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The Story of Race and the Classification of People: Generative or Not?

Kristin Jenkins's picture

          The idea of evolution as just a “good story” has sparked many controversial thoughts within me. After much deliberation over the idea of “truth” and “usefulness,” I realized that thinking of ideas as “good stories” could be fascinatingly “generative.” Race is one of these “stories” that I have come to question. As a child, I was taught that race was a scientifically and socially accurate way of classifying people. According to this story, everybody belongs to a race according to lineage, appearance, language, geography, etc. Most often, however, race classifications were easily assigned to people based on split second observations of skin, hair, and facial features (1). Shadows of doubt were always cast, however, when classifications became blurry. What was I supposed to think of a man whose skin was dark, whose eyes were slanted, and whose hair was blonde? Did he simply belong to a race that I did not yet know of? Or was he a negligible anomaly to the race explanation? Or what if race wasn’t really the best explanation at all?

          Questions like these have sparked fiery debates worldwide in recent years. More and more it appears that the story of race is less useful—or “generative”—than it has long been believed to be. To understand more about race, one must analyze first why race has been such a popular story for the classification of people for so long, why it is now being questioned, and what new stories are being generated based on recent arguments.


          The idea of classifying people and placing them in definitive groupings has been around for hundreds of years. The idea of classifying people based on their looks, however, has not. As far back as 400 BC, ancient Greeks were classifying people based on purely cultural differences like language, religion, and customs. Hierarchies in society were more likely to be based on social standing than on appearance. The idea of classifying peoples based on their appearances did not come about until much later in history. In 1680 AD, the idea of classification by appearance slowly began to permeate society as lawmakers in the early colonies of North America began to use “white” as a classification of themselves rather than “Englishmen” or “Christians.” 1776 AD marks a turning point in the history of race in which the word “Caucasian” was first used by a man named Johann Blumenbach in his work On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Blumenbach outlines one of the first hierarchies based on skin color, placing “whites” on top and four other “races” underneath. Superiority based on skin color soon became a widespread idea (2).

          Scientists began to search for scientific proof of race, the earliest of whom speculated brain capacity based on skull size. The consensus? Men like Jim Morton in 1839 concluded that “whites” not only have the largest skulls and thus the largest brain capacity, but that this is indicative of superiority. This “discovery” paved the way for many more scientists to explore the “scientific evidence” of race and justify the increasing popular view that some people were “better” than others based on appearance. Why did this concept become so widely accepted? At this point in history, the simmering business of slavery was beginning to boil, and it was socially and morally convenient to “prove” that a hierarchy of mankind which placed “whites” on top was correct (2).

          Distinct lines between races were still blurry, however, and arguments soon ended up in the hands of authorities and law makers. Definitions of race were decided upon by courts, arbitrarily, to fit the needs of the local society. The arbitrary nature of these court decisions was recognized, though, and more and more, people discovered that there was little hard evidence to back up claims of superiority based on appearance alone. Slavery was abolished, but a bitter after taste remained—and still does remain: racism (2).

          Today, the idea of classifying people based on their skin color is still a popular belief, though political correctness has become a serious issue. Whereas it was OK to judge people by the color of their skin little more than 50 years ago, today it has become socially frowned upon (2). Why? Perhaps it is the realization that race based on appearances never has been, and never will be, a clear cut method to define peoples. This realization is a result of surmounting scientific evidence—or, rather, non-evidence (1). In the time before Darwin, it was believed that people were the way they were because of divine intervention. Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest gave scientists of the mid-1800’s reason to believe that some races really were meant to be more superior than others and that some races were bound to be weaker and go extinct due to competition (2). Since Darwin’s time, though, scientists have delved into research to pinpoint the precise biological distinctions between races. What have they found? Surprisingly, there is much less biological proof for race than has long been expected (1).

