The social and biological construction of race

By Razib Khan | February 12, 2012 2:45 pm

Many of our categories are human constructions which map upon patterns in nature which we perceive rather darkly. The joints about which nature turns are as they are, our own names and representations are a different thing altogether. This does not mean that our categories have no utility, but we should be careful of confusing empirical distributions, our own models of those distributions, and reality as it is stripped of human interpretative artifice.

I have argued extensively on this weblog that:

1) Generating a phylogeny of human populations and individuals within those populations is trivial. You don’t need many markers, depending on the grain of your phylogeny (e.g., to differentiate West Africans vs. Northern Europeans you actually can use one marker!).

2) These phylogenies reflect evolutionary history, and the trait differences are not just superficial (i.e., “skin deep”).

The former proposition I believe is well established. A group such as “black American” has a clear distribution of ancestries in a population genetic sense. The latter proposition is more controversial and subject to contention. My own assumption is that we will know the truth of the matter within the generation.

A black American

But that is the biological construction of race. Subject to fudge and fuzziness, but mapping upon a genuine reality. What about the social construction? Due to its flexibility this is a much more difficult issue to characterize in a succinct manner. Consider the cultural conditionals which render G. K. Butterfield “black” and Luis Guzman “Hispanic.” Both individuals are products of an admixture between people of mixed African and European ancestry (and likely some Amerindian in Guzman’s case). It turns out that the genes have segregated out such that Butterfield reflects more his European ancestry in traits. Guzman’s phenotype is more mixed. The perception of these two individuals is weighted by two different strains in modern American racial ideology. First, that of hypodescent, where one drop of black blood means that an individual is black, without equivocation. Halle Berry appealed to this framework to argue why her daughter, who is less than 1/4 African in ancestry (Berry’s African American father almost certainly had some European ancestry) was black. No matter that hypodescent’s origins were to buttress white racial supremacy and purity. Today black Americans espouse for purposes of community solidarity (the black American community as we know it is a partly a product of hypodescent which forced mixed-race blacks into the African American community).

Not a black American

The second issue, which has crystallized in our time, but has roots back decades, is the peculiar position of “Hispanics/Latinos” in the American racial system. As A. D. Powell has observed Hispanics seem to be able to evade the one drop rule, unless their African features are extremely dominant (e.g., pre-skin whitening Sammy Sosa). I’ve looked at the genotypes of enough Latin Americans to assume that some level of African ancestry (e.g., ~5%) is present in the vast majority of those who are not the children of recent European immigrants or from indigenous communities. For example, Mexico’s large slave population seems to have been totally absorbed, to the point where their past existence has been nearly forgotten. Mexicans of mestizo or white identity routinely have African ancestry, they just don’t know it, nor is it part of their racial identity. And it isn’t just Latinos. People of Middle Eastern ancestry, in particular Arabs, often have some African ancestry. But they are not classified as black (unlike Hispanics/Latinos they don’t have their own ethnic category, but are put into the “white” box, irrespective of their race, from Afro-Arab to Syrian).

This broader coexistence of frameworks persists on the implicit level. We don’t usually explicitly flesh out these details. Rather, we take these social constructions as givens. The major problem is when the problems and artificialities of these social constructions begin to bleed over into attempts to understand patterns of biological variation. Because of America’s fixation on the black-white dichotomy rooted in skin color people routinely offer up the fact that the human phylogeny is not well correlated with pigmentation as a refutation of the concept of race. What biology is doing is refuting a peculiar social construction of race. It is not negating the reality of human population substructure. Sociology and culture anthropology are empires of imagination to a much greater extent than human biology.

I’m thinking of this because with the birth of my daughter I confronted the bleeding over of the social into the biological. For medical purposes her race had to be assessed. One side of her ancestry was not problematic; white European. But I had to argue for why her other half should not be listed as “Asian.” For sociological purposes I have no great issue with the term Asian American which is inclusive of South and East Asians (I am not denying that this a recent political identity, I am saying that I do not personally find it objectionable and routinely enter my race as “Asian American” into public forms). But for biological purposes this is an incoherent and misleading classification. I know when my sister was born my parents put her race as “Asian,” which even at the time I felt was totally without purpose as far as biological taxonomy went. At the end of it all my daughter had “South Asian” entered in by hand. Better that her information be discarded than aggregated into a data set in a misleading fashion.

