Chapter 6.2 … Race as a Bio-cultural Construction

Most Americans publicly proclaim that they are not racist, but all Americans know the common stereotypes and how they map on to each racial category. The idea that there are “blacks” “whites” and “Asians” goes largely unquestioned. But many anthropologists propose that when we look at the entire global human population, the notion of race is a myth. It is a cultural construction. As biological anthropologist Alan Goodman notes, “what’s black in the United States is not what’s black in Brazil or what’s black in South Africa. What was black in 1940 is different from what is black in 2000.” Scientists like Goodman note that if you lined up all the people on the planet in terms of skin color you would see a slow gradation from light skin to dark skin and at no point could you realistically declare the point at which you transition from “black people” to “white people.”


How did our skins get their color? Skin color is an adaptation to sun exposure. Populations in very sunny areas along the equator have evolved to produce more melanin, which darkens the skin and protects them from skin disorders as well as neural tube defects that can kill unborn children. Populations in less sunny areas have evolved with less melanin so that their lighter skins can absorb more Vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of calcium, building stronger bones.

When anthropologists argue that race is a myth, they are pointing out that variations in skin color cannot be neatly categorized with other traits so that people can be clearly separated into clear types (races) along the lines created by our cultural concept of race. For example, some populations in the world that have dark skin have curly hair, while others have straight hair. Some are very tall, and some are very short. Humans have a tendency to create categories based on visual traits like skin color because they’re so prominently visible. But, as anthropologist Marvin Harris notes, organizing people into racial types according to skin color makes as much sense as trying to organize them according to whether or not they can roll their tongues. Skin color, like tongue-rolling, is highly unlikely to correlate with any complex behavior such as intelligence, discipline, aggression, or personality, in part because these complex behaviors are strongly shaped by culture and therefore the racial categories and stereotypes in any given culture will have a profound effect on those behaviors.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris argues that organizing people into racial types according to skin color makes as much sense as trying to organize them according to whether or not they can roll their tongues.

This is not to say there is not significant human variation across populations, but cutting-edge DNA studies from revolutionary studies in genetics have shown that the boundaries of what might be considered “populations” have always been changing. As geneticist David Reich points out, there were different populations in the past, but “the fault lines across populations were almost unrecognizably different from today.” So while different populations differ in bodily dimensions, lactose tolerance, disease resistance, and the ability to breath at high altitudes, these differences do not fall into neat, fixed, unchanging, and scientifically verifiable racial categories.

Currently, most anthropologists maintain that race is a social construction with no basis in biology. However, some anthropologists are now arguing that our social constructions are having a real impact on biology. For example, if someone is socially classified as “black,” they are more likely to live in conditions with limited access to good nutrition and healthcare. In short, as Nancy Krieger recently noted, “racism harms health,” and this means that different races have different biology, but this biology is in part shaped by social forces.

At the root of these health inequalities is continued racial segregation. Why, 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, are our cities still segregated? Why do white families have over 10 times the net worth of black families? Why are whites almost twice as likely to own a home? Why are blacks twice as likely to be unemployed? Why are black babies 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday?

Race is real-ized through the same triad of forces that real-ize gender and blind men in the previous examples.

At the level of beliefs, studies show that Americans hold implicit biases even when they claim to deny all racial biases. For example, Yarka Mekawi and Konrad Bresin at the University of Illinois recently did a meta-analysis of the many studies involving the “shooter task” in which people are asked to shoot at video images of men with guns but avoid shooting men who are not holding guns. They found that across 42 studies, people were found to shoot armed black men faster than armed white men, and slower to decide to not shoot unarmed blacks. Such studies are increasingly important in an age of social media that has brought several police shootings of unarmed blacks under public scrutiny and inspired widespread protests such as the Black Lives Matter movement. These studies reveal that the stereotype that blacks are prone to anger and violence lays a claim on the consciousness of whites and blacks, even when those individuals are committed to overcoming racial bias.