          Modern scientific studies argue that race has no real basis in biological systems. Since people are undeniably, and nearly endlessly, different in appearance, scientists have looked towards genetic studies to help them discover the secret to race. Genetic studies have revealed, however, that 90% of human variation occurs within a said “race” and just 10% of human variation occurs between “races” themselves. In other words, people from different “races” are only slightly more different from each other than they are from people in their own “race.” In a stretch attempt, scientists have found genetic ways to place humans into tentative “races” (1). However, most scientists will agree that society’s idea of race based on phenotypic characteristics like skin, hair, and face are almost entirely “bogus.” Genetically, humans are incredibly alike—appearances on the outside are most likely due to purely environmental effects (3).

          On a large scale, biological scientists and cultural scientists concur: Race is a social construct. The outdated idea that hierarchies can be created to make one type of person more powerful or important than another is a notion that no longer has the support of scientists. Although we could all admit that we can find differences between certain peoples, we would be hard pressed—like scientists and anthropologists all over the world—to draw a definitive line between what we would like to call separate “races.” “What is race?” psychologist Jefferson Fish asks. “It is a biologically meaningless category…This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall.” (3). Why then is “race” still a household term, used in everyday conversation as though it were a viable and “true” categorization? “I use it because, for some uses, it works,” says anthropologist Dennis Stanford. In describing the subtle differences in the human species, the term “race” is still effective. The idea of race, as Stanford agrees, is not.

          And so the story of race continues to change—or, rather, evolve. It seems that the idea of “race” that I was taught as a child is no longer a “generative” story in the world today. Instead, it is evolving before our eyes. New observations are being made every day that open our eyes to new stories about “race.” Soon, perhaps, there will be a completely new story that will replace our stale idea of “race” based on physical differences, and a new chapter will unfold.

 Kristin Jenkins

Works Cited:

1. Bamshad and Olsen “Does Race Exist?”

Scientific American, December 2003, pages 78-85


2. PBS’s RACE: The Power of Illusion

Copyright by California Newsreel


3. Petit, Charles “No Biological Basis for Race: Scientists Say Distinction Prove to be Skin Deep”

The San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 1998, page A-1


Sir Racealot's picture

Race exists

the above link is for an essay by Ernst Mayr titled: "The Biology of Race and the Concept of Equality"

RACE, EVOLUTION AND BEHAVIOR can be downloaded for free in an abridged form:

Race exists, sure its a generalization and has better overlap of internal characteristics within each race if there are AT LEAST a minimum of 5 human races, while 10+ races yields even greater probability of similarity within each group/race --- evenso, having said all that, the basic three race model shows more than enough stark contrasts between these overly basic 3 races... Hold up high the idea of us all being at least 99%++ the same genetically and counter that with the butterfly effect and that small changes in complex systems can yield enormous change and effect, so goes race...

Serendip Visitor's picture


Pure Rubbish. It's not even a good generalization. It's an ideology and a distraction. You can tell that to François Bernier and his development of a racial classification system in his New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it. We are all one. We may come in different colors features etc etc but we are all one. The sooner all people can understand that then we can move ahead to living in harmony as Humans with each other and the earth and also in time with other species and beyond.

D.L. Miller's picture

The Story of Race and the Classification of People

You are absolutely correct that it is pure rubbish, however it is not a distraction. It is in fact very very real and it is working like a charm in keeping people ignorant, divisive, separate, afraid of each other and totally and completely unwilling to trust each other. As far as convincing people we are all one, well that a horse of another color because it is the Americans of European descent who are the ones who need to be reprogrammed in their thinking because they are the ones who think they are more special than anyone else. They are the ones who continue the myth of superiority of the races by teaching their children that because they are of European descent that they are superior because they conquered the indigenous people of America, and enslaved people from Africa as well as the people of color who were living in this country long before Europeans landed on these shores. Racial profiling by Euro American law enforcement officers against people of color is not a distraction. A distraction takes your mind off of the reality of racism. The family and loved ones of an innocent dead Black man at the hands of White law enforcement would not care to call racial profiling and classification of people a distraction when the reality of their dead loved one lying in the street is too real and incomprehensible to be imagined and brushed off as a distraction. Nor would having their middle school honor roll student wind up in juvie hall under a drug trafficking felony because he unknowingly stood beside a crack pipe on his way home from school that a random Euro American law enforcement officer happened to notice the crack pipe by the child foot from a block away! Definitely NOT a distraction when that child winds up getting the maximum sentence for drug trafficking by a racist DA and a racist Judge who believe the best place to put Black men and women is in jail. So please Visitor, let us keep it real because calling it a distraction can prove to be fatal to those on the non-European spectrum of the racial divide.

