Photo Credit: Book Cover of Why Race Still Matters / courtesy of Polity Books


The work, most prominently, of anthropologist Franz Boas and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois in the early twentieth century went a long way to establishing the predominantly correct view that race has no basis in actual physical differences between groups of human beings. The anthropologist of race Ashley Montagu, concerned about the Nazis’ eugenicist practices, agreed (Montagu 1962). Following the end of Nazi rule, the idea that race is socially constructed became widely – if not universally – accepted in scientific and political circles. The most well-known exponent of the social constructionist position on race from within genetics is Richard Lewontin, who first argued in 1972 that there is more genetic difference between individuals than there is among population groups, and that ‘there is no objective way to assign the various human populations to clear-cut races’ (Lewontin 2006). This appeared to be borne out in broad terms by the publication of the human genome project in 2003 (El-Haj 2007). 

Nevertheless, there has never been a time in which race was not in use both colloquially and by scientists. Amade M’charek reminds us that even the 1950 UNESCO ‘Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice’ wished to conserve a separation between the ‘fact’ of biological race as it may pertain in the laboratory and the mythical nature of race as it is applied in common parlance (M’charek 2013: 431). Race is under constant, silent production, with research continuously emerging that appears to open caveats in the dominant position that there is no way to equate race with human genetic diversity (Hartigan 2008). However, the general public lack of scientific literacy, the political investment in the idea of natural racial differences that can be ‘read’ in our DNA, which, as I have shown, is resurgent today, as well as the popular fascination with genetics as a mode of explanation for a range of human phenomena, often leading ‘to a reductive stance that biology is destiny’ (Yehuda et al. 2018: 5), all conspire to make it incumbent upon us to be better at explaining what race does

The explosion in popularity of DNA testing services such as 23 and Me, a company that claims to ‘democ- ratize personal genetics’, is evidence of the epistemic primacy of genetics in the twenty-first century. An online search for ‘DNA’ will reveal a panoply of articles about whether genetics can tell your politics or whether not you are likely to be more promiscuous or monog- amous. DNA ancestry testing is the object of particular popular fascination. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates has spurred a digital genealogy industry through his role as producer of highly successful television series such as African American Lives. There are a multitude of social media forums and DIY reality television-style YouTube posts in which people reveal the results of their ancestry tests. DNA testing is even proposed to have an antiracist impact, as seen in attempts to use test results to confront avowed white supremacists on the fallacy of racial purity. In one notorious case, a white supremacist activist called Craig Cobb, so convinced of his ‘racial purity’, took up the challenge to take a DNA test, which was revealed on American daytime talk programme The Trisha Goddard Show. The test revealed that 14% of Cobb’s DNA came from sub-Saharan Africa, a result that he rejected as a multiculturalist plot (WYSO 2018). Indeed, research into white supremacist reactions to DNA test results revealed a tendency to ‘bargain’ over what percentage of white ancestry makes a person white, or to condemn ancestry testing as a whole as a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ if the desired results were not received (Panofsky and Donovan 2017). 

DNA is the object of intense politicization, as was seen in the revelation by US Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren of the results of her DNA ancestry test in late 2018. The publication of the results was Warren’s attempt to quell Republican criticisms of her claim to have Cherokee and Delaware heritage and Donald Trump’s derogatory references to her as ‘Pocahontas’. The test revealed that she had ‘a small but detectable amount of Native American DNA’ and ‘concluded there is “strong evidence” she had a Native American ancestor approximately six to 10 generations ago’ (McDonald 2018). However, the reliance on DNA to prove Indigenous identity directly contravenes tribal protocols for assessing membership, which do not see genetic testing as valid. As Kim TallBear remarks, ‘It is one of the privileges of whiteness to define and control everyone else’s identity’ (Johnson 2018). TallBear contends that, rather than sitting down with tribal leaders, which the senator had repeatedly refused to do until meeting with Cherokee representa- tives in August 2019 during the Democratic Party primaries campaign, Warren ‘privileges DNA company definitions in this debate, which are ultimately settler- colonial definitions of who is indigenous’.

Assessing indigeneity according to a scale of racial purity has dangerous implications given the use of ‘blood’ and ‘genes’ to exclude rather than include. For example, Australia’s far-right One Nation Party announced proposals to submit Aboriginal people to DNA testing and introduce a ‘qualifying benchmark of twenty-five percent Indigenous DNA ancestry’ in order to quell what it called the ‘widespread “rorting” [cheating] of the welfare system’. However, there is no test for genetic Aboriginality and no Australian Aboriginal genome (Fryer 2019b). Race under settler colonialism was a project of what the late Australian historian of race and colonialism Patrick Wolfe refers to as replacement and elimination, with the ultimate aim of wresting land away from its original inhabitants for the purposes of European wealth creation. In order to achieve this, European invaders had to construct Indigenous peoples as ‘maximally soluble, encouraging their disappearance into the settler mainstream’ (Wolfe 2016: 39). The measurement of blood quantum was used colonially in the process of Indigenous elimination. ‘Blood’, as Wolfe notes, ‘is like money, which also invokes liquidity to disguise the social relations that sustain it’ (2016: 39). Hence to possess Aboriginal lands, white colonizers set about diluting blood, dissolving Indigenous people, and scattering those left around the landscape. The separation of Aboriginal peoples from their homelands and the forced mixing of different tribal groups on missions, under a policy euphemistically titled ‘protection’, was integral to the cultural genocide endured by Aboriginal peoples. This historical fact makes the appeal to racial measurement dressed up as genomic science particularly egregious to many Indigenous people within a context of ongoing colonization. 

