Social interpretations of race regard the common categorizations of people into different races, often with biologist tagging of particular “racial” attributes beyond mere anatomy, as more socially and culturally determined than based upon biology. Some interpretations are often deconstructionist and poststructuralist in that they critically analyze the historical construction and development of racial categories.
The biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks (1995) argued that even as the idea of “race” was becoming a powerful organizing principle in many societies, the shortcomings of the concept were apparent. In the Old World, the gradual transition in appearances from one racial group to adjacent racial groups emphasized that “one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them,” as Blumenbach observed in his writings on human variation. In parts of the Americas, the situation was somewhat different. The immigrants to the New World came largely from widely separated regions of the Old World—western and northern Europe, western Africa, and, later, eastern Asia and southern and eastern Europe. In the Americas, the immigrant populations began to mix among themselves and with the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. In the United States, for example, most people who self-identify as African American have some European ancestors—in one analysis of genetic markers that have differing frequencies between continents, European ancestry ranged from an estimated 7% for a sample of Jamaicans to ∼23% for a sample of African Americans from New Orleans. In a survey of college students who self-identified as white in a northeastern U.S. university, the west African and Native American genetic contribution were 0.7% and 3.2%.
In the United States, social and legal conventions developed over time that forced individuals of mixed ancestry into simplified racial categories. An example is the “one-drop rule” implemented in some state laws that treated anyone with a single known African American ancestor as black. The decennial censuses conducted since 1790 in the United States also created an incentive to establish racial categories and fit people into those categories. In other countries in the Americas, where mixing among groups was more extensive, social non racial categories have tended to be more numerous and fluid, with people moving into or out of categories on the basis of a combination of socioeconomic status, social class, ancestry.
Efforts to sort the increasingly mixed population of the United States into discrete racial categories generated many difficulties. Additionally, efforts to track mixing between census racial groups led to a proliferation of categories (such as mulatto and octoroon) and “blood quantum” distinctions that became increasingly untethered from self-reported ancestry. A person’s racial identity can change over time. One study found differences between self-ascribed race and Veterans Affairs administrative data.