Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Race and Racism

There is one human race, known as homo sapiens. Humans are identified by their DNA. Humans share about 99% of their DNA (Chou, 2017).

The concept of race in psychology has been problematic because the word race has come to mean different things to different people. Scientists do not think about race the way the word is used in the general population.

Race is a social construct. A social construct is a generally accepted idea. Race is an idea based on variations in skin color and a few other visible features such as hair and the shape of noses and eyes. Such physical characteristics were associated with humans from different geographic regions known as the "five races:" African, European, Asian, Oceanian, and Native American. The observable physical differences have been associated with different mental abilities and behavioral characteristics.

At a genetic level, the variations in people within a geographic region show a great diversity compared with variations between people from different geographic regions. In reality, humans are physically similar.

Scientists do not completely agree on the definition of race, but the American Anthropological Association (AAA), has a position statement on race. A 2012 survey of anthropologists revealed a consensus that there are no human biological races (Wagner et al., 2017).

Humans did interbreed with other beings. Recent discoveries identified shared DNA in some humans with two other species--Neanderthals and Denisovans (Worrall, 2017).


Racism is prejudice, discrimination, and hostility toward people identified as members of a different race. The idea of race is usually based on superficial differences in appearance such as skin color as mentioned above. Racists assume that the observed physical differences mean that people with similar observable differences are also similar in other ways like intelligence and behavior. The supposed differences are described in insulting language describing one racial group as inferior to another group.

Racism is a long-standing problem that has been used to justify killing, slavery, and all sorts of horrific treatment of those considered inferior to others based on observable differences and having ancestors who were considered to be of an inferior racial group.

Race and Ethnicity in Surveys

Asking identifying information in a survey is a problem because many people use the words race and ethnicity in imprecise ways. See chapter 8, "Assessing Social Context" in Creating Surveys for suggestions on asking about race and ethnicity and other traits in surveys. Researchers will need to rely on how the terms are used in their local cultures if such identities are relevant to understanding survey results.

BUY Creating Surveys on AMAZON 

Race and Ethnicity in History

Some have argued that race and racial prejudices were not present in the ethnically diverse Roman empire. Cambridge professor, Mary Beard sums up her thoughts on the subject in an interview related to a television documentary on the Roman Empire (Telegraph, 2016): 

"Romans were as xenophobic and ethnocentric as any people there’s ever been."

In a PBS series on race, the authors make the point that race is a modern concept. They provide a useful history of the concept of race and the concept of slavery related to race.

Although some report the lack of race based on limited or no findings about discrimination based on skin color in ancient literature, the argument is no reason to suspect that the people in Roman times or in other cultures were free from prejudices that relegated some people to groups considered inferior or undesirable.


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