views updated May 21 2018










The concept of race as a categorization system for human beings did not exist formally until the late eighteenth century. Most analysts (e.g., Feagin and Feagin 1999; Allen 1994; Roediger 1991; Omi and Winant 1994) have linked the inception of the biologically based idea of distinct races of human beings to European colonization of the New World. Although prior to this time human beings certainly distinguished between themselves in many ways, these distinctions tended to be based upon tribal, clan, ethnic, or national differences that stemmed from place of residence/territory or shared belief systems rather than on innate, genetic characteristics. However, as capitalist-based exploitation of certain (often darkerskinned) groups began in the form of chattel slavery and other abuses of humanity, those in power began turning to science as a way to rationalize the oppressive conditions to which these groups were consigned. The rush to develop these pseudoscientific claims might have been spawned in part by the need of the colonizers to assuage their guilt and to resolve the cognitive dissonance and contradictions evident in rising new societies that prided themselves on freedom and democracy even as they relegated certain groups in their societies to a nonfree, even subhuman status (Horsman 1997). While the science that developed the idea of race is certainly discredited by todays standards, the social ramifications of humans having separated themselves into races still remain firmly intact. As the Thomas theorem once stated, when men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572). Thus, although the idea of race as a classification system of human beings is what social scientists call socially constructed rather than biologically based, it still is an enduring category of social analysis. It is so not because of its genetic or biological basis, but because of the power it has wielded as an idea to create dividing lines between different classes of human beings across the globe (Graves 2004).


Prior to the eighteenth century, human beings were recognizing differences between themselves as they crossed national and continental borders in exploration and trade. Sometimes these differences would be reflected upon positively and at others, negatively, especially when groups clashed over territory and power. For example, there are Biblical writings where African kingdoms and Jewish kingdoms are regarded as allies of generally equal worth and status. And in Greek and Roman periods, these two societies expressed a great respect for the learning they gleaned from African cultural developments. Even as occasional negative images of blackness (associated with sin, devil, and non-Christianity) were expressed, these views were never developed into a broad color consciousness viewing Africans as a greatly inferior species (Feagin 2000, p. 71). Thus, although human beings reflected upon their own differences as they made contact with each other throughout time, there was generally a mix of negative and positive imagery, and prior to the idea of race, no discussion of an altogether inferior or superior species attached to physical differences yet existed.

From the 1400s to the 1600s, as colonization and enslavement expanded, the Spanish and other Europeans began to use consistently negative language to describe the African human beings they enslaved. This pattern was coupled with positive evaluations of their own group. However, these evaluations still did not amount to explicitly racial designations. The Europeans negative assessments of Africans at this point were rooted in cultural and religious differences rather than in any biological, unchanging facts of their physical chemistry. For instance, Europeans described themselves as rational and civilized while they described Africans as uncivilized and uncontrolled. Further, the Africans not being Christian resulted in Europeans characterizing them as heathens, and later in North America, European settlers used the same line of thinking toward the Native Americans (Feagin 2000; Takaki 1993). In fact, in the 1600s, a European named François Bernier (16251688) even developed a hierarchy of groups ranking them from the most primitive and civilized to the least, placing Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom (Feagin and Feagin 1999).

However ethnocentric and biased these claims were, they were based upon the assumption that these were cultural differences emanating from shared, learned beliefs rather than body composition or other unchangeable biological inheritances. Indeed, in the case of the Native Americans, for a brief time, the colonists in power considered the possibility that Native Americans could be civilized and thus considered equal by converting them to Christianity (Takaki 1993). These positions acknowledging a common human capacity for acquiring knowledge across all skin color gradations (even as it was perceived as underutilized or underdeveloped for some) still ran counter to later notions of biologically grounded races.


Several scholars have identified the conception of human races as a key part of the development of a racist ideology (e.g., Feagin 2000; Yetman 2004). An ideology is a belief system intended to rationalize and justify existing social arrangements. In this way the concept of race is a decisively social concept because it is not observed as existing independent of the racialized social systems (Bonilla-Silva 1997) that hold it in place. Feagin identifies three dynamics that crystallized by the late 1700s to result in a clearly racist (as opposed to nationalist or cultural) ideology: (1) an accent on physically and biologically distinctive categories called races; (2) an emphasis on race as the primary determinant of a groups essential personality and cultural traits; and (3) a hierarchy of superior and inferior racial groups (Feagin 2000, p. 79). Thus, at this point in history, no longer are human differences attributed first and foremost to national, regional, and cultural variations. Instead, they become perceived in a biologically determined (static, unchanging) way, and the differences begin to be encoded into hierarchical categorization schemas that connote superior and inferior species of human beings.

The language of race as a pseudobiological category of humans emerged first in the 1770s with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804). As noted by Emmanuel C. Eze in his 1997 publication, Kants categorization hierarchy for races of mankind was laid out as follows:

Stem genus, white brunette;

First race, very blond (northern Europe), of damp cold;

Second race, copper-red (America), of dry cold;

Third race, black (Senegambia), of dry heat;

Fourth race, olive-yellow (Indians), of dry heat.

Roughly two decades later, another German scholar (of human anatomy) named Johann Blumenbach (17521840) ventured into similar territory of racial hierarchies founded on what he viewed as biological premises. Ivan Hannaford noted in his 1996 work that Blumenbachs categories were conceptualized in the following order (top to bottom; superior to inferior):

Caucasians (Europeans)

Mongolians (Asians)

Ethiopians (Africans)

Americans (Native Americans)

Malays (Polynesians)

Blumenbach was the one who coined the term Caucasian simply because he felt the Europeans he observed in the Caucasus mountains were the most beautiful, and he erroneously concluded that the first human remains were found there (Gould 1994). Yet the power of this pseudoscience remains in contemporary consciousness, as some modern-day Americans who view themselves as white, for example, refer to themselves as Caucasian, even when their genealogy hails from nowhere near the Caucasus mountains from which this category got its name. It is work like this that laid the groundwork for the centuries that followed, with human beings across the globe viewing themselves as members of distinct racial groups. These groupings were never just nominal categories; they were always hierarchically arranged and structured by dominance (Hall 1980).

An important point to note about these racial categories is that they did not just come to have meaning simply because a couple of scholars penned these categorizations systems and they attained popularity. They were reified because racialized social systems were structured around them. That is, the social relations of the day mirrored the order that the categories suggested. They would not have acquired such powerful social meaning without the systems that held them in place. Thus, one way to conceptualize race is a way of relating within a particular racial social system. Since its inception in the eighteenth century, the meaning of any particular race changes over time and is culturally specific. A single individual could be deemed one race in one society but move or travel to a different society (or even between states in the same society, as in the case of the United States) and be categorized as a different race. Its basis for meaning resides in a particular societys racialized social system and not within an individual body. Some social scientists use the term reification to describe this process of turning a social relationship into a thing in and of itself. As noted by Margaret Radin, once reified, race acquires a phantom objectivity, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people (Harris 1998, p. 107).


Although the social distinction of a race of human beings was often based upon physical characteristics, the question of which physical characteristics were used to determine race and in what proportion has varied greatly across cultures and across time. These distinctions are usually set by those in power for a distinctly political purpose. For example, in the United States, the so-called one-drop rule predominated for all of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. This rule stated that an individual having even a distant ancestor who was categorized as black (conceived as one drop of black blood) also made that individual black as well. It is important to note that this determination was not, of course, made from blood testing but rather from knowledge of the individuals family tree and the racial categorizations (socially) attached to each member. This rule served the political purpose of limiting the numbers of persons who could cross the racial dividing line to become white and enjoy all the perquisites and privileges thereof. In the United States, chattel slavery was officially permitted and governmentally sanctioned until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. However, shortly into the nineteenth century, no further importation of slaves from overseas was permitted under the Constitution. Thus, it was convenient for the white patriarchal powers of the country that any offspring resulting from the sexual exploitation of their black female slaves (even though these children were also half white) would still be considered their own property and not eligible for freedom (Graves 2004). However, even after slavery was abolished, individuals who were defined as black by the one drop rule had severely curtailed rights, and many lived in a status that was similar to slavery except in name, due to sharecropping, the convict lease system, and white terrorism holding all of this in place.

According to court records, in order to escape this awful fate, many individuals attempted to remove their black racial categorizations by way of the law. What fraction of black blood was needed in order to categorize one as black? In Louisiana, for example, it was one-32nd of black blood that made someone into black. The U.S. Census identified the racial categories of Negro, Mulatto (one-half black blood), Quadroon (one-fourth black blood) and Octoroon (one-eighth black blood) as late as 1890 (Lee 1993). When individuals were not able to attain legal freedom from blackness but were somewhat light-skinned, they sometimes participated in passing by portraying themselves as white. It is notable that such passing activities almost always occur when someone categorized as an inferior race attempts to pass as a member of the superior race and not the other way around. This indicates how race is explicitly hierarchical and designed to keep dividing lines between who does and who does not receive the full rights and privileges of citizenship in any given society.

In the contemporary context in the United States, the pseudoscientific notion of a blood quantum (one-fourth) has to be proven in order for citizens to be able to racially categorize themselves as American Indian. Additionally, this one-fourth fraction of Native American blood must be with a tribe that is officially acknowledged and sanctioned by the federal government (Thornton 2001). In early 2006 there were about 569 such tribes (Taylor 2006). In order to get ones tribe recognized by the government, one goes through a lengthy process of forms and bureaucracy, which is sometimes a challenge for older members of a tribe struggling with the level of literacy in bureaucratic language that these forms require. Thus, there are probably many more U.S. citizens who consider themselves to have Native American ancestry than are officially counted by the federal government, who estimates they are only about 1 percent of the total population. This official count, estimated by the U.S. Census, experienced a sizable increase between the 1960 and 1990 censuses. Researchers pointed out that this growth in the American Indian population was not due to increased births, and certainly not to migration, but to the increase in individuals who decided to categorize themselves as Native American (Thornton 2001; Nagel 1995). This finding again underscores the socially constructed basis of race.


While examining ones family tree and ancestors is one way that societies go about determining who belongs in which race, occasionally, other factors are used. For example, government officials sometimes transform religious groups into races. Adolf Hitler (18891945) during Nazi Germany spoke of the Jews as a race and structured gruesome genocidal public policy around this claim. Additionally, the U.S. Census records show that in 1930 and 1940, Hindu was given as a choice for racial categorization (Lee 1993). Besides these cases of religion being racialized, sometimes, ones social class is used as a marker for race. In Brazil there is a saying o dinheiro embranquece, which means money whitens. Because there are many mixtures of skin types in Brazil, skin tone combines with socioeconomic status to create the notion of race. For example, if a person is of a mixed skin tone but is dressed professionally and holds a prestigious position, that person may be considered white while a person with an even lighter skin tone who appears impoverished might be labeled black (Taylor 2006).

In a minority of cases, groups who are not in the majority racially sometimes come together to create a racial group and ask those in power to sanction it as a new race. For example, the pan-ethnic racial category of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) appeared on the U.S. Census for the first time in 1990 (Lee 1993). This race was created by bridging some major differences in terms of national origins, languages, and religions. In fact, the United States had a history of finding favor and disfavor with different ethnic groups that are now in the API category depending on the political and economic climate of the day. When the economy became saturated with Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. At this time, it was more favorable to be Japanese. However, during World War II (19391945) when the federal government placed Japanese Americans (even those who were born and raised in the United States) into internment camps, it was more favorable to be Chinese. Despite these and many other cleavages between the groups that are now united in the API race, the groups came together under a specific political climate in the 1980s when the United States was experiencing an economic recession and some dominant rhetoric blamed a global Asian face for the job loss and downward mobility of those who considered themselves white. Thus, regardless of national origin, many API individuals began to be scapegoats and targets of white hostility and even vicious hate crimes (Espiritu 1992). Perceiving common issues of oppression shared across ethnic lines in the U.S. context was an important motivating factor in the creation of the API race.

