This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Race is a Pigment of Your Imagination

My long-time friend and colleague, RubĂ©n Rumbaut, of UC-Irvine, has been saying this for a long-time, and the subject came up again in today's Sunday New York Times. The Sunday Dialogue's topic is the meaning of race, and Professor Rumbaut used the phrase to emphasize that race is a social status, not a zoological one. All contributors seem to share this view, yet we are stuck with the concept of "race" (deliberately put in quotes, as does the original writer of the Dialogue) as a way of differentiating ourselves from other people. Note, by the way, that this is the second time in a few months that the phrase has come up in the media, with Professor Rumbaut having been quoted in the Economist in February on the same topic, as I commented at the time.

The topic seemed especially newsworthy this week, as people throughout the US debated the role of racism in the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (ultimately found not guilty of second-degree murder), who is described by The Economist as an Hispanic who, in fact, took a black date to his high school prom. Is "race" then a more discriminatory concept than "ethnicity"? Only if you believe that one is somehow biological and the other is "only" cultural.

The idea that we are all just human is biologically correct, but humans have a hard time dealing with equality. As I've noted often before, the concept of xenophobia is an ancient one, expressing human fear of strangers (until they are no longer strangers). Furthermore, societies use almost any characteristic to differentiate one person or group from another, typically in order for one group to gain more control or power than would otherwise be the case. Sex (biological), sexual orientation (biological), religion (cultural), national origin (cultural) have all been employed frequently and violently as markers of superiority or inferiority. Indeed, within the social sciences it has become commonplace to use the term "racism" to describe almost any type of arbitrary discrimination. While I don't know of any easy solutions to this problem, the first step is always to get the issue out into public for discussion, and today's Sunday Dialogue helps to do that.

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