In the last several decades, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the advent of a comparatively more racially permissive culture in the United States, a great deal of scholarship has arisen to discuss the definition of race as a social construct. This definition of race differs from the traditional, biological view of race; whereas the latter argues that race is a construct born of biological factors such as skin color, physiology and ancestry, the social construct of race frames the concept as an ideological one borne of social divisions and cultural classifications. This creates a unique tension between the previous perception of race as something innate to our identity and the idea that society imposes racial barriers and divisions in order to create in-group/out-group dynamics that inherently privilege some groups over others (Morning, 2014). By challenging this traditional idea, the construction of race in America along socioeconomic and cultural lines helps to illuminate other ideas about how minorities and those of underserved groups are treated throughout American history, not to mention today.
According to Weber (2001), race, class, gender and sexuality can be defined as social constructs, with a specific sociopolitical aim to suppress those who are not in the majority. The purpose of this segregation into specific types is to lower or provide barriers to access to resources, whether political, economic, or ideological. In this way, social constructions of race heavily rely on the idea that the core relationship between people of different races is of a struggle for power: "Dominant groups have access to greater economic, political and ideological resources, and employ these resources to control subordinate groups and to maintain their power" (p. 114). In this way, the traditional view of race needlessly segregates human beings into arbitrary biological groups that have little to no basis in biological superiority or inferiority. Instead, these differences are endemic of social stereotypes, restriction of access to services, and different environments that come through racial segregation and the forming of groups.
In many ways, the traditional view of race as a biological construct heavily inhibits the assimilation of underserved groups into the majority of Americans. According to this traditional definition, people of different races can never transcend those arbitrary biological differences attributed to them by this absolutist definition – Asian people are smarter, Africans are more athletic, etc. To that end, the traditional view says that underserved groups cannot successfully transition into the majority, because these differences are so vast and unchangeable that they would never truly be part of the majority. Because the world has such finite resources, distinctions such as these inherently favor those in power, as they would never allow those not like them to share equally in these resources. This creates the power struggles and stratification that results in the race and class distinctions modern American currently experiences.
When looking at how race is defined and created in contemporary America, it grows closest to assimilation in terms of its basic makeup. While the dream of the American ‘melting pot’ is certainly a reality, as more and more people of different races have mixed-race children, the social realities of America inherently favor those individuals who can more easily pass for the white majority. Even within African-American cultures, there is a huge issue of intersectional prejudice based along skin tone lines; darker-skinned African-Americans naturally face more socioeconomic challenges than lighter-skinned black men and women, given their greater ability to ‘pass’ within dominant white culture (Weber, 2001). While these children are no less African-American, the cultural and social construction of race runs along a spectrum that allows them comparatively greater freedoms than those who can be more easily identified as African-American.
Examining the evidence and sociological exploration of both the traditional and sociological construction of race, I believe that the latter definition is more inherently valid. In research about the genetic differences between people of different ‘races,’ some scholars believe they have found “clinal classes” that showcase sufficient human biological variation to create the capacity for race (Morning 2014, p. 189). In this traditional definition, the social constructivist view on race is rejected as being out of date and not supported by these findings on human genetics, as these differences have been genetically proven and supported by study.
However, Morning (2014) provides a sufficient rebuttal to this definition, noting that social construction is inherent to the biological claims that underlie the traditional definition of race as being something clear in one’s genes. By classifying people as part of these already-established races, traditional biologists hoping to find biotruths in the search for racial difference start their presumptions by relying on centuries-old distinctions created by 18th-century colonial interests and the like (Morning, 2014). To that end, their search is flawed from the start, as they simply hope to find races that were already socially created in the first place. Particularly with the rapidly blurring lines of race within society, and the gradual creep of racial equality, it is more difficult to even use these genetic markers as evidence of different ‘races,’ due to miscegenation and people of different ethnicities having children together. With these imminent changes, the traditional divisions of race are slowly but surely breaking down anyway; to that end, societal definitions become far more sensible.
While social constructs of race are not blind to biology, race is not built on a biological basis within society – the “melting pot” of mixed-race Americans often creates a social construction of genetic population clusters in which people kept in certain societal proximity would naturally form these clinal classes. Morning (2014) and others successfully argue that “statistically inferred clusters are [not] the equivalent of races,” thus rendering these kinds of arguments somewhat spurious and weakly associated with traditional definitions of race. Furthermore, the findings of researchers who support biological racial constructs are inherently biased in these social perceptions of race being something inherently different between individuals of different social groups because of these already-existing social constructions (Morning, 2014). Because of this, it is extremely clear that the effort to continue grouping human beings along arbitrary genetic and racial distinctions is borne of “an accumulation of beliefs about human difference that not only predate the contemporary sciences but run counter to how we think today about human society and biology” (Morning 2014, p. 204).
Discussing the issue of race as a social construct, it is clear that the traditional definition of race as something inherent to human biology is something that can be dismissed as outdated and anachronistic. In today’s world, with greater recognition of the way social groups are formed and maintained, it is clear that racial lines are drawn primarily with the motivation to selectively limit social groups in order to maintain class distinctions and subtly limit resources to those that do not fit a societal ‘default.’ Instead, race is borne of societal power relationships that use things like physical appearance and minor differences in biology to create meaningless divisions to make some people submissive and others more dominant – this is true of things like gender, class and sexual orientation as well. With a more modern perception of race as a social construct, it can then be easier to recognize these systems of oppression and subjugation and, possibly, address them in a productive and helpful way.
Morning, A. (2014). Does Genomics Challenge the Social Construction of Race? Sociological
Theory, 32(3), 189-207.
Weber, L. (2001). Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality (2nd ed.) McGraw-Hill.