Gene Expression has the second in a pair of posts on race that is worth a close look. In Why phenotypic races may not disappear, G.E. speaks of the particulate nature of inheritance in relation to culturally defined racial types (that are in turn based on appearance).
There is the idea in the minds of some that interracial relations in the most intimate sense will banish racism or racial consciousness. To me that seems unlikely, though Latin American nations do not exhibit the sort of racism based on ancestry traditional in the United States, they do retain a marked preference for those who wear a European face, no matter what their ancestry might be. The reality of multiracial origins certainly softens the hard edge of bigotry, but it also seems to encourage a complacency as to blatant phenotypic biases. Selection is a powerful force and it can reshape human variation rather quickly given the appropriate environmental impetus. The race problem will not vanish through the fiat of genetics, rather, the social context can have a controlling effect upon the correlation of characters and their clusters within the population so as to reflect the values which that society holds up.
I agree that softening the hard edge of bigotry can lead to complacency. We see this as well in other areas, such as racialized ideas about intelligence with respect to Asians and Jews, and racialized ideas about success in sports in relation to African Americans. These are ways that insidious racism sneaks past more genteel political filters into day to day thinking.
But the point I really want to make about G.E.’s post is this: Much of this … the discussion of phenotypes of races .. depends on a fairly non scientific basis or at least, a measure of phenotype that would not be useful globally. We tend to speak, for example, of Africans (or African Americans) as though this term has biological meaning. As a colleague’s mother once said “Africa… that’s a very very big country, isn’t it” … It has been said that if we were to revive the old race concept but with better data, we would probably have 12 or fourteen races, but nine of them would be in Africa.
Orthogonally, the same thing applies to the traits themselves. There seem to be many routes to blackness, and possibly more than one route to whiteness. There is very strong evidence that skeletal differences between “races” is smaller than skeletal differences between earlier and later material sampled from particular regions over fairly short periods of time (a few thousand years) and not because of migration, but because of local changes. Moreover, some of these changes seem to be global, so that populations around the world are undergoing the same sorts of changes independently, yet (obviously) with some kind of connection not formed by common genes but rather by common environmental conditions.
In other words, it is important to remember when thinking about “race” that the concept itself has strong biological implications to most people, but that these implications are mainly constructed of what we call these days “urban myth.”
As G.E. says, “the social context can have a controlling effect upon the correlation of characters…” and, I would add, the social interpretation can have a strong effect on the way we perceive and measure the relevant variables.