No Such Thing as Race: So Say We All?

The juxtaposition of George Will‘s latest column, “The Wreck of the Racial Spoils System,” and this odd appearance by Edward James Olmos and the cast of BSG at the United Nations (via Charli Carpenter) bitterly arguing that “there’s no such thing as race” except for, naturally, “the human race,” is startling.



Now, the idea that “race” is a social construct undefinable in biological terms is an old one and, frankly, irrefutable.  But, like “pornography” and “torture,” we know it when we see it.  While it would be great to get beyond discussion of race and treat people as individuals, it’s a concept that has real meaning and value sociologically.

Will’s column, for example, deals with a longstanding fight in New Haven, Connecticut about a firefighter promotion exam that found zero black candidates worthy of promotion and which, by sheer dint of that fact, the city deemed racially biased—despite its having been preapproved by independent authorities as racially neutral.

Now, I’m with Will in thinking that the fact that we’re still litigating these matters half a century after Brown and more than four decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is both tiresome and rather silly.   But are we at the point where we’re willing to declare that there’s no such thing as racial discrimination or disparate impact because there’s no such thing as race?

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Race and Politics, United Nations, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tlaloc says:

    But, like “pornography” and “torture,” we know it when we see it.

    In this case that is pretty literally true. Our notions of race derive from an evolutionary development in which we identify with those primates similar enough to us to be part of our tribe or clan and objectify those who are not similar enough to meet this biologically programmed criteria.

    Amazing to think how much of our history derives from this simple evolutionary development.

  2. odograph says:

    Tlaloc, I see no reason that we would, in our evolutionary history, meet “races” much at all. That required extraordinary journeys, ships, trading cultures, etc.

    On the other hand, we were perfectly good at objectifying the next tribe over, who looked very much like us.

    (For ever tribe, in every race, the next tribe over looks similar. You need transportation to see the small changes add up.)

    To the point though, I’m fine with “there is no race” as a path to equality. FWIW, a mixed-race couple at the market gave me a funny look a half-hour ago, I guess checking to see if I was going to give them a funny look. Such is the cultural minefield.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    “Looks like us” is very subjective, hopefully a point I don’t have to make by delving into the typical westerners inability to distinguish native Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and various south east asian features apart.

    So, yes, one tribe can be perfectly capable of distinguishing features that set it apart from another, particularly when talking about tribes in which interbreeding was difficult or discouraged. And that same process of identifying “”us or other” is the root cause of our instinctive unease around people who look different.

    It is fundamentally no different than our instinctive fear of the dark- an evolutionary impulse that once had a purpose but now does not.

  4. just me says:

    I think it is silly to imagine a world where everyone is completely blind to color, and if they were they would still find differences to distrust-such is human nature and its desire to categorize.

    But that doesn’t mean I think striving to be color blind is pointless.

    I think the goal is worthy, I am just not sure it would successfully be reached.

  5. floyd says:

    We are now at the point where recognizing the fallacy of race and going to a color blind legal system will eliminate at least as much racism as it allows. Everyone would eventually benefit from such action.
    We are now at least two generations away from institutionalized racism and the people are ahead of a government which wishes to perpetuate the illusion to fulfill their political agenda to maintain themselves in power.(at least in the case of the Democrat party)