. 16.

[4] “Race in a Genetic World.” Harvard Magazine, May 2008. http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/05/race-in-a-genetic-world-html (accessed February 20, 2014).

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