Omi and Winant (1994) developed a theory of racial formation that underscores how racial categories such as the API are socially constructed, usually for political ends. Although in the majority of cases of racial formation the state uses its power to control what defines a race and who is allowed to claim membership within it, in a minority of cases (such as the API category), the initiative to construct a racial category comes from below. These minority individuals still have to find favor with the state in order to make their category official. In the case of the one-drop rule, many people were denied their legal efforts to challenge the state and become recategorized racially. But it is important to note that in the case of the one-drop rule, permission was being asked to join into the dominant group (whites) whereas the API group created a new category that did not upend or challenge the existing racial hierarchy. Similarly, in 2000, a group of individuals who considered themselves multiracial effectively lobbied to change U.S. Census procedure so that for the first time people could check more than one box to define their race. Again, this was a movement from below to create new racial possibilities, and it did not seek to challenge the dominance of the category white. The closer policing of the boundaries of whiteness by the state is indicative of how structured by dominance race is.


Unlike ethnicities that are often directly linked to a particular continent, and usually a specific nation, the concept of race is an obviously socially constructed category due to its inability to be traced to any one geographic region. One cannot point to black or white on a map as one can with an ethnicity, such as Chinese, Japanese, Jamaican, Irish, or Mexican. This is particularly evident when studying the dominant category of whiteness. While some might equate the term white with a term such as European American, such terminology conceals how much whiteness has adapted to incorporate various non-European groups over time when it served the purpose of solidifying the material and ideological advantage of the category white in a particular area. For example, although people claiming either Chinese or Japanese ancestry are placed into the API category (usually known as Asian Americans) in the United States, during apartheid in South Africa, individuals with these two ethnicities had very different racial experiences. The Japanese were classified into the white category, enjoying the social privileges of the dominant group, while the Chinese were placed into the colored category. Although coloreds were not treated as poorly as those considered Africans, they nonetheless were well below whites on the racial hierarchy (Marger 2006). Thus, when it was crucial and beneficial for South Africa to maintain positive economic relations with Japan, it was not in their best interests to consign Japans citizens to second-class status. Treating the Japanese as whites meant that South African whites could still cash in on the material advantages that came from trading and doing business with the Japanese in an increasingly globalized marketplace in which China was not yet a key player.

In the U.S. context, the Irish and the Jews are two examples of ethnic groups that, although still predominantly European, were not regarded as white upon arrival into the country and had to earn their incorporation into whiteness. In the early nineteenth century, the Irish arrived in a mass migration, escaping famine and British oppression. They had no kind of shared identity with the largely British white majority in the United States since the Irish saw the British as their oppressors. Furthermore, the Irish found themselves still excluded outright from many of the best jobs and were even targets of the exaggerated big-lipped, ruddy-skinned caricatures that students of history would typically associate with African Americans. Yet when the political question of the abolition of slavery reached front and center by the middle of the 1800s, the side that the Irish chose to take en masse would be an important deciding factor in whether they became incorporated into whiteness. To side with the slaves, they perceived, would consign them to the second-class citizenship they had just worked so hard to flee in their native land. In coming out decidedly antiabolition on the slavery question, already speaking the English language, and attaining access to some key positions in civic life (particularly in New York City), the Irish solidified their position into the dominant race, white, by the middle of the nineteenth century (Allen 1994; Roediger 1991; Takaki 1993).

The Jews also faced the kind of in-between racial status upon first arriving to the United States that the Chinese faced by being categorized as colored in South Africa. The immigrant Jews certainly were not as ostracized, disenfranchised, and terrorized as African Americans were, but they were not at first deemed worthy of receiving the full benefits of whiteness. They were excluded from most major universities and were victims of prejudices and ethnic slurs (Takaki 1993). Further illustrating the point that race is a relational category, it was the outright exclusion of blacks from the educational and housing benefits of the post-World War II GI Bill that catapulted Jews into middle-class status. Not unlike the situation of the upper class Brazilians, Jews gained the favor of whiteness by their newly acquired socioeconomic status during an economically prosperous era of U.S. history. This prosperity was generated in part by huge government subsidies for both college scholarships and home mortgages, which could be characterized as the nations first affirmative action program, giving all those deemed white a leg up over their African American counterparts. Although many blacks technically were eligible for these benefits due to their service in great numbers to the military during World War II, they were often unable to cash in on them when prejudiced southern commanders would give them dishonorable discharges for no particular legitimate reason. Moreover, since the Fair Housing Act was not passed until the late 1960s, it was perfectly legal for African Americans to be excluded from buying any of the quality housing to which those deemed white had full access. The events of this time period have been identified as the major factor contributing to the movement of Jewish Americans from nonwhite to white (Brodkin 1998).


While ones state-defined race clearly plays a crucial role in whether one can access the full material benefits of a society, due to its explicitly hierarchical basis, it is also the case that individuals are not completely without agency in navigating their relationship to these racial categories. People all over the globe have always resisted their oppression in various ways. For example, a U.S. professional golfer named Tiger Woods resisted the societys one-drop rule categorization of himself as African American and invented the term Cablinasian to encompass his Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian heritage (Taylor 2006). Furthermore, there is a large group of U.S. citizens who think of themselves racially as Latino or Hispanic even though the nations census does not allow them the option of identifying this as their race (unless they write it in as Other, as many do). The census only includes the racial choices of White, Black/African American, Asian Pacific Islander, Native American Indian, and Other but lists various Hispanic national origins under a separate ethnicity question. This structure actually encourages persons of Latino heritage to either identify as a white Hispanic or a black Hispanic (as 50% did in 2000), further reifying the countrys dichotomous blackwhite divide. Nonetheless, as this group of persons with Latino heritage in the United States grew exponentially by the advent of the twenty-first century, national conversations began to occur about the inadequacy of the state categories for race to adequately measure their experiences (Swarns 2004).

Because of the extreme occupational, residential, and social segregation that continues to exist in the United States, distinct cultural and ethnic patterns have come to be associated with these state-identified racial categories. For example, due to their exclusion from white churches, African Americans developed decisively different worship patterns even from those who shared their same denominations as Christians. Additionally, due to the many prohibitions during slavery of African Americans from socializing and congregating with each other, they also developed their own distinct linguistic patterns. Cultural developments and distinctions like these often lead to people talking about feeling (or not feeling) black, white, Asian, and so on. France Winddance Twine found that some young women of African descent who had mixed parentage and grew up in affluent suburban communities stated that they did not feel black until they came to college campuses where they were not the only token minority and together with others developed a more politicized understanding of racial identity (Twine 1997). Conversely, many whites who subscribe to a colorblind racial ideology state that they do not feel white or see themselves as white at all (McKinney 2005; Bush 2004). Nonetheless, due to the sedimentation of racial inequality (Oliver and Shapiro 1995) where whites collectively transmit their ill-gotten gains from slavery and segregation in the form of wealth to succeeding generations (Feagin 2000), these whites still gain a material advantage from being white even if they do not see themselves that way.

Beyond feeling culturally and emotionally linked (or not) to particular racial identities, some individuals may eschew state-created racial categories for other reasons. When perceiving that the dominant culture has a particular disdain for individuals of a certain race, new immigrants may seek to distance themselves from that racial categorization, especially when the dominant cultures tendency is to lump them into that negatively perceived category. For example, some members of immigrant groups who would be classified as blacks in the United States, such as Samoans, West Indians, and Haitians, have been found to distance themselves from the racial category of black due to the pervasive antiblack stereotypes they encounter about such things as work ethic and dedication to education (Waters 1999). Similarly, sensing negative prejudices about Mexicans in the United States, some Cuban Americans and other South American Latinos have chosen to stress their national heritages over a more global racial identity as Hispanic (Fernandez-Kelly and Schauffler 1994). Although it is difficult to escape the systemic benefits or lack thereof of being deemed within a particular racial group (as a pseudoscientific birthright), individuals certainly do participate upon occasion in challenging, at least at the personal identity level, their affiliation with an assumed racial group.


Race is not skin color, nor is it ethnic identity. It is not reducible to genetics. Indeed, there is much more genetic and physiological variation within the members of any given race than between individuals of different races. It has been estimated that the overlap between genetic material of people of any two racial groups is about 99 percent, so less than 1 percent of physiological differences can be explained by race (Lewontin 1996). Moreover, eventually, all genetic material of human beings traces back to Africa, where the earliest human remains were found (Feagin 2000). It has been established that any separate race (other than the human race) is not an actual scientific category and is, instead, a social construction. The assertion that race is a social construction, though, should not be confused with the notion that race is a complete fabrication only needing deconstruction (or simply ignoring/discrediting) to no longer be relevant. Even if governments decided to stop recording the racial categorizations of their citizens (as many outside of the United States have), race would still continue to be a fundamental organizing principle in society.

As has been demonstrated, the concept of race originated as an ideology meant to justify colonization and exploitation of people who happened to be, usually, darker-skinned than their exploiters. Material conditions between those who were eventually to be considered separate, superior/inferior races were already starkly unequal by the time the pseudoscientific category of race was formalized. Rigid laws enforcing the so-called superior racial groups advantages and the so-called inferior groups disadvantages continued for centuries. These chains have only been lifted, as of early 2006, for a few decades, and the material advantage/disadvantage gap has been so solidified that peoples ways of thinking, being, and doing are still very much tied to this way of relating called race. Moreover, the pseudoscientific claims of racial difference in intelligence, athletic/physical ability, and other characteristics are constantly resurging into the present day. People are also finding other ways to further racialized understandings of the world without even mentioning race by using various code words and rhetorical strategies to camouflage what, in the end, has a very similar effect in organizing the social world into superior and inferior beings (Bonilla-Silva 2003).

Thus, regardless of how socially constructed race is, for better or for worse, society is stuck with its legacies. The rigid boundaries it was invented to enforce have created distinct cultures and ways of being. To even expect that these racial categories could eventually remain in society in a more benign way as nominal ways of distinguishing between separate but equally valued cultural groups is to confuse race with ethnicity. Races raison detre was never solely to distinguish between various national and cultural heritages; it was always proposed in a hierarchical order, with attached value judgments of superior/inferior and corresponding material advantages or disadvantages. Until society addresses the material foundations of race and rectifies the resulting imbalances, simply deciding to erase race linguistically from the vocabulary will hardly get rid of it as a fundamental organizing principle of social life.

SEE ALSO Marriage, Interracial; Miscegenation; Race Mixing; Race Relations; Racialization; Racism


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Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Brodkin, Karen. 1998. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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McKinney, Karyn D. 2005. Being White: Stories of Race and Racism. New York: Routledge.

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Eileen OBrien


views updated May 23 2018


Social race

Biological race


The article under this heading discusses both the history of the concept of race and the cultural definition of race. The biology of race is described under Genetics, especially in the article on Race And Genetics.Social, psychological, and economic aspects of race are described in Discrimination, economic; Ethnic Groups; Individual differences; Intelligence and intelligence testing; Minorities; Prejudice; Race Relations; Segregation.Also relevant is the article Societal Analysis.The biography of Boasshould be consulted for its discussion of Boas’ pioneering studies of the diversity of cultural forms that occur within and between so-called racial groups.

