What is it to be Caucasian, black or Asian? Is there a difference at all besides the colour of one’s skin?
During the U.S. presidential election, race has been a hot-button topic throughout debates and numerous appearances by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
He has called illegal Mexican immigrants killers and rapists, said a judge with Mexican heritage could not be impartial in a lawsuit against him and has called for a ban on immigration by Muslims to keep terrorists out of the country.
But Trump’s misgivings about race may be misplaced: most anthropologists and geneticists believe that there aren’t differences at all between races.
There is scientific evidence that suggests there may be more variation within races than between them, Dana Osborne, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures in Toronto said.
“In this way, there is no genetic foundation for ‘race’ as it is popularly understood; that is to say based on ‘phenotypic traits’ or traits that are visible and observable by any conventional approach,” Osborne told Global News.
It’s important to note that, in 2003, as part of the Human Genome Project, researchers concluded that “3 billion base pairs of genetic letters in humans were 99.9 percent identical in every person.”
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In 2015, former geneticist Adam Rutherford wrote, “We now know that the way we talk about race has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone.”
In a special for PBS, C. Loring Brace, a professor of anthropology made the point that, while humans may display some physical attribute that makes it obvious from which part of the world they originate (or at least their familial line), it doesn’t lend itself to its value when it comes to survival.
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Human fossil records suggest that humans evolved in sub-Saharan Africa. Then, about 180,000 years ago humans began to split, migrating across the globe into Eurasia and North Africa and, eventually, beyond.
Over time, and as far back as about 30,000 years ago, our genes evolved by natural selection, mainly as a result of learning to adapt to various environmental conditions as we were scattered across the globe.
When we think of natural selection, inevitably we’re drawn to the works of Charles Darwin, specifically On the Origin of Species. While Darwin asserted that there were different races within non-human species, he didn’t apply race in the way we have come to think about it to humans.
History of races
Why have we sought to differentiate people between races?
“The concept and application of ‘race’ as a concept has since its inception been inextricably linked to power,” Osborne said. “This is particularly true when it came to the classification of ‘types’ of people that went hand-in-hand with things like colonization, missionization, and the expansion of empires, particularly out of Europe.”
Osborne notes that the concept of races itself has evolved over time, pointing to the influx of European immigrants into the eastern U.S. and Canada. At that time, Italians, Irish and Scots were all considered “ethnic whites,” based on those observable traits such as their colour, noses or face shape. Today, however, the idea of “ethnic whites” has all but disappeared.
While it’s unlikely that people will stop judging people based on what is considered race, there may be a good reason not to.
“One of the things that critical race theorists are interested in, and the goals of many scholars and activists of colour, are for members of our society to confront in full view the impacts of racial classification and racism, rather than sweeping them under the rug and taking up a stance of colourblindness,” Osborne said.
Ignoring race, Osborne said, “lessens the weight of a racist past and present while simultaneously stifling and erasing the experiences and voices of people of colour who ask us to confront, not ignore or minimize the impacts that racial classification and racism have had on our society and the peoples within it.”