Contexts, Vol. 4, Issue 4, pp. 17-21, ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2005 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved.
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race as class
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