The 1997 President’s Initiative on Race elicited numerous comments regarding its intent and focus. One such comment was made by Jefferson Fish, a psychologist at St. John’s University in New York, who said: “This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall. Nobody is asking the question, ‘What is race?’ It is a biologically meaningless category” (quoted in Petit, 1998:A1).
Biologists, geneticists, and physical anthropologists, among others, long ago reached a common understanding that race is not a “scientific” concept rooted in discernible biological differences. Nevertheless, race is commonly and popularly defined in terms of biological traits—phenotypic differences in skin color, hair texture, and other physical attributes, often perceived as surface manifestations of deeper, underlying differences in intelligence, temperament, physical prowess, and sexuality. Thus, although race may have no biological meaning, as used in reference to human differences, it has an extremely important and highly contested social one.
Clearly, there is an enormous gap between the scientific rejection of race as a concept, and the popular acceptance of it as an important organizing principle of individual identity and collective consciousness. But merely asserting that race is socially constructed does not get at how specific racial concepts come into existence, what the fundamental determinants of racialization are, and how race articulates with other major axes of stratification and “difference,” such as gender and class. Each of these topics would require an extensive treatise on possible variables shaping our collective notions of race. The following discussion is much more modest.
I attempt to survey ways of thinking about, bringing into context, and interrogating the changing meaning of race in the United States. My intent is to raise a series of points to be used as frames of reference, to facilitate and deepen the conversation about race.