More Than Skin Deep

How and why race still matters

Jen Wick Studio

In 2008, when Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi referred to President Barack Obama as “sun-tanned,” Italians and Americans considered it a racist gaffe. Obama's skin hue could be identical to that of a white person who has a suntan, but calling Obama “sun-tanned” disregards an ancestry and self-identification that has resulted in his African American identity.

It is provocative to refer to race simply in regards to skin color. Skin color does have a lot to do with race, but skin color differences aren't socially neutral variations in the same way that differences in hair or eye color often are. Instead, skin color can be used as shorthand for the idea of race as a system of biological human types. People think that race must be biological because members of different races have different physical traits that they inherit from their parents, and biology includes the study of heredity. However, if by the term race we mean a system of human types that differ in objective physical ways that scientists can study, this system has no foundation in biology.

There is no single gene that determines a person's race, and the combinations of genes that are more frequent in each of the major racial groups are not present in all members of those groups. Scientists have in the past differed on where to draw the line between races, coming up with anywhere between three and sixty human races. The mapping of the human genome in the early twenty-first century yielded no data about race. In short, as far as biological science is concerned, there are no general physical determinants that line up with each of the major races.

What it comes down to is that people resemble their parents if their parents resemble one another. If parents have different skin colors associated with different races, the child is multi-racial and may not resemble either parent. The possibility that people could identify as more than one race was officially ignored by the US Census Bureau until 2000, which was the first year that respondents were allowed to check as many boxes for race as applied to them. But ever since 1967 when the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, struck down antimiscegenation laws that prohibited racial intermarriage, mixed-race babies have been the fastest growing racial segment in national birth rates.

The growth and official recognition of multiracial populations destabilize older beliefs that only three or four human races exist. All of the possible permutations of racial identity afforded by the census results in more than sixty different racial identities—far more than the average person can easily use when trying to identify the race of another person. Yet, the complexity of what it means to be multiracial has not dislodged commonly held ideas about race as an objective biological foundation for human difference. But although race is not a legitimate subject for biological study, it remains an important and legitimate subject for the social sciences and humanities.

Race is a social construction, or a changing idea and system of behavior that human beings invent and reinvent about themselves and others, usually to organize society for their own benefit. The irony is that groups that have been racialized and who have been harmed by racism—African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, for example—sometimes use, as a source of pride and protest, the very identities that were originally imposed to crush them and keep them down. For instance, W. E. B. Dubois, who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, wrote about the “destiny of the Negro race” to demonstrate the excellence of black people in the face of the extreme racism of his day, which included lynching and segregation. Today, some people of color strongly resist giving up the idea of race and may remain deeply suspicious of the idea of a color-blind society because they are concerned that they will have no basis, no identity, from which to resist or politically protest racial discrimination by white people.
Because ideas about differences in race continue to have powerful effects in ordinary life, it is important to know the history of these ideas. With the European colonization of other parts of the world beginning in the early 1400s, race as a form of human difference became attached to heredity. This attachment offered justification for why it was acceptable to enslave people who were seen as inferior and ineligible for freedom and equality—beliefs in universal human equality were lauded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' Age of Enlightenment. Europeans and Americans who economically benefitted from colonizing Africa, India, the Americas, and parts of Southeast Asia—and slave owners and their advocates—all found this justification useful. Although for many years historians lamented that blacks were enslaved because they were a different race, systematic ideas of black racial inferiority actually developed concurrently with the period of American slavery. It is more accurate to say that blacks in America became known as a different race because of the institution of slavery. Under slavery, the children of slaves were automatically slaves, even if only one parent, almost always the mother, was a slave.

The full-blown theory of human race came into existence only when biology emerged as a science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Samuel George Morton in the early 1800s built on a long tradition of racial pseudoscience (which included works by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the French writer Arthur de Gobineau) and developed a complex system based on the skull and brain sizes of different races, concluding blacks had the smallest brains, thus making them inferior to other races. His ideas were later supported by speculations about white racial superiority and ideologies of white supremacy, such as Madison Grant's 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race.

By the 1940s, such theories were discredited by American cultural anthropologist Franz Boas and in the 1950s, by his students, who included Claude Lévi-Strauss and Margaret Mead. Ideas of racial biological inferiority were further challenged after World War II through the Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Heredity, Race, and Society by Theodosius Dobzhansky and L. C. Dunn. And Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, explains how Morton had falsified his data. The main idea shared in these works is that social differences among human groups are the result of culture and history, not biology.

The racialization of blacks was not a unique historical phenomenon. For instance, Arab Americans and Middle Eastern Americans were officially categorized as racially white in the census during the twentieth century, but after the events of 9/11, fear of terrorist acts by members of these groups led some people to think about them as a race, based on the color of their skin. In another example, Mexican Americans are an ethnic or cultural group and not a race, according to the US Census Bureau. But fear of illegal immigrants has led to some police in southwestern border states profiling people who “look Mexican” and requesting proof of legal residence without evidence of criminal behavior.

Patterns of racialization in the United States have not been limited to those who are today considered racial or ethnic minorities. When English colonizers and settlers were the dominant group in the American colonies, Irish immigrants were disparaged as members of a less-refined race. Benjamin Franklin expressed fear of the cultural influence of German immigrants, referring to the dark complexions of those from southern Germany. At the turn of the twentieth century, even Franz Boas, the progressive Jewish American anthropologist who spread the idea that culture is not inherited and did so much to debunk old theories of racial hierarchies, warned his colleagues about the effects on US society of a huge influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, referring to the new arrivals as “types distinct from our own.”

