While many people conflate the terms "race" and "ethnicity," these terms have distinct meanings for sociologists. The idea of race refers to superficial physical differences that a particular society considers significant, while ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture.
Social and Scientific Conceptions of Race
Historically, the concept of race has changed across cultures and eras. Race has been used as a classification system to categorize humans in a variety of ways: as large and distinct populations, as groups distinguished by phenotype (observable traits and behaviors), and as groups of differing geographic ancestry and ethnicity. In the past, theorists have posited categories of race based on various geographic regions, ethnicities, skin colors, and more. Their labels for racial groups have connoted regions (Mongolia and the Caucus Mountains, for instance) or denoted skin tones (black, white, yellow, and red, for example). It was assumed for centuries that race was based in biology and genetically distinguishable among different subgroups (e.g., African Americans, Caucasians, American Indians, etc.).
However, this typology of race developed during early racial science has fallen into disuse; over time the concept has become less connected with ancestral and family ties and more concerned with superficial physical characteristics. While biologists sometimes use the concept of race to make distinctions among sets of traits, others in the scientific community suggest that this idea of race is often used in a naive or simplistic way.
Now, race is far more widely accepted to be a social construction and therefore not distinguishable based on biology alone. Among humans, race has no taxonomic significance — all living humans belong to the same hominid subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. Social conceptions and groupings of races vary over time, according to different folk taxonomies that define essential types of individuals based on perceived traits. Many scientists consider this sort of biological essentialism obsolete, and generally discourage racial explanations in favor of other physical or behavioral distinctions.
Early Modern Conceptions of Race
The word "race" was originally used to refer to any nation or ethnic group. For example, the 13th century traveler Marco Polo used the term "Persian race", to describe people inhabiting the territory of the nation-state Iran.
However, anthropologists only trace the current concept of "race," along with many of the ideas now associated with the term, to the 16th and 17th centuries and the time of the Scientific Revolution. This era was one of European imperialism and colonization, during which new - often exploitive - political relations were established between Europeans and other cultures of the world. As Europeans encountered people from different parts of the world, they speculated about the physical, social, and cultural differences among various human groups.
According to historian Milton Meltzer, the rise of the Atlantic slave trade created a further incentive to categorize human groups in order to justify the subordination of African slaves. Similarly, the tradition of hostility between the English and Irish was a powerful influence on early European thinking of the Irish as an inferior "race. "
As Europeans began to sort themselves and others into groups based on physical appearance, they attributed to individual members of these groups certain behaviors and capacities that were supposedly deeply ingrained. These supposed physical, intellectual, behavioral, and moral differences soon became part of common folk belief.
From the 17th through the 19th centuries, the merging of folk beliefs about and scientific explanations of group differences produced what social anthropologist Audrey Smedley has called an "ideology of race. " According to this ideology, races are primordial, natural, enduring and distinct. During this time, it was further argued that some groups may be the result of mixture between formerly distinct populations, but that careful study could distinguish the ancestral races that had combined.
Contemporary Uses of Racial Categories
Contemporary conceptions of race illuminate how far removed modern race understanding is from biological qualities. In modern society, some people who consider themselves "white" actually have more melanin (a pigment that determines skin color) in their skin than other people who identify as "black. " In some countries, such as Brazil, class is more important than skin color in determining racial categorization. People with high levels of melanin in their skin may consider themselves "white" if they enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. On the other hand, someone with low levels of melanin in their skin might be assigned the identity of "black" if they have little education or money.
While race is largely understood to be a social construct, most scholars agree that race has real material effects in the lives of people through institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination. Socioeconomic factors, in combination with early but enduring views of race, have led to considerable suffering within disadvantaged racial groups. Racial discrimination often coincides with racist mindsets, whereby the individuals and ideologies of one group come to perceive the members of an outgroups as both racially defined and morally inferior. As a result, racial groups possessing relatively little power often find themselves excluded or oppressed. Racism today continues to contribute to the suffering of many people in the form of slavery, genocide, systemic oppression, and institutionalized discrimination.
Law enforcement officers often utilize race to profile suspects, a term commonly referred to as "racial profiling". This use of racial categories is frequently criticized for perpetuating an outmoded understanding of human biological variation, and promoting stereotypes.