One thing we often forget about that case is that Homer Plessy’s argument was that he was white! He got bounced from the white section because the conductor said he was black. The question wasn’t that all train passengers should be able to sit together, rather Plessy said, “No, I’m a white person, actually.” The court admitted that it was very important to be able to determine who was white and who was not, and that having the ability to be white is a form of property, that it’s valuable, extremely valuable, in 1896.
The court said in its decision that “if he be a white man, and be assigned to the color coach, he may have his action for damages from the company, for being deprived of his so-called property. If he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”
People sued over this. Native Americans and others were going to the courts and, saying “no, I won’t be treated as I’m being treated” and demanding the property interest in the reputation of being a white person. So in 1921 the powers-that-be decided they needed a definition of a white person.
Here’s what they came up with:
A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.
You know . . . white people!
So when I say it’s all made up, I mean it. It’s made up.
But that’s not to say it’s not real. It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.
Human beings that look the way we do evolved around two hundred thousand years ago in the African continent and began leaving it around seventy-five to fifty thousand years ago. They settled in various parts of the globe and in bands of people that were, for the most part, cut off from each other.
And as all travel was by foot, they stayed in the same place for many thousands of years. And by staying in the same place for many thousands of years, these groups actually did evolve to look differently from each other, for reasons that have to do with the various environments in which they found themselves.
So there is a biological basis to the reason people look differently from each other. And if you look at those people before the modern era of tremendous transportation, of people going all over the place for political reasons, of people being carved up geographically into nations — all things that are pretty much brand new in human history — the people that settled around the band of the equator, where they get the most intense direct sunlight, all over the earth, those people have darker complexions. Now why is that?
All human beings, regardless of their complexion, have the ability to produce melanin as a protection from UV radiation. If you are fair skinned and subject to intense direct sunlight for prolonged periods you are likely to develop skin cancer. Skin cancer might not stop you from reproducing (and therefore passing on your genetic material) because in general you’re going to develop that when you’re older.
But there is evidence that UV radiation interrupts processes associated with folic acid (folate) which can cause birth defects and other problems. So people with darker complexions of course absorb UV radiation, but they are protected not only from skin cancers but also from related interruptions to reproduction.
But if you’re one of those people who has been living for thousands of years in regions far from the equator, regions of scarce or indirect sunlight, you have a different problem — the problem of Vitamin D deficiency. The sun is a crucial source of Vitamin D for humans, so you’re going to have illnesses associated with Vitamin D deficiency. You actually need to absorb more sunlight, and so paler skin is advantageous in those places.
This is really the only biological basis we can find between people who have different complexions around the world, but that’s a far different thing from saying that people with different complexions actually comprise races of people in a biological sense.