Race meant a great deal in the last centuries of civilization, but it did not survive as a meaningful concept into the Fifth World.
#An invalid biological concept
Those who believed in race posited it as a biological categorization of human beings, suggesting that skin color and associated morphological variations pointed to real, biological differences between different groups of people.
Biology would more specifically call such a concept a subspecies, a group of individuals that “breed true,” meaning that they share a set of traits in common, and that the children of two parents from different subspecies will either belong to one parent’s group or the other’s, but they won’t mix traits from both. For example, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) has several subspecies, including the eastern myrtle warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata) and the Audubon's warbler (Setophaga coronata auduboni). The eastern myrtle warbler has a white throat and a contrasting cheek patch, while the Audubon’s warbler has a yellow throat and no cheek patch. An eastern myrtle warbler and an Audubon’s warbler can have a child. That child will either have a white throat and a cheek patch like an eastern myrtle warbler or a yellow throat and no cheek patch like an Audubon’s warbler, but it will not have a yellow throat and a cheek patch or a white throat and no cheek patch. It will either belong to one subspecies or the other, but it will not mix traits from both parents. This defines what it means to “breed true” and thus classify as a subspecies.
But we don’t find this at all in supposed human “races.” If black skin did define a subspecies of Homo sapiens africanus and white skin defined a subspecies of Homo sapiens europensis, then a black person and a white person could have a child, but the child would have either black skin or white skin. Instead, in nearly all cases we see precisely what actual subspecies would never produce: a mixture of traits from both parents, usually with skin color somewhere in between.
While H. sapiens clearly has no subspecies, some argued that races nonetheless correlated to real groups in human diversity, but this does not hold up to scrutiny either. Imagine a grid with dots that congregate in two clusters. If we looked at the dots in one cluster and measured the distance between them, then we’d see very little, since they cluster close together. In other words, we’d see very little variation within each cluster. We could measure the variation between the clusters by taking the average of each one and looking at the distance between them. We would find a much larger variation between the two clusters than within them, because the two clusters appear in different parts of the grid.
Now imagine the same grid, but with dots spread out randomly and evenly. Let’s say that this time we assign the dots randomly to one of two groups. Now we would find much greater variation within each group, because we find them all over the grid. But that also means that for both groups, the average value would fall rather close to the center, so we’d find a very small variation between the two groups. So, statistically, we can measure whether or not a group measures a real difference if we find greater variation between groups than we do within them.
In the case of supposed human races, we simply don’t find that. In every trait we’ve ever measured, we find very little variation between racial groups, and enormous variation within them. Meaning that beyond simply failing to describe genuine subspecies or anything biologically real, race does not even accurately describe any real groupings of human diversity. Since race defines itself as a division rooted in biological reality, this makes it an invalid concept. In short, race simply does not exist in H. sapiens and hasn’t for at least 10,000 years.
#History of race
It might give us a hint to the basic faultiness of race that it has a clear history that only began in the 1600s. Indigenous and ancient societies had many ways of conceptualizing and understanding variations in the peoples and societies they encountered, but they nearly always conceived of these in terms of things like language, tradition, and law first and foremost, rather than anything linked to biology. With the settling of the New World and the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, though, Europeans began to develop the concept of race primarily to justify colonialism. In the New World colonies, when poor European farmers and Black slaves began to notice the common enemy they shared in the rich aristocracy, those aristocrats began elaborating race as a “divide and conquer” technique to keep oppressed groups turned against each other, rather than finding solidarity against their oppressors.
Various people and groups employed race to justify atrocity after atrocity in the centuries that followed, and the accumulated toll of that history gave race a social reality that it never had in biology. States wrote the idea of race into law, and even when legislators tried to remove such blatant racism from legal codes, the accumulated effect of generations of trauma, oppression, and poverty created interlocking, mutually-reinforcing systems of racial oppression that made race a constant social reality that dominated every aspect of life in the waning centuries of civilization.
As the civilization that had invented race collapsed, though, so, too, did the idea of race. As the means by which states fed their people collapsed and those people had to band together, many failed to shed the old ideas about race. They refused help from people they considered other, making it even more difficult for them to survive. By the end of the Rusting Age, the idea of race had become an antiquated relic, like the classical idea of the aether, known only to the most knowledgeable sages and classified even by them as relatively worthless trivia. Those who believed in it had died out because of their belief in it. Since it never had any biological reality, when people stopped believing in it the social construct also vanished.
Through collapse and the Rusting Ages no group could reasonably survive if they limited the help they could accept by a metric as meaningless as race. They accepted help wherever they could find it, and those who did the best job of welcoming strangers generally became the most successful communities. This made the emerging communities highly diverse groups in terms of race, and so their descendants in the Fifth World an omniracial mix. This mixing helped speed the demise of race as a concept, as it ceased to map in any way to observable reality.
