Race as a Social Construct: Black History Month and Ethnicity


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Black history is inseparable from American history. Image by Ricorocks.

In many cases, Black History is inseparable from American history. This ‘Slave Dungeon’ offers a glimpse into the realities of the European Slave Trade. Image by Ricorocks.

The debate over black history month, February, bounces around like a ping pong ball.  Is it racist to assign the shortest month of the year to the second largest minority group?  Are Americans, who elected a black president, beyond race and racism, and if they are, why bother designating a special month for Black History?

What we usually don’t discuss is what we mean by the terms “black” or “race.” Do the terms have a meaning beyond that which individuals assign to them?

In the United States, the concept of race is based on either phenotype, or observable characteristics such as skin color, or by self-definition.  The first classification of race leads to the potential for racial profiling.  The sociological definition of race, more accurately termed “ethnicity,” functions by taking multiple factors into account.

What is Race?

Boundless, an online textbook, lists three separate definitions of race: legal, genetic, and sociological.

The legal definition is further subdivided.  As Boundless states, the “U.S. Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Census Bureau currently uses race and ethnicity as self-identification data items.”  But law enforcement, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “employs the term “race” to summarize the general appearance (skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and other such easily noticed characteristics) of individuals.” It is this latter definition that leads to claims of racial profiling.

Race: The Genetic Definition

Boundless flatly states, “Three modern categories of race — black, asian, and white — … have no basis in genetics.”  Geography, however, does leave a genetic imprint.  Specifically, “geographic ancestral origin.”  Tracing genetic ancestry to specific geographic areas has become a popular pursuit with companies such as Genetic Genealogy  that cashes in on the interest. According to the company’s website, ” people shared a common ancestor who lived in Africa between 50,000 to 200,000 years ago…”  Despite our shared heritage, individuals must spend up to $199.00 to discover more about their genetic roots.

Race as Ethnicity: The Sociological Definition

The legal definition used by the Office of Management and Budget, which is based on self-identification, and the sociological definition of race are in alignment.  Boundless notes that sociologists are ditching the term “race” in favor of  “ethnicity ” which is defined as “self-identify based on shared beliefs, culture, ancestry, and history.”  This definition, race as ethnicity, is a deeper understanding of what it means to be ‘black’ or ‘white’ and goes beyond skin pigmentation.

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. quotes President Barack Obama as referring to himself as a “black president,” an assertion that Pitts and most other Americans do not dispute.  The fact that Obama’s mother would have classified herself as white is irrelevant.  Obama may be considered black based on phenotype, but the most important basis for the distinction is his self-definition.

Black History Month

Highlighting the experience of those who identify as black honors their experience, recounts their history, and acknowledges their unique perspective.  Still, some black Americans argue that the time has come to end Black History Month altogether.

As Michael Steele, the first black lieutenant governor of Maryland and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote for The Root in 2012, “It has become a placebo to satisfy our need to belong, when we should be learning history’s lessons.”

Maybe black history should not be crammed into the shortest month of the year, but allowed to spill over the arbitrary bounds of a twenty-eight day month in the same way the definition of black has been expanded to give voice to a deeper understanding.

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