Race engages the attention of social scientists both as a special constellation of cognitive or ideological categories and as a means of explaining sociocultural phenomena. Race is a recurrent ingredient in the ethnosemantics of group identity and intergroup relations. “Social races” are composed of socially defined and significant groups; the study of social race thus is a fundamental aspect of the study of social structure, especially in stratified state societies. Raciological (biological) explanations of sociocultural differences and similarities have attracted the support of a large and not infrequently preponderant scientific consensus. Evaluation of the relevance of racial differences to sociocultural theory thus becomes an inescapable obligation of the social sciences.

Social race

The term race, or its various ethnosemantic glosses, is applied in vernacular contexts to human populations organized along an astonishing variety of principles. Nation-states, such as the Irish, Japanese, or German; tribes such as the Scythian, Iroquois, Zulu; language families such as Slavic, Latin, Semitic; minorities such as the Jews, gypsies, Puerto Ricans; and phenotypically distinct but genetically hybrid aggregates such as whites, Negroes, yellows, and Coloureds are cognitively equivalent in many ethnosemantic contexts. Social scientists have tried to diminish intergroup conflict by exposing the disparity between biologically acceptable definitions of race and those which are entertained at a popular level. Since none of the folk usages is informed by valid genetic principles, the lack of correspondence between social race and biological race should occasion no surprise. Social races encompass both phenotypically similar and phenotypically dissimilar populations; actual gene frequencies, the ultimate goal of infra-species systematics, are obviously not desiderata in folk taxonomies. The cognitive substratum by which so many disparate aggregates are united cannot therefore be regarded as racial in the biological sense. It is quite obvious that in some societies biologically similar populations may be classified into groups which elsewhere go unrecognized. In this respect, the cognitive treatment of racial identity in Brazil is especially instructive. Despite the presence of distinct Negroid and Caucasoid components, the racial categories recognized by Brazilians are not the same as the categories recognized in the United States. In distinguishing socially defined races, therefore, attention must be directed toward common sociocultural rather than common biological features.

Viewed in terms of social structure, the processes by which a group achieves its continuity and by which individuals identify themselves and others are especially significant. Social races are composed of subjectively significant groups, unrestricted by age and sex criteria, in which membership is sociocentric (i.e., appears the same to all egos), is established at birth, endures for life, and confers special behavioral obligations or privileges. Social races differ from other stratified groups (such as classes with low rates of out-mobility) in their methods of maintaining membership and group identity. Social races accomplish this by a special ideological device, the idea of descent. Although the members of a social race are replaced during each generation, the group maintains a continuing identity through varied applications of descent rules. The basic cognitive factor of social races thus is present wherever the decisive test of group membership involves the calculation of genealogical relationships.

Since all kinship groups identify their membership in part through recognized principles of descent, there is a degree of overlap between kin groups and social race. Unilinear descent groups, in which membership is restricted exclusively to consanguineals, exhibit most of the essential ideological components of folk “races”; because membership is determined by descent, it is unambiguous, endures throughout the life of each member, and is associated with behavioral specialties such as marriage restrictions, rituals, and jural privileges. Unilinear descent groups differ from the more familiar instances of social “races” such as the Jews, gypsies, and Negroes in displaying more harmonious relations with outgroups which are founded on exogamic exchanges. Such differences do not distinguish the case of Indian castes, which in all essentials, including intergroup relations, resemble the classic social races. The composite band and the kindred and other nonunilineal groups in which affiliation is regularly achieved through marriage, voluntary recruitment, or option show a correspondingly more remote resemblance to the classic social races.

Racially heterogeneous societies need not be divided into structurally significant social races. If a descent rule is not evolved, categorizations of hybrid phenotypes will tend to correspond to the actual variety of visible intergrades. This is the case in Brazil, where descent plays a negligible role in establishing “racial” identity. In Bahia, full siblings whose phenotypes markedly differ from each other are assigned by different members of their community to contrastive racial categories. Because of the absence of descent rules, pronounced disagreements concerning the identity of individuals frequently occur, and this ambiguity is compounded by the plethora of “racial” categories—as many as forty in a single community and four or five hundred for the country as a whole. Under these conditions, structurally significant sociocentric groups based on racial criteria can scarcely be said to exist.

This conclusion is further warranted by the absence of systematic segregation and discrimination (but not of prejudice) associated with the social categories. Blurred, egocentric, and ambiguous racial identity would thus appear to be a functional correlate of the structural inconsequence of racial factors and the insignificance of descent (Harris 1964, pp. 54-64).

The importance of descent in racial ideology is frequently obscured by the apparent adequacy of phenotypical cues for the establishment of unambiguous identity. Most Americans are skilled in detecting phenotypical traces of Negroid admixture among the members of the community. Yet the much-discussed “high visibility” of the Negro group is belied by the phenomenon of the “white Negro,” a self-identified Negro-by-descent who refuses to “pass” into the white group. The powerful fictions invented through application of a descent principle are further demonstrated by the treatment of children of mixed marriages. Regardless of phenotype, such children are affiliated with the racial group of the lower-ranking parent. This affiliation is not at all a “natural” reflection of phenotypical character; it is rather a social fiction made possible by the peculiar principles of the descent rule practiced in the United States. One of the most common methodological blunders in scientific studies of the significance of racial differences in the United States is the tacit acceptance of this phantasmic notion of race as the basis for establishing research samples (Fried 1964).

Biological race

The development of scientific raciological theories is mainly a by-product of the development of Euro-American biology, although Carl von Linne’s correlation of custom and race in his epoch-making taxonomy, Systema naturae, was certainly not without both learned and popular precedent. Whether the racism that can be discovered in the texts of antiquity, in the Babylonian Talmud, and in the writings of a few Greeks and many Romans deserves to be detached from the underlying matrix of folklore depends on how much emphasis one gives to the distinctive features of post-Galilean science. In Linne’s classification of human varieties (1735), the aboriginal American is reddish in color with straight, dense black hair, and so on. He is “persevering, content, free,” and he paints himself with “skillful red lines.” Europeans are “light, active, ingenious” and “covered with tailored clothes.” Asians are “severe, haughty, miserly” and “covered with loose garments”; while Africans are “crafty, lazy, negligent, anointed with oil” and “governed by whim” (Count 1950, p. 359). Although Linne probably regarded these racial traits as having some degree of permanency, eighteenthcentury biologists generally believed that only the species level of differentiation reflected true hereditary fixity. Linne, like others of that period who believed in the unitary origin of mankind, was obliged to leave the door open for evolution, because if all men were descended from Adam, infraspecies variation had somehow to be explained. Moreover, it was at this time that environmentalism, both social and natural, was being enshrined in radical bourgeois political programs under the influence of Locke’s doctrine of the tabula rasa. Indeed, one of the central ideological themes of the French Revolution was the belief that hereditary differences among men were subordinate to the conditioning influences of education and the natural environment. Hence, on the whole, the eighteenth-century monogenesists tended to deprecate the power and permanence of racial differences. Buffon, for example, whose evolutionist inclinations appear at times to embrace the idea of the transformation of species, considered climate and diet to be the principal causes of racial variation. Like Linné, he correlated cultural and psychological characteristics with racial differences, yet so strong was his environmentalism that he believed all such differences would “gradually disappear … if the causes which produced them should cease, or if their operation should be varied by other circumstances and combinations” (Count 1950, p. 15). This early version of Lamarckism is conspicuous also in the outlook of men like Rousseau and Monboddo, both of whom were convinced that the great apes were actually human beings whose progress toward civilization had been retarded by adverse environmental conditions (Rousseau 1775, pp. 22 ff.; Monboddo 1773, pp. 22 ff.). Others, such as Blumenbach, one of the most influential naturalists of the period, continued to support the doctrine of “perfectibility” of the members of nonwhite races. In fact, belief in environmentalism and perfectibility was so strong that respectful attention was given to the possibility that Negroid physical features were not hereditary. In the United States, Samuel Stanhope Smith even argued that dark skin color was a phenomenon similar to freckles and that white people would become Negroid with sufficient exposure to the sun. Smith illustrated the reverse process in the celebrated case of Henry Moss, a Virginia slave who appears to have suffered a loss of pigmentation after having moved to the North. At a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in 1797, Benjamin Rush argued that the Moss case provided proof that black skin color was a disease akin to leprosy (Gossett 1963, p. 41).

A substantial, perhaps dominant, body of scientific opinion in the eighteenth century was thus heavily committed to the belief that racial differences were rather evanescent and subject to the control of both natural and cultural aspects of the environment. It was this negation of racial determinism that permitted Turgot, Holbach, Hévetius, and Condorcet to attempt social analyses which foreshadowed the modern cultural-ecological approach to the understanding of sociocultural evolution. But the belief that race was relatively unimportant to an understanding of the variety of cultures, past and present, was not destined to flourish in the succeeding century.

The equalitarian philosophy of the monogenesists was based on faith in the power of the environment to modify Hottentots into Englishmen. Indeed, equalitarian monogenesists long before Lamarck were quite prepared to believe that a specific transformation from ape to Caucasoid man must have taken place as part of the process by which humanity had emerged from its “state of nature.” A necessary but fatal ingredient in these early environmentalist theories was a stanch belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck merely generalized this point of view to include the entire organic universe. His theory of the use and disuse of organs was in most fundamental aspects perfectly anticipated in the work of Rousseau and Monboddo (Lovejoy 1933). Moreover, there was no significant disagreement between Darwin and Lamarck on the power of the environment to shape the hereditary nature of bioforms. According to Darwin, the use and disuse of organs exerted a direct influence upon the innovations which are subjected to natural selection (Darwin 1859, pp. 133-137 in 1958 edition).

Yet Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, Haeckel, Spencer, and every other evolutionist of the late nineteenth century, as well as almost every major social scientist from Marx to Morgan, regarded racial differences as essential to the understanding of human behavior (cf. Zirkle 1959, pp. 109-111; Resek 1960, p. 63). Even before them, the polygenesists, influenced by the skepticism that led them to reject the theologians’ idea of “special creation,” tended to regard the races as permanent, specieslike divisions, with differential hereditary capacities for achieving civilization. Voltaire, the influential Lord Kames, the English physician Charles White, the Frenchman Virrey, and the American Jefferson were among those who emphasized inequality of the hereditary endowments of the human races and the importance of these differences for an understanding of sociocultural phenomena (cf. Gos-sett 1963, pp. 42-53). Although post-Darwinian biologists tended to reaffirm the monogenesist view of a unitary origin for all mankind, they drew none of the equalitarian conclusions that had characterized their eighteenthcentury predecessors.