Our beliefs, conscious and unconscious, affect our behavior. When researchers sent out identical resumes with only the names changed, they found that resumes with “white-sounding” names like Greg and Emily were 50% more likely to receive a call-back versus resumes with “black-sounding” names like Jamal and Lakisha.

These biases are often shared across races, so that blacks and whites hold the same stereotypes, and these stereotypes affect how they act and perform. For example, Jeff Stone at the University of Arizona set up a mini-golf course and announced to the players that it was specially designed to measure raw athletic ability. Black players outperformed white players. Then, without changing the course at all, he announced that the course was specially designed to measure one’s ability to see and interpret spatial geometry. White players outperformed black players.

But we fail to see how the ideas become real-ized without also looking at structure and the impact of institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism is often misunderstood as institutions and laws that are overtly racist, or as an institution that is permeated with racists people or racist ideology. These misunderstandings lead people to claim that a city and its institutions cannot be described as having institutionalized racism if the city or its institutions are operated by blacks.

Institutionalized racism is better viewed not as the willful creation of racists or racist institutions, but as the cumulative effect of policies, systems and processes that may not have been designed with racism in mind, but which have the effect of disadvantaging certain racial groups.

For example, consider the insurance industry. Insurance companies do not usually have racist policies or overt racists working within them. In fact, when they are found to have any racist policies or racist employees, they face legal sanctioning. Nonetheless, they do have a set of policies that disadvantage blacks disproportionately to whites. They charge for auto-insurance based on ZIP code, which includes a calculation for how likely it is that your car might be stolen or damaged. Since more blacks live in poor, high-crime areas, this policy has the effect of disadvantaging them.

In many states and cities, school funding is also tied to ZIP code. It is also much more difficult to get a loan in some ZIP codes. Therefore, one of the most powerful forces that continuously re-creates racial prejudices is a structure that includes black poverty and segregated cities created after hundreds of years of slavery and official segregation. Even though official segregation is now a thing of the past, its legacy lives on as black families are more likely to live in poverty and in impoverished neighborhoods where it is more difficult to find and receive loans, a good education, and good opportunities. On average, blacks continue to have less wealth, less education, fewer opportunities, and live in impoverished areas with higher crime rates. These characteristics then get associated with blackness, thereby supporting the stereotypes that inform the practices that continually re-create the structure of segregation.

As Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton argued when coining the term “institutional racism,” we all rightly protest and take action when someone dies as the victim of a racist hate crime, but fail to see the problem when

“…five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of power, food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community …”

That was written over 50 years ago, in 1967. Black poverty in the inner city remains a problem, exacerbated by many historical trends and forces. Recognizing the triad of forces involved in real-ization (beliefs, behaviors, and structures) is essential to overcoming racim. If we only try to rid ourselves of our biased beliefs, we run the risk of not addressing important practices and structures that perpetuate those beliefs.

This potential to raise awareness, liberate our thinking, see our seeing, and potentially build a better world is why social scientists have been so excited about the idea of the social construction of reality for the past fifty years. But given that the future of reality is at stake, such discussions can become highly politicized and contentious, especially when the discussions might impact public policy or social norms.

This kind of investigation allows us to see into the processes through which our culture is made, and may even give us an opportunity to push back and re-make culture. But how far can this go? Can we really see the makings of our own realities and then just re-make them? This is not something to be answered in a single book, but to be continually discussed and debated in our everyday lives. Indeed, such a debate is the engine of culture and cultural change itself. However, we can make three important points of departure:

  1. Socially constructed realities shape and are shaped by physical reality in many complex ways.
  2. Because the future of reality is at stake, discussion and debate about socially constructed realities tend to be highly politically charged and contentious.
  3. Socially constructed realities are “made up” but they are still “real” and have real consequences. “Time” and “money” may be social constructions, but they are still really real. The fact that 2:30 pm is a social construction and part of a larger cultural set of beliefs emphasizing order and efficiency doesn’t mean you can blow off your 2:30 pm appointment to protest this set of social constructions and not face any social consequences.