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When analysing the concept of race, the first springboard of discussion is the fact that race is meaningless as a biological description. To quote David Mason, a professor of sociology, “There are no races, in the biological sense of distinct divisions of the human species”. Although the term has existed since the sixteenth century in English and descends from the Italian razzo (meaning kind or species), like most social constructions, the concept has shifted in meaning, often according to the political affiliation or the existing prejudices within the person seeking to define it. This can have quite significant implications for public policy-making.
David Mason argues that race came into existence as a concept in the fifteenth century, as European explorers came across other human societies, from small tribes to complex empires, and that the greatest point of difference was that they were physically different-looking. While they may have been quite surprised (and the Catholic Church had to have an internal debate to determine whether the native dark-skinned population even had souls and were therefore human), the Roman Empire had brought Europeans into contact with different coloured peoples from Carthage in Africa to Judea in the Middle East. However, it may be argued that for the Romans, ethnic differences were less important than one’s citizenship. As Roman citizenship gave you the right to vote, to participate in public life, and to receive protection under Roman law; in ancient eyes it was the most prized of identities. The crusades, too, ensured regular contact between white Christians and non-white Muslims, Jews and indeed other Christians, so it seems that Mason is drawing a false conclusion. Race cannot be rooted in people seeing someone physically different to them – exceptionally short people are not defined as a different race, and even today the media discourse around Eastern European immigration could be described as racist, even though all the people concerned are white.
Ian Law, a Social Policy lecturer at the University of Leeds, also disagrees with Mason in that he argues that the concept of race originally referred to group with “common origins and history”. This was commonly linked to national identity and so the English and the French were conceived of as different races despite having the same skin colour. What really began the concept of race as something other than a synonym for national identity, Law argues, is the scientific classification of species that began in the early 1800s within the field of natural history. Law outlines how Darwin used his evolutionary system to destroy the credibility of racial categorisation but which eugenicists continued to use. However, what he does not consider is why eugenicists wished to do so, which would seem to be to put a scientific veneer on their fear of the other at a time of great economic and social instability (eugenics, Social Darwinism and Aryan nationalism reached their peak during the global depression of the 1930s). Race is often just a tool for racism, itself an artificial concept meant to provide racists with someone to blame for something else.
As a direct result of the fact that race exists as a socially constructed term, if not in reality, social scientists and policy-makers are required to grapple with the concept. Ian Law raises the question of whether the very act of talking about race is exacerbating tensions between racial groups. Mason quotes Robert Miles, a Sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow, who agrees with this idea and argues that using race as a concept only supports people who seek to maintain there are real biological distinctions between human beings. However, Law also notes that the active suppression of the concept of race from French policy-making has not prevented people from suffering racism in France. In fact, with the increasing acceptance of certain racial groups into societies, such as Jews, black people, and Irish people, traditional targets for racial discrimination in Britain, there is now a new racial group who aren’t of the same nationality, ethnicity, or even culture – Muslims. Primarily a religious identity with vast ethnic diversity (only 20% of Muslims are Arab), Muslims are increasing seen as a homogeneous group and are being increasingly subjected to racist abuse and attacks. Law linked this to the concept of an “underclass” in society, undermining it from within, a concept taken up by writers and thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum. Mason also comments on the apparent identification of Muslims as a racial identity, but links it instead to a greater problem of overly broad categorisation of people (i.e. “Asian” vs. “Indian and Bangladeshi”, or even “Indian” vs. “Gujerati Indian”). Although Law may have a point about how the poor working class of certain groups are unfairly demonised in our society, Mason seems to have a more accurate analysis. If race as a concept is essentially a social construction that means whatever a particular society determines it means, then the increasingly popular and populist view of Muslims as a race (and the subsequent embracing of this idea through the use of the term “Islamophobia”) cannot be deemed invalid.
Bearing in mind that the concept of race has no biological basis, it can therefore only be social or political. Race, therefore, synthesising both Mason and Law, might best be defined as a identity, either self-proclaimed or imposed, on a group of people who share some kind of physical, social, or cultural characteristics not shared by other neighbouring groups, against whom they feel the need to be defined, for a variety of reasons. Mason notes that after scientific racism had been thoroughly discredited, “even those who were convinced by the evidence that races in the biological sense did not exist found them themselves having to confront the fact that large sections of the population, and indeed whole societies, continued to conduct themselves as though they did”. “Race” as a concept matters in public discourse only because people believe it matters – but because those people believe that it matters and act upon it, through direct and indirect racism, the concept becomes real and must be given reference.
 Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 2.
 Hayden and Lansford, Politics and Ethics in Review, pg 82.
 Gross, Citizenship and ethnicity, pg 35-36.
 See, for example, the discussions on negative press attention and rising ethnic tensions at Polish-migrants.co.uk: http://www.polish-migrants.co.uk/polish-immigrants-racial-tension.html
 Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 3.
 Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 3.
 Adams, The Wellborn Science, pg 68-73.
 Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 5.
 Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 8.
 Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 8.
 Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 54-55.
 Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 124-5.
 Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 7.
- Adams, Mark. The Wellborn science: eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Gross, Feliks, Citizenship and ethnicity:the growth and development of a democratic multiethnic institution. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
- Hayden, Patrick, and Lansford, Tom. Politics and Ethics in Review. Nova Publishers, 2005.
- Jrank.org, “Race and Racism – Dilemmas Of Meaning: The Concept Of Racism”. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10952/Race-Racism-Dilemmas-Meaning-Concept-Racism.html
- Law, Ian. Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy. Prentice Hall, 1996.
- Mason, David. Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Oxford English Dictionary, “Racism”. Accessed 24th October, 2011. http://www.oed.co.uk (Subscriber only)