Obviously disentangling the social and biological is not necessarily impossible. Rather, it takes a little care and explicitness, as it is so easy to move between the two domains so easily as to elide their differences. And to some extent they do inform each other. Personal genomics is adding a new twist, but the general problem is as old as human systematics. The only cure is care.

Image credit: Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Population Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Hispanics, Latinos, Race

Comments (36)

  1. A sharp and clear exposition as usual. In the UK ‘Asian’ is being used to avoid ‘Muslim’ or ‘Pakistani’, especially when criminal or anti-western conduct is concerned – I’m surprised there isn’t more vocal objection from other Asians.

  2. Karl Zimmerman

    I’ve been wondering for awhile if anyone has, using facial morphing technology, actually tested the limits of the color line? I see the easiest way to do this as developing a facial composite of unadmixed European and unadmixed African (would have to go with sub-Saharan Africans for the latter), and geting the desired audiences to view a series of photos of various percentile admixtures, and label each as “white,” “black,” or whatever other terms they wish to describe them by.

    The beauty of such a study is once set up, you could run the same experiment on many populations. You could look at how color line perception is defined differently according to country, race, age, or politics. You wouldn’t need to rely upon generalities anymore like “many people who would be considered mixed-race in Europe are considered black in the U.S.” You could even throw in an unadmixed east Asian face, with percentile admixtures, and be able to create a “triangle” chart to describe the perceptions, versus biological realities, of racial divisions.

  3. Sandgroper

    It’s context-dependent. IOW, I predict you will see the same people differently depending on the visual context in which you see them, and also how you perceive them culturally. Speech can make a big difference to perception.

  4. I don’t think Rep. Butterfield is a good example here. As Butterfield himself has said in the past: He was born to two parents who self-ID as “Black” – and who seemingly would be IDd as “Black” by others based on appearance, he was raised in a “Black” neighborhood (culturally “Black”), he’s in solidarity specifically with “Blacks” and their causes (politically “Black”), and – for the above reasons as opposed to simply possessing “one drop” – he unequivocally self-IDs as “Black.”

    President Obama – like Halle Berry – is an example of hypodescent (first and foremost based on appearance, almost all Americans being conditioned to read this as “Black”). To determine whether the one-drop rule (hypodescent taken to the extreme) is actually in effect, perhaps consider the two sources below. I selected them not just for their respective stories but because pictures are included. If these two people self-ID as “White,” which they likely do, would the vast majority of Americans challenge this? I doubt it.

    Google them or click on my name “HM” and “find” them on blog page 6.

    “Cultural Lenses” by Allison Ash

    “For Pride Celebration Grand Marshal, a Happy Homecoming” by Dan Testa

  5. #4, you don’t address what i’m saying, but move off on a tangent. the power of hypodescent today has less to do with white people, than black people. they enforce hypodescent on the margins.

  6. Karl Zimmerman

    3 –

    Of course it’s context sensitive. However, that hasn’t stopped using generic morphed faces to study attractiveness, when voice, presentation and style often have as much, if not more, to do with what mate we are attracted to than perfect symmetry, widely-spaced eyes, or a jutting chin (for women).

  7. Razib,

    Sorry about that, I got you now. Thanks for the clarification.

  8. Sandgroper

    6. Yeah, no sh*t.

    I thought you were talking about perceptions vs biological reality. I’m saying I predict that visual perceptions are context-specific, i.e. the same person will perceive a particular composite (mostly admixed composites) in different ways in different contexts. So what I’m saying is I don’t think you would be able to establish a hard and fast ‘colour line’ if you tested for this variable.

  9. Matt

    In the UK ‘Asian’ is being used

    because South Asians are the largest subgroup from the Asian continent and get a bit offended at all being called Indians, while until recently all other people from Asian were almost all Chinese (and so were just called Chinese).

  10. john werneken

    Descent and migration are interesting, race is not. Who cares? I suppose group identity folks, which I think is equivalent to idiots, pawns, canon fodder, dupes of the running dogs of dictatorship, and everything else both perjorative and printable.

  11. S.J. Esposito

    I am of the belief that once genomics reaches a near apex, the field will turn its cold, staring eye on social constructions of the kind laid out here. I had a conversation recently with a cultural anthropology student about something similar and I was thinking about how genome science will probably shake the foundations of cultural anthro and sociology to such an extent that they never ‘recover’.

  12. Sandgroper

    10 – I live in hope.

