Race and Racism

views updated May 14 2018



In the biomedical sciences of the United States and in their wider cultural context, ideas about race and gender play a prominent but unacknowledged role. Despite their appar ent universality, these concepts vary over time and place. Different beliefs about them and their social consequences are found across cultures past and present. Both are, in fact, cultural constructions, one or another culture's folk theories of human biological variation. The great variability found in racial and gender notions is indicative of their local cultural construction.

Biological and behavioral assertions concerning race are without empirical validity. After decades of research, largely in anthropology, the social and cultural bases of racial conceptions have become clear (American Anthropological Association; American Association of Physical Anthropolo gists). Race is a folk-culture concept. While many, perhaps most, cultures of the world do not hold racial theories, such theories are important to consider in discussions of biomedi cine and biomedical ethics, especially in the United States. Here, we find that admittedly folk ideas of race and ethnicity serve as the formal basis for government practice, policy and research (Office of Management and Budget). Given the demonstrable negative social, psychological, and health re sults of the perpetuation of the invidious distinctions repre sented by racial (and gender) conceptions, and the antipathy generated by their stereotypes, the continued use of such identities in biomedical work can be said to represent serious ethical, as well as biomedical research, problems.

Historical Constructions of Race

Race is one of a number of popular cultural conceptions about human variability. The Western concept was developed in its present scientific and related lay versions largely in the nineteenth century (Barkan; Gossett; Naroll and Naroll; Stocking). At its most abstract level, race is an explanation for observed human variation; people differ in appearance because they belong to different races. Behavior is also implicated; people behave differently because they belong to different races. Racism is a set of negative beliefs held by individuals or groups with respect to a population thought to be biologically distinct. Such beliefs about fundamental biological differences came late to the Western world, but not as a result of scientific progress.

The ancients—whether the civilizations of Nubia and Egypt or the later Minoan, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman civilizations—held no beliefs about essential human biological or racial differences. There was recognition that people differed in appearance, language, custom, and even ethics (MacIntyre), but such differences were not considered reflections of immutable, biological differences among humans. Nor could there have existed assertions that biology determined behavior, for most of these civilizations were composed of a variety of physical and cultural types in various stages of assimilation to a titular ethnic identity (e.g., Sherwin-White). Were this not the case, the ancient empires could not have expanded their numbers through the recruitment of physically and culturally different peoples, for they would have thought them fundamentally different and nonassimilable.

An important step in the development of the notion of race is to be found in the work of the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus built upon earlier notions of species, distinct groups of living things that cannot interbreed. Linnaeus proposed a classification comprising six human groups; he did not use the term race. These human groups were understood as neither pure nor (biologically) stable; they were not represented as distinct species. Such an assertion would have been contradicted at the time by considerable evidence of interbreeding of Europeans and other groups. Such empirical evidence was later ignored in the West.

The French naturalist and founder of invertebrate paleontology George Louis Buffon (1707–1788) introduced the term race into the biological literature in 1749. The term then did not refer to distinct human groups with separate origins or biologies (Montagu). Buffon's and Linnaeus's early reflections on human difference regarded such differences, correctly, as representing variations of a single species.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, English and German philosophy and science began the construction of ideas of fundamental, incommensurate biological differences dividing human groups (Barkan; Boas; Gould). While evolutionist views of monogenesis (a theory of a single origin of all humans) replaced polygenesis (a theory of multiple, separate origins) and creationist views (those based on religious beliefs and not on investigations of the natural world) in Europe, nineteenth-century theories were largely alike in expressing racist sentiments, though the sentiments were not recognized as such. Triumphant nineteenth-century evolutionism fitted well in racist science.

Monogenecists assigned to non-Europeans fates of early separation from a "main" line of Europeans. JeanBaptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) suggested that differences among human groups around the world were to be attributed to the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He implicated the role of the environment in evolutionary change, although he misconstrued the mechanism of biological change.

Non-Europeans, and many eastern and southern Europeans, were believed to have a common origin by many western European scholars, but were seen as less evolved. Some were said to be little different than nonhuman primates (Barkan; Stocking). And some ethnic groups of western Europe created racial alliances. English historians of the nineteenth century repeatedly referred to the "rational and freedom-loving" character of the English as racial traits of the Anglo-Saxon, believed to be a branch of the "German race" (Gossett). As with the Nazi race science of the next century, the notion of the German race excluded most people commonly regarded in the United States as belonging to a "white race" (e.g., the French and other circum-Mediterranean people, Celtic ethnics, the Slavic people) as well as people from what are commonly regarded as other "races" in U.S. ideology—Asians, Africans, and Native Americans.

In England, Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), the father of statistical manipulation, lent both ideas and methods to racial theories. He coined the term eugenics, and conceived of this new "science" as a program of "racial" improvement. The idea of group biological improvement was carried to horrendous extremes by Nazi "hygienists." Galton's work on head size and intelligence lent credence to later racist work in the United States as well, such as that of physician Robert Bean of Virginia. His work, in 1906, purportedly showed that parts of the brain were of different sizes in "Whites and Negroes" (in Gould). He also claimed to have found measurable differences in males and females and between higher and lower classes. His interpretations and biased readings, soon disproved (Gould), showed the affinity of the ideas of racism, sexism, and elitism in the United States that are also apparent in English science.

Sir Cyril Burt, dean of twentieth-century educational psychology in England, studied twins during the first half of the twentieth century. He purported to show that twins raised apart had the same IQ. It appears he sought scientific proof for the English folk notion that nature determined human abilities such as intelligence. As a consequence, his views were widely received for decades and influenced the establishment of national examinations. The examinations were used to limit the educational opportunities of millions of young people in Britain. In the 1970s, it was discovered that the late scientist had, in fact, fabricated most of his data. He had also fabricated his long-time research assistants, who supposedly collected most of the data, as well as his coauthors (Gould). The advocates of nature over nurture suffered a heavy blow when this key body of literature was discredited.

In the United States, a multicultural society usually referred to as multiracial, Burt's elitist arguments were converted to racist (and sexist) theories by his students, psychologists such as Hans Jurgen Eysenck and Jensen (Gould), as well as others (Fausto-Sterling). Research aimed at showing that African-Americans and other "minorities" were intrinsically less intelligent than the generic "White race." Within each group, moreover, women were said to be less capable than men. Many flaws appear in this sort of research. One of the major problems is the fact that social labels, such as White and Black, were used to make genetic arguments; the arguments were flimsy because they regularly excluded from consideration profound differences in the social and educational experience of the members of the various social categories. This was done in order to arrive at (prejudged) conclusions of inborn racial differences.

A similar idea concerning mental illness was developed in German psychiatry in the mid-1800s. The leader of nineteenth-century German psychiatry, Wilhelm Griesinger, adopted a biological definition of mental disorders. His dictum was that "mind diseases are brain diseases" (Gilman). The idea that mental illness was based in biology and not social environment was actually borrowed from German philosophy, which in turn had taken the idea from popular German culture. Griesinger passed on this popular prejudice in his psychiatric science to a follower, Emile Kraepelin. Kraepelin became the twentieth century's father of biological psychiatry and the creator of a racially based "comparative psychiatry" (Gaines, 1992a; Gilman). This influential figure made the case for the biological basis of major mental diseases such as schizophrenia. His ideas were greatly influential on Nazi and contemporary U.S. biological psychiatry (Barkan; Gaines, 1992c; Gilman).

The Nazi "race science" of the 1930s reverted to nineteenth-century polygenesis to explain differences among racial groups and to assert its group's alleged superiority (Montagu). Some Germans were likewise seen as unfit; they were the disabled, the mentally ill, and the homosexual. In contemporary German society, popular and medical beliefs still express the model of mental illness that considers the mentally ill to be biologically different from "normal" people (Townsend).

As is evident, both English and German cultures exhibit biological theories of human difference. A brief historical look suggests that the ideas of these two cultures are related. In both systems, differences are held to be intrinsic and groups are hierarchically ranked, allegedly in terms of abilities. In the relatively isolated society of England, the Germanic notion of inherent differences and similarities based upon shared "blood" was doubtless introduced by invading Germanic tribes in the fifth century. The idea remained but was applied to internal social differences within England. This focus transformed the theory of difference based upon blood into the English notion of "breeding" that was and is applied to members of the British (which includes the Celtic peoples) social system. It produced Britain's rigid class systems wherein abilities are said to be differentially inherited by those differing in breeding. This conception of inborn qualities then serves to justify the respective social positions of society's members.