What had happened to turn a doctrine of equality, optimism, and perfectibility into chauvinistic, imperialistic, competitive, and pessimistic racism? One major scientific development of the early part of the nineteenth century seems especially significant (not to deny that a more fundamental answer would involve social, as distinct from ideological, innovation). A dawning insight into the true dimension of geological time compromised the equalitarianism of the evolutionists and brought them into direct conflict with the Biblically inspired equalitarian monogenesists. Hitherto unimaginably prolonged sequences were revealed, giving a completely new perspective to the transformation of species. Savages could be turned into Englishmen, yes, but not overnight, or in a few generations. According to the new chronology of progress, Caucasoid man came to be regarded as thousands of years “ahead” of the other races. The latter remained perfectible, but along a time scale which effectively removed them from any immediate claim to equal sociopolitical treatment. Characteristics were still acquired and became part of the hereditary repertory, but at a painfully slow pace. The ideological inertia engendered by concepts of racial heritage, racial memory, and racial consciousness enveloped the social and biological sciences and cast a spell over vast domains of Euro-American arts and letters. In its most popular version, promulgated principally by the synthesizing genius of Herbert Spencer, the social-to-biological feedback operated through the mechanisms of natural selection and the survival of the fittest: fundamental sociocultural change required equally fundamental biological change. Survival in an environment of unrestricted competition required individualized struggle and the untrammeled exercise of the will to achieve power. Hence, political philosophies such as social Darwinism, the “white man’s burden,” and “manifest destiny” all moved toward the mass megalomania of German Aryanism and twentieth-century race war and genocide (Barzun 1937; Hofstadter 1944; Snyder 1939; Gossett 1963). Not to be omitted from this spectacle is the contribution of the caliper-wielding anthropometrists, from Topinard to Lombroso, with their obsession for quantifying the precise details of physiologically insignificant traits. With slight consideration of the need for experimental control over cultural and physiological variables, minute differences, such as in the angles formed by cranial and facial bones, were used to help explain sociocultural contrast (Boyd 1958). Against the combined weight of the bioevolutionary synthesis, the passionate identification of science with precise measurement, and the problem of reconciling the inequalities of imperialism and capitalism with Christian principles, few intellectuals were able to withstand the appeal of some form of scientific racism.

Adherence to this ill-fated conceit was further promoted by an overemphasis, among the great cultural evolutionists of the times, upon parallel evolution and convergence. The simplistic equation of graded physical types with graded cultural types was extremely vulnerable to the test of comparative observation.

Documentation of the vast diversity of cultural forms that occur within as well as between racial groups eventually severed racist explanations from every vestige of scientific respectability. Much of the credit for this achievement rests with Franz Boas and the historical particularists and cultural relativists who were nurtured under his tutelage. Boas and his students insisted that there was no causal relationship between race, language, and culture (Boas 1887-1936; 1911). Especially damaging to the racist point of view were the first sophisticated linguistic descriptions of present-day primitive peoples, whereby it was established that variability and complexity of grammar and syntax are totally unrelated to degree of technological or sociopolitical organization (Sapir 1921).

The distinctive feature of the modern consensus concerning the relationship between race and culture is that the rate and direction of culture change among the various infraspecies groupings of Homo sapiens is not at present significantly affected by genetic specialties. It is generally believed that if all factors other than race are held constant, similar enculturation experiences will result in similar sociocultural repertories. Indeed, if perfect control over the enculturative process could be achieved, one generation would suffice to equip any two Homo sapiens groups with essentially similar repertories, regardless of their respective racial phylogenies. Thus, if Hottentot babies were substituted at birth for English babies, their average cultural performance would probably not differ in any significant fashion from a control group. The evidence for this point of view is overwhelming. Social groups and individuals drawn from every human “race” have shown themselves in countless instances to be susceptible to acculturation influences bearing upon every aspect of sociocultural behavior. American Indians brought up in Brazil show no hereditary resistance to learning African dance rhythms; Englishmen reared in China can learn to speak flawless Chinese; American Negroes who attend conservatories write symphonies in the classical European tradition; the Japanese display not the slightest hereditary disability in acquiring a knowledge of Western electronics; Jews brought up in Germany have German food preferences, while those brought up in Yemen acquire Yemenite tastes; under the influence of Western missionaries, the South Sea islanders learned to govern their sexual affairs in conformity with strict Protestant codes; everywhere the children of illiterate parents, exposed to the proper set of enculturative conditions, acquire within one lifetime the learning and lore contributed by hundreds of generations of men from all the races of the world. Although it is not possible to prove that all large divisions of Homo sapiens have equal learning ability for all kinds of responses, it is beyond dispute that the overwhelming bulk of the response repertory of any human breeding population can be learned by any other human breeding population. Moreover, if average differences in learning ability exist, they are demonstrably insufficient to account for the major cultural and subcultural contrasts which occupy the attention of the social sciences.

No one familiar with modern ethnography can doubt the dominant role of enculturative conditioning in the establishment of the behavioral specialties manifested by different human populations. No plausible connection has ever been proposed between specific human genes and such specialties as cross-cousin marriage, bilateral descent, polyandry, divine kingship, monotheism, brideprice, private property in land, or thousands of other small and large chains of less than universal human behavior. On the other hand, the inadequacy of racist explanations of sociocultural differences and similarities is further underscored by the growing success achieved by cultural and ecological explanations of those phenomena. With the exception of a handful of hereditary pathological disabilities, there does not exist a single instance of differential learning ability between populations which cannot be explained in terms of differential conditioning experience. Certainly this is the case wherever scores on so-called intelligence tests have been correlated with “racial” groups. Over and over again it has been demonstrated that such scores reflect, for each individual, the number of years of schooling, the quality of his academic training, his specific training for the test situation, his nuclear and extended family milieu, and an abundance of other nongenetic conditioning parameters (Kline-berg 1935; 1951; 1963; Comas 1961; Brown I960; Dreger & Miller 1960). As long as average performance differences are demonstrably embedded in conditioning parameters for which plausible linking hypotheses exist, emphasis upon genetic factors, especially those not significantly related to the behavior traits in question, exposes social science to every sort of occult mystification through the multiplication of superfluous hypotheses.

It should be carefully noted that the consensus by which racist explanations in the social sciences have been deprived of all claim to scientific respectability does not diminish the importance of further research concerning the essentially “creative” relation between biological and cultural traits. Such considerations are obviously required for an understanding of the evolution of the human condition, both during the hominoid-hominid transition and during the periods of species changes among the early hominids. Moreover, it is well known that human breeding populations exhibit genetic specialties, such as achondroplasia, myopia, and diabetes, whose frequencies are affected by cultural factors. Certainly, the rejection of racism should not obscure the possibility that differential reproductive and survival rates account for some cultural differences. None of these relationships, however, need run counter to the assumption that learning ability in its widest sense, as enculturation potential, is equal among all Homo sapiens. On the contrary, we may continue to assume that selection for behavioral plasticity, for freedom from gene-specific behavior, for high-order generalized learning receptivity, has been the most important source of biological control over the direction of hominid evolution during the last million and a half years (Dobzhansky & Montagu 1947; Hockett & Ascher 1964).

Marvin Harris


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The study of race and race relations has long been a central concern of sociologists. The assignment of individuals to racial categories profoundly affects the quality and even the length of their lives. These assignments are ostensibly made on the basis of biological criteria, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Yet the biological meaning of race is so unclear that many social and natural scientists argue that race, as a biological phenomenon, does not exist. Others take the position that while different races exist, extensive interbreeding in many societies has produced large numbers of people of mixed ancestry. The assignment of these people to racial categories depends on social, rather than on biological, criteria. Thus the social consequences of biologically inherited traits is the fundamental issue of the sociological study of race.


While the terms race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, social scientists assign them distinct meanings. Scholars differ on the precise definition of ethnicity, but these definitions usually include some or all of the following criteria. First, ethnic groups are extended kinship groups, although kinship may be defined loosely, as based on a common homeland rather than common ancestry. Second, coethnics share a distinctive culture, marked by differences ranging from language and religion to styles of dress or cooking. A distinctive culture need not be a matter of everyday practice, however. It may be primarily symbolic, as when a group's traditional language is no longer widely used, or its religious observance is confined to holidays. Third, an ethnic group shares a common history, in which key events such as immigration, colonization, and the like form a sense of collective memory. Finally, an ethnic group is marked by self-consciousness, in that its members see themselves as a people, and are seen as such by others (Cornell and Hartmann 1998).

For most of human history, ethnic groups living in close proximity did not differ significantly in physical appearance. Thus the observable biological differences associated with race were not used to distinguish friend from foe, and interracial antagonisms were virtually unknown. The rapid, long-distance migration required to bring members of different racial groups together is a comparatively recent phenomenon that was accelerated by trade and the large-scale European exploration and colonial expansion of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries (van den Berghe 1981). It was also during this period that Western science assumed a central role in the attempt to understand the natural and social worlds. Thus, as Europeans became aware of peoples who differed from them in culture and appearance, the concept of race entered the popular and scientific vocabularies as a means of classifying previously unknown groups.

Not content merely to classify people into racial groups, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scientists attempted to sort these groups into a hierarchy. Darwin's theory of evolution, which holds that species are engaged in a struggle for existence in which only the fittest will survive, was gaining widespread acceptance during this period. Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and other early social theorists extended this evolutionary argument, suggesting that different social groups, including races, were at different states of evolution; the more advanced groups were destined to dominate groups less "fit." This idea, called social Darwinism (which Darwin himself did not support), provided justification for European imperialism and for America's treatment of its racial minorities.

Building on the notion that some races were at a more advanced stage of evolution than others, a number of scientists tried to measure differences between the races, especially in the area of intelligence. The first intelligence test was developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905. Modified versions of this test were administered to approximately one million American soldiers in World War I, and the results were used to argue that there were large, genetically determined differences in intelligence between blacks and whites. Such a conclusion implied that blacks could not benefit from education to the extent that whites could; these findings were then used as a justification for the inferior education made available to blacks.

Binet himself rejected the notion that intelligence was a fixed quantity determined by heredity, or that intelligence could be measured with the kind of precision claimed by other intelligence testers, especially in the United States. Furthermore, other scholars demonstrated that the early tests were heavily biased against members of certain class, ethnic, and racial groups, including blacks. While the average scores of blacks have tended to fall below the average scores of whites, greater variation occurs within each group than between the two groups; that is, many blacks outscore many whites.

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argue in The Bell Curve (1994) that much of the gap between black and white average scores can be attributed to heredity, rather than to environmental influences. These writers use an extensive array of studies on race and intelligence to support their claim. Yet their methods and conclusions have been roundly attacked by leading scholars in the field, some of whom contend that intelligence is multidimensional, and cannot therefore be summarized in a single test score. Others point out that since intelligence tests measure academic achievement rather than innate potential, the impoverished background and substandard education of some African Americans offers a reasonable explanation for their lower average scores. Research has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that racial groups differ in terms of their innate capacity for learning. Today, therefore, the vast majority of social scientists reject the idea that any one race is superior in intelligence or any other ability, at least to the extent that such abilities are determined by heredity. (For interesting accounts of the race-intelligence controversy, see Gould 1981; Fraser 1995.)

Controversy continues also on the subject of race itself. In the nineteenth century the concept was defined quite loosely, and the idea was widely held that people of similar appearance but different nationalities constituted different races. As recently as World War II it was not uncommon to hear people speak of the "British race," the "Jewish race," and so on. Some physical anthropologists narrowed the concept to include three main racial groups: the Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid, or black, white, and Asian races.

Others argue that human populations have always exhibited some degree of interbreeding, and that this has greatly increased during the last few centuries, producing large groups of people who defy such racial classification. "Pure races" have probably never existed, and certainly do not exist now. According to this thesis, race is a cultural myth, a label that has no biological basis but is attached to groups in order to buttress invidious social distinctions. (For an interesting discussion on the biological meaning of race, see Begley 1995; the following section owes much to this work.)


At the most basic level, biologists sort organisms into species. A species is essentially a breeding boundary, in that it defines the limits within which interbreeding can occur. Thus golden retrievers can be bred with standard poodles, but not with pigs or cats. By this fairly straightforward criterion, all humans, regardless of appearance, belong to the same species. The difficulty arises when one attempts to identify subspecies, the technical equivalent of races. In some species, this is relatively simple because their distinctive traits are "concordant." That is, the same subgroups are produced using any of a number of traits: a golden retriever can be distinguished from a standard poodle on the basis of fur color and texture, ear shape, or body type. Among humans, however, identifying subspecies is not so simple, because the traits associated with human subpopulations are nonconcordant. In short, using one trait will result in one set of "racial" categories, while another trait will produce an entirely different set.

