Big Question: Is race a social construct?

Curiosity contributor Jacob Silverman analyzed the question of what defines race itself and here is what he found.

There is no one answer to this question. In the mid- and late-20th century, the notion that race was primarily a social construct -- a product of cultural, political and social factors -- became ascendant. Anthropologists, social scientists and cultural commentators popularized the notion that individuals and population groups, even governments, defined race, with the corollary being that race is something highly mutable, even irrelevant. Also, some scientists argued that the genetic differences between humans of different ethnic groups were so minor that race represented a false distinction.

But in recent years, the debate has been complicated by new discoveries about the human genome and how they apply to public health. For example, we often read news stories about medical studies claiming, say, that a certain racial group is less likely than others to die from heart disease. These claims raise potentially uncomfortable questions: In this case, are the factors that contribute to mortality genetic -- and therefore ethnic or racial -- or are they socially or economically defined, such as by less access to health services?

Some experts talk about "continent of ancestry" when talking about genetics [source: Grady]. But one's ethnic background can be mixed or uncertain, and even so, it doesn't necessarily provide a clear indication of one's genetic makeup or susceptibility to certain diseases. Still, knowing that black women are more likely to die of breast cancer, or that Tay-Sachs disease is more common among Ashkenazi Jews, can be helpful, as it allows people from these groups to make better informed health-care decisions.

Further, these conditions are often dictated by one's genetic makeup, and ancestry is indeed linked with the distribution of some genes. In that sense, race is not a social construct, but a genetic and biological one. What it means, though, is that our current categories of race -- black, white, South Asian, Latin American, etc. -- may be insufficiently vague. We could learn a lot more about human health and evolution by examining our genetic profiles and finding which traits link groups of people and which differentiate them.

Of course, no matter what defines race, discrimination based on it is never far away. In the video below, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel talks about whether there will ever be an end to discrimination.

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