The Critique of Scientific Racism

Evolutionists explained the increasing knowledge of human diversity in biological terms (Barkan; Gossett). The allegedly different developmental levels of various societies were said to indicate inferior inborn abilities in the societies' people compared with the usual apex of evolution found in (western) Europe. Eastern Europe, not a direct heir to the Renaissance, has been considered marginal in much of western European thought and totally alien and inferior in Germanic thought. History tells us, however, that Europe was the last of the world's areas to develop the hallmarks of civilization, hallmarks largely borrowed from others who were later alleged to be less evolved than (western) Europeans.

ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS. Racist evolutionist ideas, and many not evolutionist, permeated much of medicine, psychology, biology, and other sciences in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among the first to lead a concentrated and protracted attack on scientific racism was Franz Boas (1858–1942). A German immigrant, Boas was the foremost anthropologist of his time and the founder of U.S. anthropology. Among many other things, Boas's research demonstrated the plasticity of the human form and the overlap in measurements (anthropometry) of anatomical features previously asserted to be unique to specific racial groups. These findings flatly contradicted the conceptions of races as stable, unchanging, and distinct physical types. Time has continued to enhance our understanding of the enormous plasticity of human biology, a biology so changeable that it has produced all the variations in the human form found in the world in less than 180,000 years.

Boas himself demonstrated how rapidly biology can change, as well as the nonempirical basis of racial differences, by showing that very different anthropometric readings could be obtained from the children of immigrants to the United States when compared with their parents. The cause was the change in environmental factors, especially nutrition. These measurements indicated, according to the current, specific racial measurement norms, that people in the same family appeared to belong to completely different racial groups (Boas).

Boas also advanced fatal arguments against notions of the relatedness of race to behavior. He showed that so-called races did not exhibit distinct religious, linguistic, or general cultural patterns. People of a variety of races spoke the same language and practiced the same religion. And members of the same race spoke different languages, held different religious beliefs, and otherwise exhibited distinct cultures. Race could not be shown to determine even major forms of human behavior (Boas; Stocking). Many of the positions advanced by Boas remain the most powerful antiracist arguments. It is remarkable that he began his assault on scientific racism before 1910, a time when blatantly racist statements were common in science and in the White House (see Brandt, 1985).

Evolutionary schemes were soon generally recognized as based on biased conjecture. There were no empirical bases for the evolutionary stages of Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor, or any of the other evolutionary theorists. Boas replaced evolutionist theorizing with the study of the historical diffusion of cultural traits. Historical diffusionism based its arguments on empirical evidence from all the branches of anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and sociocultural anthropology as well as from history. Such evidence was used to demonstrate that the current cultural (or physical) features or organization of any group were a result of contact and borrowing from other groups it had encountered. Of less influence in cultural change were innovation and creativity. Cultural arrangements, then, had more to do with a particular history of contact than with innate abilities related to alleged evolutionary stages. This understanding replaced a notion of the evolution of a single human general culture with an understanding of particular cultures' histories.

Evolutionists rank people and cultures from low to high, worst to best. Implicit in evolutionist thinking is the idea of progress, the idea that things are changing for the better. Evolution and progress are unrelated in fact and must be kept separate. Evolutionary change is simply descent with modification; there is no implication of improvement or superiority of later social or biological forms over earlier ones.

But evolutionists depicted some groups, such as Africans, as being near the apes because the groups were perceived as different. They were said to resemble nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees and apes, who were described as having thick lips, curly hair, and dark skin. This representation has persisted despite the fact that nonhuman primates actually have straight hair covering their rather white skin and are totally lacking lips. That is, nonhuman primates exhibit precisely the characteristics claimed by Europeans as indicative of their own racial superiority.

While racism is still common, though less so than earlier in the twentieth century in the United States, evolutionist notions containing the idea of progress persist. A counter to these ideas is one of Boas's most enduring contributions: his articulation of the notion of cultural relativism, which is not a theory but a descriptive reaction to wide experience with other cultures. While evolutionists ranked people and cultures, anthropologists after Boas came to see them in relative terms; cultures were not better or worse than one another, they were simply different. One could not judge a culture using values from another; cultures must be evaluated using internal, not external, criteria. Relativism has become a central tenet of anthropology, the science of culture.

Biomedical sciences often evidence not the relativism of Boas but the hierarchical evaluative thinking indicative of evolutionism. An implicit ranking system appeared in medicine and persists in notions of defects afflicting groups of people. Historians of medicine show that this idea was disseminated by medicine's association of specific illness states with specific ethnic groups (called races) and/or genders (Chesler; Gilman; Pernick). This was but one of many techniques for the pathologization of often fictitious differences.

Difference from an implicit standard, that is, Anglo, male, adult (Gaines, 1992a; Gilman), in medical and psychiatric thought has been represented as problematic, dangerous, exceptional, pathological, defective, weak, vulnerable, and/or requiring "special" treatment (Gaines, 1992a; Osborne and Feit). Ultimately, the idea communicated is that culturally defined "others"—in the United States, non-European ethnics, women, and children—are simply, and inherently, "not normal" (Ehrenreich and English; Gilman).

One significant problem with the theories about natural racial groups is the fact that the precise number of them has never been agreed upon. Throughout the last century and a half, enumerations of groups said to constitute races fluctuated from author to author. Indeed, the number of racial groups is still changing. A recent example is the creation, starting in the early 1980s, of a Hispanic race.

The dynamics of the numbers of races should not be surprising given that the boundaries created to distinguish among the various groups have no empirical bases. Such discriminations are everywhere the arbitrary choice of an author (Gould; UNESCO; Stocking). The lack of fixed criteria for differentiation is reflected in the changes over time in racial labels of individuals in modern health statistical records (Hahn), in local and personal history (Domínguez), and in the ever-changing number of races, a number that varies somewhere between one race and three hundred. The correct number is one.

THE HETEROGENEITY OF RACE. Analyses of biogenetic differences of human groups lead to the recognition of a great variety of characteristics, most of which are shared in various proportions. Local configurations of traits (height, color, etc.) produce a huge number of distinguishable groups. On the African continent, there are about one thousand biologically distinguishable groups, as opposed to races (Hiernaux). Human groups are not divisible into groups that exhibit unique, nonoverlapping physiological characteristics. Differences in biology are always local differences that are characteristic of a local inbreeding population. What is seen as normal human biology also changes from culture to culture (see Kuriyama, in Leslie and Young). Just as the cultural elements exhibited by individuals of ethnic groups vary, so does the biology of members of so-called races.

The central problem for racial classifications is that there exist no intrinsically significant human features. Cultures have selected specific features as worthy of concern and hence as criteria of inclusion or exclusion. The selection of any one trait—such as skin, hair, or eye color, body hair, height, weight, religion, or place of birth—as a criterion of group exclusion or inclusion is, by definition, arbitrary. The selected characteristics represent historical attributions of meaning in local cultural contexts, not the expression of universal human nature or physical characteristics.

Racial Theories in the United States

Most observers in the United States, whether lay or scientific, believe that observation of racial differences and racial antipathy has existed since time immemorial, being an understandable outcome of the encounter of dissimilar social groups. However, this is understandable only in a specific cultural context and is not an accurate rendering of the history of cultural contact.

The deleterious effect of racism on perception and cognition is obvious if the ancestry of U.S. racial groups is examined. Misrepresentations appear in scientific research as well as the popular media. The two—research and media—engage in a kind of cultural conversation that confirms the reality of race. An objective look at the ancestry of members of the major groups in the United States reveals race as a fatal conceptual problem in public health and medical research.

In the United States, most people labeled by self and others as Native Americans are biologically part European; in many cases, they are largely so. Many such individuals also have West African ancestry. Virtually all American "blacks," or African-Americans, are biologically part European. In many if not most cases, more of their ancestors came from Europe than from West Africa. Quite commonly, African-Americans also have Native American ancestry (Blu; Domínguez; Gaines, "Medical/Psychiatric Knowledge," in Gaines, 1992a; Hallowell; Naroll and Naroll; Watts).