  13. Ed

    I wonder how I would classify myself “racially” for “medical purposes”. I know that I have black ancestry: both parents of my maternal grandmother were a mix of black and portuguese ancestry (what brazilians would call “mulatos”). My maternal grandfather was of european descent (some of his brothers were blue-eyed) and both my mother’s sisters have red-headed children. My paternal grandmother was 100% sardinian (at least is a fact that both her parents came to Brazil from Sardinia). My paternal grandfather was adopted, but had a phenotype that was compatible with a mixed ancestry, probably part european and part native-brazilian (he was considered white in Brazil).

    My point is that if you’re dealing with an ancestry that has a lot of different “races” in it, it may be very difficult to get a clear picture for medical purposes, and that’s the norm for a great proportion of the brazilian population. (My wife is a 100% of japanese descent, and that will complicate matters even further for our children.)

    It’s a shame that 23andme doesn’t operate in Brazil, I’d like very much to know what would appear in terms of ancestry.

  14. I had a conversation recently with a cultural anthropology student about something similar and I was thinking about how genome science will probably shake the foundations of cultural anthro and sociology to such an extent that they never ‘recover’.

    huh? these people are often anti-scientific. science isn’t going to ‘update’ their assumptions at all.

    My point is that if you’re dealing with an ancestry that has a lot of different “races” in it, it may be very difficult to get a clear picture for medical purposes, and that’s the norm for a great proportion of the brazilian population.

    personal genomics would have great utility for loci of large effect segregating in appreciable proportions in such populations.

  15. candid_observer

    “huh? these people are often anti-scientific. science isn’t going to ‘update’ their assumptions at all.”

    They may often be “objectively anti-scientific”, but even they realize on some level that they have to stay compatible with scientific findings widely accepted by other parts of the academic community.

    I don’t expect their current point of view to fall until other disciplines, such as cognitive psychology and neuroscience and genetics and evolutionary biology, finally cast in their lot with the new HBD paradigm. Cultural anthropology, and countless other “ologies” will then have little choice but to get on board.

    The HBD paradigm must first win over the most directly related sciences, including evolutionary biology and the field of genetics. To this day, there exist prominent geneticists who resist the obvious — but then it must simply become even more obvious. They do have their reputation to protect; no scientist really wants to look like the crank physicists who contrived objections to relativity theory years after it was effectively a settled matter.

  16. Douglas Knight

    Has there been any attempt to construct a racial tree purely based on genetics?

    My understanding is that Cavalli-Sforza did not do this, but took the leaves of the tree as given and described how they coalesce, and how fast. This gives some reality checks, eg, if two populations coalesce very early, maybe the distinction was artificial, but it fails to discover unexpected substructure.

    Cavalli-Sforza did offer a bit of this, such as PCA plots, which are objective representations of genetic data. A human can look at such a plot and divide it into clusters without being affected by the labels; in practice this usually reaffirms previous beliefs. I’d prefer a computer do the clustering, but my bigger complaint with this is that it is only one level, rather than trying to construct the whole tree.

    Another problem with Cavalli-Sforza is that he assumed a tree structure. But I don’t think anyone has good algorithms for more complicated structure, even today. The admixture algorithm you like to run shows that people are working on it, but it doesn’t sound ready for prime time, let alone combination with divergence in time.

    Finally, I should note that sampling procedures introduce some bias. For example, if you assume that particular population is homogeneous and don’t sample it much, you can’t discover substructure there. But this problem should probably wait for all the above to be addressed.

  17. IIRC, South Asian has been treated as a distinct racial category, under the rubric “Hindu” only a couple of time in the history of the U.S. Census.

    I agree that there is population substructure in human population genetics that bears some crude resemblance to conventional racial distinctions, and that there is some disconnect between that and social constructions of race.

    I think it would be helpful as a first step to generally describe socially constructed racial categories as “ethnicities” (as the census already does for the Hispanic category), to surrender efforts to ascertain a biological construct of race through self-reported or amateur reported surveys, and to more or less abandon the ambiguous word “race” in favor of alternatives like “subpopulation” to identify biological distinctions.

    For a great many, and probably most, social science applications, ethnicity is more relevant than biological subpopulation – an East Asian baby adopted by a U.S. family is going to have the same ethnicity as the adoptive family without regard to biological subpopulation and that will shape a great deal of that person’s behavior (e.g. language and accent, scope of common knowledge, religion).

