Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real

Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race
Audrey Smedley Brian D. Smedley Virginia Commonwealth University Institute of Medicine

Racialized science seeks to explain human population differences in health, intelligence, education, and wealth as the consequence of immutable, biologically based differences between “racial” groups. Recent advances in the sequencing of the human genome and in an understanding of biological correlates of behavior have fueled racialized science, despite evidence that racial groups are not genetically discrete, reliably measured, or scientifically meaningful. Yet even these counterarguments often fail to take into account the origin and history of the idea of race. This article reviews the origins of the concept of race, placing the contemporary discussion of racial differences in an anthropological and historical context.

sychological science has a long and controversial history of involvement in efforts to measure and explain human variation and population differences. Psychologists such as Jensen (1974), Herrnstein (Herrnstein & Murray, 1996), and more recently, Rushton (1995) and Rowe (Rowe, 2002; Rowe & Cleveland, 1996) have advanced the argument that racial group variation on measures such as intelligence tests reflects genetically determined differences in group ability that cannot be explained by differences in environmental living conditions or socioeconomic differences. These psychologists have generally concluded that Africans and African descendants are intellectually inferior to Europeans and European descendants, who in turn are assigned (in more recent work) to a lower intellectual status than Asian populations and their descendants (Rushton, 1995). Although these arguments have been vigorously debated and the influence of “racial” science has been stronger at some times than at others, some scholars interested in racial distinctions have found new grist for the racial differences mill, as geneticists have made important advances in sequencing the human genome (Crow, 2002). Less prominent in this debate has been a discussion of what is meant by racial groups and whether such groups are, in fact, discrete, measurable, and scientifically mean-

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ingful. The consensus among most scholars in fields such as evolutionary biology, anthropology, and other disciplines is that racial distinctions fail on all three counts— that is, they are not genetically discrete, are not reliably measured, and are not scientifically meaningful.1 Yet even these counterarguments often fail to take into account the origin and history of the idea of “race.” This history is significant because it demonstrates that race is a fairly recent construct, one that emerged well after population groups from different continents came into contact with one another. In this article we examine the origins of the concept of race, placing the contemporary discussion of racial differences in an anthropological and historical context. Our aim is not to review the psychological literature regarding the construction of race but to bring anthropological and historical perspectives to the study of race. In many multiracial nations such as the United States, there are profound and stubbornly persistent racial and ethnic differences in socioeconomic status, educational and occupational status, wealth, political power, and the like. Whether and how governments respond to these disparities should rest on the best available interdisciplinary scientific information. Racialized science—with its conclusion that immutable differences between racial groups underlie social and economic racial hegemony—requires a very different response from government than scientific perspecAudrey Smedley, Anthropology, School of World Studies, and African American Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University; Brian D. Smedley, Institute of Medicine. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Audrey Smedley, Anthropology, School of World Studies, 312 North Shafer Street, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23284. E-mail: asmedley@mail1.vcu.edu
1 See the statements of the American Anthropological Association (1998) and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1996). Among the many anthropologists who have written on this topic, see Brace, 2003; Cartmill, 1998; Cavalli-Sforza, 1995; Graves, 2001, 2004; Harrison, 1995; Lewontin, 1995; Littlefield et al., 1982; Marks, 1995; Shanklin, 1994; A. Smedley, 1999b, 2002b; and Templeton, 2002.

