What is race? Over time and space, many people have asked that very question. However, there is no universal definition or universally agreed-on response to this query, largely because the concept of race, born out of Europe and disseminated across the globe, is a human invention.
“The term race,” argue the sociologist Karen Fields and the historian Barbara Fields (2012, 16) “stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank.” How race articulates through our “mental terrain” and infiltrates our belief system results from what these scholars refer to as “racecraft,” meaning “a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene” (18, 19). The anthropologist Jemima Pierre (2012, xii) locates “racecraft” in the structures of “European empire making” and defines it in her study of race and blackness in Ghana as “the design and enactment, practice, and politics of race making.” In this way, race is not a matter of real and/or ascribed difference but one of artifice, currency, hierarchy, and inevitable insurgent counternarratives in ongoing struggles for human and self-recognition.
Today, there is a general consensus that race is a social construct or, more simply put, man-made. This understanding radically discredits the notion of race as something biological and thus indicative of racial purity, an entity born of nature and located in our DNA. Even so, as the famous proposition by William I. and Dorothy Swain Thomas reminds us, “If [people] define situations to be real, they are real in their consequences” (1928, 572), an observation confirmed by the prevailing beliefs in biological inferiority that the theorem’s namesake and his scholarly contemporaries also espoused during their time and/or evaded in everyday life (A. Reed 1997; Steinberg 2007; Morris 2015). Race and racism are not mere social constructs but political, lived, and at times deadly experiences that play a fundamental and intersectional role in the everyday because they are deeply ingrained in our social institutions, ranging from family to education to economics to law (Crenshaw 1991; Essed 1991; Collins 1998). According to the philosopher Charles Mills (1998, 49–50), “race has not been an arbitrary social category . . . or an innocent designation, as in a horizontal system, but has functioned as a real marker . . . of privilege and subordination in a vertical system” in which race and racism lie at the core of the social contract. Still, the recognition and knowledge that race is socially constructed does not tell us what race means, of what it is constructed, nor does it solve the race problem. As the anthropologist Audrey Smedley has written, it only means that we have reached conceptual clarity of race as “a social/cultural reality that exists in a realm independent of biological or genetic variations” (2007, 1).
From a sociohistorical perspective, race can be regarded as a social category that descends from nineteenth-century scientific racism, or race as biology, and its claims of biological determinism. The evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves Jr. (2015, 25) explains biological determinism as “the notion that there is a simple relationship between inherent (biological/genetic) features of human beings and their position in society.” On this idea, the causes of disadvantage or conversely advantage are not located in our social institutions but rather in our so-called races, in other words, in our blood or more precisely in our genes. Per this logic, race is biology, and biology is destiny from which there is no escape. Although multiple sciences substantiate that race is not a meaningful genetic or biological concept, this knowledge has not eliminated racial essentialism, racialization of categories, and the reification of race in genetic research, particularly for the purposes of population labeling. Certain biomedical research and for-profit industries find common interests in this labeling and “classification standardization”—that is, “the alignment of genetics classification with the racial classifications of powerful institutions” (Panofsky and Bliss 2017, 62). This standardization is integral, for instance, not only to race-specific pharmaceuticals but also to the billion-dollar industry of genetic ancestry testing that harbors and at times fosters essentialist assumptions about race (Duster  2003; D. Roberts 2011; Kahn 2012; Nelson 2016). The sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Catherine Bliss (2017, 61) expose an often-overlooked dimension to these issues: “the ambiguous and flexible ways that geneticists classify human populations and differences. . . . Geneticists are typically embarrassed that they have considerable difficulty articulating coherent definitions of race or racial classification, even though both are deployed in their research.” These findings are not at variance with the fact that race is a social construct. Indeed, they ultimately reinforce that very point by demonstrating that human manipulation maps “race” onto human diversity, not natural forces.
More importantly, what science and opportunity have unequivocally shown is that race is not indicative of intelligence, political and moral status, musical aptitude, athleticism, or other complex abilities, as scientific racism dictates. Social movements aimed at advancing opportunities and the inclusion of marginalized and racialized groups have broken glass ceilings in nearly every profession in ways that further belie and delegitimate beliefs in racial inferiority and superiority. This is not to assert, however, that there is no biological impact or damage to groups socially defined as “races.” Scholars and medical professionals have long documented correlations between health disparities due to environmental conditions, such as the deliberate placing of hazardous-waste sites in proximity to already-segregated, low-income, “minority” neighborhoods, or lead in the water supply, or the stressors of racism and their impact on infant mortality rates—all of which result from human intervention.