All classificatory whites claiming multigenerational descent in the South can be shown to have West African ancestry and, very likely, Native American ancestry (Domínguez; Hallowell; Naroll and Naroll). This is not surprising since most of the colonists who settled in the U.S. South were single males. The relatively few unmarried females were generally of lower status and in long-term bond service. Without Native American and African women, European males in the South could not have had offspring. In the move westward into what was northern Mexico, where the Spanish had settled with Native Americans a century before the English came to the East Coast, one finds again that those "Americans" who went were primarily males from the South and the East. For this reason, the descendants of these early settlers in the West (settlers who were themselves illegal immigrants because this was northern Mexico) are today of mixed ancestry, although this is not publicly known.

Another distortion relates directly to Latinos, Mexicans, and other groups of "Hispanics." Latinos are descendants of western European, Native American, and West African peoples. This mixture is what the term la raza means: a "race" born of a mixture of elements. Because many Mexicans are actually Indians or partly so, the difference between Native Americans (many of whom are Spanish-speaking) and Hispanics is often only nationality, a matter of sociolegal definition and not biology. In other instances, Hispanics have no Native American ancestry but do have West African along with their western European ancestry. In many Latino groups (such as those of Venezuela and Puerto Rico), West African ancestry is virtually universal.

Despite the very definition of Latino as people of mixed cultural and biological ancestry, this language group has been homogenized in the scientific literature and, in the 1980s, became a discrete biological group, a "race" (Gaines, "Medical/Psychiatric Knowledge," in Gaines, 1992a; Hahn). In reality, the groups seen as discrete in the United States—white, African-American, Native American, and Latino—are not at all biologically distinct. Indeed, individuals in any of the categories may embody the same mixture of ancestors as do individuals in the others. The difference in the group to which one is assigned depends not on biology but on local context and social history. These groups represent social categories that are unstable and without common biogenetic content.

VARIABLE RACIAL CRITERIA. In considering the referents of the term race, no fixed criterion exists even within the United States. Many nonbiological criteria are used to identify races. The term is applied, for example, to people from a region or geographical direction, one usually designated from the perspective of Europe (e.g., Asians/Orientals). Another referent of this cultural term race is a specific continental location (e.g., African, [Native] American). A new basis for a racial group has also emerged quite recently—language. Hispanic, a new racial identity in the United States, may be attributed on the basis only of a surname; here language is biologized.

Putative skin color is commonly used as a marker of race, for example, white, red, black, brown, yellow. This use of color-as-race continues despite the fact that Asians run the gamut in complexion from white to black, as in southern India. The same range of skin color is found among people labeled black or white in the United States. The lack of real color "lines" produces cases of people who are black but look white or the reverse, as well as many other oddities. In such instances, it is social history (i.e., knowledge of ancestry) that produces assignment to an allegedly biological category.

A final criterion of race in the United States is religion. Judaism is employed to demarcate an allegedly biologically distinct group. But it is clear that Jews conform to the local physiological characteristics of the communities in which they reside (e.g., Germany, Poland, Russia, England, Scandinavia, Spain, France). The Jews in the United States represent a (fictional) biological group created by religious intolerance.

If a cultural approach has some predictive value, one can anticipate that the antipathy of U.S. people toward Arabs in the 1980s and 1990s will likely result in the social construction of yet another historically unknown race—Muslims. (The British have used the term Wogs.) Some indication of this process may be seen in the descriptions of the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The U.S. media described the conflict as between "Muslims, Serbs, and Croats," although the Muslims were themselves either Serbs or Croats whose ancestors converted to Islam.

Because racism clearly influences cognition, perception, and affect (emotion), it could well appear in psychiatric classifications as a specific disorder. Rather than a condition of professional psychiatric concern, racism and its twin, sexism, instead appear as significant implicit elements in psychiatric (mis)diagnosis and (mis)treatment (Adebimpe; Chesler; Good).

The erroneous views of race found in the United States encode several distinct ideas: (1) a fixed number of distinct biological populations, or races, exist in nature; (2) races have distinctive physical, mental, and/or behavioral characteristics; (3) racial characteristics (physical and behavioral) are naturally reproduced over time; and (4) specific group characteristics—physical, mental, and often moral—are hierarchically ranked, that is, some groups are superior to others (Boas; Gould; Stocking; Montagu). These assumptions, however, are not the only extant racial views of human difference.

Cultural Systems of Racial Classification Beyond the United States

Some writers have argued that capitalism, with a need for cheap labor and for justifying expropriation of land and resources, provided the political context and motivation that drove science to create a defensible basis in biology for immoral acts such as slavery and genocide (Rex and Mason). Certainly, Europeans' encounters with Native Americans and imported West Africans affected their constructions of human difference (Gossett). However, it appears more likely that racial views are a form of ethnobiology, a cultural classificatory theory about the nature of human variability (Gaines, 1992a), because some racial ideologies predate capitalism. As well, various capitalist countries exhibit distinctive notions of race. Their differing views have resulted in very different treatment of those designated as belonging to different races.

RACE IN EUROPE. Both English and German science and society produced biological constructions of affinity and difference (Gaines, 1992a). Those who are alike share a common "blood" in Germany and "breeding" in England. Those of the same blood constitute a "race." This German belief is a kind of biological essentialism. It is a much more exclusive notion of race than that found in the United States. It is in reality a kind of ancient kinship theory, a theory of a coherent, related descent group (Gaines, 1992a) that later merged with evolutionist ideas. As such, it is much narrower than U.S. notions. In contemporary Germany, the cultural system of group membership based upon descent from a common ancestor continues. It determines social identity as well as citizenship and suitability to hold political office, for non-Germans cannot hold office or become citizens.

The same system of social classification is found in Alsace, the culturally Germanic northeastern province of France. The biological German system exists alongside a very different, French cultural system that determines ethnic identity by other means. It accords in-group identity to those sharing French civilization and culture. Membership is primarily based on language, not appearance or place of birth (Gaines, 1992a). The term race in France thus refers to people who share a particular language and civilization. Both can be acquired, but the latter only by means of the former. Anyone can become French; being French is a linguistic existential state, not a biological one as in the case of the German system.

The so-called racist groups of France may be seen as culturalists; their targets are not races but culturally distinct groups, such as unassimilated Muslims. French-speaking sub-Saharan Africans are not targets of the French racism. North Africans have been historically white even though their complexions run the gamut from black to pale. The conflicts in France thus cannot be based upon race, though they are reported as such in the U.S. media where cultural differences are always interpreted as "racial differences."

RACE IN JAPAN AND SOUTH AFRICA. In Japan, a modern, industrial, and scientific society, a conception of human races exists that differs from that of the United States. Japanese sciences hold, and offer evidence to support, that the Japanese are a race distinct from Koreans, Chinese, the indigenous Ainu people, and the outcast Eta group (DeVos and Wagatsuma). In contrast, U.S. science and society hold that all these people from the East constitute a single biological race, along with South Asians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and others. These people do not evidence a common language, culture, or physical appearance, so the U.S. cultural system converts a geographical designation of people, borrowed from Europe, into an "Asian race."

In South Africa, there exists yet another system that classifies "racial groups." There, before the official collapse of apartheid, a sociolegal system was in place that distinguished four groups: Black, White, Asian, and Coloured. All people with ancestry in more than one of the first three groups were categorized as Coloured. Chinese were Asian, but Japanese were White. Each group historically has had different rights and privileges (see Schwartz, in Gaines, 1992a). All have equal status, at least legally, in the new South Africa.

In the United States, unlike South Africa, science and society ignore mixed ancestry and label individuals as wholly belonging to the least prestigious group of his or her parents, that is, to one exclusive category or another. In medical research, epidemiological studies, and clinical practice, people of mixed ancestry—that is, most Americans—are treated as if they had no ancestry except (West) African, Native American, Asian, or European. Designations are assumed to refer to homogeneous, distinct biological groups. If "admixture" is noted, researchers tend to ignore European ancestry and focus on genetic "vulnerabilities" deriving only from the subject's putative "minority" ancestry (Duster; Gaines, 1985; Wailoo).