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January 2005 ● American Psychologist
Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association 0003-066X/05/$12.00 Vol. 60, No. 1, 16 –26 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.16

morals. acquired. human behavior— can best be understood in terms of other culture phenomena. occupying a realm of its own. 1999. traditions. The evidence from history and the study of thousands of diverse cultures around the world are testament to the overwhelming and coercive power of culture to mold who we are and what we believe (Harris. & Super. and view themselves as constituting.3 Thus. 1999. the human ability to invent meanings and to act as if they are real or true (Carneiro. Stocking. 1968. 1968. art. Pt. religious. only with the capacity to acquire and to create culture (Harris. an ethnic group (see.” he wrote. geographic locale or place of origin. 2. 3 This perspective appears to contradict the work of those in developmental psychology who argue for a complex process by which a child construes cultural meanings. 1999b. Ethnicity and culture are related phenomena and bear no intrinsic connection to human biological variations or race. 2003. People who share a common language. Raeff. institutions.. e. It is largely the human capacity for language that enables individuals to transmit culture traits from one person or group to another (see. Every introductory textbook today contains the definition of culture first proposed by E. flexible. p. Takaki. We therefore conclude this article with a discussion of the public policy implications of racialized science. A perspective that looks at individuals and cognitive processes may well see considerable variation.2 They do not treat culture as a part of the innate biological equipment of humans (Harris. Humans. and the contemporary manifestation of industrial 2 The anthropologist most associated with the theory of culture as separate from human biology. values. not as products of some variable biogenetic reality as yet unproved (for a contemporary view of culture. Such different approaches may not be as incompatible as they appear at first. Rapport & Overing. for heuristic purposes. are not born with propensities for any particular culture. and capable of being studied independently of human physical characteristics was Leslie White (White. Steinberg. and subject to change. see Harris. 1999). What is common to most anthropological conceptions of culture is the contention that culture is external. Jones. custom. culture traits. “Culture. are perceived. as individuals or groups. 1989. or Peoples & Garrick. authors substitute humankind for man and often add a significant phrase. and they are usually selfdefined (Barth.. But as both psychologists and anthropologist understand. It is studied as extrasomatic. 1). Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on Ethnicity. 1940. Marks. 1999). p. 1949).) behavior. Harris. Culture. so- cially acquired traditions of thought and behavior and includes patterned. Tylor in 1871 or some variation of it. Rapport & Overing. January 2005 ● American Psychologist 17 . Social and cultural anthropologists are concerned with continuity and the replication of cultural features. see Harris. 1997. 1997. A.g. B. political. Ethnicity refers to clusters of people who have common culture traits that they distinguish from those of other people. Anthropologists concur with cognitive psychologists that “symbolic representation is the principal cognitive signature of humans” (Donald. ethnicity or ethnic traits are transmissible to other people— sometimes easily so. 2003. A large body of literature today deals with one of the major issues of cultural studies. 1995). They argue that culture traits—that is. 2000). 1993). 737) that makes possible the enormous creativity of cultural phenomena (for exploration of the culture concept. 2000). and transmissible to others. Lewontin. Because culture traits are learned.Audrey Smedley tives that place race in a social and historical context. so that culture is not totally identified as a learned phenomenon (Harkness. anthropologists do not operate with the assumption of innate biological causes for any social (or economic. and Race Ethnicity and Culture Anthropologists have an understanding of the term culture that differs from popular and other scholarly usage of the term (see Harris. White & Dillingham. “and based upon the human ability to symbol. Smedley. over time. food habits. values. language is not the only way by which an individual acquires or achieves cultural information. Harris. as well as all arenas of creativity and invention (Harris. the evolution of cultures. “is that complex whole which includes knowledge. repetitive ways of thinking. But ethnic groups and ethnicity are not fixed. Parrillo. and so forth. 1997. or language. Kaplan & Manners. and feeling. they are open. beliefs. 1871/1958. 1999. acting. 1995). such as the widespread adoption of western dress (jeans and tee shirts) found all over the world. 2000). and the mechanisms by which cultures change (see Carneiro. sense of history. 1999. beliefs. bounded entities. belief. Boas. 1998). 1973).g. 1999). religion. 2000). law. 1972. and any other capability and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor. Harris. e. 1999. etc. White. and so forth. 1949.” that is. 1968). Today. 1979.

