Critique of "The Problem of 'Race as a Social Construct'"

In Thompson's article, he says that race is a problematic form of classification that is arbitrary even when looking at it from a genetic perspective. He suggests that a more useful form of classification is personal lineage and we should do away with the notion of race. Here is my critique of the these ideas.

1. Race is a constructed notion that is neither arbitrary nor fictitious, but it is also not removed from biological fact.

Social constructs are based on shared ideas; that is, they are cultural notions. Race is a cultural notion that is informed mainly by appearance. When look at a person, we observe that he or she has certain physical traits that are associated with a certain race. These observed characteristics are what helps us form our notion of race. In other words, notions of race may not be fictional (as implied by the term "human construct"), but they do have to be informed by observable traits, which correspond to biological facts. In a sentence, Leroi argues that "human physical variation is correlated; and correlations contain information". It would be difficult to deny that the racial categories we have formed are not based on observable differences.

It is true that Leroi sounds derisive when he says that the scientists who accepted the social construct theory only did so because they were "thoughtful, liberal-minded and socially aware people". However, I do think that socially constructed notions are very real and have "very real consequences, not to be dismissed lightly" (Thompson, 2006). I would like to suggest that perhaps he was not refuting the reality of social constructs but defending the theory that racial notions have a biological basis.


2. There are many ways to divide things up, but this does not mean that classifications are arbitrary

To borrow from Leroi's painting analogy: the genetic profile of the entire human race is like a complex oil painting of many different shades of colours. Some shades are the product of mixing two different colours, but all are distinct. There are many ways of classifying the colours on the painting. For example, we could call a group of colours "Teal", "Cyan" and "Sapphire", or we could just call them "Blue". None of these classifications are wrong, neither is any one more arbitrary than another. We are either describing the colours in detail or we are not. Similarly, classification of races can seem problematic because there are many ways to classify genetic variation. But all we are doing is discovering new levels of detail in genetic variation. For example, major continental races (European, Asian, African) are a more general classification as opposed to more specific groups such as "Ibo or Yoruba, perhaps even Celt or Castilian" (Leroi, 2006). This doesn't mean that any of these classifications are arbitrary, but that we can describe the painting that is our genetic profile in greater detail.

3. The problem is not race. The problem is thinking of race in terms of "them versus us"

Conflict between two distinct groups is hardly unique to race. There have been non-racial, international scale intergroup conflicts such as the Thirty-Years' war (between Catholics and protestants). Even within countries and within races, there have been conflicts as evidenced by the civil wars in post-colonial Asian nations between communist and democratic factions. It is not the classification of people that causes conflict, it is the ideological differences between two groups that does. To do away with racial classification would not lessen the amount of conflict in the world. The cause of conflict is instead a deep seated difference in ideologies that will only be mediated through sincere attempts at mutual understanding.

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