Gans 2005

Gans 2005 - feature article herbert j. gans race as class...

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fall 2005 contexts 17 Contexts, Vol. 4, Issue 4, pp. 17-21, ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2005 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Rights and Permissions website, at www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm. race as class feature article herbert j. gans Why does the idea of race continue to exert so much influence in the United States? Because the skin colors and other physical features used to define race were selected precisely because they mirror the country’s socioeconomic pecking order. Humans of all colors and shapes can make babies with each other. Consequently most biologists, who define races as subspecies that cannot interbreed, argue that scientifically there can be no human races. Nonetheless, lay people still see and distinguish between races. Thus, it is worth asking again why the lay notion of race continues to exist and to exert so much influence in human affairs. Lay persons are not biologists, nor are they sociologists, who argue these days that race is a social construction arbi- trary enough to be eliminated if “society” chose to do so. The laity operates with a very different definition of race. They see that humans vary, notably in skin color, the shape of the head, nose, and lips, and quality of hair, and they choose to define the variations as individual races. More important, the lay public uses this definition of race to decide whether strangers (the so-called “other”) are to be treated as superior, inferior, or equal. Race is even more use- ful for deciding quickly whether strangers might be threaten- ing and thus should be excluded. Whites often consider dark-skinned strangers threatening until they prove otherwise, and none more than African Americans. Scholars believe the color differences in human skins can be traced to climatic adaptation. They argue that the high levels of melanin in dark skin originally protected people liv- ing outside in hot, sunny climates, notably in Africa and South Asia, from skin cancer. Conversely, in cold climates, the low amount of melanin in light skins enabled the early humans to soak up vitamin D from a sun often hidden behind clouds. These color differences were reinforced by millennia of inbreeding when humans lived in small groups that were geographically and socially isolated. This inbreed- ing also produced variations in head and nose shapes and other facial features so that Northern Europeans look differ- ent from people from the Mediterranean area, such as Italians and, long ago, Jews. Likewise, East African faces dif- fer from West African ones, and Chinese faces from Japanese ones. (Presumably the inbreeding and isolation also produced the DNA patterns that geneticists refer to in the latest scientific revival and redefinition of race.) Geographic and social isolation ended long ago, however, and human population movements, intermarriage, and other
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Gans 2005 - feature article herbert j. gans race as class...

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