race, ethnicity, and racism

In light of Jamie Whyte’s recent comments about Maori privilege, I thought I would put up one of my old essays about race, ethnicity, and racism (excuse the awkward structure!). I think it’s bizarre that in this day and age we’re even talking about “race” (as opposed to ethnicity) at all.

For a bit of further reading on the whole situation see Giovanni Tiso’s excellent essay, as well as Morgan Godfery’s thoughts about political racism in New Zealand.

Primary Source Document Investigation (2011)

The American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race” sets out to dismantle the notion of “race”, the idea that people can be assigned into discrete groups of people based on biological and genetic differences. Instead, the Association argues that “race” is an outdated social construction – an ideology used in the oppression of people. This essay will outline the historical context of the Association’s statement, it’s main themes, and finally explain why the statement is useful. The statement will mainly be talked about in the context of the United States, with some references to the New Zealand context.

The Association is the ‘central’ American organisation representing people who have an interest in anthropology.[1] The Association’s, Statement on “Race” was written by Audrey Smedley, with the input of a large number of other people, and was published in 1998 on the Association’s website. The statement states that there is a lack of consensus among its members over the content, but that it “represents generally the contemporary thinking and scholarly positions of a majority of anthropologists”.

This document is a contemporary one, and reflects the fact that the idea of “race” has stubbornly refused to disappear, even in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The struggle for legal and political rights for ethnic minorities, women, and people of different sexual orientations has largely been won, but there is a continuing struggle for socio-economic equality and the dismantling of structural barriers to equality.

In the past few decades there has been a concerted attempt to shift the discourse around these issues from that of “race” to ethnicity – to move from a discredited biological concept to one based on the social construction of group identity. This transition is much more complete in New Zealand than in the United States, but that does not mean racism here has disappeared – old attitudes have often been transferred onto new names.

A significant amount of research suggests conclusively that “race” does not have a biological basis, but public perceptions have not caught up with the facts. The early 1990s saw an accumulation of evidence that eventually “thoroughly dismantled” the notion of biological “races”.[2] Yet many Americans still believe that there are racial differences “in character and habit”.[3] Incorrect definitions of “race” still appear in many dictionaries, which Joseph Graves Jr. sees as a sign that that Americans have limited access to the science which says biological “races” do not exist.[4] Graves talks about the continuing confusion in American society as to whether the concept of biological “race” is valid, which he puts down to “the deep entanglement of racial categorization in the historical and social fabric of the country.”[5] He argues that societies “cannot progress toward true justice and equality” until racism is removed from people’s minds.[6]

John Ladd, writing in 1997, talks about how “race relations in America have reached a crisis point”. A number of grotesque racist hate crimes were committed in 1999 in the United States – terrible manifestations of the fact that people still believed in “race” and racist ideologies.[7] Internationally, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the Bosnian genocides in the mid 1990s are other examples of contemporary racism taken to the extreme.

One of the ways racism now presents itself, is in calls for people and the government to be “race-blind” in their actions. Ladd notes with concern the rise of the neoconservative tendency to deny the relevance of “race” and the continuing existence of racism in American society, and hence the associated opposition to affirmative action on the ground that it is “racist”. He calls this belief “new racism”.[8] Similarly, Graves argues that modern racist ideology “attempts to portray its critics as the racists”.[9] Michael Omi and Howard Winant also write of the debate in the United States over whether “racial” groups should be treated differently. The political right tends to call such differential treatment “racist”, while those on the left tend to view it as the opposite, that special treatment is an important part of combating a history of inequality, and that to do nothing would, in fact, perpetuate racism.[10]

This modern racist ideology can be seen in contemporary New Zealand society, reflected in the debate as to whether Māori deserve preferential treatment as a form of reparation for historical injustices. Only recently has the concept of “race” resurfaced and been used by politicians to garner votes. Don Brash, then leader of the National Party, in his infamous speech at Orewa in 2004, sought at end to the “separatist path” New Zealand had committed to. The word “race” is conspicuously present throughout his speech. He effectively denied the contemporary significance of “race” and argued that Māori were not really disadvantaged. He sought an end to “special privileges for any race” and instead wanted a racially neutral approach to government policy, or “one rule for all” as he called it.[11] This is consistent with Graves argument that racist ideologies “provide a moral justification for maintaining a society that routinely deprives certain groups of their rights and privileges.”[12]

The Association’s statement starts by using relatively recent genetics research to point out that there is much more variation within racial groups rather than between them – that is, people from one “race” are likely to be more different genetically from each other than they are different from other “races”. It emphasises the independence of physical traits, which makes it impossible to “establish lines of division among biological populations” as the idea of “race” tries to do. Instead it talks about race as an entirely social construction, asserting that “physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them”.[13]

The statement contains a brief history of racial thought. It argues that the ideology of race was used to justify the oppression of indigenous peoples in colonies, and to lead people to believe that the artificial distinctions and inequalities between people on the basis of “race” were “natural or God-given.”[14] Race was a “strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere”, but also a way of controlling and destroying those relegated to the margins of society, like the Jews in Nazi Germany. The statement also explains that “race” was used in the defence of slavery. The ideology of “race” meant people interpreted physical characteristics as indications that their social position was justified, hence it was natural for certain “racial” groups to be slaves. The statement also emphasises the importance of culture in shaping people’s behaviour, in contrast to the ideas of “race” which say behaviour is genetically determined.[15]

The fact that the organization feels the need to make a statement at all indicates that “race” is still a contested concept and that there are still public misconceptions about whether biologically rooted “races” exist. In the face of such confusion the statement provides a useful summary of some of the facts for the public about race. As a professional organisation with a duty to educate the public, the Association identified a need for a statement that would clear up public confusion around race as best it could – the explanatory note at the end of the statement explains that “the need was apparent for a clear AAA statement on the biology and politics of race that would be educational and informational”.