Consider the traits commonly used to divide humans into the three conventional races. These traits include skin color, hair color and texture, and facial features. Asians are usually identified primarily by the epicanthic eye fold, yet if this criterion were applied consistently, the San (Bushmen) of South Africa would be considered Asian. And while skin color certainly helps distinguish Swedes from the Masai of East Africa, it also distinguishes Swedes from Turks, both of whom are considered "white," and the Masai from the San, whose olive complexion more closely resembles the Turk's than the much darker Masai's.

Humans are visual creatures, so that in categorizing others, we fixate on differences of appearance. But these criteria are biologically arbitrary; other, less obvious traits associated with human subpopulations might just as easily be used. A common anatomic trait among Asians is front teeth that are "scooped out," or shovel shaped, in the back. Yet Swedes and Native Americans also share this trait, so we could divide the species into one race with shovel-shaped incisors, and one without. Considering biochemistry, some peoples produce lactase (an enzyme that aids milk digestion) into adulthood, while others do not. A "lactase-positive race" would include northern and central Europeans, Arabs, northern Indians, and many West Africans, while other Africans, Native Americans, southern Europeans, and Southeast Asians would be in the "lactase-negative race." Genetics multiplies the possibilities even further: antimalarial genes, including but not limited to the sickle cell gene, could be used to distinguish a "malaria-resistant race" (in which Greeks and Italians would be grouped with Southeast Asians, New Guineans, and tropical Africans) from the "malaria-susceptible race" (which would place Scandinavians with the Xhosa of South Africa). Because these various traits are nonconcordant, classifying the human species on the basis of one will produce a set of "races" entirely different from the set based on another trait.

Biologically speaking, then, all such classification schemes are both arbitrary and meaningless. The genetic variation contained within any identifiable human subpopulation, including the conventional "races," is vastly greater than the variation between populations. That is, any two Asian people are likely to have less in common than either has with a randomly chosen white person. To put it in slightly different terms, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin once observed that if a holocaust wiped out everyone on earth except a small tribe deep in the New Guinea forest, almost all the genetic variation found in the four (now five) billion people currently on earth would be preserved (cited in Gould 1981). Grouping people into racial categories tells us nothing about how biologically related they are. It tells us only that we perceive them to share some trait that we humans have chosen to consider important.

If racial categories tell us nothing meaningful about biology, however, they tell us a great deal about history, as we can see from another argument against the traditional view of race: that individuals' racial identification can change as they move from one society to another. Americans are accustomed to thinking of black and white as two separate categories, and assigning people with any African ancestry to the former category. This is the "hypodescent rule," in which the offspring of a mixed union are assigned to the lower-ranked group. In Brazil, however, black and white are poles on a continuum, and individuals can be placed at any point on that continuum, depending on their facial features, skin color, and hair texture. Even siblings need not share the same identity, which also to some extent depends on social class: the expression "money bleaches" reflects the fact that upward mobility can move a person's racial assignment closer to the white end of the continuum (van den Berghe 1967). Thus, a black American who is light skinned and well to do may find that in Brazil he is not considered "black" at all, and may even be labeled "white." Should he go to South Africa instead, our light-skinned black American would be neither black nor white, but "coloured," the term that denotes a person of mixed ancestry in that society.

Finally, consider this consequence of the hypodescent rule: in America, a white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman cannot give birth to a white child. This convention is biologically nonsensical and arbitrary; it can only be understood historically. In the United States, hypodescent was carried to the extreme of the "one-drop rule," in which one drop of African blood was enough to designate a person as black. This practice evolved out of a desire to maximize the profitable slave population, and to maintain the "purity" of the white race. Clearly, the racial categories commonly used in America do not reflect an underlying biological reality, but rather the more grim chapters of our history. This point has important implications, as we can see by returning to the debate over the relationship between race and intelligence. If the precise nature and meaning of intelligence remains unclear, and if race itself has no biological significance at all, then how are we to interpret a statistical association between "race" and "intelligence"? It becomes little more than a mathematical exercise, yielding information of dubious value.


While race may lack biological significance, it does have tremendous social significance. Sociologist W. I. Thomas's famous dictum is certainly true of race: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (quoted in Coser 1977, p. 521). Racial distinctions are meaningful because we attach meaning to them, and the consequences vary from prejudice and discrimination to slavery and genocide. Since people believe that racial differences are real and important, and behave accordingly, those differences become real and important. Hitler, for example, believed that Jews constituted a distinct and inferior race, and the consequences of his belief were very real for millions of Jews. Thus the major questions confronting sociologists who study race relations concern the social consequences of racial categorization. To what degree are different racial and ethnic groups incorporated into the larger society? How can we account for variations in the economic, political, legal, and social statuses of different groups?

American sociologists have found their own society to be a natural laboratory for the study of these issues. The United States has a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups, and some of these have been more successful in American society than others. Within any group there is substantial variation in economic achievement, and the success of "model minorities" is often exaggerated. Still, considered as groups, Jews and the Japanese have been more successful in America, in material terms, than have blacks and Mexicans. One explanation for these differences that has found some acceptance both within and outside scientific circles is that the cultures and values of these groups differ. Some groups' values are believed to be more conducive to success than others. Jews, for example, have traditionally been seen as valuing scholarship and business acumen; as a result they have worked hard in the face of discrimination, educated their children, and pulled themselves up from poverty. African Americans, by contrast, allegedly lacked these values; the result is their continued concentration in the poor and working classes.

Most sociologists reject this argument, which Stephen Steinberg (1981) refers to as the "ethnic myth." Steinberg argues that this line of reasoning is simply a new form of social Darwinism, in which the fittest cultures survive. A closer look at the experiences of immigrants in America (including African Americans) reveals that not all immigrant groups start at the bottom; some groups arrive with the skills necessary to compete in the American labor market while others do not. Furthermore, the skills possessed by some groups are in high demand in the United States, while other groups find fewer opportunities. Thus Steinberg argues that the success of an immigrant group depends on the occupational structure of its country of origin, the group's place in that structure, and the occupational structure of the new country.

Steinberg uses the case of American Jews to support his argument. In terms of education, occupation, and income, Jews have been highly successful. Thirty-six percent of the adult Jewish population had graduated from college in 1971, compared to 11 percent of non-Jews. Seventy percent of Jews were in business or the professions, compared with roughly a third of non-Jews. The median family income of Jews in 1971 was $14,000, approximately 30 percent more than the average American family. Again, it is possible to overstate Jewish success, since many Jews are still poor or working class; middle-class Jews are concentrated in small business and the professions, and are nearly absent from corporate hierarchies. Furthermore, Jews have experienced a great deal of economic and social discrimination. Nevertheless, when compared with other ethnic and racial groups in America, they have been quite successful.

This success, Steinberg argues, is attributable in part to the origins of Jewish immigrants, most of whom came from Russia and eastern Europe, and arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since Jews in eastern Europe could not own land, they tended to live in cities; even those who lived in rural areas were mostly merchants and traders, rather than farmers. The urban concentration and above-average literacy rates of Jews affected their occupational distribution: 70 percent of Russian Jews worked as artisans or in manufacturing or commerce in 1897; even unskilled Jews worked in industrial occupations. Sixty-seven percent of Jewish immigrants who arrived in America between 1899 and 1910 were skilled workers, compared to 49 percent of English immigrants, 15 percent of Italians, and 6 percent of Poles.

Furthermore, Jewish immigrants were disproportionately represented in the garment industry, which was growing at two to three times the rate of other American industries. Jobs in the garment industry were better paid than other industrial jobs, and Jews, with their higher skill level, tended to have the better-paid jobs within the industry.

The garment industry also offered unusual opportunities for individual entrepreneurship, since little capital was required to start a small clothing business.

In sum, Jewish immigrants did well in America because they brought industrial skills to an industrializing country. Although the majority of Jewish immigrants arrived with little money and encountered widespread discrimination, American industry could not afford to ignore them completely. Steinberg concludes that while a case can be made that Jews have traditionally valued educational and occupational achievement, and that this contributed to their success, Jews do not hold a monopoly on these values. Furthermore, if they had encountered an occupational structure that offered no hope for the fulfillment of these aspirations, Jews would have scaled their goals down accordingly.

The inability of other racial and ethnic groups to match the success achieved by Jewish Americans has also been attributed to the cultures and values of those groups. Glazer and Moynihan (1970), for example, blame the persistent poverty of blacks on "the home and family and community. . . . It is there that the heritage of two hundred years of slavery and a hundred years of discrimination is concentrated; and it is there that we find the serious obstacles to the ability to make use of a free educational system to advance into higher occupations and to eliminate the massive social problems that afflict colored Americans and the city" (pp. 49, 50). Yet, as Gutman (1976) has shown, the black family emerged from slavery relatively strong and began to exhibit signs of instability only when blacks became concentrated in urban ghettos. Furthermore, for generations after emancipation, blacks faced extreme educational and employment discrimination; the notion that a free educational system provided a smooth path to the higher occupations is simply inconsistent with blacks' experience in America.

Most sociologists tend, like Steinberg, to locate the cause of African Americans' poverty relative to white immigrant groups in the structure of opportunity that awaited them after slavery. The South was an economically backward region where blacks remained tied to the land and subject to conditions that were in many cases worse than those they had known under slavery. The vast majority of white immigrants settled in the North, where industry provided jobs and taxpaying workers provided schools. The more agricultural South had fewer educational opportunities to offer blacks or whites. Immediately after the Civil War, when they were provided access to education, blacks flocked to southern schools. This opportunity was short lived, however, since the scarcity of educational resources made it advantageous for whites to appropriate the blacks' share for themselves, a temptation they did not resist.

By the time large numbers of blacks migrated north, the industrial expansion that had provided so many jobs for immigrants was on the wane. Moreover, the newly freed slaves did not have industrial skills and were barred from industrial occupations. Given the generations of social, economic, political, and legal discrimination that followed, and the fact that blacks did take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, it is unnecessary to call on "inferior values" to explain the difference in achievement between African Americans and white immigrants. (For an interesting comparison of the struggle of blacks in the postbellum South and the North to that of black South Africans, see Frederickson 1981; for a comparison of the conditions faced by U.S. blacks and white immigrants, and the effects of these differences on each group's success, see Lieberson 1980.)


Ever since Darwin proposed that the evolutionary process of natural selection ensures that only the fittest species survive, social science has been bedeviled by the notion that some human groups, especially races, are more biologically or culturally fit than others. This extension of Darwin's principle to competition for survival within the human species, especially when applied to industrial or postindustrial societies, cannot withstand close scrutiny. While human subpopulations have evolved certain traits such as malaria resistance and the retention of lactase into adulthood as adaptations to environmental conditions, these physical traits do not sort our species into consistent categories, and they are hardly relevant to performance in today's school or workplace.

Furthermore, cultural differences between groups can be identified, and these differences may have economic consequences, but they are more likely to reflect a group's historical experiences than the value its members attach to economic success. Thus, the current trend in sociology is to explain differences in the success of racial and ethnic groups in terms of the economic and political resources possessed by those groups, and by the groups with whom they are in competition and conflict.