In the United States, virtually all people called black or African-American, a term coined by anthropologist Melville Herskovits, would be classified in South Africa as Coloured because of their mixed ancestry (West African, western European, Native American). Indeed, all U.S. residents who claim long lines of U.S. antecedents would be likewise classified because they too have mixed ancestry. The same would hold true for most Native Americans and Latinos. Ironically then, the major U.S. racial groups, those with major antipathies and conflicts enduring over centuries based on their racial differences, all would be classified in South Africa as belonging to the same racial group—Coloured.

Race as a Key Variable in Biomedical Research and Practice

The ideas of race enumerated above underlie almost all medical and psychiatric research in the United States that pertains to group differences other than age or sex (Gaines, 1992a; Hahn; Robbins and Regier; Osborne and Feit). Remarkably, these beliefs concerning the existence or homogeneity of human populations called "races" have not the slightest scientific (or logical) basis; no empirical evidence has ever existed for the differentiation of humanity into broad racial groups (Gould; Montagu; UNESCO, 1969). In reality, thousands of biologically distinct human groups exist (Hiernaux, 1970; Montagu; Naroll and Naroll; Watts).

Assertions of the biological bases of differences among races are used to justify caste systems; that is, the results of oppression, discrimination, and poverty are commonly used to justify further discrimination and prejudice (Boas; DeVos and Wagatsuma; Naroll and Naroll; Thomas and Sillen). As is shown below, medical research, theory, and practice often play this same role in U.S. society and thereby serve as "scientific" justification for the persistence of popular conceptions of racial difference and of racism (Brandt, 1985; Gilman; Duster).

Racial groups are mental constructs. As mental constructs they cannot evidence medical conditions. Yet "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" (Harris, 1968, p. 264). Given this, it can be noted that a folk medicine, or ethnomedicine, is largely a creation of cultural beliefs. Its practices serve to reinforce and even justify those beliefs. Such is precisely the nature of medical research on group differences in the United States. This supportive role may be seen in research on afflictions said to appear only in certain populations.

THE MYTH OF RACE-SPECIFIC DISEASES. In biology or psychology, research science is used to reach conclusions that are in fact a priori assumptions; "prejudice not … documentation dictates conclusions" (Gould, p. 80). In today's medical and scientific community, expressed ideas concerning ethnic and gender inferiority are largely implicit. They are replaced in the medical literature by vague assertions such as vulnerability, susceptibility, tendency, increased risk, and difference. One aspect of this discourse that constructs and maintains racial difference concerns "racespecific diseases." Since it is believed that races are distinct groups with their own biologies, it stands to reason that they would exhibit particular diseases. Sickle-cell anemia is a case in point.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, sickle-cell anemia was found originally through laboratory analysis of the blood of five patients—two European-Americans, two mulattos (in the parlance of the time, persons of mixed European and West African ancestry, but very largely the former), and one Negro (who doubtless was also part European). The findings were reported in the medical literature, however, as a condition found only in Negroes (Wailoo). In fact, this condition has existed in most world populations including the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian, Filipino, and South American. Instructively, the condition is not found among people in eastern, southern, or central Africa. Rather, it is found largely in West Africa, the ancestral area of most people in the Americas with African ancestry. Clearly, the condition is not a "racial disease" but rather a characteristic of some local populations.

Tay-Sachs disease is said to be a Jewish disease. In fact, it is a disorder found in a specific local population of the eastern Mediterranean from which some Jews, as well as Arabs, came. Jews not from this area, and not descended from people who were, have no risk of developing the disorder. The same is true of the so-called Portuguese disease, a degenerative, fatal neurological disease said to afflict Portuguese people. The afflicted are in reality descended from a single person (one Joseph) who carried the gene causing the disease. It is purely by chance that the antecedent person was Portuguese. Unrelated Portuguese are not at risk for developing the disease. In Tay-Sachs and the Portuguese diseases, specific sites of affliction are generalized to all in the racial category of the afflicted. "Local biologies" (Gaines, 1992a) are ignored in favor of "racial" ones.

The medical assertion that certain diseases are peculiar to specific races is without merit. The fiction is maintained through a number of techniques. Findings in a single person of a racial group are regularly generalized to all members of that putative group (Brandt, 1978; Wailoo); a part is made to stand for a whole. For example, a clinical finding that Indians in Britain required lower therapeutic levels of certain psychotropic medications became the basis for research comparing "Asians" and "Caucasians" (Lin et al., 1990; Lin et al., 1986; Mendoza et al.).

Tendencies discerned in research are commonly rein-terpreted to suggest significant differences in research on hypertensive medications; "diuretics are best for 'blacks' and beta-blockers for 'whites.'" Since members in neither group have common ancestry in the United States, such stereo-types can limit diagnosis of problems to groups "known" to be afflicted; others are then overlooked, misdiagnosed, or considered to be exceptions. As such, they do not challenge the stereotype, though logically such exceptions should call into question the very notion of racial distinctiveness.

Despite the absence of any scientific basis, the idea of race represents the basic population variable, aside from age and sex, on which inquiries focus and in terms of which results are interpreted and recommendations made. The huge body of literature on race-specific problems and racial comparisons are actually of unknown scientific value, though they represent a rich corpus for cultural study.

As long as medical science continues in its archaic racial folk beliefs, its claims to objective, acultural, and disinterested status in the health field are seriously compromised. Because these and gender beliefs are purely popular, modern medical sciences appear as cultural medicines, ethnomedicines, albeit professional ones (Gaines, 1992c; Hahn and Gaines). The validity of racial conceptions has been challenged and its use compromised. The continued use of racial conceptions in biomedical research and practice looms as a central conceptual and methodological problem in the biomedical sciences.

CONSEQUENCES OF RACIAL BELIEFS. Common to intentional and unintentional discriminatory motivations is the unstated theory that ancestry in nonwhite groups "taints" the individual, not only determining identity but also causing disease. This is the implicit pathologization of perceived "difference" typical in research on high blood pressure and diabetes as well as a variety of other conditions (Cowie et al.; Harris, 1991; Jones and Rice). Affliction is attributed to the fact that the individuals are "minority," by which is meant biologically different and therefore "defective."

Considering the study of diabetes in African-Americans more closely, it is found that while no risk factors and very few cases of diabetes exist in West Africa, individuals classified as African-Americans are still commonly said to be at "high risk" for developing the disease because of their "racial or ethnic ancestry." The presence of diabetes in these populations has other probable causes that are normally overlooked in research. They are (1) the European genetic background of the African-Americans; (2) poverty and related poor nutrition caused by discrimination; and (3) the high animal-fat content of the dominant northern European diet.

Racial thinking leads researchers to ignore oppression, racism, and discrimination—all of which can implicate the researchers themselves—as well as other cultural and biological factors. Research is confined to allegedly biological problems existing as defects within the afflicted. The real biogenetic makeup of individuals goes unanalyzed while their social identity is blamed for their illness.

Research on the treatments of choice and treatment recommendations in U.S. biomedicine demonstrates that medical and psychiatric diagnoses and therapeutic choices are often made on the basis of patients' social identity, be it race, class, or gender rather than objective need (Brandt, 1985; Ehrenreich and English; Gilman; Good; Lindenbaum and Lock; Osborne and Feit). Historically, this includes the differential use of anesthesia; the poor didn't need it but the wealthy did, as they were more delicate! (Pernick).

The form of intervention in psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, and psychotherapy is today heavily dependent on racial and/or sexual stereotypes rather than on empirical psychiatric signs or symptoms (Katz; Gaines, 1982, 1992a, 1992c; Littlewood). Blacks and Hispanics are often seen as belonging to that group of patients termed psychologically unsophisticated or not psychologically minded (e.g., Leff; MacKinnon and Michels; Sudack). Psychopharmacotherapy is seen as more "appropriate" for such patients than forms of "talk" therapy.

It should be recalled that U.S. psychiatry in the nineteenth century "found" that psychiatric disorders afflicted black slaves who otherwise "unaccountably" ran away from their masters. This is a historical version of a biological psychiatry and posits that all conditions are biological and will ultimately yield to somatic interventions. Environment, in this view, can be discounted or its consideration delayed until suspected "biological components" can be studied.

