What Race Is and Isn’t

March 28, 2022

What Race Is and Isn’t

Excerpts from ‘Racism, Not Race’

By Joseph L. Graves, Jr. and Alan H. Goodman

We are radical scientists with long and deep connections to Science for the People. The main thesis of our new book, Racism, Not Race, is that inequalities are due to racism, not biological race. The book clearly presents, in a question and answer format, the science of human variation and its connections to histories of power and oppression. Even more to the philosophy of SftP, we show how science can be a powerful tool to fight against injustices. The following excerpts are taken from the book’s preface and conclusions.

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Most people who are fighting against racism are doing so with their metaphorical hands tied behind their backs because they are not clear about what race is and what it is not. They might know about the history of slavery and other forms of racism, but they are limited in their knowledge of the history of the idea of race. Most important, many do not know that the science of human genetic variation shows with certainty that there are no biological races. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to confront biases that are based on biological and genetic myths about race. Knowledge about what race is and is not is a necessary tool to pull out racism at its roots.

So, how do we win the centuries-long fight against racism and for racial justice? First, we need to ask the right fundamental questions about race. Most people, including socially progressive ones, think race is real, and they are obviously right. Race is real. But how is race real? Critically, race is not real in the way most of us have come to think of it: as natural, fixed, and based on biological differences. Beverly Tatum, psychologist and former president of Spelman College, says this view of race is akin to ideological smog that we all breathe every day of our lives.1 Violent racists breathe this polluted air. We all do. It is time to stop polluting and clean it up.

For centuries, it was assumed that the idea of race was founded on biological differences. But that idea is as wrong as continuing to believe that the earth is flat or the sun revolves around the earth. Disentangling the idea of race from the tangible reality of biological variation allows us to see how this idea of race fuels racism. And it allows us to see that institutions and everyday racism, not minuscule biological differences among races, explains the glaring inequalities in infant mortality, life expectancy, and other critical aspects of life. Understanding what is and is not race can eliminate racial smog at the source.

It may surprise most readers to hear that, like the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, scientists and anthropologists have for decades had a clear consensus about what race is and what it’s not. Although the idea that biological races exist among humans has been completely dispelled, this advancement in understanding and its implications have somehow failed to influence the way most individuals think of race. Among other causes, this lack of public understanding can be linked to the vested interests of a society that is structured on racism, the inability of some scientists to craft a clear and appealing antiracism narrative, the conservative nature of science, the inability of scientists to let go of the dominant paradigm of human races, and the failure of society to support broad scientific literacy.

Despite the advancement of scientific understanding concerning the relationship of human genetic variation to conceptions of race, the United States (and many other countries) seems to be backsliding toward greater racial misunderstandings and intolerance…

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Our primary message is that in our species, biological races are a myth. This idea is not supported by modern science. It fails to describe, explain, or tell us how to properly utilize human variation in biomedical research. Yet, race is a social and historical means of classifying and dividing individuals and has many consequences. The belief in biological races has a synergetic relationship to racism. It has provided, and still provides, ideological coverage for racism. Dismantling the myth of race as a biological idea is a first step toward antiracism.

In this age of elevator pitches and Twitter, we start with some short take-home messages or sound-bites and conclude with some elaborations on the fundamental concepts of race, racism, and human variation.

Ten Facts

  1. Human biological variation is real. It is patterned, important, and a thing of beauty to be celebrated.
  2. Race neither describes nor explains human biological variation.
  3. Humans do not have biological races.
  4. Human biological races are a relatively recent idea that was reified—made real legally and scientifically—to justify racism.
  5. Racial classifications developed historically as a politically important means to categorize and divide individuals.
  6. Many individuals still believe in the myth of race as being “obviously” biological, in the blood and genes. Race is a powerful illusion. That myth provides ideological justification for systemic racial inequalities.
  7. Racism is an ideology that is built on a myth and widely shared, with institutional and structural manifestations.
  8. The proof of the impact of racism is found in the data on inequalities in almost all aspects of life, including education, employment, health, and wealth.
  9. Race will become less salient when racial ideology is overcome and races reach equality in measures of life such as health and wealth.
  10. We cannot have a civil and just society without racial equality. Racial equality will be good for everyone.

Human Biological Variation

By this we refer to the pattern of phenotypic and genetic differences and similarities among individuals and groups. Some authors, such as Nicholas Wade, imagine that showing that humans do not have biological races is the same as saying that individual and group genetic variation does not exist or that this variation is always insignificant.2 Nothing could be further from our position and the facts.

