You have undoubtedly seen or heard from anthropologists, historians, and biologists that there is no such thing as race, and that race is a sociological construct. I agree, but I also understand why this truth about race doesn’t stick with so many; it doesn’t match their experience. What we know is what we experience, not what we are told. The enslavement of Africans was justified biologically, and for many that false narrative continues. So, let’s talk explore the biology and sociology of race a bit.
We are a young species, and 150,000 – 200,000 years ago, in the early history of our species it is thought that we were once nearly extinct—with our population reduced down to a few thousand individuals. Because of this (and a piece of evidence for this near extinction), across our species, from one individual to the next we are virtually genetically identical. Individual humans are much more the same genetically than the individuals of just about other species.
However, one readily visible variation evolved during this time: skin color. During our short evolutionary history, the expression of the trait for skin color evolved into a broad spectrum of pigmentation as a result of two forms of the pigment melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. The different shapes of these two molecules reflects different aspects of the light spectrum, so eumelanin is either black or brown and pheomelanin has either a red or pink hue.
Melanin is stored in our cells in structures called melanosomes which form an “umbrella” of sorts above the nucleus containing our DNA. This umbrella absorbs UV radiation from the sun, thus protecting our DNA from degradation caused by harmful UV rays. The darker the pigmentation, the more UV light is blocked from reaching the nucleus. In addition to the melanosomes protecting our DNA in our cells, thus offering protection from skin cancer, it also protects the vitamin folate stored in our cells. Folate is needed for healthy embryo development and health sperm production.
If there are two obvious advantages to darker skin, why don’t we all have the maximum eumelanin to give us all the most protection from the sun? Evolution is often a story of compromise. The darker the skin from eumelanin, the less UV-B radiation is absorbed which is necessary to produce vitamin D. The darkest possible skin blocks most of the UV-B radiation needed to make vitamin D. However, such individuals living near the equator, even with maximum melanin pigmentation protecting the DNA and folate production, still let enough UV-B through to produce enough vitamin D.
As populations of humans migrated further from the equator, they underwent microevolution to have less eumelanin and more pheomelanin, thus lightening the skin and reducing the efficacy of the melanosome umbrella. The further from the equator, the less intense the UV radiation, so the individual can safely have reduced melanosome umbrella coverage and not suffer DNA and folate degradation, but still get enough UV-B to make vitamin D. Thus, we a see a lightening of skin pigmentation in individual’s as their more recent evolutionary ancestry can be traced to latitudes further from the equator. You can tell a person’s ancestral latitude of origin based on their skin tone.
Genetically and biologically it would seem I’ve made a case for the concept of “race.” Except one thing is abundantly clear. Skin pigmentation is simply a product of natural selection and nothing else and the production of eumelanin versus pheomelanin is not any indication of other characteristics. Genetically, we are all approximately 99.9% the same. In fact, our closest related species, the bonobo chimpanzee, is genetically more similar to us than they are to gorillas. Looks can be deceiving. The genetic variation we see in skin color is literally only skin deep. It makes as much sense to separate individuals by their skin color as it would to separate people by whether they have attached or unattached earlobes, can roll their tongue, or have a widow’s peak (well maybe not that last one. We need to keep that one for TV vampires).
According to Resmaa Menakem (2017), author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, the conception of blackness and race were invented in the 17th century. Prior to this, individuals in North America were identified by their place of origin/tribe: English, French, Dutch, Pequot, Narragansett, Mohawk, etc., and “European colonists and their children did not think of themselves as belonging to the white race—or to any race” (p. 63). This historical opinion is based on review of the books, diaries, pamphlets, public records, letters, etc. from that era which do not provide any evidence of racialized descriptions of individuals.
Without the biological classification of “race” then it is more likely the concept of race is a sociological construct used to justify the advent of enslavement of peoples based on race. Prior to the first enslaved Africans being brought to North America in 1619, there was certainly a long-established tradition of slavery not only in North America, but globally. However, people tended to be enslaved more often based on tribalism, not on the color of their skin, and often the result of wars and raids.
From the perspective of the enslaved individual, the reason doesn’t matter of course. It’s all equally cruel. However, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans, primarily in North America, became an economic foundation upon which this country was built. When racialized enslavement officially ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederate secession, those with the advantage had to create new forms of racialized separation and enslavement in the form of sharecropping, poll taxes, redlining, separate but equal, and the list goes on to this day.
What biology tells us is that race is only skin deep and that in reality we are all of one tribe. And that goes deep into our core—the DNA in the nucleus of each our cells. Perpetuation of racialized separation continues to imprison us all in the ongoing trauma caused by such brutality.
This trauma, both historical and current, affects everyone, even the oppressors. The evidence can be seen on their faces and in their words. Are they the faces and words of someone who is content and happy or someone in deep pain? Why choose pain? We can honor, embrace, and celebrate cultural diversity that has evolved (and sometimes aligns with superficial traits such as melanosome umbrella production) while still embracing our universal humanity. I think we are at a tipping point in history were we either choose this path, or we tear our country and democracy apart.