In medical research, behavior is also related to race. Medical researchers often choose research topics that implicate behaviors judged as immoral or incautious when dealing with minority populations, for example, number of sex partners, unwed mothers, and drug addiction (Gaines, 1985; Osborne and Feit). In this way, medical research also becomes moral research and supports blame-the-victim thinking.

In the psychiatric literature, neo-evolutionist racial theories lurk behind some assertions. Certain groups, such as the English, are said to be more evolved and psychologically normal (see Leff). In this view, somatization is allegedly less evolved and is characteristic of less developed "traditional" or "primitive" societies. The position inserts a cultural view of emotion and thought into a not-too-implicit neoevolutionist scheme.

In the West, emotions are believed to be natural, universal, and distinct from cognition. But anthropological research has shown that specific emotions are not universal nor are they naturally distinct from cognitive or bodily states and functions (see Good et al., Lutz, Obeyesekere, Schieffelin, in Kleinman and Good). While highly valued in a very few cultures, psychologization of distress is not "natural," but rather a learned, shared, and transmitted cultural approach (Kleinman). Psychologization is not found in many areas of Europe itself, for example, the Mediterranean and eastern Europe (Gaines, 1992c; Gaines and Farmer; see Good et al. in Kleinman and Good), or in China, Japan, or India (Kleinman and Good; Leslie and Young).

Research on racial differences provides the scientific bases for the maintenance of popular and scientific racial ideology in the United States. This ideology clearly leads to differential evaluation of social actors in medical and nonmedical contexts. As such, biomedical practices can be said to contribute to the social problems caused by racism. These problems include unequal access and poor medical outcomes (Good). The use of racial categories in biomedical research and practice, then, may be seen to breach the medical profession's own primary ethical injunction "to do no harm."

GENES, RACE, AND VIOLENCE. Biomedicine conceives of its domain as the discovery and manipulation of nature (see Gordon, in Lock and Gordon). Its wider culture perceives nature as something to be dominated and controlled (Pike). Ideas of nature, as well as those of difference and inferiority that are encoded in racial and gender identities, greatly affect practice and research in U.S. biomedical sciences. Classes of people believed to be closer to nature are seen as requiring control and guidance, even domination. Such people—among them women, children, non-Anglo or non-Germanic European ethnics (e.g., French, Italian, Spanish, Celtic, and Slavic people), Africans and their descendants, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders—are, in the United States, rather widely believed to be emotional, and therefore dangerous, unpredictable, and wild. Comments about "natural abilities" (intuitive, musical, irrational, fierce, shrewd) or characteristics of particular groups indicate their closeness to nature; they, like animals, are thought to be dominated by instinct and irrationality, not by "reason," a European cultural and masculine virtue (Chesler; Fausto-Sterling; Kleinman and Good; Pike).

The imputation of wildness, impulsiveness, and irrationality is doubtless a culturally constituted defensive projection of aggression that actually exists in the dominant group (Gilman; Pike). It is used to justify control, domination, and even extermination, as with Africans and Native Americans in the United States and non-German ethnics and the disabled in World War II Germany.

A similar logic appears in contemporary U.S. society. Urban violence, born of repression, discrimination, violence, and poverty, is recast as "genetic predispositions to violence or criminality" in individuals and the groups to which they are ascribed, especially after periods of civil unrest. However, rather obvious examples of genetic predispositions toward criminality and violence in the dominant group are regularly ignored as are centuries of clear provocations of African-Americans.

If researchers were indeed interested in a dispassionate evaluation of genetic components of violence and criminality, it would be appropriate to study people descended from generations of individuals all of whom have committed crimes of a serious nature. In the United States, such a population would be the many immigrants from Russia or Germany, as well as their offspring. Another group of subjects would be the descendants of slave traders and owners. Mass murderers and serial killers in the United States and Europe are virtually always white; their relatives would be suitable subjects of biological research on white criminality. These data might suggest some genetic basis for the inheritance of violent tendencies, if one were to think in racial terms. But researchers on violence and its causes regularly ignore such evidence. It appears that violence and criminality are possible genetic predispositions only when they appear in individuals belonging to specific low-status racial groups.

RACE AND CLINICAL STUDIES. That racial groups are considered unequally in U.S. biomedical science and society is clearly demonstrated by the infamous and tragic Tuskegee syphilis study. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) began a prospective study of syphilis infection among four hundred rural Alabamans who were black male share-croppers. The researchers asserted that the study could be a "natural experiment" because it was assumed (for racist reasons) that "such people" were all infected and would not seek treatment for their condition (Brandt, 1978). For these reasons, the PHS argued that it could observe the natural history of syphilis infection in these black men. As it happened, the subjects, who had been unknowingly selected, began to seek treatment almost immediately.

Rather than provide healthcare, the PHS initiated a vast conspiracy to prevent the subjects from receiving care from any source. It conspired with local and state health officials, clinics and hospitals, and the U.S. Army, in which some of the men had enlisted, to prevent disclosure to the subjects of their diagnosis and to prevent treatment of their affliction.

Despite the fact that the natural experimental premise was invalidated in short order, this horrendous project continued over four decades until 1972, when public outcries finally stopped it. Until that time, however, the study was often reported in the medical literature without raising ethical concerns about informed consent, the sometimes fatal use of these human subjects, or the conspiracy to prevent them from receiving efficacious treatments (Brandt, 1978, 1985).

Aside from specific research projects that indicate differential concern for specific groups in the United States, "minorities" in day-to-day medical settings are often underdiagnosed for problems that could be treated (e.g., heart disease) and overdiagnosed for others. For example, blacks are regularly misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. These misdiagnoses lead to confinement and inappropriate pharmacological regimens. Loss of freedom and improper use of powerful psychotropic medications may themselves lead to chronicity in the illnesses that are left untreated, illnesses that led the patient to the attention of health professionals in the first place (see Adebimpe; Mukherjee et al.; Bell and Mehta; Good). This is one means by which medicine creates chronicity of particular disorders as well as increases in the reported incidence of these disorders in a specific population. The circular logic is completed by the subsequent tendency to diagnose in an individual a disorder that is reported as "common" in members of his or her racial or ethnic group.

It is important for a full understanding of the role of racial classifications in the biomedical field to see it as part of a cultural system. This allows for the recognition of both the clearly concerned altruistic practitioners and researchers and the profoundly troubling aspects of racial thought in biomedical practices. In this view, the problems of racial thinking may be seen to arise frequently from the use of popular racial notions by force of tradition—tradition in the Weberian sense, wherein it is one source of authority for human action (Weber). The use of racial categories is thus not necessarily racist.


The U.S. version of human biology is a folk biology that assumes that social categories—"races"—are reflections of nature rather than culture. As a result, biomedical work, as well as public healthcare, is conducted and interpreted in these terms. In clinical practice in U.S. medicine, every patient record begins with three basic bits of information thought to be of critical importance: age, race, and gender(e.g., "A thirty-seven-year-old black female presented with …"). This is a significant part of the discourse of medicine that reconfirms the cultural conceptions that race, age, and sex are natural and empirical realities that make a difference.

Specific forms of communalism, such as racism and sexism, are intrinsic to U.S. society. As a result, they are fundamentally part of its medical institutions, because U.S. medicine is a reflection of the culture that created it. Culturally specific prejudice makes U.S. biomedicine an expression of a particular culture and its history. That culture has held and still expresses empirically problematic and ultimately unethical conceptualizations of human variation. However, neither contemporary medicine nor society remains monocultural; different ethnic and gender voices are being heard advocating what may be seen as more cultural and therefore humane and equal medical-research concerns and treatment. In many scientific fields, the lessons learned from the Nazi atrocities—as well as the inclusion of Jews, African-Americans, and women into collegial relations—has helped to reduce scientific racism and sexism since the 1950s (Barkan). Trends of pluralism begun then continue and expand.