Mr. Pooh's picture

Understanding the "Party of No's" consternation

Understanding the "Party of No's" consternation of having President Barrack Obama as leader of this country...

Some of the media and conservative party appear to be elated by the unnecessary in-house obstructionism perpetrated by a few members of the Democratic party. Those "Democrats" have apparently gained their positions under false pretenses... Being actual Conservatives at heart they have taken liberal positions and/or infiltrated the liberal side in an attempt to topple the Presidency from within... However, it is unclear in their radical irrational thought process, how they think this action would guarantee a return to a white rule only government. If anyone cares to review the Conservative party history, when placed in control, it will prove time and time again they have no concern to do anything meaningful for anybody but the Caucasian rich and/or themselves... They have also proven and are culpable to "any means possible" in trying to regain white rule... The "good Ol'e boy's" white's Only club have done nothing but say "No" to any attempt to turn around the plundering and pillaging they themselves have ravaged on this country and world. So, it is completely beyond rational common sense of how they think the population as a whole would install them back to power. In my book, by doing so, would only give them the chance to complete the destruction of this world... Since we have only a few infiltrators (some that are still incognito and others that have revealed themselves by their actions), we as voters (2010) should vet them thoroughly as true moderate to liberal candidates that will work in performing and accomplishing the tasks at hand at repairing the terrible damage the conservative party has rained upon the country/world... We can't just believe what they spew from their mouths, because the radical right have proven time and time again they are incapable of telling anything remotely close to the truth... We as voters have to be diligent about whom we install in positions to work for us in lieu of the Banks, Credit, Health and Law moguls... The moguls are stealing our votes from us by buying our Representatives and Legislators into doing their bidding with bribes... Last I recall, bribes were (and should be) illegal... So I would think the Radical Right should ALL be in prison, especially if it's proven they have biased their constituents (Majority) requests...
I realize the arrogance the Radical Right has displayed in and out of power might be because of their belief they are the superior race. That, being the number one rule of the white supremacists rules. Given the Radical Rights continual consternation of working on any requests our Black President presents to accomplish the "majorities" request of mopping up the destruction perpetrated by this "Superior" race is in direct opposition to their number one rule...

Beliefs Rituals and Strategies of Terror;

You must understand, I am not condemning ALL white people as is often done in reverse by the white supremacists in their over jealous attempt to gain control of political or legal situations. But, just the ones that display, believe and behave with the arrogance that "I'm a superior to you, therefore you fall under my rule and follow rules that are meant for you but not for myself as your superior"... That attitude is not of one that is concerned for your welfare and is NOT looking to be anything but an obstructionist!!!
With this information in mind replacing the obstructionists with Representatives that truly want to do as the majority of this government has tasked the party in power to do. They must prove to have no other agenda but to serve the majority constituents needs, of which becomes the minorities needs through the process of loosing the election.

To continually attempt to undermine the party in power by divisive, deceitful lying is adolescent/childish at its worst. I know some five year olds that behave better than I've seen the conservative side of the government portray... To believe an alleged professional adult would behave worse than a spoiled adolescent child is not a pretty site and would beg, in my book, replacement...