One reason for the longevity of the biological and cultural forms of social Darwinism may be that for many years most natural and social scientists have been white, and middle class to upper class. While the objective search for truth is the goal of the scientific enterprise, race is an emotionally and ideologically loaded concept, and even the most sincere humanitarians have been led to faulty conclusions by their own biases. An important prospect for the advancement of the scientific study of race, then, is the recruitment of new scholars with a wide diversity of ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. This increasing diversity will help to broaden the exchange of ideas so necessary to scientific inquiry, and will yield an understanding of race that is more balanced and less subject to bias than it has been in the past.


Begley, Sharon 1995 "Three Is Not Enough." Newsweek (February 13):67–69.

Cornell, Stephen, and Douglas Hartmann 1998 Ethnicityand Race. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge.

Coser, Lewis A. 1977 Masters of Sociological Thought, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Fraser, Steven (ed.) 1995 The Bell Curve Wars. New York: Basic Books.

Frederickson, George M. 1981 White Supremacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan 1970 Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1981 The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

Gutman, Herbert 1976 The Black Family in Slavery andFreedom. New York: Pantheon.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray 1994 TheBell Curve. New York: Free Press.

Lieberson, Stanley 1980 A Piece of the Pie. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steinberg, Stephen 1981 The Ethnic Myth. New York: Atheneum.

van den Berghe, Pierre L. 1967 Race and Racism. New York: John Wiley.

—— 1981 The Ethnic Phenomenon. New York: Praeger.

Susan R. Pitchford


views updated May 14 2018


Race, at a most basic level, is a system for classifying people by various forms of similarity and difference. Race is a culturally, socially, and scientifically defined concept whose meaning—depending on the period in history, geographic location, and the scientific or technological context—has changed over time. Race is a fluid concept. The meaning of race has evolved from a term describing livestock lineage to a tool used in medical diagnoses. The ethical implications of race in relation to science and technology depend on the ways in which it is deployed and by whom. In this regard, race can be used to make informed scientific and technological decisions, or it can be used to reinforce cultural stereotypes and regimes of discrimination.

Origins of Race

Prior to the sixteenth century, the current connotations of race did not exist. The most common use of the term race was in reference to the domestication of livestock. A "racial stock" was a group of animals bred for a specific purpose. In the sixteenth century, this animal husbandry term migrated and began to be used to describe peoples. Race became a way to explain differentiations within "human stock." Europeans were the first to use the terms race and stock to delineate between different human groups. Customs and regional origins, as well as religious values and beliefs, determined the degree of difference. The characteristics attributed to races and stocks were similar to those now attributed to culture. Race did not carry powerful biological overtones. Soon, however, it became a way of evaluating and differentiating between those considered to be civilized and those deemed to be uncivilized.

Indeed, for the Enlightenment philosophes and scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what was most important was the human race as a whole and the prospects for its progressive advancement. Enlightenment science advocated at least two propositions that severely limited the use of race as a justification for social discrimination. First, Enlightenment anthropologists were monogenists rather than polygenists; that is, they believed that human beings were created only once. As confirmed by the ability of all human beings to interbreed, all human beings were one species, and variations were the results of varieties within the species, not differences between species. Second, for the Enlightenment, environment and education were considered much more important than heredity. When the Baron de Montesquieu in his Spirit of the Laws (1748) argued that human differentiation was caused by environmental and historical factors, the corollary was that such differentiations were of secondary importance and could be overcome by means of education. On the basis of such views, France's Constituent Assembly abolished slavery in 1791 shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution, and the British abolished the slave trade in 1821.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the understanding of race changed from a difference based on geographic boundaries and cultural heritage to one based on physical differences that could be easily categorized into human "types." This perception of race had its roots in the tenth edition of Carolus Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1758). In this volume Linnaeus brought together perceptions of cultural and physical characteristics to describe race, a formulation that marked the emergence of a racialized discourse within Western science. Linnaeus argued that four "races" existed with specific physical features, emotional temperaments, and intellectual abilities: Homo americanus—reddish, choleric, erect, tenacious, content, free, and ruled by custom; Homo europaeus—white, ruddy, muscular, stern, haughty, stingy, and ruled by opinion; Home asiaticus—yellow, melancholic, inflexible, light, inventive, and ruled by rites; Homo afer—black, phlegmatic, indulgent, cunning, slow, negligent, and ruled by caprice. In differentiating species into subspecies based on elements that are common to the entire species, Linnaeus linked elements such as skin color directly to perceived behavioral propensities and eventually to biological variation.

Such a system of classification became increasingly used to distinguish not human variation but different species. Distinctions made at the subspecies level enabled value judgments to be made about superiority, inferiority, domination, and subserviency, based on physical attributes. As the Enlightenment commitment to the primacy of environment over heredity faded, this solidified perceptions that the characteristics displayed by each subspecies were immutable. Based on common characteristics, race evolved, from an indicator of similarity and difference, to a system of classification, and finally to a concept that imbedded cultural and physical characteristics into individual biological makeup. By the nineteenth century race as a biological and scientific concept had been firmly instantiated within scientific studies undertaken by natural philosophers Georges Cuvier (1812) and Charles Darwin (1859).

Racialization of Science

The nineteenth century also saw the racialization of science. Racialization is a social process by which beliefs about race become instruments of social categorization, cultural classification, political judgments, and economic decisions. New scientific work emerged to validate the underlying implications within Linnaeus's system of classification. Louis Agassiz (1850), Pierre Paul Broca (1861), and Samuel George Morton (1839), as well as others, endeavored to produce scientific evidence confirming their beliefs that white Europeans were at the top of the racial hierarchy. Researchers used the now discredited sciences of polygeny, that racial groups had different origins and were different species; phrenology, the study of the shape and protuberances of the skull to reveal character and mental capacity; and craniometry, the measurement of the skull to determine its characteristics as related to sex, race, or body type, to separate and differentiate races. According to Audrey Smedley, author of the 1993 book Race in North America, the reconceptualization of race in the nineteenth century created "a social mechanism for concretizing and rigidifying a universal ranking system that gave Europeans what they thought was a perpetual dominance over indigenous people of the New World, Africa, and Asia" (pp. 303–304). The hierarchy soon became understood as the natural order of things.

The scientifically supported perceived difference in races produced a Western ideological position of global superiority. The racialization process created an environment in which nonwhite peoples were viewed as socially, culturally, and intellectually inferior. It produced a scientific rationality that sustained this belief structure. The ways in which political and racial ideologies influenced science is well illustrated in the work of the French scientist Paul Broca (1824–1880). When Broca's craniometric studies produced results suggesting that Germans possessed larger brains than the French, he adjusted his data for body size, in order to show that German brains constituted a smaller percentage of overall body mass than French brains did. In like manner, when Broca found that people of African heritage had larger cranial nerves than Europeans, this clearly meant that cranial nerves did not contribute to intellectual activity of the brain. It is these processes of racialization in science that justified beliefs in racial superiority and inferiority, which in turn enabled racism to flourish. The racism was masked by religious authorities, and the racialized scientific truths of eugenics and Social Darwinism further reinforced the misperception of racial difference that reverberates to the present day.

By the late nineteenth century, racial difference became the dominant lens through which the Western world perceived racial and ethnic otherness. This perspective directly influenced the scientific and technical opportunities for those who were not white. In the United States, science codified the social attitudes about black inferiority and became the dominant obstacle inhibiting blacks, as well as other nonwhite persons, from engaging in scientific and technical work. Those who were able to partially overcome the barriers created by a tradition of racialization and contribute to science and engineering were regularly dismissed as exceptions or marginalized for what was assumed to be substandard work by substandard humans. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was widely held in scientific and technical communities that people of African descent had contributed nothing worthwhile to the scientific and technical development of the modern world.

At the 1913 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, James McKeen Cattell, at the time the owner and editor of the journal Science, confirmed this opinion. In a speech titled "Science, Education, and Democracy," he argued that while there was a need for more educational opportunities for Negroes, it was clearly understood that "[t]here is not a single mulatto who has done creditable scientific work" (Cattell 1914, p. 154). This statement—which repeats equally negative judgments found in both David Hume's essay "Of National Characters" (1753) and Immanuel Kant's "On the Different Races of Man" (1775)—overlooks the highly regarded work by the agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (c. 1864–1943), the physician Rebecca Cole (1846–1922), the developmental biologist Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941), and the inventor Granville T. Woods (1856–1910). Nevertheless, their racial identification made their scientific and technical careers difficult at best.

Scientific Criticism of Race

During the early twentieth century scientists also began to challenge the conceptions of race developed in nineteenth-century science. For many it became an ethical issue when research began to reveal that many scientists altered their data to fit the valued racial hierarchy of the day. The foremost critic of scientific racism was the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas (1940). Boas applied a scientific rigor to counteract the social and racialized rigor of the nineteenth-century racial science. He recalculated data, exposed the inaccuracies, and provided evidence that would argue strongly against the racialization of science. His work indicated that many scientists molded their data to fit a worldview that aimed to maintain and strengthen a racial hierarchy that located Europeans at the top. By deploying the power of genetics and biology, he was able to begin breaking the hold that racialized assumptions about human variation had in science. But the perception had been so deeply imbedded in scientific practice that it would take decades to destabilize it. It is in this regard that the U.S. Public Health Service could conduct a forty-year experiment, known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932–1972), on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis (Jones 1993).

The rise of Nazism represented a new wrinkle in the tradition of racialized science. What distinguishes the Nazi agenda from other historical genocidal efforts was its reliance on science. For instance, in 1934 the Nazi deputy party leader, Rudolph Hess, spoke of National Socialism as applied biology. Nazi racial purification, based on a racialized biomedical vision, escalated from forced sterilization to holocaust (Lifton 1986).

The claims of inherent racial inferiority during the reign of Nazism and the subsequent Holocaust provided an important impetus for the United Nations to produce a public statement challenging the scientific basis of race. The United Nations contended that such wholesale disregard for human life was made possible by the continued propagation of racial inequality. To reconstitute the ways in which race had been constructed, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convened a panel of social and natural scientists and charged them with producing a definitive statement on racial difference. The panel produced two statements: Statement on Race (1950) and Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences (1951). Primarily written by Ashley Montagu, a student of Boas, the statements declared that race had no scientific basis and called for an end to racial thinking in scientific and political thought. Within the next two decades UNESCO would release two more statements: Statement on the Biological Aspects of Race (1964) and Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice (1967). Although important, these statements did not immediately influence social policy and the public attitudes that had been ingrained about race.

Continuing Issues

Scientifically the importance of race diminished over the latter part on the twentieth century. Race reemerged, however, with the organization of an international research project to determine the DNA sequence of the human genome. The Human Genome Project (HGP) began in 1990, and researchers produced a complete map in 2003. One of the major goals of the HGP was to find and elucidate the function of human genes. Some of the most promising and troubling outcomes of the HGP in the context of race have to do with genetic therapy. Genetic researchers contend that the human genome consists of chromosome units or haplotype blocks. Haplotype maps (HapMaps) can possibly provide a simple way for genetic researchers to quickly and efficiently search for genetic variations related to common diseases and drug responses.

The danger is that this research might re-ensconce the biological concept of race within scientific practice and knowledge production. It is already common practice for physicians to base clinical decisions on a patient's perceived race. The positive potential of Hap-Maps could be overshadowed by the manipulation of genetic data to support racialized stereotypes, renew claims of genetic differentiation between races, and add biological authority to ethnic stereotypes. These pitfalls arise when genetic data become the basis on which racially specific drugs or treatments are designed. In 2003 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed guidelines that would require all new drugs be evaluated for their effects on different racial groups. In the contemporary world, the genetic origins of race reappear much more quickly than they are eliminated.

