How Do Sociologists Define Race?

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Sociologists define race as a concept that is used to signify different types of human bodies. While there is no biological basis for racial classification, sociologists recognize a long history of attempts to organize groups of people based on similar skin color and physical appearance. The absence of any biological foundation makes race challenging to define and classify, and as such, sociologists view racial categories and the significance of race in society as unstable, always shifting, and intimately connected to other social forces and structures.

Sociologists emphasize, though, that while race is not a concrete, fixed thing that is essential to human bodies, it is much more than simply an illusion. While it is socially constructed through human interaction and relationships between people and institutions, as a social force, race is real in its consequences.

How to Understand Race

Sociologists and racial theorists Howard Winant and Michael Omi provide a definition of race that situates it within social, historical, and political contexts, and that emphasizes the fundamental connection between racial categories and social conflict.

In their book ​"Racial Formation in the United States," Winant and Omi explain that race is: unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle,” and, that “...race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.

Omi and Winant link race, and what it means, directly to political struggles between different groups of people, and to social conflicts which stem from competing group interests. To say that race is defined in large part by political struggle is to recognize how definitions of race and racial categories have shifted over time, as the political terrain has shifted.

For example, within the context of the U.S., during the founding of the nation and the era of enslavement, definitions of "black" were premised on the belief that African captives and Black people enslaved from birth were dangerous brutes—wild, out of control people who needed to be controlled for their own sake, and the safety of those around them. Defining “black” in this way served the political interests of the property-owning class of White men by justifying enslavement. This ultimately served the economic benefit of enslavers and all others who profited and benefited from an economy propped up by the labor of enslaved people.

In contrast, White North American 18th- and 19th-century Black activists countered this definition of blackness with one that asserted, instead, that far from animalistic savages, enslaved Black people were humans worthy of freedom.

As sociologist Jon D. Cruz documents in his book ​"Culture on the Margins," Christian Black activists, in particular, argued that a soul was perceptible in the emotion expressed through the singing of songs of enslaved people and hymns and that this was proof of their humanity. They argued that this was a sign that enslaved people should be freed. This definition of race served as the ideological justification for the political and economic project of the northern battles against the southern war for secession.

The Socio-Politics of Race in Today's World

In today’s context, one can observe similar political conflicts playing out among contemporary, competing definitions of blackness. An effort by Black Harvard students to assert their belonging at the Ivy League institution via a photography project titled “I, Too, Am Harvard,” demonstrates this. In the online series of portraits, these students hold before their bodies signs bearing racist questions and assumptions that are often directed toward them, and, their responses to these.

The images demonstrate how conflicts over what “black” means play out in the Ivy League context. Some students shoot down the assumption that all Black women know how to twerk, while others assert their ability to read and their intellectual belonging on the campus. In essence, the students refute the notion that blackness is simply a composite of stereotypes, and in doing so, complicate the dominant, mainstream definition of “black.”

Politically speaking, contemporary stereotypical definitions of “black” as a racial category do the ideological work of supporting the exclusion of Black students from, and marginalization within, elite higher educational spaces. This serves to preserve them as white spaces, which in turn preserves and reproduces white privilege and white control of the distribution of rights and resources within society. On the flip side, the definition of blackness presented by the photo project asserts the belonging of Black students within elite higher education institutions and asserts their right to have access to the same rights and resources that are afforded to others.

This contemporary struggle to define racial categories and what they mean exemplifies Omi and Winant's definition of race as unstable, ever-shifting, and politically contested.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Do Sociologists Define Race?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 7, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, January 7). How Do Sociologists Define Race? Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Do Sociologists Define Race?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).