Italians, Poles, Germans, and some Scandinavian groups were all considered dangerous nonwhites at different times and were feared by “native-born” Americans as job competitors or proponents of socialism, communism, and other radical ideas. For instance, the Socialist Party of Oregon was formed in 1904, but by 1908 to 1910—the heyday of the national Socialist Party—the federal government investigated the so-called Red Finns of Astoria for their dangerous, radical ideas; all “dangerous radicals” were at that time subject to being rounded up and deported. On the eve of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson and members of Congress spoke out against foreign language newspapers, cultural organizations, and schools, many of which were German American. Under that pressure, most of those presses and the ethnic organizations they represented quietly folded. Second- and third-generation European immigrants then focused their energy on full cultural assimilation to dominant Anglo-America.

By World War II, most descendants of the European so-called nonwhite races had assimilated to the dominant Anglo-American culture. Their parents and grandparents had worked hard and long at jobs that native-born Americans did not want, and they made sure that their offspring had good educations. Fearing integration, many third-generation European immigrants left American cities to live in the suburbs after racial segregation in schools became illegal with the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. There they often shed their ethnic backgrounds to become not only fully American, but generically white.

This process of white flight intensified after the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Blacks moved from the South to the large northern cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, as did recent immigrants from Asia and South and Central America (after quotas on immigration were relaxed in 1965), who set up ethnic enclaves in the more impoverished areas of inner cities. Skin color, combined with poverty and cultural difference, continues to set racial and ethnic minorities apart from the more affluent society.

This economic separation of racial and ethnic minorities from what is a predominantly white middle-class and/or affluent population can be explained by what is called structural racism in sociology and institutional racism in the humanities. It works like this: If someone's family is poor because his or her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were not permitted, because of racially discriminatory policies, to attain college degrees or work in professions that would allow them to accumulate wealth, that person starts out in life without an economic and mainstream cultural foundation. Similarly, if discriminatory housing practices like redlining have prevented a person's parents or grandparents from buying a home in neighborhoods populated by whites, that creates residential segregation with people of color living in poorer neighborhoods.

The United States has a higher rate of residential racial segregation in the early twenty-first century than it did in the 1970s; this matters because K–12 schools in the United States are funded on a local level through property taxes, which are based on property values. Simply put, school districts with more funding can provide better educational opportunities than those that are underfunded. The funding for schools in rich white neighborhoods, where every child has a computer and there are opportunities for foreign travel, may be a thousand times greater than that for schools in poor neighborhoods where many residents are people of color.

Equal educational opportunities are important because, since the late twentieth century, the single most reliable predictor of an individual's socioeconomic success relative to his or her parents' is standardized test scores in middle school. It doesn't matter whether the tests are measuring the right things in human value terms or even in broad cognitive skills. In our present system, although race influences a young person's chances in life, high scores on standardized tests matter more. Higher scores open the doors of socioeconomic mobility more effectively than privilege because of race (being white) or gender (being male) because high school teachers and college admissions officers tend to favor and support students with high test scores. Yet, because of factors attributable to institutional racism, racial minorities are disproportionately represented in low scores on standardized tests.

Institutional racism can explain why blacks are more than twice as likely to be poor than whites in the United States, even though numerically, there are more poor whites than blacks. It can also explain why blacks also disproportionately populate the criminal justice system. In every measure of human well-being—health, life expectancy, infant survival, education, employment, and stress—blacks and Hispanics fare poorly compared to whites.

The mainstream press has made a big deal of the fact that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority and that at some time in the twenty-first century, whites will be a numerical minority in the United States. However, the term minority can be misleading. Minority means a smaller number, but throughout history, small, powerful elites have oppressed a larger number of citizens or residents (for instance, in South Africa during apartheid or in parts of the US South during slavery). Population numbers alone may seem to represent power in a democracy, but this is true only if those large in number understand their political system and can vote together for the benefit of their group. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whites in some parts of the United States feared the impact of high numbers of minority voters, so they instituted poll taxes, burdensome literacy requirements, and gerrymandering. In the twenty-first century, there has been fraud in counting votes from districts largely occupied by racial minorities. In other words, the right to vote is a powerful tool for racial minorities but the implementation of this right has been an ongoing struggle.

Institutional racism and its impact on the quality of life and political power of people of color is evidence that race still matters. Some believe that racial equality is apparent in the success of some blacks and Hispanics in politics, entertainment, and sports. These critics have a point. Although race matters in terms of the kind of success that most Americans value, it is not the only thing that matters. Upward socioeconomic mobility is of course possible and accessible to those who begin life with disadvantages associated with minority racial identity, but such individuals are numerical minorities in any racial group.
What this means in terms of social justice is that if our society values equal opportunity so individuals can strive for the American Dream—whatever its specific forms—then we need to fully support equality in K–12 education. This does not mean, of course, that we should ignore real differences in IQ and aptitude, but it does mean that we have to correct those inequalities in grade school that are unfairly associated with race. We like to say that every adult who makes a mistake and wants to change deserves a second chance, but we also need to remember that every child deserves a first chance.


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A Hidden History

Dangerous Subjects

More Than Skin Deep

One America?

Picture Their Hearts

Being Brown