David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., published an article today on Psychology Today's website called The Roots of Racism, which examines the idea of race, and the way it contributes to the idea of racism. After clearly separating the biological definition of race from the "folk-conception," the popular understanding of the concept of race, he begins tearing it apart.
The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling. The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong.
Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways. [... therefore], it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another. I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either. Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney?
If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion? Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.
He then points out that there's a popular conception, the idea of "Passing," which completely undermines the premise of visual resemblance. "[E]ven virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look. In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it."
Finally, he brings it around to the subject of Essentialism, which I've written about before. The idea of race, he points out, is the idea that there are groups of people defined by some inherent trait, that they all share and that no other group of people possess.
[This idea] doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.” When this happens, [... w]e develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.
The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.
He concludes that those who oppose racism should concentrate their efforts on "undermining the very idea of race," which is the only point at which I disagree -- only because I don't think it's his place to dictate the course of progressive politics.
I do, however, agree that, as a cause all on its own, Essentialism needs to be combated. It's a component in every awful way that humans interact with each other and the world, and we gain nothing by it that we would lose by understanding that it isn't true.