Wade says that the critique of race comes mostly from politically motivated social scientists. He fails to realize that biological anthropologists and evolutionary biologists such as Ashley Montagu, Richard Lewontin, Alan, and Joe have led the critique of biological races. Let’s be clear: human variation exists. But race does not describe or explain human variation. It is true that our overall genetic variation is less than we might have expected. Any individual—of the same or different social race—is surprisingly similar to any other individual on a genetic level. This is mainly because we are a relatively young species and one that has experienced few geographic blocks to the flow of people and their genes.

We are a species with a worldwide distribution. And there is evidence that individuals who occupy different parts of the world differ from one another. These local variations leave some genetic signatures of ancestry, not race. But these differences are small and are well explained by geographical distance and specific ancestries. Ancestry is not the same as race.

Biological anthropologists and human population geneticists study the evolutionary forces and mechanisms that produce variations and the various consequences of that variation. As for how variation comes about, most is selectively neutral; thus, groups randomly differ in allele frequencies via genetic drift. The genetic distance between groups is understood by the amount of gene flow between them (isolation by distance). The genetic difference between any two groups is highly correlated with the geographic distance between them.

Some variations are adaptive and appear to be the result of natural selection related to environments in different parts of the world. Skin color and sickle cell anemia are two well-studied examples. Skin color varies by amount of solar radiation and appears to be a compromise between folate destruction due to too much radiation (most likely to occur in less pigmented skin) and low vitamin D3 (a more likely result for darker skin). Sickle cell trait is a balanced polymorphism. Having one copy of the sickle cell allele is a winning compromise, providing resistance to malaria but not the debilitating consequences of sickle cell disease. It is a genetic compromise.

Other disease risk genes differ in frequency among groups (not races!). However, what is most astonishing is the relatively high amount of variation among individuals within any given group. Because there is so much variation between two individuals in a so-called race, the concept of race ceases to be meaningful. By all objective measures, humans fail the test of “race-ness.”

Finally, individuals vary in simple Mendelian genetic traits such as sickle cell, as well as complex traits such as height, weight, and disease predisposition (determined by many genes). Even the simple traits can be affected by life courses and developmental conditions. The complex traits are just that—complex unfolding of the interactions of multiple genes and environmental conditions over time.

In summary, human biological variation is complex, patterned, important, and incredibly interesting. We are excited to be contributing to the revolution in understanding genomes and genomic differences. Our concern, first, is that we not over-react to genetic information. Indeed, as we explore genomes, what is becoming clearer is just how complex and interactive genes are. And second, we want to make clear (if anything is clear) that human variation is nonracial. Viva la difference.

Human Biological Variation ≠ Race

If you learn one thing from our book, we hope it is this: although human biological and genetic variation is real, humans simply do not divide into races.

The structure of human genetic variation—how it is patterned on a worldwide level—is profoundly nonracial. If humans had races, we would expect clear variations among purported races. But no matter how races are described and delineated, we do not find clear demarcations.

  • Human variation is typically continuous from one individual to the next and from one group to the next. For example, skin color around the globe varies slowly from one shade to slightly lighter or darker shades. Allele frequencies also vary slowly from one group to the neighboring groups. Race implies clear breaks or discontinuities, but that is not the truth of human global variation.
  • We tend to think of race as identified by phenotypes—outward signs of differences—such as skin color. Biological race implies that skin color is simply the outward manifestation of deeper and more complex traits and abilities. But the truth is that skin color fails to predict almost anything else save the color of one’s eyes and hair. This is because traits are largely inherited independently.
  • Finally, we now know just how much genetic variation there is among continents, among groups within a continent, and among individuals within any given group. Almost fifty years ago, Richard Lewontin found that only about 6 percent of variation was apportioned to variation among continents and most of the remaining variation was within any local group. Variation among continents and anything we might think of as biological races, Lewontin concluded, are biologically rather meaningless. His results have been corroborated over and over in the last fifty years.
  • Variation among groups is mainly a result of geographic distance.
  • The average genetic difference between any two individuals has almost nothing to do with race. In fact, two individuals from Africa are on average more different genetically from each other than one of them is from a European or Asian.


A main aim of our book is to combat racism as both ideology and institutional practices. Some have argued that racism is a thing of the past and that we are postracial. Others have suggested that racism is a natural part of evolution. Yet others think racism is just a part of the “natural” competition among groups. Some have even argued in the courts and centers of public discourse that favoring individuals of color now overshadows racism against individuals of color. All of these suggestions and ideas are totally unsupported by the facts of inequalities by race in health, wealth, and virtually all important aspects of life.