As the theorist Roderick A. Ferguson (2007, 191) has written, “The study of race incorporates a set of wide-ranging analyses of freedom and power. The scope of those analyses has much to do with the broad application of racial difference to academic and popular notions of epistemology, community, identity, and the body . . . [as well as] economic and political formations.” For example, those power formations obscure how human beings have arbitrarily selected which traits carry social significance when fashioning categories that define a specific group. Category formation in the hands of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German Enlightenment thinker, anatomist, and naturalist, illustrates well the pure randomness of race-making through his “naming” white people “Caucasian.” On the basis of his personal assessment that people of the Caucasus region, situated at the border of Europe and Asia, were the most beautiful in the world and the cradle of humanity, Blumenbach established a category of whiteness that endures to this day (Gould 1994; N. Painter 2010).
Race may have originated as a European folk idea about human differences, traceable to the “Age of Discovery” during the fifteenth century, but by the eighteenth century, the idea had crystalized into a pseudoscientific categorical fact. Derived from high-stakes philosophical discourses about differences between humans and those who were ultimately written out of humanity, these explanations informed a number of academic fields that perpetuated race-making, among them anthropology, geography, medicine, sociology, and theology (Eze 1997; Bernasconi 2001; Ferguson 2004). Critical medievalists, such as Geraldine Heng (2011), reject this canonical periodization on the basis of multiple sources, dating from the thirteenth century, that appear to frustrate narrowly etched race chronologies. Similar to the political scientist Cedric Robinson ( 2000), Heng found that that there is compelling evidence of “racial thinking, racial law, racial formation, and racialized behaviors and phenomena in medieval Europe before the emergence of a recognizable vocabulary of race” (2011, 268). These ideas also found fertile ground in Christian theology’s contribution to the modern racial imagination, enshrined in interpretations of the curse on Ham, the putative father of Black Africa, with heritable servitude. The sociologist David Goldenberg’s (2003) exegetical study of the uses of this allegory to rationalize racial slavery shows, however, the absence of referential antiblackness in this story, which has been ironically passed down over thousands of years to justify the enslavement of racialized black bodies throughout the Atlantic world (Gomez 2005; Diouf 2014; R. Johnson 2016). Still, as Toni Morrison (1992, 49) judiciously recognizes, there is “a long history on the meaning of color” that signified “not simply that [a] slave population had a distinctive color; it was that this color ‘meant’ something,” something antithetical to that against which it was defined and thereby made to matter: whiteness. Color is not race, but it serves often as its surrogate, and, as with race, it is no more biologically predictive of who we are or will be than are ear or shoe size.
Framed this way, it is insufficient to say that race is socially constructed or to advocate, as do color/raceblind adherents, the purging or effacement of the idea with the expectation and/or hope that doing so will mitigate or nullify the effects of the concept’s protracted and destructive career in the world. Race has a material life whose definition has never been fixed, precisely because it is a product of human perception that dominant groups have wielded to preserve their position of dominance. As the cases of Nazi Germany, racial passing, and Rwanda show, people must be taught or compelled to see race when it is not discernable through selected racialized markers in a society (i.e., skin color, features, body type, hair texture, language, clothing, names, identity cards, or zip codes), again the stuff of racial categorization. Nonetheless, racial meaning and causality are created in their absence, as the theorist Michelle Wright elucidates similarly in her analysis of the phenomenology of blackness, a blackness ascribed, assumed, and/or performed by a variety of diasporic bodies, some of which are not always apprehended as black. “Blackness,” she argues, “operates as a construct (implicitly or explicitly defined as a shared set of physical and behavioral characteristics) and . . . phenomenological[ly] (imagined through individual perceptions in various ways depending on the context)” (2015, 4). The social and legal principle of the “one-drop rule,” white supremacy’s definition of blackness, exemplifies well her point, as it asserts that African ancestry, real or imagined, defines a person as black, thus inferior.
That race is so historically entrenched in a society begs several questions: Is it possible or even desirable to negotiate, become “liberated” from, or transcend race without recourse to the “master’s tools,” chief among them being the term and concept of race themselves? What, if anything, is redemptive about race? What of its life-saving effects: communities, solidarities, pride, pleasure, traditions, and the arts that evolved in response to its imposition, its distortions, and a complicity with it that obtains without explicit demand (W. Du Bois 1897a, 1903,  1998; Woodson 1933; Fanon  2008; Appiah 1992; L. Gordon 1999; Gilroy 2000; Outlaw 2014)? The violence of race is not often recognized institutionally, neither is it one-directional, as the decolonial theorist Aimé Césaire ( 2000) makes plain: the dehumanizer becomes dehumanized in that very process and thereby amputated from all humanity in order to rationalize and justify that violence. Race, then, is not destiny, but it can often feel that way.
