Racial Categories Research Paper

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Fiction of Race


Race: The cultural power of the fiction of race

A recent PBS documentary was titled Race: The power of an illusion. This underlines what constitutes race -- race is a fiction, created by the faulty observational perceptions of human beings, and the history of human culture. Race is not a scientific reality. Because we can see color (and hair texture, facial shapes, and other characteristics) we perceive something we call race. But our scientific knowledge tells us that race does not exist. This is not to deny that race is a very powerful fiction that has influenced human history. The idea of racial categories proved to be deadly and destructive to the lives and the cultures of indigenous peoples. It was used to validate slavery, genocide, colonialism, and exploitation. But race is not 'real,' any more than the idea of 'carrying the white man's burden' was real.

The fictional quality of race does not mean that affirmative action for persons who are commonly seen as belonging to historically discriminated-against groups is invalid; rather it means that we should not confuse our illusions of the past with the realities of the present. "One of the ideas we take for granted most strongly in our society is that races represent natural categories of people. That is to say, the human species comes packaged a small number of ways, even color-coded for your convenience: black, white, yellow, red" (Marks 2003:53). Many forms of unscientific categorizations have existed in the past, such as categorizing persons as barbarians vs. Greeks or animals as clean and unclean in ancient societies (Marks 2003).

Even the scientific community of the present day has been won't to talk about 'race.' For example, in a comparison between hypertension and heart disease in Caucasians vs. African-Americans "a study was published regarding a combination of isosorbide dinitrate and hydralazine (BiDil) that was originally found to be ineffective in treating heart disease in the general population but was then shown to work in a 3-year trial of a group of 1050 individuals designated as African-Americans" (Duster 2005:1050). This drug, eventually approved by the FDA, has been called "the first racial drug" and it was announced that it was an important development because "the African-American community is affected at a greater rate by heart failure than that of the corresponding Caucasian population. African-Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 are 2.5 times more likely to die from heart failure than Caucasians in the same age range" (Duster 2005:1050). Heart disease was implicitly categorized as a 'black' disease, just as diabetes and weight-related diseases have been noted to disproportionately afflict minority communities.

But this facile use of the term race clouds the fact that the 45-64 age group only makes up 6% of heart failure mortality. The majority are over the age of 65, after which "the statistical differences between African-Americans and Caucasians" disappear (Duster 2005:1050). Even the statistics used to support the development of the drug only used persons living in Europe, the United States, and Canada while another comparison of heart disease subjects from Brazil, Trinidad, and Cuba showed a much smaller disparity (Duster 2005:1050). Another interesting finding is that African-American blacks of darker skin tones tend to have higher rates of hypertension and heart disease than lighter-skinned blacks. One possible reason for this is that darker-skinned African-Americans face more racism and discrimination, and these social pressures are contributing factors to the perpetuation of disease (Duster 2005:1050). This suggests that culture and lifestyle issues, not genetics alone are significant determinants of health and complicate the use of racial language to discuss health. The concept of 'racial medicine' which continues to grow in popularity, despite advances in equality in the past thirty years, shows how 19th century concepts of 'the races' die hard even in supposedly objective science. Racial concepts and stereotypes originated in folkloric practices and while science is supposed to be objective, it took many of its innate categories from popular culture, much as women were said to be 'innately' weaker and inferior to men.

The fact that there are differences between the categories of Caucasians and African-Americans is also not surprising because, statistically speaking, there will almost always be differences between any random samples, regardless of how the sampling was conducted. "Finding a higher frequency of some alleles in one population vs. another is a guaranteed outcome of modern technology, even for two randomly chosen populations. When the boundaries of those populations coincide with the social definition of race," it is natural to postulate racial differences are the source of the difference and to ignore other environmental factors that could be the real root cause (Duster 2005:1051). The profound economic and social discrepancies between African-Americans and other Americans that have existed throughout history make it difficult to isolate a variable known as 'race' that is solely particular to blacks and not to other groups.

Even in medicine, it is assumed that race is a significant variable in making diagnoses. According to one physician: "The doctor asks the patient -- or the parent of the patient, if you're a pediatrician -- for his or her age. The gender is determined during the physical exam. But the doctor usually just assumes the patient's race by looking at the person. My professors told me, and current textbooks still say, that knowing the patient's race helps the doctor make an accurate diagnosis" (Garcia 2005:15). But while it is true that certain racial groups show a higher prevalence of certain diseases (Tay-Sachs amongst Ashkenazi Jews, for example, and sickle cell anemia amongst African-Americans) it can also obfuscate data -- such as the example of an African-American with a cyst in his brain that the doctors assumed was the result of drug use (Garcia 2005:15).

The ostensible purpose of dividing up human beings into categories today is not to discriminate, but to illuminate physical truths, which the category of race does not (Garcia 2005:15). Because race is usually determined by physical appearance, someone with a physical appearance not deemed to be 'normal' to his or her race may be misdiagnosed both culturally and medically. Anthropologists who study the human species as a whole have come to a growing consensus that race is only meaningful in terms of understanding how humans have understood themselves in the past, and little about the actual DNA of the human race. In terms of the evolution of the species, "human variation is generally continuous, with no clear points of demarcation. It is impossible to reliably say where one race ends and another begins. Groups living close to each other tend to be biologically alike, and so race has an appearance of reality, but this is only geographic similarity" (Goodman 1998).

This can even be seen in our own evolving concept of race in America. Once upon a time, people would speak of the 'Irish' and 'Italian' races. But gradually, these ethic groups became more assimilated into American society and 'became' white. Calling the Irish a 'race' was once accepted amongst anthropologists but this is no longer the case today. Today, we also speak of African-American and Asian-American as if they were inclusive categories. Categories of persons who looked too different in the eyes of persons in power were denied rights, such as African-Americans and thus remained 'racial categories.' However African-Americans comprise an infinitely wide variety of genes, spanning from a multitude of African nations, to the white, Native America, Hispanic-American and other groups with whom African slaves had children. During World War II it was common to speak about the differences between Chinese and Japanese-Americans (because Japan was our enemy and China our ally). But once the war was over, these groups became elided into the categorization of Asian-Americans, despite the historical animosity between the two nations. These are all examples of how our seemingly immutable racial categorizations are dependent upon our emotional and cultural needs as a society, not objective truth.

Linguistically, it is also impossible to draw demarcations based upon race. "Five hundred years ago, Africans, natives of South and Central America, and Spanish or Portuguese people in the New World began to merge or assimilate (both biologically and culturally) and create new ethnic identities. Their descendants today, whether they are called Latinos or Hispanics, represent intricate and complex new mixtures of biogenetic or physical features, but they also have many cultural similarities in language and religion" (Smedley & Smedley 2005: 18-19). Even linguistically eliding the category of 'Hispanic' into 'persons who speak Spanish' is intensely problematic, given the degree of class-based, geographical, and cultural diversity that exists within such a categorization, as well as the diverse manifestations of the Spanish language amongst so-called Hispanics. Europeans likewise have tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as linguistic diversity, and centuries of historical animosity as well as cooperation, just as much as the nations of Latin America. But this is forgotten when using the all-inclusive, all-consuming category of race.

All the anthropological evidence suggests that "human…[continue]

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