1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009) | Event: Racism and Public Policy Conference


Racism and Public Policy Conference

  • Date: 3 - 5 Sep 2001
  • Location: Durban, South Africa
  • Speakers: Alexandra Pero, Amina Mama, Angela King, Antonio Guimaraes, Benjamin Bowling, Bernard Magubane, Boo Teik Khoo, Diego Iturralde, Frene Ginwala, George Fredrickson, Glenn Loury, Guy Mhone, Hajo Funke, Hans-Georg Betz, Jane Bennett, Jeroen Doomernik, Jomo Sundaram, Kum Kum Bhavnani, Kwesi Prah, Lee Swepston, Lily Rahim, Manning Marable, Marcia Langton, Marisol de la Cadena, Mark Suzman, Mary Robinson, Neville Alexander, Njabulo Ndebele, Peter Schatzer, Pierre Sané, Ralph Premdas, Ray Jureidini, Renosi Mokate, Robert Bullard, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Sam Moyo, Sheldon Danziger, Thandika Mkandawire, Tom Lodge, Tracey Mcintosh, Vernellia Randall, Vijay Prashad
  • Project Title: Racism and Public Policy

Theme 1 The Social Construction of Race and Citizenship


Physical differences, such as skin colour; hair colour and texture; and eye, nose and lip shapes were previously thought to reflect distinct biological and behavioural differences between people. They gave rise to racial classifications, the most popular being Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. The European scientific community was influenced by these classifications, which in the nineteenth century spawned the field of anthropometry, or the measurement of the physical characteristics of people. The most popular branch of anthropometry was phrenology, which linked head shape and size to cognitive abilities. The racial ideas generated by scientists influenced the way politicians, business elites and administrators related with non-European peoples as Europe extended its global reach.

Recent findings in genetics reject the scientific value of the concept of race. Advances in DNA research in the last 20 years demonstrate that, on average, 99.9 percent of the genetic features of humans are the same; of the remaining percentage that accounts for variation, differences within groups are larger than between groups; only six genes out of at least 100,000 that make up the human genome account for differences in skin colour; variations in colour are not discrete, but are distributed along a continuum, which reflects different levels of melanin in the skin; and many physical differences are due to environmental adaptations. Based on these findings, a Swede, for instance, may share more genetic features with a Pakistani or Amazon Indian than a fellow Swede. Research on certain types of DNA show more genetic variation among Africans than other groups, with the diversity having developed over a period of about 100,000 to 200,000 years. This supports the findings of physical anthropologists, who believe that humans may have evolved from a small group of Homo sapiens in Africa, and that migration to other parts of the world may have occurred about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Despite efforts to disseminate these findings, including adoption of the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965, a gulf exists between scientific knowledge and popular beliefs about race. Trivial as physical differences may be in accounting for biological attributes, they structure perceptions and constitute a significant source of prejudice in social relations. Race is socially constructed. As a social construct, its key attributes are fuzzy and open to multiple interpretations: different groups may use different yardsticks in different settings to define similar populations or individuals. A coloured person in South Africa may be classified as black in the United States even if he or she has more white than black grandparents, and the designation may be meaningless in West Africa or South Asia where the racial system that gave rise to the classification does not exist. Even people with roughly the same colour and physical appearance may be categorized as different races in certain contexts. This has been the experience of groups such as the Irish and European Jews in Europe and the United States. And some racial classifications do not account for mixed offspring or recent migrants.

The construction of race as identity may be linked with ethnicity, especially when variations in physical characteristics coincide with assumed cultural, linguistic and religious differences. Examples include relations between people of Indian and African origin in Guyana and Trinidad, indigenous Fijians and Indians in Fiji, North and South Sudanese, Tutsi and Hutu in Burundi and Rwanda, and Chinese and Malays in Malaysia. In Burundi and Rwanda, despite the fact that the two groups share a common skin colour, language, religion and names, variations in height, body structure and nose shape are used to establish difference. In some contexts, a group may identify itself as a separate race even if there are no clear physical differences between it and groups it seeks to categorize as the "other". Thus there are concepts like the "Yoruba race" in Nigeria, the "Italian race" in Europe and the "Chinese race" in Asia. Even when groups do not practice overt forms of discrimination, subtle differences in physical characteristics that may not be visible to outsiders, may be used to construct ideas about the "other".

Racial ideas may influence discourses on social integration or accommodation, encourage insular or xenophobic practices, and distort perceptions about rights and citizenship. Citizens are supposed to be carriers of equal rights and obligations. In polarized racial settings, however, social solidarity, the cornerstone of citizenship, may be embedded in racial-not civic-networks, affecting the way the public domain is governed. However, it is instructive to note that all communities, whether based on racial identification or ethnicity, are complex, undergo change, and experience internal diversities and conflicts. Race, in other words, is not only constructed: it is also contested.

Under this theme, UNRISD is asking scholars from different regions of the world to discuss the complex ways racial identities are constructed and contested, and their implications for social accommodation and citizenship. The academic debate and current state of scientific knowledge about race is also being considered.