Mr. Pooh

Anonymous's picture


While I agree that all people should be treated equally, I don't agree that eliminating race distinctions in government at this point in time is the best way to achieve that. I believe we will one day eliminate race distinctions for most purposes, but there is still a LOT of racism in existence in societies around the world. As long as people are behaving, and often misbehaving, based on their perceptions of race (regardless whether their perceptions are accurate or factually based), then race properly ought to be an indicator that government uses to ensure social justice is being achieved.

While elimination of race classifications may be the solution for an enlightened society where people do not act based on racism to any degree, in a society where racism exists and has existed for many years, to suddenly deny racial classifications is, essentially, to bury one's head in the sand. When no racial statistics are gathered, there is no evidence of racism to be presented. This exact situation is has been going on for some time in France, and NPR has done several segments in recent months on the serious race problem in France, either arising in spite of or because of France's elimination of racial classifications.

The only way to monitor an issue is with indicators. We monitor racism by tracking activities by race. As long as racism is still occuring, we cannot eliminate the classifications of race which are necessary to ensure social justice. Science may prove that all people are 99.9999999% the same, but that does not change the fact that racism based on appearance still occurs in our society, and the job of government is to ensure all citizens are treated fairly, and tracking race indicators is a necessary prerequisite to effectively monitoring race relations and social justice.

There are other important indicators besides race that are equally as important for monitoring social justice. These include gender, of course, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, children, socioeconomic level, educational level, etc. Is anyone suggesting we eliminate these classifications as well? Why not? Because we need the classifications to ensure social justice in all these areas, thats why.

When racism and other improper discrimination is eliminated from society for some time, then we could consider eliminating these classifications, but until then we need these classifications to ensure society doesn't slip back into racism and other forms of bigotry.

Anne Dalke's picture

on establishing different "category sets"

This conversation reminds me of one sparked by a visitor to Bryn Mawr a few years ago, Dvora Yanow, who came to campus to speak about "Category Errors and Race-Ethnic Identity." Her book on Constructing "Race" and "Ethnicity" in America: Category-Making in Public Policy and Administration speaks directly to these matters, and ends with a call for a national, public converation on the purpose of counting, on the kinds of traits that need to be counted, for what ends. She asks that we establish different "category sets" to meet different social justice criteria. For further discussion of these ideas, see both more on diversity/categories and Changing The Narratives our Categories Tell About Us...

Sir Racealot's picture

racial justice?

might those social justice criteria include reparations for whites?:

at least 29,437 whites were killed by blacks from 1976-2005 - 11,262 in reverse, yielding an 18,175 white deficit, at least... from BJS:

so hows that for "kinds of traits that need to be counted"? or hows that for "establishing different "category sets" to meet different social justice criteria"?

We really should start with the body counts first.

John Wallace's picture

The Classification of Americans By Race and Ethnicity Must End

The Racial and Ethnic classification of Americans is nothing more than institutionalized racism and must be ended. The United States of America has been known as a country of rugged individualism based on individual freedom and liberty. Why has America become a country obsessed with classifying its citizens into different racial and ethnic sub-groups?

The only groups that actively support the continued collection of racial and ethnic data are big government bureaucrats and "racial and ethnic special interest groups” that also happen to receive significant funding from the federal government. These organizations argue that identifying people by race and ethnicity is necessary in order to redress some past injustice and that the federal government must continue to collect and use this information in order to set up special racial and ethnic programs, affirmative action quotas and other set-asides for these groups, some of whom consist of new immigrants, illegal aliens and non-citizens. Nothing can be further from the truth. In a country where we can no longer ask people what religion they are, what their party affiliation is or what their sexual orientation is, why are we still asking them about their racial and ethnic background?