Modern biomedical thought in the United States appears to lag in its understanding of the bases of human differences. The basis is culture, not biology. Even though racial terms are now often exchanged for ethnic ones, the problems persist in biomedicine and related sciences. Ethnicity has a cultural referent, and race has a putatively biological one. The two terms are incommensurate and cannot be used interchangeably.

Intentionally or unintentionally, biomedicine conserves, employs, and disseminates racial and gender-biased conceptions in its theory and practice. Such actions may be seen to derive both from habit and from nefarious intent. Comparisons are at the heart of science. U.S. science, along with U.S. popular society, has always thought that comparisons of black versus white or other races are the more or less "natural" ones to make in a "multiracial" society. Some others yet seek to show one group's superiority over others.

Biomedical enterprises will surely be subject to increasing ethical and practical criticism in the future "both from without and within its cultural tradition by those it fails to serve and those it serves to fail" (Gaines, 1992c). The growing understanding of the cultural biases of the professional medicines (and sciences) of the world suggests that medicines, like their particular medical ethics, reflect local cultural realities. A pluralistic medicine is needed in a multicultural country such as the United States. In such a country, a single medical voice may easily lead to, if not generate, bioethical conflicts. A medicine without cultural understandings, unreflective of its own cultural foundations, is inadequate, and an inadequate medicine cannot be of great help in a multicultural society.

atwood d. gaines (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Bioethics, African-American Perspectives; Biology, Philosophy of; Eugenics; Feminism; Genetic Discrimination; Genetics and Racial Minorities; Genetics and Human Self-Understanding; Holocaust; Human Dignity; Human Nature; Mental Illness: Conceptions of Mental Illness; Minorities as Research Subjects; Psychiatry, Abuses of; Sexism; Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives


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Racial Discrimination

views updated May 21 2018

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination is the practice of letting a person's race or skin color unfairly become a factor when deciding who receives a job, promotion, or other employment benefit. It most often affects minority individuals who feel they have been unfairly discriminated against in favor of a Caucasian (or white) individual, but there have been recent cases where whites have claimed that reverse discrimination has occurredthat is, a minority received unfairly favorable treatment at the expense of a white individual.

Court rulings handed down through the years have determined that a company's responsibility not to discriminate based on race begins even before an individual is hired. Companies can be held liable if pre-employment screening or testing is determined to be discriminatory, if applications ask unacceptable questions designed to screen for race, or if the overall selection process is deemed to be unfair. One of the main indicators that racial discrimination has occurred in the hiring process involves the qualifications of the job applicants. While a slight difference in qualifications between a minority and white candidate does not automatically indicate racial bias (if the lesser qualified white candidate is hired over the minority candidate), a substantial difference in qualifications has almost always been upheld by the courts as a sure sign of racial discrimination.


Since the social unrest of the 1960s, the federal government has been actively involved in preventing racial discrimination in the workplace. The most important law covering racial discrimination on the job is the Civil Rights Act of 1964specifically, Title VII of that act: it strictly prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in all aspects of employment. Written during a tumultuous period in American history when many people expected the federal government to right social wrongs, the law was a monumental piece of legislation that changed the American employment landscape.

The law stated that it was unlawful for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The law covers hiring, dismissals, compensation, and all other aspects of employment, while also covering actual employment opportunities that are available. Examples of racial discrimination that would fall under the scope of the act include:

  1. An employee who alleges that his or her manager only promotes nonminority employees and keeps minorities in entry-level positions.
  2. An employee who alleges that a manager or other person in power tells jokes or makes statements that are demeaning, insulting, or offensive to members of a minority group.
  3. A manager who makes it clear that he or she believes in racial stereotypes by admitting that he or she refuses to promote a certain minority group because "all [members of that group] are lazy."

The law covers business with 15 or more employees, and applies to all private, federal, state, and local employers. In many states, businesses with fewer than 15 employees face the same rules thanks to local or state statutes. In addition to the hiring provisions, the law dictates that employers cannot in any way limit or segregate employees based on race in any way that would adversely affect their chances at promotions. It does allow for two narrow exceptions to the lawbusinesses may use a "bona fide" seniority or merit system and measure performance and earnings based on a quantity or quality measuring system, and employers may use ability tests to determine the most qualified candidates for a job as long as the test does not discriminate racially in any way.

In 1991, the 1964 law was significantly amended for the first time by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The law was passed to override several Supreme Court decisions that had made it much more difficult for employees to prove that racial discrimination had occurred. One of the many changes of the 1991 law is that it closed a loophole in the 1964 act that also involved a Civil War-era statute known as 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. The Supreme Court had held that Section 1981 applied to hiring and sometimes to promotions but did not cover racial harassment that occurred in the workplace once a person was hired. The 1991 act said that all racial discrimination was covered by U.S. law, including post-hire harassment.

The other major enhancement under the 1991 act involved monetary damages. Before the law was passed, employees who sued an employer for discrimination and won could only recover lost wages or salary, lost benefits, attorney fees, other legal costs, and the costs associated with reinstatement. The 1991 law said that employees could also recover punitive monetary damages for pain and emotional suffering, mental anguish, future lost wages and benefits, and more. Those damages could only be collected if it was proven that the discrimination was intentional and there was clearly "malice" or "reckless indifference" exhibited, but this was a radical change from the previous legislation. To protect employers from overly large court settlements, the amount of punitive damages was capped at $300,000 for certain cases of discrimination, although no caps apply in cases of ethnic or racial discrimination.

Other changes in the 1991 law involve employment practices that have a "disparate impact" on racial groups (that is, affect them more than white groups), make it easier for a plaintiff to receive damages in cases where a discriminatory practice and a nondiscriminatory practice both played a part in a hiring or promotion decision, and allow employees to challenge seniority systems that are put into place if the systems are later determined to be discriminatory (in the past, workers could only sue at the time the system was first put into place). Together, all of these changes made it easier for workers to prove discrimination claims, which has increased the number of lawsuits nationwide.


To oversee the federal civil rights legislation, a separate administrative body was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, was created to enforce laws that prevent discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, or age when hiring, firing, or promoting employees. Four categories of peopleby race, color, sex, and/or creedwere given "protected status" under the law, which was to be upheld by the EEOC. The commission is an independent regulatory body that has the power to launch investigations, file lawsuits, and create programs to eliminate discrimination.

The EEOC has been a controversial organization throughout its 40-plus years of history. Liberal politicians believe that the agency was long overdue and that it is absolutely imperative that the agency be proactive in identifying and fighting discrimination in the courts, while conservatives believe that the organization is a perfect example of "big government" that intrudes far too deeply into citizens' lives. The agency's strong enforcement of affirmative action policies (which actively seek to promote minorities over equally qualified whites in order to address past discrimination) has been its most controversial action, as many Americans oppose affirmative action.

Even with political opposition, the EEOC continues to be effective in fighting racial discrimination. In FY 2005 alone, for instance, the EEOC obtained nearly $173 million in benefits for complainants through settlement and conciliation (excluding litigation awards). Litigation awards accounted for another $106 million in FY 2005.


Because racial discrimination can have adverse consequences for a companyincluding lower morale, a divided workplace, expensive lawsuits, and public embarrassmentsome companies take highly visible steps to curtail discrimination in the workplace. These include in-house workshops and training sessions on racial sensitivity and diversity in the workplace, training on employment laws, and adopting strict new rules against discrimination.

Many other companies only become active when prodded by events and circumstances. In November of 2000, the Coca-Cola Company agreed to settle a racial discrimination suit by paying a penalty of $192.5 million. Sara Lee Corporation was forced to make a large cash settlement to a former employee who says that he was the butt of racist jokes, disparaging remarks, and was even forced to view a noose hanging in his workplace. In addition to the cash settlement, the amount of which was confidential, Sara Lee also agreed to establish training programs to raise awareness of the company's anti-discrimination policies.

To make sure that it is on the cutting edge of preventing racial discrimination, IBM has established individual employee task forces for almost every group that is employed by the huge company, including men, women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and disabled persons. The groups, which are established at many of the company's offices, meet regularly to discuss diversity and workplace concerns. This represents an extreme example of the steps companies are taking to prevent discrimination, but actions of this type are becoming more common.