The statement provides useful information about the social construction of “race” and hence opens up possibilities for change. The statement argues that “[h]ow people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society”.[16] Once it is recognised that “race” is a social construction, it highlights the absurdity of stereotypes based supposedly on biological foundations. In addition to stereotypes being offensive, they have been shown to impact the learning performance of students.[17] Graves asks how many brilliant people are stopped from reaching their full potential because of racial injustice.[18] If the “race” were to be dismantled, these stereotypes would be even more thoroughly discredited, which could create a boost in minority achievement. The progress made in combating sexism and homophobia over recent decades attests to the fact that society’s norms and institutions are not set in stone. However, it is important to realise that once the public is equipped with the facts about “race”, the whole ideology of racism will not spontaneously wither away.[19] Dismantling racism will take much more than public education.

One of the reasons that recognising “race” is socially constructed is so important is because it means that change is possible through concerted action.[20] Children are not born with the ideas of “race” imprinted into their minds, rather they are socialised to believe in it. Graves Jr asserts that young children are aware of phenotypic differences but do not think they are significant. However by the time they are adults, perceived differences in appearance come to predict the characteristics and worth of people.[21] This point is important because it illustrates that as children grow up they participate in a process of social acculturation which results in them becoming aware of “race” as adults – a process which could be disrupted through concerted action. The first step in changing society’s idea of “race” is to establish its social construction, and Association’s statement is a useful part of that necessary process of education.

The Association’s statement is a useful document in that it provides information which has the capacity to clear up many public misconceptions and the contested meanings about race. “Race” and racism have not disappeared, but continue to exist in different forms, and are sometimes now focused on denying the significant of “race” and advocating “race-blind” policies. The first step in dismantling racism is to educate the public of the fact that biological “races” do not exist and are in fact outdated social constructions. However it is necessary to emphasise that although “race” is socially constructed, it continues to play a harmful part in contemporary societies, and programmes to counter inequalities are important part of dealing with the legacy of “race”. Educating the public about the social construction of “race” through means such as the Association’s statement does not mean “race” will disappear, but it is an important first step towards true equality.


Primary sources

American Anthropological Association, ‘American Anthropological Society Statement on “Race”’; available from http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm; accessed 25 March 2011.

American Anthropological Association, ‘About AAA’; available from http://www.aaanet.org/about/; accessed 28 March 2011.

Brash, Don, ‘Nationhood’; available from http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0401/S00220.htm; accessed 25 March 2011.

Secondary sources

Harrison, Faye V., ‘Introduction: Expanding the Discourse on “Race”‘, New Series, Vol. 100, no. 3, September, 1998, pp.609-631.

Graves Jr., Joseph L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001)

Ladd, John. ‘Philosophical Reflections on Race and Racism’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 41, no. 2, 1997, pp.212-222.

Omi, Michalel and Winant, Howard, ‘Racial Formation in the United States’ in Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott (eds.), The Idea of Race, Indianapolis, 2000, pp.181-212


[1]    American Anthropological Association, ‘About AAA’; available from http://www.aaanet.org/about/; accessed 28 March 2011.

[2]    Joseph L. Graves Jr., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, New Jersey, 2001, p.193.

[3]    Ibid., p.3.

[4]    Ibid., p.6.

[5]    Ibid., p.194.

[6]    Ibid., p.1.

[7]    Ibid., p.199.

[8]    John Ladd ‘Philosophical Reflections on Race and Racism’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 41, no. 2, 1997, pp.212-222.

[9]    Graves Jr., The Emperor’s New Clothes, p.8.

[10]  Michalel Omi and Howard Winant, ‘Racial Formation in the United States’ in Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott (eds.), The Idea of Race, Indianapolis, 2000, pp.185-6.

[11]  Don Brash, ‘Nationhood’; available from http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0401/S00220.htm; accessed 25 March 2011.

[12]  Graves Jr., The Emperor’s New Clothes, p.10.

[13]  American Anthropological Association, ‘American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race”’; available from http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm; accessed 25 March 2011.

[14]  Ibid.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  Graves Jr., The Emperor’s New Clothes, p.198.

[18]  Ibid., p.199.

[19]  Faye V. Harrison, ‘Introduction: Expanding the Discourse on “Race”‘, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3, September, 1998, p.611.

[20]  Graves Jr.,The Emperor’s New Clothes, p.2.

[21]  Ibid., p.9.

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