Is race just a social construct? Does ethnicity mean something more than restaurants?
This blogger with a race and an ethnicity investigates.
When it comes to the idea of race, many make the opposite mistake to the one they make with group differences. When looking at group differences they point to the extremes to exclude the middle (“I know one smart black guy, and this really dumb Jewish guy”). When looking at race they exclude the clear-cut to focus on the ambiguous (“forget Jesse Jackson, what about Vin Diesel?”). Just as overlapping edges do not necessarily disprove different averages, an ambiguous middle does not necessarily exclude distinct categories.
Few would argue the legitimacy of the categories of “tall” and “short,” even while recognizing that ambiguous middle. I would suggest that in the majority of cases we could make the racial classification faster and more definitely than the tall/short one. In most cases, and for most people, the racial category is something we do automatically. Indeed, many of those difficult cases may well be less a case of ambiguity than explicit mixture (e.g., Barack Obama, Tiger Woods). Actually, the tall/short categories may be much more reliant on social construction; what is “tall” or “short” in some places would not be in others.
None of the above proves that race is not just some creation of our societies. However, the speed and ease at which we categorize, and that even young children can make us/them (with no other meaning attached) differentiations, leads me to believe this is something other than a learned social construct. It should be clear, though, that race (the recognition of difference) most certainly has social consequences. Social consequences do not imply a social construct any more then the social consequences of height imply that it is a social construct.
It is true that all humans are genetically very similar to each other, but we also share large similarities with chimps, cats, and other animals. While race must have its basis in genes, a simple counting of gene sequences will not itself prove much. Because humans share all their basic architecture (bones, blood vessels, muscles, etc.), we will share much of the genetic coding for those things. Human beings are immensely complex, so the genetic differences (counting of sequences) between individuals (and thus groups) may be numerically tiny but still significant in their effect.
I suspect that over time we will discover more gene sequences associated with traits, and will find that certain groups have more or less of that particular sequence. In other words, race is more likely to become a scientific description than a social construct.
Like race, ethnicity is about relatedness or connectedness. If race measure shared gene sequences, then ethnicity measures shared stories and myths. If race (in Steve Sailer’s words) is form of extended family, then ethnicity is more like an extended gang of friends. Ethnic groups will probably share many common ancestors, but this may be less important than the shared history. So if race is not a social construct, it seems that ethnicity might be (but bound by something stronger than mere “social construct” would imply).
Neither race nor ethnicity are demarked by clear delineations, yet everybody has a good idea if they are part or not. Most successful societies probably have large degrees of both; that is they share genes (race), and they share myths (ethnicity). Some of the United States’ success was due to the creation of its own myths; those myths helped to bind disparate peoples together (that they were racially close may have helped).
As I finish this I realize that after all the fighting related to race, it might be something of anticlimax to find that it could all be described by differences in small sequences of DNA. For all the blood spilled and tears shed, a categorizing by DNA sequences seems so prosaic.