Affirmative action is a controversial policy intended to counteract racial discrimination. West's Encyclopedia of American Law defines affirmative action as referring "to both mandatory and voluntary programs intended to affirm the civil rights of designated classes of individuals by taking positive actions to protect them." In other words, affirmative action actively promotes the interest of minorities over the white majority in order to correct past discrimination. For example, in a situation where a test is required before starting a particular job or to earn a promotion, minorities may be given preference over nonminorities for that job or promotion even though they score lower on the test than the nonminority worker. While this may seem wrong to some people, those who support affirmative action argue that past acts of discrimination have been so blatant that extraordinary steps are required to overcome those acts. At the start of the twenty-first century, however, affirmative action programs are under fire across the United States, with numerous court challenges occurring across the country.

One effect of affirmative action has been an increase in "reverse discrimination" lawsuits, in which nonminority workers allege that they have been discriminated against. In situations where companies have used affirmative action to help undo decades of blatant discrimination, white workers have become upset over being passed over for jobs and promotions. They claim that, if it is unfair to not hire a qualified worker just because he or she is a minority, then it should be equally unfair to not hire a qualified worker just because he or she is white. White employees have argued that, even though they have higher qualifications, experience, and skill, they are being passed over for jobs in favor of less-qualified candidates who are minorities.

In response to reverse discrimination lawsuits involving affirmative action programs, courts have recognized the need to overcome past racial bias, but have also sided with the white workers in many cases. For example, in an attempt to redress past problems, a public university ruled that women and minorities would no longer have to take a test to qualify for a special employment program. As a result, for nine years, every job opening in the program went to a woman or a minority, even though white males represented half of the applicant pool. When the university's program was challenged in a lawsuit brought by white males, the courts ruled that the test exemption ensured that "the sole purpose of the affirmative action plan was to circumvent a lawful preference program" and that the exemption violated Title VII because it caused white men to be excluded from the job in question. The school was forced to pay $113,000 to settle the case and correct the reverse discrimination.

Reverse discrimination does not always have to involve affirmative action, however. In a case decided in 2006, as reported by Shannon Duffy in The Legal Intelligencer, four white males prevailed in a law suit against the Philadelphia School District claiming that an African-American woman had discharged them because there were "too many white male managers in this department."


While advances have been made to improve race relations, there is statistical evidence to show that racial discrimination in the workplace is still commonplace. In 2000, the EEOC reported the results of a study of workplaces in North Carolina that showed that accusations of racial harassment on the job nearly quadrupled between 1996 and 2000, jumping from 16 reported incidents in 1996 to 62 in 2000 in just one region of the state. Mindy Weinstein, attorney at the EEOC office in Charlotte, North Carolina, was uncertain of what caused the increase, but she had some ideas. "There's a new generation of workers today who were not raised in the civil rights movement, who may not have been aware of the laws that came about because of that time," she said in the Raleigh News & Observer. "We think it's largely a reflection of what's going on in society as a whole."

Another potential cause of the increase is the fact that, thanks to earlier efforts to wipe out racial discrimination, there are more minorities than ever before in the workplace and also in high-level positions of power. Because minorities have been able to compete on a level playing field, they have been able to rise through the ranks more quickly, often taking jobs that were traditionally held by white workers. This can lead to resentment among the formerly dominant workers who are now lower on the employment ladder.

see also Affirmative Action


Blank, Rbecca M., Marilyn Dabady, and Constance F. Citro. Measuring Racial Discrimination. National Academies Press, 2004.

"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission." National Archives and Records Administration website. Available from http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/civil-rights-act/. Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

Contini, Peter. "How to Protect Your Office from Discrimination Claims." Real Estate Weekly. 15 March 2006.

Duffy, Shannon P. "'Reverse Discrimination' Verdict Upheld." The Legal Intelligencer. 17 April 2006.

"Institutional Racism, Part II: Race, Skill, and Hiring in U.S. Cities." Nation's Cities Weekly. 19 June 2000.

Moss, Philip I., and Chris Tilly. Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill and Hiring in America (Multi-City Study of Inequality). Russell Sage Foundation, 2001.

"Reports of Racism at Work Increasing." Raleigh News & Observer. 11 December 2000.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "EEOC Annual Reports." Available from http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/annual_reports/index.html. Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

                               Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                  updated by Magee, ECDI

Race and Racism

views updated May 29 2018

Race and Racism

With the expansion of European power outside of the region's own borders in the fifteenth century, and the continuous colonization of territories outside of Europe through the twentieth century, the practice of labeling both the colonizer and the colonized on the basis of cultural differences tied to conceptions of race became widespread. Cultural notions of identity tied to race, which have their origin in the fifteenth century, remain in practice in the twenty-first century. As a result, any understanding of race and racism requires an understanding of the history of Western colonialism, which laid the foundations for current ideas of differences tied to race. For purposes of clarity, it is necessary to distinguish between the terms xenophobia, bigotry, and racism before providing a brief overview of the history of race and racism in Western colonialism.


Where race, racial classifications, and racism (i.e., the subordination of one racial group by another) have been the defining features of Western societies, they have contained three broad elements. First, in its most restricted sense, racial identity represents an inheritable status that cannot be overcome by change in education, legal status, religious affiliation, or nationality. Europeans came to conceive individuals as born into their race—they did not become their race. Thus, regardless of wealth, religious conversion, or changing legal status, individuals remained primarily identified by race.

Second, while societies throughout history have shown a tendency to view some groups and nations as inferior, and have therefore treated them differently, racism involves the organization of the political and legal apparatus of the state for the exploitation of a subordinated racial group. Such exploitation has primarily involved limited access to political and legal rights because of racial identity. And third, racial classifications have primarily been used to organize and justify the economic exploitation of one group by another, most commonly by coercive labor regimes.

Xenophobia and bigotry also involve extreme antipathy of one group toward another, but unlike racism, they do not represent an inheritable and unchangeable status. For example, while the ancient Greeks and Romans described other groups as "barbarous" and "savage," they believed members of these groups could become "civilized." While not common, it was possible for slaves to become full members of society in the ancient world if they adopted the ideals and beliefs of the dominant group.

Likewise, the religious bigot may have condemned and persecuted others for what they believed, but not for what they intrinsically were. Thus, missionaries may have despised the beliefs of the group they attempted to convert, but they did believe these groups were convertible. If an individual could be redeemed through baptism, or if an ethnic stranger could be assimilated into a culture in such a way that their origins ceased to matter in a significant way, this more accurately represented a situation of ethnocultural discrimination, not necessarily racism.

Unlike xenophobia and bigotry, racism does not allow for individuals the possibility to become members of the dominant society, regardless of cultural changes. In societies structured by racial hierarchies, the subordinated groups are forever shut out of society because of their "inferior" racial condition. It is when differences that might be explained as ethnocultural become regarded as innate, indelible, and unchangeable that a racial order often comes into existence to divide society into separate racial categories. The history of Western colonialism has created two dominant racial orders that are (1) tied to pigmentation, as in white supremacy, and (2) tied to religion, as in anti-Semitism.

By serving as one of the dominant guiding ideologies for Western colonialism since the fifteenth century, racism has involved the articulation of difference and the exercise of power. Differences between the colonizer and the colonized resulted from a mindset that regarded "them" as different from "us" in ways that were permanent and unbridgeable. The sense of difference between the colonizer and the colonized provided a motive and rational for treating the racial subordinate in ways that the dominant group would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of its own society. At their core, societies structured around racism presume that the racializers and the racialized cannot coexist, except on the basis of domination and subordination.


Race, as a concept that defined an individual's identity as unchangeable and innate, dates to roughly the fifteenth century. The ancient Greeks distinguished between the civilized and the barbarous, but did not regard these states as hereditary. Likewise, while the Roman Empire was built on slavery, Romans held slaves of all colors and nationalities, and these slaves could become citizens.

During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, sub-Saharan African slaves were introduced into Iberia (Spain and Portugal). In the Iberian cities of Seville and Lisbon, witnessing who labored for whom daily solidified the association between blackness and slavery. In the second half of the fifteenth century, as Portuguese slave traders began to trade down the west coast of Africa, they brought back black slaves, and the association between Africans and racial slavery was further solidified. Europeans were ceasing to enslave other Europeans at the time that the African slave trade began to expand, which fueled the purchasing of sub-Saharan slaves and their use throughout Europe.