The connections between biology and race are far from settled. In thinking about the future ethical implications of this relationship, it is necessary to consider what function the multiple manifestations of race will serve within social, cultural, scientific, medical, and technological practices, as well as the ways in which researchers will deploy race within the conflicting and overlapping realms. As a result, race will continue to be one of multiple issues and concepts that will determine on what terms we as a society will engage each other humanely.


SEE ALSO Class;Eugenics;Feminist Ethics;Genocide;Holocaust;Human Rights;IQ Debate;Nazi Medicine;Social Darwinism;Tuskegee Experiment.


Agassiz, Louis. (1850). "The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races." Christian Examiner 49: 110–145. A statement on polygeny and the disparate origins of human races.

Boaz, Franz. (1940). Race, Language, and Culture. New York: Macmillan. A collection of the most important essays written by Franz Boas on the science of anthropology.

Broca, Paul. (1861). "Sur le volume et la forme du cerveau suivant les individus et suivant les races" [On the volume and form of the brains of individuals and races]. Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris 2: 139–207, 301–321, 441–446. Argues that intelligence can be related to anthropometic differences.

Cattell, J. McKeen. (1914). "Science, Education, and Democracy." Science 39(996): 154. Speech presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stating minorities have not contributed to science.

Cuvier, Georges. (1812). Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes [Research on the fossil bones of quadrupeds], Vol. 1. Paris: Deterville. A collection of anatomical studies that is one of the early works of vertebrate paleontology.

Darwin, Charles. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray. Contends that species change though an evolutionary process of natural selection.

De Montesquieu, Baron. (2002 [1748]). Spirit of the Laws. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. A comparative study of three types of government: republic, monarchy, and despotism.

Dubow, Saul. (1995). Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Examines the relationship between science and colonial power in south Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Mauritius.

Duster, Troy. (2003). Backdoor to Eugenics, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge. Discusses the ethical struggles and social implications of new genetic technologies.

Fouché, Rayvon. (2003). Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Reconeptualizes what it means to be an African American inventor.

Gould, Stephen J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man, rev. edition. New York: Norton. Examines the history, politics, and power of science and the way biology has been deployed to construction racial difference.

Graves, Joseph L., Jr. (2001). The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Uses the scientific method to argue that races do not exist as a biological category.

Harding, Sandra, ed. (1993). The "Racial" Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. A series of essay that address the ways that aspects of science are racially constructed.

Jones, James H. (1993). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, rev. edition. New York: Free Press. Details the history and affects of a government sponsored experiment on African American syphilitics.

King, James C. (1981). The Biology of Race, rev. edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Contends that race is a social, not biological, concept.

Kuttner, Robert E., ed. (1967). Race and Modern Science: A Collection of Essays by Biologists, Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists. New York: Social Science Press.

Lifton, Robert Jay. (1986). The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic. Describes the conflicting roles that German doctors played in Nazi genocide.

Linnaeus, Carolus. (1758). Systema Naturae [System of nature], 10th edition. Stockholm: Laurentii Salvii Homiae.

Manning, Kenneth R. (1983). Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press.

McMurry, Linda O. (1981). George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morton, Samuel George. (1839). Crania Americana; or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America. Philadelphia: Dobson. Claims to find different cranial capacities between races.

Smedley, Audrey. (1993). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Traces the evolution of race over three centuries as it transitions from a folk category to a concept used to define superiority and inferiority.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. (1991). The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. A comparative study examining how eugenics was taken up by scientist and social reformers in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.


views updated May 11 2018

race The origin of the term ‘race’ is obscure. It may have derived from the Arabic râs, meaning ‘chief’, ‘head’, and ‘origin’. The word entered Europe between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Initially ‘race’ was understood to signify descent of an aristocratic breed. In particular it referred to the lineages of the Frankish kings. Later, Europeans used ‘race’ as one of the possible translations of the Latin natio or gens; until the eighteenth century it was interchangeable with terms such as ‘stock’ or ‘tribe’. All ethnicities, whether they were called ‘peoples’ or ‘races’ or ‘tribes’, were classified according to their political traditions, their geographical habitat, and climatic conditions. The European reference system of thought, being shaped by classical authors, was dominated by political paradigms and categories that paralleled natural and political phenomena. Only in the first decades of the nineteenth century did the term acquire its modern meaning. Implying that original difference is biologically founded, the concept presupposes the genealogical continuity of ‘racial’ traits that supposedly remain the same irrespective of environmental influences, and it includes the idea that there are correlations between outward physiognomy and mental capacity.

The Greeks' emphasis on citizenship went hand in hand with the assumption that citizens were made, not born. From the Greeks onward, the state of government and civilization were seen to be the decisive characteristics of a people; some climates favoured the development of vigour of spirit and courage, instilling a war-like disposition, while others induced a phlegmatic attitude, laziness, and the tendency to succumb to tyranny. The roots of this view were laid down in Hippocrates' Airs, Waters, Places. It was only in respect to this sort of theorizing — dubbed ‘environmentalism’ at the end of the nineteenth century — that the notion of descent played any role. ‘Blood’, by contrast, had been invested since antiquity with mythical meaning, transcending the common sphere of everyday life. In heathen Greek theory, notably in the writings of Aristotle, notions of ‘species’, ‘genus’ and physiognomy were closely linked to the concept of the ‘essences’, the basic elements of all matter. Therefore, Greek accounts of differing human physiognomies cannot be compared to modern-style theories of race or racism. The same applies mutatis mutandis to Roman theory.

Biblical anthropology

The Bible stipulated that mankind was derived from one common pair of ancestors. The concept of the ‘chosen people’ was integrated into Scriptural cosmogony; it resided in the idea that adherence to Moses' commandments qualified people for participation in the Abrahamitic covenant between God and the Jewish people. As for the cultural foundations of the Christian creed, the notion of the soul as the essential part of all humans prevented fixation on physiology alone as inherent in the concept of race. According to common Christian understanding, all converts to the faith, whatever their complexion might be, underwent what was evidently thought of as a spiritual ‘white-washing’. Christian iconography abounds with depictions of this procedure in which the coloured convert was washed white. It was an allusion to Jeremiah 13:23 (‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil’). Christian doctrine confirmed that the curse of Ham could be removed. In another respect, too, Christian theory contradicted the Scriptural narrative. From the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (ad 37–c.97) onwards, writers divided mankind into the posterity of Shem, Ham, and Japhet. The Japhetites were considered to inhabit Europe; the Shemites resided in the region of the Pacific Ocean and the Near East; the Hamites were to be found in Africa. The Catholic Church denounced this division, which threatened its claim to universality. Christian theory asserted that all mankind was one — though, of course, the ideal was remote from actual practice.

Until the eighteenth century, Judaeo-Christian traditions and classical theory dominated all philosophizing on mankind. Human nature was discussed in terms of ideas about polis and ecclesia. The identity of a people was considered to depend on its faith, and on the fact that all citizens were subject to the same law. Philosophers had no concept of ‘racial’ traits, instead they discussed what they called ‘national character’. Its shape was seen to depend on climate and geographical station — humoralism, the complex concept of an interplay between the outside world and human temperaments, lasted well into the nineteenth century. Until the middle of the eighteenth century it influenced all attempts to account for human diversity. On the whole, references in early modern literature to, say, the African or the Chinese ‘race’ do not imply the existence of a set of physical categories adding up to a system of human classification. And the notion of ‘purity of blood’ had no biological connotations.

During the sixteenth century the term ‘race’ had a socio-political rather than an anthropological meaning. It was part of the historiographical appreciation of the Frankish dynasties. The French historian François Hotman (1524–90) denied that the political institutions of Greece and Rome were the models of German and Frankish government. Distinguishing between the autocratic monarchies of antiquity and Franco-Germanic freedom, he supported the notion that different peoples were endowed with different spirits. As Europeans discovered foreign parts, the understanding of ‘race’ was increasingly extended to denote not only noble families, but entire peoples. However, the concept was still shaped by political concepts as opposed to biology.

As an ethnological category, ‘race’ is a modern idea. From the Renaissance onwards, study of the natural realm was increasingly distinguished from metaphysics. Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Bodin, and others relieved Aristotle's philosophy of its emphasis on the essences. The pursuit of evidence became the paramount scientific occupation; empirical observation of difference supplanted unifying philosophies. Classical learning gradually lost its grip on the European mind. As a result, ‘racial’ differences became independent of political discourse, and instead were investigated as natural phenomena.

Natural taxonomy, advanced by Carolus Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon, was decisive in this development. In their panoramic views of nature, many naturalists arranged human tribes into a number of natural varieties. J. F. Blumenbach, a Professor of Anatomy at Göttingen University, proved especially influential. He distinguished five different human varieties: Caucasian, Mongol, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Once some such divisions were made, it was only one step to a concept of race. That is not to accuse those thinkers who unwittingly prepared the ground — but it is difficult to imagine that history might have taken a different course.

The eighteenth century saw many methodical inquiries into the mechanisms of cross-breeding. Scientific travellers and other naturalists discovered that ‘purity of blood’ was anything but a guarantee of the excellence of stock. It was only in the nineteenth century that these insights would be applied to mankind.

Types of mankind

The eighteenth century also brought the heyday of the anatomists and pathologists who attempted to find bodily differences between different types of mankind. The German S. T. Soemmerring acquired dubious fame in 1784 by publishing a treatise on ‘the physical differences between the Negro and the European’. He came very near to stating that there had been several creations of human kinds. Contemporary discussion turned to the question whether such a polygenist account of mankind could be true. The authority of the Scriptures was still great: the case for polygenism, put forward most famously by Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), met with widespread outrage. It was generally assumed that the differences between human varieties were due to differing physical and moral environments. As long as the Biblical story of creation was accepted doctrine, the notion of original difference was pure heresy. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, religion faced increasingly troubled times. It was then that the concept of race began to spread.

The established social hierarchy was overthrown in France and denied in America. The shock waves of the revolutions in the English colonies and in France were felt in the whole of Europe. While these developments may have induced some desire to erect biological hierarchies, where previously there had been social ones, simple observations gave an immediate boost to the idea of race: according to the environmentalist theories, under various climatic conditions any stock of people might transform into any other. Yet, as many writers noted, the progeny of black slaves in the northern hemisphere remained black, and white colonists in the tropics who shunned intermarriage with the locals persisted in producing white offspring. Evidently the theory of climate was wrong. What else, then, could account for physiognomical differences among the human species but a concept of race? Students of anthropology and its younger offshot, ethnology, began systematically to inquire into human physical and mental diversities. As early as 1824 the French doctor Julien-Joseph Virey advanced physiological arguments to support his opinion that mankind was originally divided into the white and the black ‘species’. In the following years monogenism was increasingly undermined.

German romanticism has often been accused of having stimulated racialism. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) put forward the idea that the spirit of an age was determined by the prevailing culture, which in turn was represented not by outstanding individuals but by the people. He brought the cultural concept of the people to the fore. This notion suited racialist thinking, although not based on it. The Romantic movement was not only German but Europe-wide. Even France, nowadays officially proud of its traditions as a society based on the notion of citizenship, participated in the new emphasis on race.