    Even in medicine, ethnicity can be a proxy for shared environmental exposures, cultural practices, and shared customary ways of interacting with the health care system that may be distinct from those of different ethnicities, and have value to describing different outcomes apart from biological subpopulation sourced differences. The overlap between biological subpopulations and ethnicity makes it hard to parse out of the differences between the two, however, even statistically. Any such distinction in operationalized studies boils down to a small number of outlier individuals or communities (e.g. a group of Ethiopian immigrants in an otherwise African-American sample) and even there you would usually expect easily discernable biological differences between populations that are also culturally different, although at a greater level of detail (than e.g., the differences between Finnish Americans and African-Americans).

    @#2 Those kind of studies have been done. I have seen reports from a few studies of that kind, but not recently and don’t have citiations on hand. Also, of course, people in places that don’t have hypodescent social constructions (e.g. Louisiana pre-Louisiana purchase and in much of the Caribbean) did make distinctions between people by fraction of descent and had a more finely graded color line that was widely understood. Plessy v. Ferguson, e.g., involved some of the same issues at the trial court level before it became a case about separate v. equal being constitutional. One of the key issues at the trial court level was whether the individual was white or black, given that he was predominantly white but of mixed race.

  18. American Indian tribes, who are typically limited to one casino each, tend to be Small Tent constructionists, periodically expelling from membership people who have dropped below some “blood quantum” such as 1/4th in order to maximized the checks going to the survivors of the purges.

    In contrast, groups that benefit from affirmative action and disparate impact discrimination lawsuits tend to be Big Tent about who gets to call themselves black or Latino.

    As a white man who doesn’t benefit from affirmative action or disparate impact lawsuits or from Indian casinos, I am a Very Big Tenter about who is officially Caucasian. I want as many people in the tent with me getting nothing and as few people on the outside getting benefits at my expense or trying to organize to get benefits. There are a whole lot of South Asians and Latin Americans who traditionally aspire to whiteness and I want them in the White Tent with me.

  19. Latifundiário

    Ed, you can open a free account at 23andMe. Most of the Colonial Elite Brazilians there have more than 95% of Euro Ancestry and the Amerindian and African %’s are very interesting. You can register and share results, it’s free.

  20. S.J. Esposito

    Razib, why do you deem it implausible for genomics to one day be so impactful that it alters the popular conception of race to such an extent that the social sciences feel a major paradigm shift? Genetics has done this before, has it not?

  21. the popular conception of race to such an extent that the social sciences feel a major paradigm shift

    be more precise. you didn’t say “social science.” you said cultural anthro and sociology. these fields are filled with ideological morons.

  22. janvones

    Anyone with above a sixth grade mentality will realize that the concept “Hispanic” is cultural rather than racial in what the specialists call the phylogenetic sense. It’s a rather flimsy straw-concept to rail against. And failing to mentioning that the category comes from the statist classification of people into “minorities” for leftist political ends (“Hispanics” as defined in the USA are minorities because they are not “WASP’s”) is hardly helpful. No “minority” as defined by identity politics is a valid scientific concept.

  23. #22, i’v discussed all those issues in detail many times. you aren’t obligated to know everything i’ve said, but you are obligated to be polite and chill on the patronizing tone and not read between the lines too much. another outburst like that and i’ll ban you with no warning (any future commenters that wander in here thinking too much of themselves will be banned and their comments will not be posted).

  24. Martin L. Morgan

    I entered Celtic on my daughter’s birth certificate but the man rejected it.

  25. Antonio

    22 if this so obvious why many smart US people use the term as a racial category, whatever that means? I don’t disagree with that fact this cannot be a race in any meaningful sense. Instead, I am merely showing that things are more complicated in life.

  26. Antonio

    Hi Ed, that’s quite an ancestry!

  27. Antonio

    Razib, I think I didn’t get what you ment at all:

    “personal genomics would have great utility for loci of large effect segregating in appreciable proportions in such populations.””

    huh? I am not disputing anything, I just did not follow it. sorry.

  28. Antonio

    Hi Latifundiário, how are you? Where did you get these numbers? I don’t disagree with that at all but I am very curious about. I am myself a colonial brazilian (more than 300 years in Brazil) and I am more european than that, with the only know non-european mixture being a very minor chinese component that come from the swiss-german part of my family and therefore is unrelated to mixing in Brazil. I think because we never institucionalize any form of apartheid people get confused about our country. Also it seems to me that for political reasons some people do overestimate the admixture levels in Brazil on purpose. My own impression is that there are clear subpopulations in our country with very little mixing, but I don’t have numbers. On the other hand, US whites from the South and Afrikaners also exhibit some mixing. Thus Brazil might not be so exceptional as some wish. Since Brazil is a very big country, we don’t even need higher levels of endogamy for that to be true.