historical and contemporary. the rivalries of Olympic teams are good examples of the milder forms of ethnocentrism. Hourani. Jones. leading to enduring conflicts.6 Throughout the Middle Ages and up until the 17th century. can and do change. Italy. A. intermating. A. Historical Perspectives on Human Variation With the rise of empires. creating hate-filled images of “the Other. Africans and East Indians in England learn the English of the British Broadcasing Company and participate fully in English culture. Takaki. Smedley. and Spanish or Portuguese people in the New World began to merge or assimilate (both biologically 4 International soccer and baseball come to mind. Japanese and Koreans. and still are. Boardman. when individuals may have physical traits associated with one region of the world but may manifest very different cultures or ethnic identities. 1995. 1993). ethnic groups have demonized one another. Five hundred years ago. including both world wars. Ancient empires tended to incorporate these peoples into their polities. Thus. and Roman empires. 1984. Ethnic differences also constitute an arena of diverse interests that can lead to conflict. Godolphin. Cavalli-Sforza. 1983. Snowden. such as warfare. Smedley. 1942. 1984. 1997. hair textures. History shows that Africans in Europe were assimilated into those societies wherever they were found. Africans. Europeans. Smedley. 2002. 1999b). Middle Easterners. 1991. for example. Fryer. 1996). 1993. Serbians and Croatians. appointed by his father as the first duke of Florence. Hitti.html) Brian D. More recently. It follows from this brief account of historical facts that physical characteristics should never be included in a definition of ethnic identity. regardless of their physical variations. Fryer. sometimes rapidly (Omi & Winant. and reproduction have led to increasing physical heterogeneity of peoples in many areas of the world. religion and language were the most important criteria of identity (Hannaford. with its center at Baghdad— encompassed peoples whose skin colors.4 However. The most significant thing about interethnic conflict is that the vast majority of such conflicts have been. In circumstances of extreme conflict. 1999a. With the addition of distance. or Canadians and the United States. 6 See Blakey. and facial features were highly varied.5 The empires of the ancient world—the Egyptian. Armenians and Turks. was the son of the man who became Pope Clement VII and his African mistress (see http://members. representing the same range of physical diversity that is seen in the “Old World” today—Africans. most human conflicts have not been racial. natives of South and Central America. the English and the Irish. the kind of ethnocentrism that most attracts attention. Snowden. around the globe. Smedley 1999a. but this is not to say that they are universal or inevitable. 1998.such conflict has not been perceived as being racial. Greek. conquering armies encountered peoples who were physically as well as culturally different.aol. as. Griffin. language and other cultural features were expanded territorially to encompass populations in more remote geographical areas. Smedley 1999a. and there is no reason for antagonism to exist or persist simply because protagonists are identified as racially different. but this should not be confused with what in contemporary times is referred to as “racial” conflict. Smedley culture globally. Until recently 18 January 2005 ● American Psychologist . and no significant social meanings were attached to their physical differences. attest to the reality of ethnic conflict as primarily a local phenomenon (Barth. It is inaccurate to associate physical features with any specific cultural identity. 1953. 1999b). 1986. Indians and Pakistanis. Numerous wars. Ethnocentric beliefs and attitudes. A. & Murray. Alessandro de Medici. Among many well-known Europeans of African ancestry. such as the enmity between the French and the English. 1995). and later the Muslim empire. Some of the ethnocentrism seen today is mild. 5 Geneticists have pointed out that continual intermating among human groups has been a primary reason why all humans today are members of a common species (Cavalli-Sforza. 1994. 1983). History shows that people can and do learn another language and/or move into another ethnic group and become participants in that ethnicity (A. and which scholars have long studied.” even to the point of posing the argument that the other ethnic group is less than human (Fredrickson. and Asians (see Blakely. intermarriage. 1999a).com/eurostamm/medici. 1993. This is particularly true in modern times. Omi & Winant. Ethnocentrism (belief in the superiority of one’s own culture and lifestyle) and ethnic conflict are widespread and often have deep historical roots. 1994. because they are cultural phenomena. A. has often been vehement and malignant. with neighboring groups—people who inhabit the same general environment and who virtually always share physical similarities. or even sports teams from different nations. Immigration.

