What is race? Can “race” categories (e.g. black and white) be distinguished from “ethnic” categories (e.g. Hispanic and Irish-American) in a systematic manner? We read a number of related pieces on the question, including Banton’s (1979) article, “Analytical and Folk Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” and works by Cornell and Hartmann (1997), Lee (2008), Marx (1998), and Telles (2004).

In essays that sought to define “race,” members of our seminar all highlight the substantial challenges of specifying what this ubiquitous term actually means, particularly in a manner that operates consistently across time and space. Bapiste points out that race is “both imprecise and arbitrary,” and it is not possible to identify a standard process of racialization.

Nonetheless, group members widely agree with the notion that racial categories are a product of political conflict and a quest for power. For instance, Song highlights that race cannot be understood outside the creation of a hierarchical racial order, which in turn, is created as part of a nation-building process. Renfro argues that racial orders are created and maintained with the goal of domination through the structuring of power.

Moreover, virtually all of us highlight the important role of real and imagined phenotypical distinctions as key to the development of race categories.

Each member offers at least one original nuance to our understanding of racial categories and the development of racial orders. Chen, for instance, argues that race categories are most likely to become salient within contexts that fall in between a “spectrum” of highly homogeneous and highly heterogeneous societies. Martens argues that the system for classification must be shared across multiple populations for a category to hold weight. This view is somewhat at odds with Vargas, who makes the case for a more contextualized notion — that race is an imposed social construct, varying in terms of social, economic, and political settings.

Not surprisingly, we found the least common ground with respect to the distinction between race and ethnicity as distinct analytic constructs. Renfro takes the most extreme position: there is no useful difference. Others in the group echo Cornell and Hartman’s (1997) position, that there are points of similarity and difference between race and ethnicity.

Can we have a meaningful discussion about the politics of race in comparative perspective without complete agreement about what we mean by race? Absolutely. We simply must be modest about out ability to make universal claims, and try to continue to identify what is really driving the conflicts that are often described as racial and/or ethnic. As several members of the seminar point out, race categories are simply one manifestation of social identity conflict, made powerful by the historical contingencies of pseudo-scientific ideas about racial difference.

Leave a Reply