Americans are beginning to realize that racial and ethnic identification is more a matter of personal choice than anything else. In the 2000 Census, seven million American citizens refused to place themselves into a single category by refusing to describe themselves as only white, black, Asian, Latino or any one of the other specific categories listed, because they were of mixed race. Attempts by the government to create a “mixed race” box for the 2000 Census was met with resistance by racial and ethnic special interest groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, because they feared that a mixed-race box could pose a danger to the justification for their existence. The fuzzier such racial and ethnic categories become, the harder it will be for these racial and ethnic special interest groups and the government to traffic in them. If a mixed-race category were to be added, every brown-skinned person of mixed race registered in this category would shrink the government’s official count of Blacks, Latinos, Asians or American Indians, eventually reducing their political influence and ultimately the amount of money these groups receive from the federal government, which amounts to approximately $185 billion a year.

Through the mandated collection and use of racial and ethnic specific information, more and more of American taxpayers’ hard earned money is being routinely distributed to these racial and ethnic special interest groups at the expense of all other Americans who may or may not be members of these groups. Through executive orders, congressional legislation, affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and other programs based solely on race and ethnicity, our federal government is playing the key role that pits one racial and ethnic group against another, which could eventually lead to our destruction as a country.

Rather than helping a diverse population become assimilated and united as one nation, the Federal government is doing what the Nazi government of Germany did in the 1930’s and 40’s; creating government supported institutionalized racism by the intentional classification of it’s citizens by race and ethnicity.

With the support of racial and ethnic special interest groups, our federal government seems to view our citizens not just as Americans, but rather as “pawns” in some social science experiment to be classified and separated into different racial or ethnic sub-groups for some unknown purpose. By mandating the classification of Americans into specific racial and ethnic sub-groups, the federal government and the advocates of “diversity” are actually perpetuating institutionalized racism and keeping Americans divided. Maybe the real purpose of collecting this data is to justify the continuing flow of government money to these racial and ethnic special interest groups.

If we want to help poor Americans escape poverty, get better health care, find a job or get a good education, why should it matter what their race or ethnic background is? The answer is: It should not! Americans need to come together as members of one country and remember that we are all individual Americans, regardless of race or ethnic background. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired a nation when he voiced his dream for a color-blind nation, a nation in which people would be judged by the content of their characters, "not the color of their skin." The answer to this government encouraged racism is the concept of Liberty with a limited, constitutional government that is devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than the claims of different racial and ethnic special interest groups. Where Liberty is present, individual achievement and competence are rewarded, not people’s skin color or ethnicity.

I will support legislation barring the federal government from the collection of racial and ethnic information about the American people and/or the classification of American citizens by race and ethnicity, including the collection of census information. Exceptions should be made for law enforcement, hospitals and medical research purposes.

I will also support legislation that bans affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and any other programs that give special preferences based on race and ethnicity.

Candidate for Congress
New York’s 20th Congressional District

D.L. Miller's picture

Barring the collection of racial and ethnic information

Law enforcement happens to be one of the worst groups collecting racial and ethnic information regarding American people. Giving them an exception to the rule is a guarantee that racial profiling will continue toward the detriment of any and all non-European Americans. In case you have not read the book by Michelle Alexander on the subject of The New Jim Crow and the Mass Incarceration of people of color or the book by Carol Anderson entitled "White Rage" I suggest you read them before you agree to any exceptions for the Law Enforcement and the Justice System in this country.

Also since when did people of mixed races become classified as White people? The last time I looked we had a biracial President who was catagorized by the government and news media and more importantly the average citizen as being African American and a Muslim elitist regardless of the fact that his mother was of European descent and his religious affiliation was Christian, As a matter of fact Mr. Obama was only referred to as being biracial a handful of times when it appeared to be in the speakers favor to mention that Mr. Obama was biracial. Also when people of mixed races were basically forced to one or the other unless they looked more white than Black they were automatically classified as Black regardless of what box the checked. Even I have been told what I was by ignorant racially minded people. The government classified me as Black because my mother was Black and it did not matter to them not one little bit that my father was white. By the same token the white person working behind a government desk would cross out the African American box I had checked and check the White box and tell me I was too white to be Black. Any mixed race person who is on the "light, bright, almost white" end of the racial spectrum is accepted as white unless their hair and facial features indicate they are of mixed races and anyone who has a little bit of brown in their skin or some extra kink in their hair or a broad nose and naturally big lips are automatically classified as Black.