Ibram X. Kendi makes the important point that racial inequalities in, say, incarceration rates and educational achievements can be explained in only two ways: by genetic differences among races or by unequal historical and continuing social conditions of life. As a naturalist aboard HMS Beagle, a young Charles Darwin came to the same conclusion almost two hundred years ago. He wrote, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”3 Indeed, great are our sins. We have answered questions about why genetic differences among races fail to explain a wide range of inequalities and explain that it is a myth to think that there are genetically based racial differences in attributes such as intelligence, athletic performance, and more. Having shown that genes do not explain racial differences frees us to examine how institutions and systems continue to promote inequalities.

And there are many inequalities. In the United States, there are tremendous differences in wealth and health by class, education, and race. We have tried to show how the race differences in criminal justice and incarceration affect lives and families. Race differences in education, employment, and livable environments perpetuates a permanent caste-like system of inequality. Americans think there is a race difference in wealth but seriously underestimate the size of the gap. There is not a wealth gap; rather, there is wealth hoarding. Everyone suffers without movements toward more economic equality by class and race. Wealthy families become literally fenced and walled off. They live in fear and the nagging reality that their wealth is not sustainable. And, of course, the greater consequence of wealth inequalities is borne by poor families and Black and brown families. Poverty takes away security, leading to stress, and presents a wide range of hindrances to development. Wealth is inherited.

Life expectancy differences between white and Black individuals, now an average of about four years, decreased in the early years of the twenty-first century. That is a great sign, but the difference, on top of class-based inequality, represents an unconscionable loss of opportunity and life. A 2012 paper showed a sixteen-year gap in life expectancy if one combines education and race.4 And, sadly, now we must add that the racial gap in life expectancy is growing again as a consequence of the grossly unequal impact of COVID-19. A recent estimate is that the reduction in life expectancy at birth in 2020 for whites will be 0.68 years and 2.10 and 3.05 years for Blacks and Latinos, respectively.5 Those lost years are of someone’s child, spouse, and parent. The loss of opportunity is a drag on society, a drag that everyone pays for.

Beyond Racial Thinking and Racism

Racism has its origins in the worldview that races are biologically real and differ in abilities. That view of humankind provided false justifications for enslavement and colonization. It still functions in providing cover for police violence and countless everyday acts that promote the status quo. The most important step to combat racism, therefore, is to expose racial ideology to the light of facts and science.

There are many challenges facing Americans and our globe. We are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate disruptions are becoming all too evident. A pandemic and climate change are incredibly important global threats. We submit that there is a reason that the United States has failed to come together to fight these threats: racism. Until we change our mindsets to see one another as equals, we are doomed. We will not be able to address existential threats until we address the roots of racism. Antiracism starts with understanding what race is and isn’t. Antiracism is not just an ethical and scientifically correct position; it is necessary to our survival.

Excerpted from Racism, Not Race: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions by Joseph L. Graves Jr. and Alan H. Goodman Copyright (c) 2022 Joseph L. Graves Jr. and Alan H. Goodman. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Joseph L. Graves, Jr. received his PhD in Environmental, Evolutionary and Systematic Biology from Wayne State University in 1988. His research in the evolutionary genomics of adaptation shapes our understanding of biological aging and bacterial responses to nanomaterials. He is the author ofThe Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2005), and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (Dutton Press, 2005).

Alan H. Goodman is a professor of biological anthropology and the former Dean of Natural Sciences at Hampshire College. He works on better understanding how large scale political-economic processes such as racism and inequality “get under the skin.” A past president of the American Anthropological Association, he co-directs its public education project on race (understandingrace.org). Among other books and articles, Goodman is the lead author of Race: Are We So Different?, Second Ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).


  1. S. J. Olshansky et al., “Differences in Life Expectancy due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up,” Health Affairs 31, no. 8 (2012): 1803–13, https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0746.
  2. N. Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History (New York: Penguin, 2014).
  3. C. Darwin, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, vol. III (London: Henry Colburn, 1839).
  4. Olshansky et al., “Differences in Life Expectancy.”
  5. T. Andrasfay and N. Goldman, “Reductions in 2020 US Life Expectancy Due to COVID-19 and the Disproportionate Impact on the Black and Latino Populations,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 5 (2021): e2014746118, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014746118.