While the Germans celebrated ancient Teutonic notions of freedom, similar ideas were thriving in England and France. In the early nineteenth century, the old British antagonism between Celts and Saxons was put on a biological footing. Explanations in terms of race came to be seen as the source of political struggles. In England, John Mitchell Kemble (1807–57) contended that the excellency of the English was due to their Germanic roots. Robert Knox (1791–1862), who, despite his intellectual shortcomings, became famous as Britain's first explicit racialist, juxtaposed noble Saxons to enfeebled Celts. In France, historians who opposed Bourbon rule argued that the Franks had been foreign invaders on French soil and therefore did not have the right to govern the original Gallic population. Before, racial thinking had turned around the blatant physiognomical differences between exotic peoples and the white man. Now European history itself was considered to be the result of racial struggle. Europe was made up of Celts and Gauls, Saxons and Germans — and and minorities such as the Jews and Gypsies were increasingly seen as parasitical intruders. The concepts of ‘Aryan’ and ‘Semitic’ races were gradually transferred out of historical linguistics into anthropology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a host of antisemitic theories. It was only in the slave-holder society of America that racial theory continued to centre on the antinomy between blacks and whites.

From the 1820s anatomical investigations into race gained further momentum thanks to the activities of cerebral anatomists. Phrenology, the external examination of skulls, was first conceived to determine individual characters more reliably than earlier approaches to physiognomy. But very soon craniology was employed to classify human types, and the Swede Anders Retzius (1796–1860) gained international acclaim with his ‘cephalic index’. For several decades, skull measurements were seen as a key to a racial division of mankind and the various degrees of human intellect. When, in the 1890s, craniology went out of fashion, ‘race’ acquired a nominalist understanding, with the concept of racial ‘types’ superseding the idea of fixed races.

The notion of biologically grounded races had been developed at the expense of political discourse; once the biological ‘laws’ of race and racial mixture were established they were reintroduced into society. Increasingly, social problems were seen through the spectacles of racial theory. In 1845 Benjamin Disraeli famously spoke of the rich and the poor as being two ‘races’. Herbert Spencer applied Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest to the social sphere. Similar ideas were popularized in Germany and France. Darwin himself was not interested in race as a category. Yet, his theory of species differentiation continued to be exploited by Social Darwinists well into the twentieth century.

On another level the concept of purity of blood occupied the minds of cultural pessimists. Harking back to eighteenth-century theories, some accepted that cultural excellency required racial intermixture but warned that continuing hybridization would inevitably lead to degeneration. Others pleaded for purity of race, invoking the authority of Darwin; Houston Stewart Chamberlain denounced racial intermixture and supported racial inbreeding as the best means to perpetuate the qualities of a race. His The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (published first in German in 1899), one of the most comprehensive accounts of the forces of race, was much appreciated — though not emulated — by the Nazis. Their racial doctrines, unlike Chamberlain's, were for the most part allusive in style. Hitler's Mein Kampf aptly linked ill-advised racial mixing to notions of sin and disease alike.

Class struggle by other means

Outside Germany, theoreticians of race were embroiled in the discussion of what came first: did social hierarchies, such as the caste system in India, have racial origins? Or were racial theories merely class struggles by other means? In 1950, after the experiences of World War II, the United Nations passed a Statement of Race, stipulating that national, cultural, religious, geographical, and linguistic groups had been wrongly considered as races. Some inveterate supporters of physical anthropology notwithstanding, this resolution remained until recently the last word on matters of race.

Since the 1980s there have been attempts to revivify theories of racial classification in the US and elsewhere. In this context, The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, investigating racial parameters of intelligence and based in part on sources already rejected by the scientific community, has gained notoriety. Latterly, an authoritative contribution to the problem of ‘race’ has been a publication under the guidance of the genetic historians L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, whose team has investigated the genetic make-up of hundreds of individual populations (The History and Geography of Human Genes, 1994). The result is that the genetic programme shifts slightly but perceptibly from one tiny population to the other: ‘By means of painstaking multivariate analysis, we can identify “clusters” of populations and order them in a hierarchy that we believe represents the history of fissions in the expansion to the whole world of anatomically modern humans. At no level can clusters be identified with races, since every level of clustering would determine a different partition and there is no biological reason to prefer a particular one.’

H. F. Augstein


Augstein, H. F. (ed.) (1996). Race: the origins of an idea, 1760–1850. Thoemmes Press, Bristol.
Banton, M. (1987). Racial Theories. Cambridge University Press.
Barzun, J. (1965). Race: a study in superstition. Harper and Row, New York.
Hannaford, I. (1996). Race. The history of an idea in the West. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Poliakov, L. (1974). The Aryan Myth: a history of racist and nationalist ideas in Europe. Chatto and Heinemann, London.

See also anthropology; racism.


views updated May 23 2018

341. Race


rule by Caucasians, especially Europeans.
the sociological study of race using anthropological methods. anthroposociological, adj.
the policy of strict racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites practiced in the Republic of South Africa.
1. a doctrine propagandized by Nazism asserting that the so-called Aryan peoples were superior to all others in the practice of government and the development of civilization.
2. a belief in this doctrine and acceptance of its social and ethical implications, especially with regard to the treatment of so-called inferior races. Aryanist, n.
obtuse or narrow-minded intolerance, especially of other races or religions. bigot, n. , bigoted, adj.
the principle or practice of combining or representing two separate races, as white and Negro, on governing boards, committees, etc. biracialist, biracial, adj.
Biology. the study of the operation of factors that cause degeneration in offspring, especially as applied to factors unique to separate races. Also called dysgenics. cacogenic, adj.
the state of being a creole.
the quality of belonging to a particular race, region, or country. endemicity, n.
a government controlled by a particular race or national group. ethnocratic, adj.
the study of the geographical distribution of racial groups and the relationship between them and their environments. ethnogeographer, n. ethnogeographic, adj.
the psychology of races and peoples. ethnopsychological, adj.
the blend of factors and influences most suitable for the improvement of the inherited characteristics of a breed or race, especially the human race. eugenic, adj.
the art or science of improving a race or breed, especially the human race, by control of external influences, as environment. See also 219. IMPROVEMENT .
1. the deliberate and systematic extermination of a racial or national group.
2. an actor in this process. genocidal, adj.
the state or quality of being non-Jewish, and especially a heathen or pagan.
the theory or doctrine that the white race in general and the Germanic race in particular are superior to all other peoples.
the combination of educational and other public facilities, previously segregated by race, into unified systems shared by all races. integrationist, n. , adj.
the principles, beliefs, and attitudes influencing actions aimed at improving relations among differing races. interracial, adj.
the belief that blacks are mentally inferior to whites, based on results of intelligence tests that failed to account for such differences as test questions slanted in favor of whites, lack of cultural and educational oppor-tunities among blacks, etc. Jensenist, n., adj.
the condition of belonging to the Caucasian race and having dark hair and a light complexion. Melanochroic, adj. Melanochroid, adj., n.
1. the interbreeding of members of different races.
2. cohabitation or marriage between a man and woman of different races, especially, in the U.S., between a Negro and a white person.
3. the mixing or mixture of races by interbreeding.
monogenism. See also 302. ORGANISMS .
the belief that all human races descended from a common ancestral type. Also monogenesis, monogeny . monogenist, n. monogenistic, adj.
the condition of being black; blackness.
the theory that all human races descended from two or more ancestral types. polygenist, n. polygenistic, adj.
the belief in or practice of the doctrine of racism. racialist, n. racialistic, adj.
a belief that human races have distinctive characteristics that determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that ones race is superior and has the right to control others. racist, adj.
the views and policies of those who would separate or maintain as separate rights, public facilities, etc., on the basis of race. See also apartheid .
a person who advocates supremacy of a particular group, especially a racial group.
the condition of belonging to the Caucasian race and having fair skin and blond hair. Xanthochroi, Xanthocroid, n. Xanthochroic, Xanthocroid, adj.


views updated May 18 2018

race1 / rās/ • n. 1. a competition between runners, horses, vehicles, boats, etc., to see which is the fastest in covering a set course: I won the first 50-lap race. ∎  (the races) a series of such competitions for horses or dogs, held at a fixed time on a set course. ∎  [in sing.] a situation in which individuals or groups compete to be first to achieve a particular objective: the race for nuclear power. ∎ archaic the course of the sun or moon through the heavens.2. a strong or rapid current flowing through a narrow channel in the sea or a river: angling for tuna in turbulent tidal races.3. a groove, channel, or passage, in particular: ∎  a water channel, esp. one built to lead water to or from a point where its energy is utilized, as in a mill or mine. See also millrace. ∎  a smooth, ring-shaped groove or guide in which a ball bearing or roller bearing runs.• v. 1. [intr.] compete with another or others to see who is fastest at covering a set course or achieving an objective: the vet took blood samples from the horses before they raced | [tr.] attorneys have to think twice before they race each other to the courthouse. ∎  compete regularly in races as a sport or leisure activity: the next year, he raced again for the team. ∎  [tr.] prepare and enter (an animal or vehicle) in races as a sport or leisure activity: he raced his three horses simply for the fun of it.2. [intr.] move or progress swiftly or at full speed: I raced into the house| fig. she spoke automatically, while her mind raced ahead. ∎  (of an engine or other machinery) operate at excessive speed: the truck came to rest against a tree. ∎  (of a person's heart or pulse) beat faster than usual because of fear or excitement. ∎  [tr.] cause to move, progress, or operate swiftly or at excessive speed: she'd driven like a madwoman, racing the engine and swerving around corners.PHRASES: a race against time a situation in which something must be done before a particular point in time: it was a race against time to reach shore before the dinghy sank.race2 • n. each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: people of all races, colors, and creeds. ∎  a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group: we Scots were a bloodthirsty race then. ∎  the fact or condition of belonging to such a division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this: people of mixed race. ∎  a group or set of people or things with a common feature or features: some male firefighters still regarded women as a race apart. ∎  Biol. a population within a species that is distinct in some way, esp. a subspecies: people have killed so many tigers that two races are probably extinct. ∎  (in nontechnical use) each of the major divisions of living creatures: a member of the human race the race of birds. ∎ poetic/lit. a group of people descended from a common ancestor: a prince of the race of Solomon. ∎ archaic ancestry: two coursers of ethereal race.


views updated Jun 11 2018

1. (in biology) A category used in the classification of organisms that consists of a group of individuals within a species that are geographically, ecologically, physiologically, or chromosomally distinct from other members of the species. The term is frequently used in the same sense as subspecies. Physiological races, for example, are identical in appearance but differ in function. They include strains of fungi adapted to infect different varieties of the same crop species.

2. (in anthropology) A distinct human type possessing several characteristics that are genetically inherited. The major races are Mongoloid, Caucasian, Negroid, and Australoid.


views updated May 17 2018

Race ★★½ 1999 (R)

Serious low budget film attempts to take a serious look at practical politics on the local level. L.A. councilman Durman (Robertson) comes in third in the primary after redistricting. Tied for first are Lucinda Davis (Pounder), a black woman, and Gustavo Alvarez (Rodriguez), a Latino house painter. Their race touches all of the Southern California racial and ethnic hot buttons, and quickly turns nasty. 103m/C VHS, DVD . Paul Rodriguez, CCH Pounder, Cliff Robertson, Annette Murphy; D: Tom Musca; W: Tom Musca, Mark Kemble; C: Arturo Smith; M: Stan Ridgway.


views updated May 21 2018

race An interbreeding group of individuals all of whom are genetically distinct from the members of other such groups of the same species. Usually these groups are geographically isolated from one another, so there are barriers to gene flow. Examples are island races of birds and mammals, such as the Skomer vole and the St Kilda wren. See SUBSPECIES.

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