*Two concepts dominate my understanding of race.
The first is that while race has some basis in biology, it is ultimately a social construct that adds subjective elements to biology. And as a social construct its strength as a defining characteristic should be minimized.
The second, to paraphrase Professor Arthur Levin, the American understanding of race is the most insidious form of structuring a society; furthermore the American conceptualization of race gets exported all over the world and has become stronger than it original form and has been accepted as a global norm.
Of course both are correct.
There are real biological similarities between people from the African continent below the Sahara desert; there are also real differences between those Sub-Saharan Africans and Inuit people of the extreme northern hemisphere. These biological facts have real consequences. This is why people of African descent are more likely to have sickle cell trait and develop anemia while people with a strong European heritage are less likely to have sickle cell trait and are more in jeopardy of contracting malaria.
The above paragraph deals with fairly black and white issues based in physical science. The trick is what happens when one gets into the grey area of social science. Sociological differences cannot be definitively tied to biological differences. This is how Europeans and people of European descent in the United States can highlight their Aryan heritage while claiming no connection with the people of color in southern Asia without realizing there is a real biological connection between Indians and Germans. That is, there is a biological similarity but a sociological difference.
Race becomes a way of understanding the dissonance between the biology and sociology. And this is why both of the concepts I covered at the beginning of this article are both correct. Race needs to be minimized so that we can better understand what is really going in terms of the sociological relationships between Indians and Europeans. However we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that race is why Europeans do not highlight their kinship with people of southern Asia. Race is a powerful ghost – it doesn’t really exist but it still motivates actions and decisions.
In the United States we continue to try to move beyond race. Of course even once we remove race the biological underpinnings still exist. I was prompted to write this article because a podcast I listen to regularly was trying to distinguish one basketball player from another (one is white and the other is black) and seemed to make a conscious decision not to make the easiest distinction possible. Put another way: perhaps saying all black people can play basketball should mean a pink slip, but identifying a basketball player as black should not.
We can and should strive for a world where race doesn’t automatically inherently richer or poorer, or more or less valuable to the community. But we should also be sophisticated enough to strive for that even while acknowledging that my skin color and your skin color aren’t the same and that’s okay.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.