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Critique of the Mainstream Use of 'Race' in Social Psychology

Criticisms of the use of race take a number of forms, including (i) a lack of a biological basis for race as a variable, (ii) problems associated with category use in social psychology and (iii) the damage that can be caused by reproducing existing, problematic social categories. Each of these will now be addressed.

A Lack of a Biological Basis for Race as a Variable

As demonstrated above, the notion of race representing distinctly different categorical types of humans can be traced back to 1749, through nineteenth- century colonialism, Social Darwinism and eugenics up to present-day psychological research. However, geneticists challenged the notion of ‘race’ as a natural variable as early as the 1930s (Richards, 1997), and in 1950, shortly after the eugenic atrocities of the Second World War, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated that:

The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. (UNESCO, 1950: 8)

This means that well before critical social psychologists embraced the concept of the social construct, UNESCO had inferred that race was one such social construct. In support of this idea that race is a myth, Lewontin (1972) demonstrated that there is more genetic diversity within so-called racial groups than between them.

More recently, biologists have developed a greater understanding of genetics that led to the mapping of a complete human genome by 2000. Alongside this human genome project was an additional endeavour: the human genome diversity project which mapped the genome of diverse groups of people living in the United States. On completion of this study, Craig Venter, the Head of Celera Genomics that was instrumental in the human genome project, addressed the President of the United States of America at the White House and made the following statement:

We have sequenced from the genomes of three females and two males who have identified themselves as Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, or African American. We did this initial sampling, not in an exclusionary way, but out of respect for the diversity that is America, and to help illustrate that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis. In the five Celera genomes there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another. (Venter, 26th June 2000 pr_1056647999, my emphasis)

This is a clear statement. Venter is claiming that on the basis of mapping the complete genetic sequences of five ethnically diverse people that race is not a meaningful category because by looking at a genome (a complete set of genes) it is not possible to identify the ‘race’ of an individual. This would seem to be conclusive evidence that fully supports the geneticists of the 1930s and the UNESCO statement of 1950, which claimed that race is not a meaningful variable. While this would seem to strongly suggest that race should not be used, as demonstrated below, this was not enough to end the popularity of the use of race as a category (Hunt & Megysei, 2008).

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