Sadly, Indigenous people’s views do not stop the rise of genetic absolutism in the public sphere, with ‘savvy political commentators … taking new findings by geneticists and directly assailing social constructionist perspectives’ (Hartigan 2008: 164). The problem for antiracists confronted with the resurgence of racial science among ‘race realists’ and their ‘alt-right’ mouth- pieces is that the maxim that race is a social construct is often the only riposte we have recourse to. Yet, far from ending the discussion of whether biological race is real, according to anthropologist Jason Antrosio, the idea that race is a social construction is actually a ‘conservative goldmine’ because it was never ‘connected to concrete political change’ (Antrosio 2012). It is thus especially important not to leave the questioning of the social construction of race to those such as Quillette’s Claire Lehmann, who tweeted that ‘we abhor racism yet do not believe that race is merely a social construct (another pernicious blank state dogma that has reper- cussions in the real world)’.

Antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race. Echoing Patrick Wolfe’s point in this chapter’s epigraph, Antrosio suggests that the social construction of race ‘should have never been a stopping point, but a way to analyse the particular circum- stances that result in current configurations’. Focusing our arguments on whether race is or is not about biology is meaningless outside of academia because ‘underlying socioeconomic structural racism is unaltered’ (Antrosio 2012). Failures to properly explicate the social construction of race in the public domain have led to statements such as that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva reports hearing from a colleague: ‘Race is a myth, an invention, a socially constructed category. Therefore, we should not make it “real” by using it in our analyses. People are people, not black, white, or Indian. White males are just people’ (Bonilla-Silva 2018: 207). Social constructionism lends itself to such wilfully ignorant semantic arguments. According to Antrosio, we need to judge the theory that race is socially constructed on whether or not it has contributed to alleviating basic issues of racially deter- mined power imbalances and inequality. On all measures, Antrosio claims, it is impossible to say that it has. 

This problem is not confined to the social sciences. As John Hartigan notes, ‘Genetics is not going to provide the basis for either proving or disproving the “social” reality of race’ (Hartigan 2008: 167). If activists and social scientists are not good at parsing research in the natural sciences, geneticists and those in the biomedical sciences concerned with public misinter- pretations of their findings may not be adept at reading the political writing on the wall which spells out that there is no way to discuss race outside of the political context in which it is continually reproduced. The problem with the pure social constructionist position is that it runs the risk of reasserting the primacy of race as biological rather than political. In a debate with the philosopher of race Charles W. Mills, Barnor Hesse asks: what is race the social construction of? The usual answer, he says, is ‘race is a construction of the idea that there is a biological racial hierarchy’. However, this does not answer the question ‘What is race?’ ‘In effect,’ Hesse remarks ‘social constructionists do not have anything to say about race that is not already said by the biological discourses’ (Hesse 2013). There is abundant evidence that ideas of race developed in situ and that there were competing ideas among various actors within and across various colonial contexts and vis-à-vis a range of different populations about what race meant for a generalized understanding of the human (Wolfe 2016). 

According to Ian Hacking in The Social Construction of What?, social constructionist critiques usually contain three elements: that the thing being socially constructed is neither natural nor inevitable, that it is undesirable, and that it can be changed (Hacking 2003). Hesse argues that to resolve the tautology posed by the formulation ‘race is a social construction of the idea of biological race’, we need an alternative account of race that goes beyond this unexplanatory circularity, because ‘our account of race as a social fact cannot be the same as the very thing we’re discrediting’. If race can be changed because it is not natural, we need, as Antrosio also suggests, a way of explaining how race is socially produced that proposes ways of dismantling it. And because race does not originate in nineteenth-century biological theorizations, but is, as Hesse explains, ‘colonially assembled over a period of time’ which goes back at least to the fifteenth century, we need more complete historical and political accounts of how race emerged and became institutionalized. What is clear is that there is no way of reducing the broad scope of racial rule to only the ‘bodily or the biological’ (Hesse 2013).


This excerpt is from Why Race Still Matters by Alana Lentin. Used with permission of Polity


Alana Lentin is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. She is a European Jewish woman who is a settler on Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia). She works on the critical theorization of race, racism, and antiracism. Her latest book is Why Race Still Matters (Polity 2020) and she previously published The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a neoliberal age with Gavan Titley (Zed, 2011). She co-edits the Rowman & Littlefield ‘Challenging Migration Studies’ books series. Her academic and media articles, as well as videos, podcasts, and teaching materials, can be found at