1996. 1999b). and freedom for all human beings. 1999b). We have synthesized the well-known history and refer any reader with questions to the historical literature. it was a general categorizing term. examine how it has evolved. See also the debates between monogenists and polygenists in Hannaford.9 The Components of Racial Ideology in United States Society Eighteenth. Smedley.” and they were discriminated against. It is important to explore its origins. 1999b). 1995. 1997. 1975. represent intricate and complex new mixtures of biogenetic or physical features. Smedley. Smedley 1999a. When geneticists appeared who emphasized the similarities among races (humans are 99. 9 For the 19th-century debates on the questionable humanity of Africans. usage of the term increased in the written record. race was widely used. see Chase. Spencer. race signified a new ideology about human differences and a new way of structuring society that had not existed before in human history. Africans. 1989. The humanity of the Africans was debated throughout the 19th century. Their descendants today. doubts about the biological reality of race appeared (see Littlefield. “No matter how much like us you are. and Haller. Those societies in which racial categories are critical to the social structure have certain ideological features—that is. 1987. With the low-status racial groups. Fredrickson. 2002. he pointed out that immigrants were “disparaged for their cultural peculiarities. the message was. beliefs 7 This history has been well documented (see Allen. Many historians and sociologists have recognized that race and racism are not “mere ethnocentric dislike and distrust of the Other” (Fredrickson. 1982). breed. 1971. Marks. In speaking of the differences in America between European immigrant minorities early in the 20th century and racial groups. and it began to become standardized and uniform (Poliakov. 8 There are hundreds of books and articles on slavery and antislavery and on the relationship of race and slavery.9% alike). 1997. race gradually emerged as a term referring to those populations then interacting in North America—Europeans. 2002. more human. 1999a. sort. Steinberg (1989) made a clear distinction between racism and ethnocentrism. and even species (Allen. on the basis of ancestral geographic origins. which is now seen as a classic. 1971. A. 1999a. As we discuss later. 1982. 2002a. 2002.8 In an era when the dominant political philosophy was equality. Thus. 1996. Smedley. whether they are called Latinos or Hispanics. Fredrickson. See also Brace. see Morgan. Scientific Conceptions of Race From the 19th century on. but the message conveyed by the nation to them was. essentially a cultural invention. Morner. nor have any of the definitions ever satisfactorily fully explained the phenomenon of race (Brace. Smedley. By the Revolutionary era. January 2005 ● American Psychologist 19 . A. and Whites (Allen. and A. 1999b. 1967).and 19th-century beliefs about human races have endured into the 20th and 21st centuries. 1969. civil rights. 1999a. Ethnicity was recognized as plastic and transmissible. Morgan. and analyze its meaning and significance in those cultures where race became important. A. His classic work is cited by many scholars. race was a folk idea in the English language.and culturally) and create new ethnic identities. or that differ in the frequency of certain genes (Lewontin. 1982). 1975. 1994. 2002b). Hannaford. 1999b). 1980. but they also have many cultural similarities in language and religion (Degler. 1988. Brace. Smedley. you will remain apart” (Steinberg. 2002b). The genetic conception of race appeared in the mid-20th century and remains today as a definition or working hypothesis for many scholars (A. the small amount of real genetic differences among them (0.7 In the early 18th century. The fabrication of a new type of categorization for humanity was needed because the leaders of the American colonies at the turn of the 18th century had deliberately selected Africans to be permanent slaves (Allen. 1997. 1994. other scholars have recognized that there are no neutral conceptualizations of race in science. and the difficulties of recognizing the racial identity of individuals through their genes. 1975. This is not borne out by anthropological and historical studies but is part of the myths connected to the ideology of race (see below). Morgan is the dean of American historians of the colonial period. Barzun. 2002a. 5). and Native Americans (Indians). Smedley 1999a. A. A History of Race and the Ideology of Race Historians have now shown that between the 16th and the 18th centuries. and a popular one that dominated all thinking about human differences and fused together both physical features and behavior. 1994. democracy. 1937/1965. A. & Reynolds. Hannaford. the only way Christians could justify slavery was to demote Africans to nonhuman status (Haller. This popular conception. it has not been superceded by later historical reconstructions of this era. Smedley. However. 1988. Banton & Harwood. p. and its meaning had solidified as a reference for social categories of Indians. in the 20th century two conceptions of race existed: one that focused on human biogenetic variation exclusively and was the province of science. but race conveyed the notion of differences that could not be transcended. 1982. 1982). Smedley. A. 1997. Blacks. beings. 1999b). Smedley. 42). For an in-depth understanding of the processes by which slavery and race were created. kind. 1999b.01%). More than that. Fredrickson. 1995. 1996. 1994. was and still is the original meaning of race that scholars in many fields turned their attention to in the latter part of the 20th century and the early 21st century (A. similar to and interchangeable with such terms as type. p. Lieberman. 1999b). the concept of race that characterizes North American society carries with it the notion that each race has its own forms of social or cultural behavior.” Assimilation was necessary and expected. A. with many holding the view that Africans were created separately from other. justice. “You will become like us whether you want to or not. 1971. Toward the end of the 17th century. races have been seen in science as subdivisions of the human species that differ from one another phenotypically. it is impossible to cite many of them.

