Humans, regardless of their race, are 99.9% genetically identical. However, race is still used to classify people, and sometimes race is a basis for differential treatment of individuals or groups of people. Sociologists, then, have come to understand race as a social category, based on real or perceived biological differences between groups of people. Race is more meaningful to us on a social level than it is on a biological level. To be white in America, for example, went from being a somewhat inclusive category in the late eighteenth century to being much more narrowly defined in the mid- to late nineteenth century and then shifted back to a broader definition in the mid-twentieth century. All these changes were in response to social realities. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the idea of race did not exist as we know it today. People recognized broad physical differences between groups of people, but they did not discriminate based on those differences. As Europeans came into contact with different peoples and cultures during the Age of Exploration, racism was used to justify the conquest and colonization of foreign lands.
In the nineteenth century a number of scientists and thinkers researched and attempted to “explain” racial differences. However, what they were really doing was “explaining” white superiority.
Racial categories change over time. Look at the census: the categories of races change very frequently. In fact, 2000 was the first year in which respondents were allowed to select “one or more race” in the racial category. Prior to 2000, respondents were forced to select only one race, even if they would describe themselves as bi- or multiracial. Racial categories never have firm boundaries. For example, there is no set regulation for determining racial identity. A person may have ancestry from mixed descent, but may not identify with that descent. Or a person who was born in the United States, and whose parents and grandparents were also born in the United States, might classify him- or herself as Cuban because a great-grandparent was from Cuba. Racial categories are flexible. A recent example of racialization is the anti-Muslim backlash in America since 9/11. Being Muslim is linked in the minds of Americans to being Arab, so anyone who “looks Arab” (for men it’s often linked to skin color and facial hair and perhaps clothing and for women it’s often linked to the use of a head scarf) is thought to be Muslim and therefore anti-American.
Figure 9.5 Race Questions from the 2010 U.S. Census
The Amish, for instance, are a distinct ethnic group in American society, linked by a common heritage that includes language, religion, and history; the Amish people, with few exceptions, are also white. The Jewish people, on the other hand (contrary to what the Nazis and other white supremacists may believe) are an ethnic group but not a race. Ethnicity and race are sometimes related, but they are not inextricably linked.
Pluralism not only permits racial and ethnic variation within one society, it actually encourages people to embrace diversity – to exchange the traditional melting pot image for a “salad bowl.” At the core of multiculturalism is tolerance of racial and ethnic differences.
It is important to distinguish between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is an internal evaluation and discrimination is an action. While it makes sense to see these things as happening chronologically or in order, it is important to know that that ’s not always the case. Some people may be prejudiced yet not discriminate against individuals. Others may discriminate yet not be prejudiced (for instance, a manager doesn’t hire Chinese people because other people in the office don’t like Chinese people, although the manager doesn’t actually dislike Chinese people at all).