There’s a huge assumption underlying talk by racist and anti-racists alike, namely that there are different races. That may be an uncontroversial assumption at first sight, but once you start to think about it things get muddled. Are there races? Not in the biological sense. Most genetic variation occurs within so-called racial groups, not between them.
Races are social constructs rather than a biological reality. Centuries of interbreeding have made it impossible to distinguish different human gene pools. Differences between groups of homo sapiens sapiens are purely cultural and constructed. The apparent skin, hair or other physical differences are indeed natural and biological but they are
- only skin deep, which means genetically irrelevant and certainly irrelevant for comparative merit or superiority,
- and they are gradual variations rather than discrete groupings (some “black” people are more similar to “white” people than to others from their “race”).
Groups are self-identifying and other-identifying entities, and this identification is based on beliefs concerning shared culture, ancestry and history and on the removal of the gradual nature of differences in appearances. They are constructs, the product of beliefs and traditions, a particular way that some people talk about themselves and others.
Racism is a specific way people talk about themselves and others. It isn’t a descriptive exercise about factual differences between the “biologies” of different groups; it’s a normative exercise in which groups form beliefs about the merits of other groups, and these other groups are constructed through talk about them. They are not “natural” entities, and their members aren’t scientifically identifiable. Superficial characteristics that form a continuum are given extraordinary importance (skin color determines merit) and the gradual continuum is believed to be ruptured. Individual differences are grouped into discrete race differences, and individuals are reduced to a constructed entity.
An example. Some say that racial disparities in the US are caused by a specific culture or mentality that is rampant in “black America”, namely a culture of crime, family breakdown and lack of educational aspiration and achievement. Black America, it’s claimed, “should do something about this”! But once you try to imagine this “black America”, you’ll find that it’s impossible. There is no black America, let alone a black culture. There are certain individuals who are situated at a certain point in a skin color spectrum who may or may not belong to “black America” and who may or may not exhibit certain mentalities. But that is all one can say. There’s no way one can plausibly claim that all or most members of “black America” exhibit certain mentalities, first because it’s impossible to unequivocally determine a threshold value of skin color which puts a person inside or outside “black America”, and second because with each randomly determined threshold value you’ll end up with a very diverse group of people exhibiting many different mentalities.
Does that mean that all talk about race is superfluous? If so, then the same is true about all talk about racism. But that’s not the case. The absence of a factual reality about race doesn’t remove the salience of race in the minds of racists. Hence, racism can have consequences even in the absence of races.
Members of socially constructed racialized identities suffer real harms, and laws might have to distinguish individuals according to their racialized identities in order to compensate for such harms. (source)
People continue to label each other and themselves according to racial categories, and to act accordingly. If we want to address the negative consequences of those labels and actions, we have no choice but to use the same labels. If people impose disadvantages on another group, based on the random delineation and construction of that group, countermeasures can’t help but work with the same group. Also, this group may find the concept of its race useful in its efforts to mobilize against racist measures. It just has to careful that it doesn’t start to believe the essentialist claptrap of its racist foes and that it remains conscious of the ghostlike nature of the concept of race.