somewhere between Whites and Blacks (A. 1). North Americans define as Black anyone who has known African ancestors. hair texture. Correspondents of the New York Times.about human differences—in common. Smedley. skin color. 6. too. churches. The History of Race Ideology In the United States. However. given the ranges of physical variations in U. from descriptions of racist behavior. China. 1997. 2002). The idea of inherited forms of behavior is fundamental to the concept of race and is one basis for the belief in the separation of races (as.. and lip thickness have remained major markers of racial identity in the United States (A. and “Negroes” from Africa. 2002. As a paradigm for portraying the social reality of permanent inequality as something that was natural. 1981). Black literature. 1999b. 2002a). 1999b). Robb. (This obtained until recently in the United States and South Africa. 1981.) Skin color. Kurokawa. A. Degler. A. physical features and differences connoted by them are not the effective or direct causes of racism and discrimination (see. racial populations. They. a government board functioned to review racial identities and reassign individuals according to certain subjective appraisals. and certain physical characteristics (e. hair texture. neighborhoods. recreational centers. Race therefore can be seen as an ideology or worldview. In response. Africans and their descendants occupy the lowest level of the hierarchy. followed toward the end of the century by peoples from southern and eastern Europe who were both physically and culturally different from the original English and northern Europeans (Ignatiev. Race-based societies perceive designated racial groups as biologically discrete and exclusive groups. has been perceived as useful by many other societies. In South Africa in the 1940s. see Chase. were initially seen as separate races and were ranked lower than other Europeans (Chase. 1995.g. nose width. 5. e. 1993). It has led to the exacerbation of already existing interethnic animosities. 2003. health centers. e. 1993). 2003. This justifies segregation of the races in schools. 1981). 1999b.S. although the use of these criteria continues to be arbitrary. and especially from the hundreds of historical publications that document the existence of race and racism in North America). and proscriptions against intermarriage or intermating. In Asia. 1999b). Nazi Germany took the ideology to its greatest extreme. They hold that races are naturally unequal and therefore must be ranked hierarchically (inequality is fundamental to all racial systems). chap. a phenomenon known and introduced by historians over half a century ago as the “one drop rule” (see. 1996. etc. They assume that the differences among races are therefore profound and unalterable. This material has been analyzed and these ingredients identified as diagnostic social characteristics of race in North America (see A. so that essentially three more or less exclusive races were established in law (Fredrickson. In the United States and South Africa. Steinberg. In Europe. There is mounting historical evidence that this modern ideology of race took on a life of its own in the latter half of the 19th century (Hannaford. India. 1980).e.10 The ideological ingredients can be analytically derived from ethnographic reality (i. Native Americans [Indians]. They assume that each race has distinctive cultural behaviors linked to their biology. There is widespread agreement in historical and sociological studies about the following characteristics: 1. they were eventually assimilated into the “White” category (for an excellent exploration of these processes. 4. 1989. 1999b). It is the culturally invented ideas and beliefs about these differences that constitute the meaning of race (A. the United States had to resort to a fiction to help preserve the distinctiveness of the White/Black racial (and social) dichotomy. 2002. and in the 18th century it eventuated in three major groups that were roughly defined and ranked (European Whites.g. Black dance. Takaki. They have racial classifications stipulated in the legal and social system (racial identity by law). Dikotter. 1997. Tomiyama. 1993).). Mathis.. Smedley. and its components have often been spelled out explicitly in social policy. Smedley. in conjunction with the legal establishment of slavery for Africans. Despite legal and social attempts to prohibit intermarriage or intermating. 1971). 2. and they were fitted into the racial ranking system.. 2002). 1999b). 1994. Asian people-first the Chinese and later the Japanese— began to arrive in the United States. Also in the mid-19th century. Takaki. 2000. Black music.11 The contemporary conflicts between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in East Africa have no basis in tradi10 Legal development of the policies of segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa has been well documented in Fredrickson. Allen. A. They assume that both physical features and behavior are innate and inherited. Smedley. and other facial features) become markers of race status. 1980. elements of the Western ideology of race were imported to Japan. 2001. The single most important criterion of status was. And each year. and Malaysia (Channa. often but not necessarily connected to human biophysical differences. There is no socially sanctioned in-between classification. Black theater. e. In none of the states in the United States has there developed a legal mechanism for changing one’s race (Fredrickson. Black forms of dress. However. Smedley. Katayama. even though the last census of 2000 permitted individuals to identify two or more racial ancestries. Sakamoto. 2001. 3.g. race ideology began developing during the late 17th century. Barnes. 11 There is some debate in the literature on whether the race concept might have been present in other non-Western societies before the 17th or 20 January 2005 ● American Psychologist . this ideology. the racial distinction between Black and White (Massey. Smedley. 2002. Black language. the Irish began to immigrate. Takaki. In the mid-19th century. and remains. and so forth. the Colored..g. eye shape. for historical reasons a large middle category was created. Smedley.. some genetic mixture still occurred. ultimately resulting in the Holocaust of World War II.

