Racism is Real, Race is Not
By Christopher Williams,
Editor-in-Chief, Southwest Voice - The People's Paper
PhD Candidate, Public Health
Founder, Public Health Liberation
Christopher Williams prefers to be identified as a descendant of US enslaved families (primary) and member of a Southern religious culture (secondary) with a King-centered social justice praxis (tertiary).
Race is based on the falsehood that the world’s population of nearly 8 billion can be grouped into a handful of categories. The Biden administration is seeking changes to federal data collection requirements on race by providing options for "Middle Eastern or North African" and "Hispanic or Latino". However, this change would contribute nothing to the validity of race as a social construct. It is now widely accepted that there is no biological basis for race, although many areas of research perpetuate a scientific notion of race. A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report warned against racial testing in genetics and genomics research. Race is the second most common variable in public health research. Due to its lack of conceptual and practical meaning, race generally weakens research quality. This issue is the topic of my dissertation study.
Race does not exist. There is no consensus on its discriminant validity based on a set of beliefs, attitudes, culture, or worldviews. As a researcher and doctoral candidate, I cannot accept the use of race as a meaningful variable. Further, race is falsely treated as if every human is born into a race. The word “race” first appeared in European scholarship in 1481 and applied to humans in 1606. The modern construction of race is a European invention that gained wide acceptance with colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. In the US, race as a social construct did not begin to settle in common parlance until the 18th century when race-based slavery was codified.
Race is historically unstable, susceptible to social and political vicissitudes. Reforms as the US Census reflects its changeability. In a span of twenty years alone, a Black American could be: “Black” or “Mulatto” in 1880, “Black,” “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” or “Octoroon” in 1890, or “Black” in 1900. In his 1897 speech, “Conversation of Races,” W.E.B. DuBois noted no fewer than four European races and a single African race. Scientific advancement in genetic testing has consistently shown that African populations, including the African diaspora, have greater levels of genetic diversity than non-African populations. Genetic diversity within races is greater than among races.
The persistence of race is intimately tied to racism, which is a longstanding structural, institutional, and interpersonal threat to health, access, and opportunity. The commonness of racism presents a quandary. To jettison race would remove major leverage from groups negatively impacted by racism. From a research perspective, such a shift would require much larger sample sizes and vastly more funding for a single study. If science were to start over with delineations based on sound evidence, the practical implications would be profound. An inability to assess longitudinal trends due to a break from racial data collection would catalyze a major public crisis across all sectors and facets of society.
Still, that does not mean that race as a concept is valid. There are ways to maintain race as an important tool to combat racism while opening a new field of valid grouping variables. The change need not be completely radical. For example, the intergenerational health effects on descendants of US slavery and Jim Crow could reasonably form the basis of a causal health theory that can be tested. At least 20% of Black Americans are not descendants of US enslaved families because they or their parents immigrated to the US. Further, unpacking diversity within races could help understand racism. A substantial body of evidence suggests that Hispanic/Latinx ethnicities (e.g., Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican) better explain health disparities. This insight should serve as an approach for future scientific inquiry.
Science has failed to advance an accurate and meaningful understanding of social identity that account for both cultural worldviews and practices. There is no singular racial culture for any group. Race is a falsehood borne out of an outdated European view of the world's population that corresponded with European infliction of violence across the world through conquests, slavery, and imperialism. Rather, understanding culture is much more important.
Descendants of US enslaved and Jim Crow families - In many African American communities, there is a profound understanding of the immorality of slavery. There are belief systems and cultural practices that seek to make slavery relevant to modern discourse. In some communities, activists and historians research local history and engage in cultural regeneration, as with a Southwest DC group commemorating the Pearl Escape of 1848.
Lacking Blackness - Many African Americans attach little or no cultural significance to any of the many cultures that are typically associated with African Americans. They see themselves largely through another cultural perspective. They may occasionally remark upon their racial identity, but it forms no clear sense of self. They may even engage in physical and non-physical forms of violence against what appears to be people of their same "race," except they do not have a shared social identity.
Black Religious Traditions - Religiosity is high among many African Americans, especially African American women. Those who uphold and cultivate a set of distinctive beliefs and practices constitute a social group. However, religious practices are highly diverse among US populations, meaning that some of these groups may be better categorized as less culturally distinctive and part of a mainstream religious doctrine. When this occurs, their liturgy looks likely familiar to other religious groups across geographic and social spaces.
Hegemonically Controlled - Many African Americans may recognize a moderate sense of social identity associated with one of many African Americans cultural traditions but may feel powerless to do anything about it. They may decide to carry out duties although they have deep cognitive dissonance and experience moral injury. These individuals form a group that maintains the hegemonic order through implied consent and remain observers in order to secure employment and economic livelihood. Their cultural forms of expression are likely to be in private institutions.
Anti-Society and Anti-State - There are pronounced cultural groups that have deep mistrust of society and state institutions. They see the world as disorderly and anarchical and behave in a way that reflects this worldview.
Classism - Classism plays a major role in US society. A sense of identity directly tied to symbols and indications of wealth shape attitudes and practices. Educational attainment can strengthen classism. In turn, a personal sense of classism impacts cultural attachment and may mean alienation for separation from low-income populations. Those with high classism can engage in mistreatment of populations deemed “lower” or “less”.