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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 1
February 1999

Is Race a Myth?

Everybody knows what race is, right? Webster's defines it as "a local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics". In our society this concept is taken for granted by most people, yet many social scientists, biologists, and anthropologists believe race is just a figment of our imaginations.

Of course, those who have experienced discrimination based on race may not agree with this idea. For many people, racism makes race seem very real.

However, professor Naomi Zack argues that "the ordinary concept of race in the United States has no scientific foundation" (Zack, 1993). People lie along a gradual spectrum, she writes, they do not fall into distinct categories. And researcher Alain Corcos (1997) argues that because no population has ever been isolated enough from other populations to avoid "cross-breeding", there is no way to genetically characterize race. People of one "race" may be very different from one another, yet similar to someone of another "race", genetically speaking.

Since slavery began in the U.S., racial discrimination has rested on the belief that there are fundamental differences between "whites" and "blacks". Yet if we as a society accepted the argument of Zack and other scientists that race is an empty concept, racism would wither away; without race, there can be no racism.

As practitioners, we must recognize that people of color--that is, anyone in the United States who appears to have any ancestors not of European origin (Zack, 1993)--experience racial discrimination (Feagin, 1986), and therefore may be reluctant to agree that race does not exist. Also, white Americans, who benefit from racial privilege every day, may not want to give up such privilege by abandoning the concept of race (Feagin, 1986).

It is important to remember that categorizing people by race, national origin, or ethnicity is always tricky. Especially when working with people whose parents have different ethnic backgrounds, be careful to respect whatever ethnic category they choose to call themselves, whether or not it is recognized by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

References

Corcos, A. (1997). Myth of human races. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Feagin, J. R. & Feagin, C. B. (1986). Institutional discrimination. Discrimination american style: Institutional racism and sexism (2nd ed.) Malibu, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Zack, N. (1993). Race and mixed race. (1993). Philadelphia; Temple University Press.

1999 Jordan Institute for Families