The fact that race is invented suggests strongly that it can be whatever people define it to be. However, the concept, its deployment, its persistence, and its ultimate purpose—racial rule for capitalist gain—are intimately linked to politics and power that rely on coercion (i.e., violence, threats, and pressure) and consent for their existence. In the logic of Antonio Gramsci, “hegemony operates by including its subjects [and] incorporating its opposition,” argues the sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994, 68; cf. Feagin and Elias 2012). To accomplish this end, “the ruling groups must elaborate and maintain a popular system of ideas and practices—through education, the media, religion, folk wisdom, etc.” (Omi and Winant 1994, 67). It is through this inculcated knowledge that society’s consent occurs so that the dominant group’s ways of thinking and being in the world appear natural, reasonable, indeed in society’s collective interest, despite resistance and at times because of it.
A common, salient illustration from my research in metropolitan France concerns the international practice of repetitive identity checks or stop-and-frisks performed by “ethnically” diverse law enforcers, which include large, frequently black security guards in places of commerce. In a climate of “normalcy,” these individuals, imbued with the authority of the state, profile and stop youth racialized as black or Arab not for what they have done but for what they are perceived to be, particularly in public space, where their already-demonized bodies are deemed incongruous with the norm. As a demonstration of that authority, they are routinely harassed in their neighborhoods, located in segregated areas where relations with the police are little more than relations of force. Should they resist or self-defend, even as a reflex reaction to a policing aggression or attack, an already-humiliating situation quickly escalates to detainment, physical violence, or death by a militarized police force against “suitable enemies,” long racialized as delinquents, terrorist in the making, or/and an immigrant threat (Keaton 2006, 2013). It is not surprising that movements such as Black Lives Matter are both local and global and firmly within worldwide traditions of antiracism struggles for human and civil rights (K. Taylor 2016). Meanwhile, media-savvy, though solutionless, politicians and social analysts (from the left and the right) respond to race problems by denying their existence or resorting to proxy issues, such as immigration and cultural pathology. In so doing, they deflect attention from racism and racial discrimination, intersected by socioeconomic precarity, for which they have no viable answers in a supposed post-race and post-truth era. Scapegoating marginalized groups for their marginalization remains, then, a tried and tested mechanism to exculpate that same society (i.e., people and their institutions) for having structured race-based and intersectional exclusions as both desired and acceptable.
Everything old becomes new again, as revivals of explicit authoritarian white nationalism and supremacy well illustrate, particularly during high-stakes elections. In the language of the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2001, 6), who captures the global implications of these issues beyond the site of his research in the U.S., “present-day victim-blamers, as their older cousins, believe (1) that government interventions on behalf of minorities is a waste of time and money,” that is, against white interests and dominance, irrespective of class and gender, “and (2) that racial and class-based stratification is an irrelevant factor in understanding black/white inequality.” This latter point also renders inconsequential, if not invisible, inequality suffered by other racialized groups in societies whose extreme racial outer limits continue to be constituted in terms of variations on whiteness and anything-but-blackness. When framed by racial hegemony, practices such as mass incarceration and deportation enjoy public approval when scripted as crime and apprehended as a matter of individuals’ moral or cultural deficiencies and/or a threat to dominate groups (Elias 1965; Mamdani 2002; A. Davis 2003; Wacquant 2009; Michelle Alexander 2012; Camp and Heatherton 2016; DuVernay 2016). By a sleight of hand, historically situated and systemic state-driven racial dynamics are erased, dynamics in play since enslavement through colonialism through Jim Crow and apartheid systems to this day. What is more, whether race-making nation-states and those who are ensnared in their orbit are race conscious with a long-standing history of deploying racial categories, as in Canada, the U.S., or the United Kingdom, or race blind in that states reject or retreat from a concept of race and thereby ban racial categories, the social outcomes are the same. Racial inequality and racial violence abound because race, even when unnamed or misrecognized, continues to play a critical role in how those societies are organized and how people are accordingly mis/treated. To take, however, the position that those who bore the stigmata of race exercised no agency is not only to err but also to adopt the perspective of a racist. Oft-overlooked everyday forms of resistance and revolts were central to race rebellions that make legible and visible civil rights battles waged on the ground (Kelley 1994; Kendi 2016).
What, then, is race? Paradoxically, race is everything and nothing at the same time but ultimately whatever a society has made it to mean. One thing is certain, as the theorist Hortense Spillers (2003, 378) writes, race, “unnatural and preponderant in its grotesque mandates,” has no scientific basis. Yet, through its protean registers, race is always insisting violently that a racialized world is a natural one, the way it was meant to be. Nothing could be further from the truth.