Finally, banning Affirmative Action programs in education and in the work place is another guarantee that people of color will not be awarded scholarships, grants, and/or student loans for additional education, nor will they be found to be qualified for any job other than those at poverty level. Since people of color will not be needed to fill a quota there will be no benefit to hiring them when the "good ole boy" system is back in place and a flux of unqualified unskilled uneducated white people need jobs...well just remember back when America was "great", all you ever saw was white people with the best paying jobs and people of color were stuck in servile jobs as janitors and house keepers. Going back to the way things were is not progression it is regression.

Until the day ever comes when White employers will hire people based on their knowledge, skills, and work ethics, programs such as Affirmative Action will still be needed, for without those programs equality will go back to being an idea and an ideal rather than a reality..


Sir Racealot's picture

body counts - cross racial killing

thats at least an 18,175 white deficit from '76-2005 (black on white minus white on black killing)

so as long as these stark contrasts exist why not continue to show the basic observational data to help us better manage our lives?

not to mention IQ differences, miscegenation, illegitimacy rates, disease (genetic and behavior), and a looong list i could make for you... the stark contrast should not be hidden, obfuscated or given this PC euphemistic attempt at explaining it away...

i at least like your last line, having not read your whole post, but isn't racial distinction also a measure of our acknowledging diversity? i prefer celebrating exclusivity myself - diversity is really moot, a common sense realization requiring no constant agenda and reminder as such...

so you had to mention those evil nazis (you can always win some easy points with that name drop in a bad light, right?)

- they sterilized about half of one percent of their population, thus retards were not able to reproduce, which i think is laudable... should we have malgenics instead of eugenics? why not be FAR more selective in our breeding when overpopulation is clearly a problem...

Mr. Pooh's picture

The Classification of Americans By Race and Ethnicity Must End

The Classification of Americans By Race and Ethnicity Must End after racism Ends

Mr. Wallace, in a perfect world I to would subscribe to your philosophy of no affirmative action programs. However, this world is a far cry from being perfect. Especially when you have a large part of the population subscribing to the false notion that they are the Superior race and are hell bent on restoring that mundane/false attitude within the ranks of the government legislative process and country. When you can watch/listen to the divisive bigotry on the fixed news channels day in and day out you will realize there is still a great racial divide growing among the white supremacist/conservatives (I have coined them as: Conserpremacists[1]) and the other side you labeled as liberals... However, I do believe the notion of race superiority is not just among the white conservatives in the government/population, but also some (a very small amount) white Radical Left-Wing participants. But for the most part they would like to continue to prosper and are keeping their true believes under raps. I suspect until they can initiate the necessary changes toward that goal of supremacy, unencumbered by premature discovery. Point in count, there is a concerted effort by the Radical Right-Wing conservatives to plant the idea of assassination of our Black president (Psalm 109:8). Also they have falsely ridiculed and accused him of things he has not done or said every step of the way. This is very indicative of the attempt the White supremacist race over history has used this tactic of ridicule to oppress and undermine any authority of any non-white placed in a authoritative position over them. Another point in count, the direct and deliberate disrespect toward his black superior, the Conserpremacist, Joe Wilson had perpetrated a heinous violation (of which we will also include all his fellow premacists that wrongly took his side) when he publicly called our President a liar and refused to apologize privately or publicly without being fired or receiving any punitive action against him. What I'm stating is our government is primarily composed of Representatives like Wilson working on legislation to return this country to White rule... So until we can purge our government/country of these bigoted white supremacist attitude carrying racists of this world, retaining Affirmative action programs is imperative.
Mr. Wallace, are you related to George?

Mr. Pooh

1 Conserpremacist - Denotes the nature of the radical right-winged conservative party with a large belief that the white race is the superior race…