  29. Kind of a tangent, but I think it gets slippery considering which construction is more “real.” We tend to come at it as the “reality” being genetic ancestry upon which a socially constructed (“not real”) conception of race is sloppily mapped. However, I get the social science perspective that the socially constructed race is the category that is often much more “real” — it is the lived experience of everyone in that group. If you are visibly black (or white) and part of that community, then you “really” are black (or white) in many, many ways that matters, whether you’re 90% African or 0%.

    In the context of the topics we mainly discuss here — population genetics, medical genetics, etc — genetic ancestry is “real” and social race categories matter less. This is why I’m mostly in favor of letting social science have the word “race” and would really push for biologists to use better-defined terms (like ancestry).

    It’s a mistake to say that human artifice is “less real” than genetics, it’s context dependent. I recognize that the social construction of race is a sort of unrefereed crowd-sourced attempt at deriving ancestry, but as we start to divide causal factors into social / biological aspects of race, this mapping is more of a hindrance than a help. A first step is to stop using shared language to discuss them.

  30. huh? I am not disputing anything, I just did not follow it. sorry.

    race is used as a proxy when it comes to your genetic state for some medications, etc. for racially mixed people it is not useful, because if the phenotype is due to one gene they might be of either state. this is a case where personal genomics is necessary, because it tells a mixed person what their phenotypic state is. many more white brazilians have sickle cell apparently than white americans, because of admixture.

  31. Antonio

    Thanks for the clarification. Cheers,

  32. Chris T

    This is why I’m mostly in favor of letting social science have the word “race” and would really push for biologists to use better-defined terms (like ancestry).

    I definitely agree and have mostly abandoned the word in biology related discussions (as has the field as far as I can tell). It has far too much historical baggage and tends to have a very different colloquial meaning. Unfortunately, abandoning the term has led to new misconceptions (ie: that you can’t identify different populations genetically).

  33. Mike

    The racial categories we are familiar with were generated by geographic isolation, and the characteristics necessary for survival in the local environment were refined and accentuated. Now that we no longer have that isolation, one would assume the delineation between those races would eventually fade away, but being there are other types of social isolation, could they not generate new, and unfamiliar racial categories? We saw this happen with Western Jews- isolated by culture and law within Christian societies, it became possible to “look Jewish.”

    I see a possibility of “college educated” becoming its own race, with its own look and genetics, “Catholic,” “churchgoing,” “military,” “welfare recipient,” and so on. Any classification that would bias one towards finding partners also in the same classification.

  34. Mike J

    “Some level of African ancestry” is present in the vast majority of Latinos who are not children of recent European immigrants or are from the indigenous groups of the Americas. So what do you mean by “African?” North African, as in the Berbers and ‘Arabs’ of the Maghreb? Or “African” as the very dark complexioned peoples south of the Sahara? Imprecise comments, regardless of intent, play into the racialization that so many racist Americans are fond of. Reading “some level of African ancestry” becomes an “A-ha!” moment for a scientifically uneducated or unsophisticated layperson who sees this as proof of the status of Latinos as ‘racial others.’ I am Latino and Jewish-Iranian. Upon answering questions from curious people about my ancestral background, I hear emphatic and sometimes irritated comments that, despite my European-looking light skin tone and facial features, I am not “white.” I don’t claim to be “white,” although I look more like many Russians, Ukrainians, or Tatars, not like the TV stereotypical portrayal of a Latino, Middle Eastern, or Jewish American. The passage in the article referring to Latinos/Hispanics serves to conflate social and biological race, in spite of the whole point of the article. Just an example of how easy it is to lose oneself in imprecise terminology when we get carried away with our musings.

  35. Md

    Steve Sailor said: “There are a whole lot of South Asians and Latin Americans who traditionally aspire to whiteness and I want them in the White Tent with me.”

    It’s too late, certainly in the US, and probably on the whole planet since possibly the majority of South Asians or Latin Americans would fancy immigrating here and becoming an officially favored ethnicity. And why would a South Asian American or immigrant not want to be part of the wealthiest ethnic group in the land (at least according to the Census Bureau.)

  36. Antonio

    I agree with Mike J, but I also think it is often very difficult to be precise in such a way as to avoid these misrepresentations of the scientific evidence.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar