Race One and Race Two

Tom Shipka

There are two basic and opposed interpretations of the term "race" which I will label Race One and Race Two. Let's clarify each.

According to Race One, race is biological. Nature divides the human species into a variety of distinct biological groups which we can identify by their physical features. (1) Race One tells us that all of humanity fits into one of several "gigantic boxes." (2) Although the exact number of these boxes has fluctuated over the years, a popular recurring number is six – Asians, blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. (3) Further, Race One tells us that "each race is loaded with unique abilities and limitations, as well as personality and moral tendencies." (4) This is because each race has "genetic determiners" (5) which set the potential for its members in all areas of human endeavor.

Next, Race Two. According to Race Two, race is cultural, not biological. It is a "social construct," not a product of nature. According to science writer Guy P. Harrison, in his book, Race and Reality, the claim of Race One that nature produces distinct biological groups is a myth which has no scientific credibility. (6) He cites a 1998 statement on race by the American Anthropological Association which makes these points, among others:

  1. In the United States people have been "conditioned" to perceive races as "natural and separate divisions within the human species" based on physical features;
  2. "(T)he vast expansion of scientific knowledge" in the twentieth century has shown, however, that humans are not divided into biologically distinct groups and that the "folk" view of races is a "myth";
  3. Evidence from genetics, especially DNA, shows that there is significant variation within so-called racial groups, about 94%, but very, very little between them, about 6%; in other words, people of the same race differ from one another more than they differ from people of another race;
  4. "(P)hysical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them"; and
  5. To understand the behavior of any group of humans, we must look primarily to their culture. (7)

Thus, for Race Two, "All human beings living today belong to a single species, Homo sapiens, and share a common descent... There is great genetic diversity within all human populations" and races as "genetically homogeneous populations" simply do not exist. (8)

If biological race has no merit, why, one wonders, does the notion of race persist? It persists, according to Harrison, because race feeds the human proclivity to build psychological fences between in-groups and out-groups, between those who are similar to us in some way and those who are not, whether it be physical features, language, religion, geography, gender, sexual preference, standard of living, beliefs, practices, or something else. (9) Some of these fences are relatively innocent; they pose no danger to peace, tolerance, and co-existence, but many others are not so innocent, as events past and present demonstrate so clearly. (10) Thus, we all have a stake in whether Race One, the voice of tradition, or Race Two, the voice of science, prevails.


  1. Evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves, Jr., who rejects what I have labeled Race One, cites these as the key factors for those who believe in biologically determined, static races, in Guy P. Harrison, Race and Reality, Prometheus Books, 2010, p. 45. Subsequent references to this book are by page number. (Harrison opposes what I have called Race One and supports what I have called Race Two.)
  2. Race and Reality, p. 33.
  3. Race and Reality, p. 36
  4. Race and Reality, p. 33.
  5. Race and Reality, p. 44.
  6. Race One, Harrison writes, "rests on a foundation of mistakes, lies, ignorance, pseudoscience, and delusion." See Race and Reality, p. 15.
  7. Quoted in Race and Reality, p. 23.
  8. The quotation is from a statement by the American Association of Physical Anthropology, quoted by Harrison on p. 25.
  9. This is one of the main themes that runs through Race and Reality.
  10. In the United States, for instance, Race One first produced slavery, then segregated neighborhoods, schools, churches, parks, restaurants, lodging, and clubs, and a legal system with a double standard – one for whites and one for blacks.

© 2012 Tom Shipka