Dr. 1999a. 14 Psychologist J. Population variations in the genes linked to the making of serotonin. with the stated purpose of documenting race inequality (A. They had to rely on colonists’ descriptions of indigenous peoples for the most part. but they did develop terminologies that reflected the many variations in phenotype. He believes that these variables are innate and are directly determined by genes. England. 1999b. Olson. 1995). Ethnic chauvinism and a well-developed notion of the “savage” or “primitives” dictated that they classify native peoples as inferior forms of humans. ining the bodies of the different peoples in each racial category. 1995) has claimed that he can identify at least 60 social/behavioral variables that distinguish the three major racial groups. 1995. Smedley.14 More important. temperament. which maps clusters of genes. it was more difficult to racialize the peoples of Central America. 2004. and particularly with the immigration of German Nazi sympathizers after World War II (A. and their categories were replete with subjective comments about their appearances and behaviors. Kevles. 1985. Linnaeus and Blumenbach introduced classifications of the varieties of humankind that later became the established names for the races of the world (Slotkin. Smedley. Marks. has a brief description). However. testosterone. the planter and jurist Edward Long. Marks. These societies became increasingly more biased against darker-skinned people during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Smedley. and South America. More than that. 13 The history of intelligence testing has been covered by a number of scholars in the last three or four decades (see Chase. have revealed variations in strings of DNA that correlate with geographic differences in phenotypes among humans around the world (Olson. 1999b). 1991. Most developed color preferences so that individuals with phenotypic traits (e. 1785/ 1955). 1999b.13 As Haller (1971) has pointed out. no one doubted that the races were unequal or that each race had distinctive behaviors that were unique: “The subject of race inferiority was beyond critical reach in the late 19th century” (p. January 2005 ● American Psychologist 21 . Smedley. he revealed his uncertainty about the position he was taking and called on science to ultimately prove the truth of this speculation (see Jefferson. 1999a. 132). 1999b). sexuality. 1964) has the best exploration of the concept of savagery in European life and history during the 16th-18th centuries. see especially the articles in Fish. Smedley. and a physician. Graves. Recent developments in the fields of genetics and evolutionary biology have prompted a renewed focus on identifying the biological basis of human behavior as well as ascertaining the historical relationships among different populations (Graves. 1965). A.” whom he knew only in the role of slaves on his plantations. Morner. Philippe Rushton (Rushton. and many other mental characteristics. especially between Blacks and Whites. Smedley. light skin) approximating their European ancestors (conquerors) had higher status (Degler. naturalists in Europe were engaged in efforts to establish classifications of human groups in the 18th century. 2002). None of these societies was able to establish exclusive race categories. Mensh & Mensh. Because of the extensive mixtures of peoples in the first two to three centuries of colonization. 2002). With studies of the human genome and discoveries of the role of DNA in disease. Charles White of Manchester. many instances that some scholars have suggested are indicative of race should more accurately be identified as examples of extreme ethnocentrism (see A. 1785/ 1955.tional history but were generated by the policies of European explorers and colonists. 1971. Notes on the State of Virginia (Jefferson. A discussion of the English image of savagery and its role in the construction of race is found in A. Smedley. intelligence tests became the dominant interest of scientists who were seeking ways of documenting significant differences. Since the 1790s and well into the 20th century. who imposed racial identities on these peoples to suit their own purposes (A. and later other parts of the human body. 1999b). Smedley. 1967). published first in Paris and later in the United States. Jefferson was the first American to speculate and write publicly about the character of the “Negro. 1999a. more refinements in measuring heads and greater attention to the size and contents of the brain case led scientists to the final critical criterion by which they thought race differences could be measured: the development of tests to measure the functions of the brain. Some anticipate that they will eventually be able to actually prove race differences in violence. for a discussion. Rushton. intelligence. see also A. 1995). some scholarly men initiated attempts to quantify the differences among races by measuring heads. By the end of the 19th century. 2004. He was the first to suggest the natural inferiority of the Negro as a new rationalization for slavery in the only book he wrote.g. The rise of scientific and scholarly input into the character of races began during the latter part of the 18th century with the writings of the philosopher Voltaire. But it was the influence of Thomas Jefferson that may have had greater impact in bringing science to the support of race ideology. 1999b. Haller. and dopamine have already led some race scientists to speculate about race differences in behavior (Oubre. the Caribbean. 2004.. 1997). In the early 20th century. it has become possible to speculate on specific genes as sources of human behavior. Such findings may well be used by race scientists to argue that 12 Historian Margaret Hodgen (Hodgen. when there was increasing contact with North Americans.12 Although there were earlier attempts to categorize all human groups then known. 1980. among others (A. 1999b). the role of science has been to confirm and authenticate the folk beliefs about human differences expressed in the idea of race by exam18th centuries (see the discussion in Robb. The Beginnings of Scientific Classifications of Human Groups While colonists were creating the folk idea of race. 2002). developments in the structuring of an International HapMap. 1971. In the 19th century.

brotherhood. At its core. Federal and state laws adapted since the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaw most forms of discrimination in public accommodations. He quoted an observer of American life. access to resources and services. who was among the first to recognize this aspect of the idea of race and who wrote that “the existence of innate and immutable racial characteristics is to be regarded with skepticism and theories founded upon such doctrine are mere rationalizations for slavery and other forms of racial oppression” (Tocqueville. political. expressing underlying natural differences. their social behaviors. How are resources allocated differentially on the basis of race? The sources of racial inequality remain controversial. 22 January 2005 ● American Psychologist . In the United States and South Africa. The fact of inequality renders race an important social policy concern.15 The idea of race distorts. 63). institutional discrimination—the uneven access by group membership to resources. More recently. 1993). and employment and housing practices (Fix. 15 Robert Moore of the University of Liverpool observed that in the mid-1800s. “Deliberate discrimination by many institutions in American society in the past has left a legacy of [social and] economic inequality between Whites and minorities that exists today” (Turner & Skidmore. race was a folk idea. economic. and cultural—that are organized. 1999. a culturally invented conception about human differences. Smedley. and maximizes human differences. such as in the overt behavior of lenders and real estate agents. in the next section we review relevant literature on health care disparities and assess the implications of racialized science for public policies to address these disparities. whereas others argue that discrimination has simply taken on subtler forms that make it difficult to define and identify. and their social ranking. Physical traits have been transformed into markers or signifiers of social race identity. 1999). gender.S. a consensus emerged that human cultural differences were of a permanent kind.geographic variations in DNA confirm the existence of biological human races. 1996. debate continues regarding whether and how discrimination persists today. 254). one cannot escape the process of racialization. p. policymakers cannot avoid the fact that social race remains a significant predictor of which groups have greater access to societal goods and resources and which groups face barriers— both historically and in the contemporary context—to full inclusion. it is a basic element of the social system and customs of the United States and is deeply embedded in the consciousness of its people. Alexis de Tocqueville. nonpartisan advisory groups (the Institute of Medicine [B. should the term race be abandoned as a matter of social policy? Stated differently. D. Although this legislation appears to have spurred significant change in some segments of American society. “the idea of race and its persistence as a social category is only given meaning in a social order structured by forms of inequality— economic. p. has been the source of significant policy debate over the past several decades. 2003) have documented persistent patterns of racial and ethnic disparities in health care. ethnicity. The components of the idea of social race fail to find congruence with the reality of culture as sui generis. although the term race is not useful as a biological construct. their social statuses. The ideology arose as a rationalization and justification for human slavery at a time when Western European societies were embracing philosophies promoting individual and human rights. and wealth. Further. And those categories of people that constitute social races bear little relationship to the reality of human biological diversity. the differential and negative treatment of individuals on the basis of their race. Physicians for Human Rights. Conservative legal scholars and social scientists argue that discrimination has largely been eliminated from the American landscape (D’Souza. democracy. From its inception. exaggerates. Stith. Race essentializes and stereotypes people. 2003]. Complicating this assessment is the fact that whereas individual discrimination is often easier to identify. 2001. and power that stems from facially neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions—is harder to identify. Racial and ethnic discrimination and disadvantage have been consistently documented in studies of home mortgage lending (U. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1999). should race play a role in policy discussions? From a policy perspective. it is the most extreme form of difference that humans can assert about another human being or group. & Struyk. Because disparities in health care may reflect a complex mix of social. and genetic factors and therefore provide a test of the validity of racialized science. two major reports authored by respected. Saitou. to a significant degree. Racialized Science and Public Policy Given that racialized science is based on an imprecise and distorted understanding of human differences. Thernstrom & Thernstrom. the concept of race depends fundamentally on the existence of social hegemony. liberty. as one of its components is the belief that differences are permanent and cannot be overcome (see earlier discussion). & Nelson. But discrimination persists today. Discrimination. housing discrimination and residential segregation (Massey. 1977. and other areas. 2002. 2002). preserving the economic and educational gap between population groups. even in a society that overtly abhors discrimination. biologic. by race” (Omi. that the history of racial discrimination in the United States has left a lasting residue. 5). There is little doubt among researchers who study discrimination. p. justice. power. 2001). Galster. it is difficult to distinguish the extent to which many racial and ethnic disparities are the result of discrimination or other social and economic forces. or other group membership. and equality. as cited in Stone. status. But the flexibility of racial ideology is such that distinctive physical traits need no longer be present for humans to racialize others (Katayama. It became an important mechanism for limiting and restricting access to privilege. As Michael Omi noted. if race is not a biological or anthropological reality. however.

. and behavior (U. Smedley et al. & Farmer. age. including mental health (B.. Department of Health and Human Services [U. 2001. Several studies. and protease inhibitors (Shapiro et al. including public and private hospitals. Health care disparities are also found in other disease areas. 1999).g. vi). 1997) or by using matched patient controls (Giles. HIV/AIDS. and whether individuals can fully participate in the social. race continues to play an important role in determining how individuals are treated. Ayanian. These disparities remain even after adjusting for age. 2003)..S. 1999). while controlling for stage of cancer at diagnosis and other clinical factors. Asian Americans.S. however.. & Begg. have assessed differences in treatment regimen following coronary angiography. where they live. DHHS. 2000. 2001). As with other health care services. Disparities are found across a range of clinical settings. Nenner. In addition.. These disparities are associated with socioeconomic differences and tend to diminish significantly and. diabetes. 1993.” and that “these disparities are viewed readily through the lenses of racial and cultural diversity. January 2005 ● American Psychologist 23 . & Taylor. 1996).. and economic mainstream of American life.g. Kiefe.. more so than in other areas of health and medicine. Bernabei et al. Centor. African Americans are more likely than Whites to receive less desirable services. 2003).. 1997. U. political. D. Cramer.g. D. 2001... treatments (e. 2003). & Ofili.. Mayberry.. Smedley et al. In general. Escobedo. such as stage of disease presentation.. Evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in health care is. Smedley et al. & Chaisson. 2001). fear. DHHS]. Udvarhelyi. These studies have demonstrated that differences in treatment are not due to clinical factors such as racial differences in the severity of coronary disease or overuse of services by Whites (e. 2000). 1999) and. 1999). DHHS. In addition to universal barriers to quality care (e. Shapiro et al. 2003. moods. prophylaxis for pneumocystis pneumonia... several hundred studies have been published that examine the quality of health care for racial and ethnic minorities relative to nonminorities (Physicians for Human Rights. differences in the quality of HIV care are associated with poorer survival rates among minorities. 1996).. Schneider et al. 1998).. and insurance coverage (e. 1996. Thernstrom & Thernstrom. Public Policy Cannot Ignore Race As the literature in health care disparities attests. gender. Physicians for Human Rights. even at equivalent levels of access to care (Bennett et al. and Pacific Islander Americans face the same disparities).. 2003. Warren. and Health Care Over the past three decades. Some of the most rigorous studies in this area assess whether patients are appropriate for the treatment studied by controlling for disease severity using well-established clinical and diagnostic criteria (e. age. Disparities are found even when clinical factors. Canto et al.. 1994). remarkably consistent across a range of health care services. and language differences carry special significance for minorities in mental health treatment.. McMahon et al. The Surgeon General also concluded that striking disparities in mental health care exist for racial and ethnic minorities and that these disparities impose a greater disability burden on racial and ethnic minorities. a key diagnostic procedure..Race.. Ethnicity. as these concerns affect patients’ thoughts. Peterson et al.g.g. DHHS. The U. comorbidities.g. D. Cunningham. Pasho. & Epstein.S. 2001). find that racial and ethnic disparities in health care remain even after adjustment for socioeconomic differences and other factors related to health care access (Kressin & Petersen. contrary to the optimistic assessments of conservative thinkers (D’Souza. for example. education. Anda. mental health services are “plagued by disparities in the availability of and access to its services. Mosen. This research is clear and consistent when comparing African American and White patients.g. the American public. teaching and nonteaching hospitals. in a few cases. 1996. The majority of studies. & Morales. 1997.S. cost. and so forth (B. such as mistrust. more generally.. D. African Americans with HIV infection are less likely than nonminorities to receive antiretroviral therapy (Moore. such as amputation of all or part of a limb (Gornick et al. Allison. mental health.. Similarly. the report notes that other barriers. Laouri et al. Smedley et al. and analgesics (e. Gatsonis. Casper. Gopalan. discrimination. 2001) assessing racial and ethnic disparities in mental health and mental health care and found that. cardiovascular disease. surgical treatment for small-cell lung cancer. Surgeon General recently completed a major report (U. Several studies demonstrate significant racial differences in the receipt of appropriate cancer diagnostic tests (e. Box. The studies cited previously demonstrate that race continues to matter in important ways.g. B. Mili. CD4 cell count. Stanton. and other chronic and infectious diseases) and clinical services (B. D. 2003). 1995). 1995. with few exceptions. and severity of disease are taken into account (B. their employment opportunities. Weitzman et al. Schneider et al. the quality of their health care. and gender” (U. p. 2000. to disappear altogether when socioeconomic factors are controlled. fragmentation of services). Smedley et al. racial and ethnic disparities also plague mental health care. Bach..S. and it is becoming stronger in demonstrating the same disparities between Hispanic and White patients (more research must be done to determine whether American Indians/Alaska Natives.S. & Will. Imperato. Disparities in care are associated with higher mortality among minorities who do not receive the same services as Whites (e. 2001. this research shows the following: ● ● ● ● ● African Americans and Hispanics tend to receive lower quality health care across a range of disease areas (including cancer. 2003). 1999).

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