Nearly every community in the Fifth World has ancestors from every race — both the oppressed and their oppressors. They vary widely in how they understand this legacy.
To understand the relationship between the societies of the Fifth World and the racial groups of civilization’s last centuries, it can help to think of the ship of Theseus, a thought experiment posed by ancient Greeks like Heraclitus and Plato. The ship of Theseus sits in the harbor, until one day the prow falls off. Someone replaces it. Then a plank rots, and someone replaces it, on and on until not one scrap of wood from the original ship remains. Does it remain the ship of Theseus? If not, when did that change?
As discussed with regards to orality and literacy, literate societies like the ancient Greeks’ tend to see the world in terms of objects and prioritize ontology and taxonomy, so for them this thought experiment poses quite a riddle. The verbing of orality puts this in a rather different light, by emphasizing the continuity of the unfolding process and history. In the oral perspective, we should have no doubt that it remains the ship of Theseus.
Consider, then, some of the Yukaghir communities that dwell in Siberia. They consider themselves undoubtedly Yukaghir, even though their current members include people who might have more Russian, Chinese, and Indian ancestry than Yukaghir. But those Russian, Chinese, and Indian ancestors learned the Yukaghir language, adopted Yukaghir customs and traditions, and lived as part of a Yukaghir community. Without a concept of race as a biological reality, they have no reason to consider their ancestors anything but Yukaghirs. And with an emphasis on relationship rather than genealogy, they focus on their ancestors not as those who provided genetic material, but those who shaped the world they live in. That means that when they speak of their ancestors, they speak of those who have lived as Yukaghirs in their traditional Yukaghir territories, regardless of genetic relationships.
Some groups might biologically descend as much from an oppressed group as they do from that group’s oppressors, but their history traces back to one or the other, and they tell their story and understand themselves from that point of view. Other groups consciously identify themselves as the descendants of several such groups, and understand those histories as balanced and resolved within themselves, their own existence a sort of dynamic reconciliation made flesh. Still others see themselves as something fundamentally new, descended from heroic ancestors who deliberately rejected the old system. They often understand their communities as established in defiant opposition to all such old ideas and orders. And of course, many communities mix all of these approaches together to one degree or another.
Indigenous peoples found that in a time of collapse their ancient traditions had prepared them for survival better than most. While a changing world required them to change and adapt as much as anyone else, they often started from a much better starting point. As climate refugees arrived, they found indigenous people already adapting to a new life in these lands. The most successful refugees learned from their indigenous neighbors, and often found themselves deeply influenced by their traditions and styles. For example, the most dense populations in the Fifth World live around the Arctic Ocean. Nearly all of them have ancestors from China and India. Even though those ancestors outnumbered indigenous Arctic peoples by many orders of magnitude, those peoples have had a major influence on Arctic culture because each successive group of refugees learned from them, and then from the previous waves of refugees who had learned from them. Some groups, like the Hopi, took an even more active stance, heading out in the Rusting Age to help shattered communities cope with the transformations that had taken place. Thus, many more indigenous groups have survived into the Fifth World than one would expect from random chance alone. These indigenous communities consist of the descendants of ancient indigenous people, though often with a wide variety of other ancestors, as well. Such groups emphasize their indigenous history and identity, understanding those other ancestors as individuals who married in along the way. The fact that those ancestors may ultimately outnumber the original indigenous ancestors of their people doesn’t matter nearly as much as the continuity of traditions, customs, language, and life ways.
Nearly everyone in the Fifth World would count as “omniracial” by ancient racial standards. Brown skin and dark hair predominates across the globe. Nearly everyone has European, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian ancestors. Indigenous peoples may have had small populations when civilization collapsed, but they found their traditions gave them a distinct advantage in surviving the Rusting Age, so one finds more evidence of their genetic legacy in the people of the Fifth World than one might expect simply by looking at ancient population sizes.
You will not find white people in the Fifth World, not only because no one in the Fifth World would consider themselves “white” because the very idea of race has died out, but because we have defined whiteness in a way that ensures its extinction. We consider someone “white” if she does not belong to any other race. The Virginia colony defined someone as not qualifying as white if she had “one drop” of blood from another race, meaning any non-white ancestor. If everyone in the Fifth World has descendants from every race, then no one can meet that standard. In terms of visual appearance, white skin sits at one extreme end of the range of possible melanin levels. With more and more mixing, such extreme pallor would become incredibly rare. In this sense, albinism has become more common than whiteness.