Race is a Bad Idea (2001, 2002, 2010)

Race is a bad idea.

This statement asserts two things:

first, that race is to be understood primarily as an idea or concept; as a social, rather than as a biological phenomenon, and


second, that the idea of race is bad, in that it does more harm than good.


"Race" is an idea

"Race" is the idea that we can meaningfully categorize people into a few, discrete groups of genetic ancestry. In high school biology, circa 1980, I was taught that there were five "races": caucasoid, mongoloid, amerindian, negroid, and australoid. They're listed here in the order of superiority, best to worst, designated for them about a hundred years earlier, as an element of biology's "law of fives."

But are these groups discrete? No, they blend into each other wherever one "race" borders or lives with another.

Are they few? Only for the convenience of categorizing them. Are the Inuit really the same "race" as the Andeans? Are the Polynesians really the same "race" as the Ainu? Are the pygmies and bushmen really the same "race" as the Tutsis? The Scandinavians as the Greeks? The answer is Yes or No depending on where you want to draw the lines. That's because "race" as we know it is primarily a concept (a social tool) rather than a biological reality. It does not square with modern genetics.

Race is more of a biological phenomenon than I thought it was when I first wrote this article, but not race as we commonly understannd it. Forensic specialists can determine the "race" of a skeleton, often more accurately than they can determine the race of a living person. By "race," they mean "group of people sharing certain physical traits because they descend primarily from a distinct prehistoric population." Likewise, samples of one's junk DNA can usually tell the same thing, where one's prehistoric ancestors lived. In the case of DNA, humans fall into roughly five continental categories, with Europeans and Indians together as Indo-Europeans. Unfortunately, this definition of "race" doesn't fit common usage. It puts Indians and Irish into the same "race." It divides "Hispanics" up into biologically distinct groups. But Irish are socially distinct from Indians, and it suits Hispanics in the US to consider themselves as a single group, La Raza. The biologically tenable definition of race is far enough from common usage that it only confuses the issue to call it "race." In addition, analyzing DNA at that level is just one way to look at inheritance, and other ways of tracking inheritance split people up into categories that don't match the five continental groups.


"Race" is bad

Historically, "race" has been used to divide people, and especially to invent a social structure that put one's own group at an advantage. North American slaveholders, for example, took to calling their slaves "negroes" instead of "heathens," identifying them by skin color rather than religion, once white preachers started converting the slaves to Christianity. We liberals now look forward to a world where we all live together as equals, and an idea created to implement social, legal, and economic inequality, as "race" was, is an impediment to that future.

"Race" misleads us, tricking us into misunderstanding social injustice. In the US, skin color correlates to class and privilege but does not equate to either. Discrepancies founded in class and privilege, such as in school achievement, discipline of students, crime, and how likely one is to be shot and killed by the Seattle police, seems on the surface to be based on skin color. If "race" didn't distract us, we'd see that poverty and privilege cause most of the apparent differences among "races."


"Ethnicity" is a better idea

Ethnicity is understood to be social rather than misunderstood to be genetic.

It is historic rather than prehistoric.

It is specific rather than general.

It is mutable rather than understood to be inherent.

September 2001, 2002, 2010


Lee Valentine




update: Originally I said that 'poverty and privilege cause almost all the apparent differences among "races."' I revised that to "most of the apparent differences." For my purposes, my point is made with even the less far-reaching claim.

Update: Here's an article in Scientific American that examines how scientifically useful the idea of race might be.


—JoT January 2004