Further evidence of how slavery became identified with the black race in the minds of Iberians was that Africans were non-Christians, and thus could be treated as heathens and not like Christians. Hence the temptation to acquire them and treat them as unfree did not raise any major religious dilemma. Initially, it was less skin color and more availability and existing trading patterns that explain the presence of sub-Saharan African slaves in Europe. There is very little evidence of an explicitly racial nature that justifies or even explains the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans. The significance of this early trade was that it set an initial pattern and a means of easily identifying by pigmentation a group of individuals to be exploited for racial slavery.

Occurring at roughly the same time as the introduction of sub-Saharan Africans into Iberia, the concept of "purity of blood" and ancestry became increasingly important to Europeans. Dating back to the thirteenth century, an increase in anti-Semitic thought based in folk mythology resulted in Europeans associating the region's Jewish population with the devil and black magic. At the time of the Black Death (a plague pandemic) in the mid-fourteenth century, thousands of Jews were massacred because of the widespread belief that they had poisoned the wells. In fifteenth-century Iberia, a wave of pogroms and discriminatory legislation against Jews resulted in coerced conversion to Christianity. These actions culminated in 1492 with the expulsion or forceful conversion of Spain's Jewish population. As a result, as many as half a million Jews became "New Christians" or conversos. Previous forced conversions across Europe involved small towns or regions that could be relatively easily assimilated into the larger society.

Spain faced a unique set of circumstances—the question of how to deal with a substantial ethnic group that, despite its official change of religious beliefs, retained distinct cultural elements. As a result, for legal, political, bureaucratic, and religious offices, Spain began to emphasize family ancestry as a prerequisite for employment. Certificates of pure blood were required for many positions, and Jewish ancestry took on negative connotations that followed individuals beyond their conversion and from one generation to the next. Spanish legal culture permitted individuals to purchase purity-of-blood certificates for a fee, which allowed for flexibility against rigid racial categories. The emphasis on purity of blood, however, resulted in the stigmatization of an entire ethnic group on the basis of deficiencies that could not be eradicated by conversion or assimilation.

Taken together, the importation of sub-Saharan African slaves into Europe and the legal, political, and cultural actions against the Jewish population provided Iberians with a unique historical experience compared to the rest of Europe. They were accustomed to dealing with large groups of individuals who were considered outsiders. They developed a legal system that served to incorporate these groups by providing them a legal identity in codes such as the Siete Partidas (Seven Parts) and by recognizing them as part of society, but at the same time they made sure to separate and stigmatize them from society as whole. The concept of racial difference tied to skin color, the idea of labor associated with African slaves, and the notion of purity of blood in dealing with the Jewish population provided Spain a cultural and historical frame-work that it would draw upon when it set up colonies in the New World in the sixteenth century.


Although the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and subsequent explorers ushered in the beginning of European colonization of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, it was interactions with Africans and the indigenous populations on the Atlantic islands during the 1400s that provided the initial racial frame-work. When Columbus first wrote about the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, he described them as being similar in color to the Canary Islanders, which Spain had colonized in the early part of the fourteenth century. The Iberians, and in particular the Portuguese, had already created racial categories for the sub-Saharan African population and the indigenous populations that inhabited the islands just off the West African coast. The Iberians drew upon this experience and knowledge in their interactions with the indigenous populations of the New World. Consequently, indigenous Americans were quickly classified as a different group that required its own set of laws to govern interactions, subjugation, and conversion.

In the Spanish Caribbean and later on the Spanish mainland of Latin America, the legal, geographic, and political concept of the "two republics"—the Spanish republic and the Indian republic—generated a different set of laws for each group. While these laws were rarely followed, their historical importance is that they indicate how the colonized subjects were being racially classified by the juridical and political institutions of the Spanish state. In brief, they were being placed outside of the colonizer's society and racialized as the subordinated colonized. As a result, various indigenous groups with their own history, culture, and language became collapsed together under the racial category of the "Indian."

The Portuguese followed a similar pattern in their colonization of Brazil. They did not recognize ethnic differences among the indigenous population, at least in terms of legal identity. They also applied the term Indian to the various Native American groups they encountered. Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese made a more direct connection between the indigenous population of Brazil and slave labor. Stemming from their familiarity with sub-Saharan African slaves in the West African regions of Angola and the Congo, whom they classified as negros (the Portuguese term for black slaves), they referred to the indigenous population of Brazil as negros da terra, literally, "blacks of the earth." They did this not because of the skin color and physical appearance of the indigenous population, but because of their enslavement for hard labor. In the Portuguese colonizing mind of the sixteenth century, the black race and slavery were synonymous. Consequently, they applied the term negro to those who labored as slaves, even when they were not black in skin color. Unlike the Spanish, who had a philosophical debate over whether the indigenous American population should be enslaved, which in the end had little effect on everyday colonial policy, the Portuguese voiced no significant reservations at all.

The British, French, and Dutch all followed in the Iberians' wake to the New World during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like the Spanish and Portuguese, they would build their colonies on a racial hierarchy that exploited the indigenous population and imported Africans as slaves. By 1700 all of the European countries had devised legal codes that extended different legal rights to the indigenous and African population. For example, the French developed the Code Noir (Black Code) at the end of the seventeenth century to specify the treatment of its enslaved African subjects. Significantly, it defined slavery in terms of race and as an inheritable status that passed from mother to child. Collectively, these different legal codes served to fully distinguish the European, indigenous, and African populations from each other. Buttressed by a distinct legal code and reinforced by everyday policy, the various populations now represented separate and distinct races in colonial policies.

As a result of colonial encounters and the defining of colonized subjects as "others," it is during this period that the term race began to be used in European languages to refer to a people and nation. Just as they identified subordinate groups by the collective racial categories of black or Indian, Europeans defined themselves in contrast to these groups. The French and the English began to refer to themselves as a "race" of people unified as much by who they were as by who they were not. By the end of the seventeenth century, the term race increasingly came to be used and was understood as an inherent and unchangeable characteristic.


When two hundred years of colonial history, constructed in part by the process of racially subordinating colonized subjects, combined with the Enlightenment-era fascination for establishing order over the natural world through classifying and defining organisms, scientific racism emerged in European intellectual thought. The scientific thought of the Enlightenment served as a precondition for the growth of modern racism based on physical appearance. Such well-known Enlightenment scientists as the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), and others began to classify humans into distinct races that were not based on political or legal status such as nationality, but on somatic appearance and phenotype.

Although many Enlightenment scientists were not interested in creating a racial hierarchy of intelligence and superiority, once science classified human beings as part of the animal kingdom rather than viewing all people as children of God, the way was open for a scientific explanation for racial differences rather than a cultural one. To the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), for example, it was obvious that differences between black and white pigmentation were the result mainly of the differing effects of sun and temperature. These geographic and racial differences then influenced intelligence, he dubiously reasoned, because Africans could easily provision themselves from their lush environment, whereas European survival required greater ingenuity due to the need to raise food on barren soil.

The racial typologies that emerged from Enlightenment thought established a framework for specifying racial differences and biological racism, but they did not have an immediate practical application beyond scientific circles. It would take a new discourse over natural rights and who should exercise these rights to spread these views for political purposes.

The "age of the democratic revolution," roughly 1750 to 1850, marked the end of the eighteenth century with the American and French revolutions, followed by the creation of independent countries throughout Latin America from 1808 to 1830 and then the final blows against many European monarchies with the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. These developments brought serious ideological challenges both to racial enslavement and the legalized pariah status of Jews. The idea that people were endowed with natural political rights rather than being accorded those rights by a monarch or sovereign was difficult to reconcile with lifetime enslavement based on race or exclusion based on religion. As a result of convenience and expediency, scientific racism could be used to describe blacks, mixed-blood peoples, and indigenous populations as less than human, and consequently not entitled to the natural rights exercised by the white European population.

The age of the democratic revolution and the first wars against European colonialism in the Americas were not designed explicitly to strengthen racism, but racism became one of the byproducts of the period with the formation of new independent nations organized along racial hierarchies. The French Revolution of the late 1700s initially extended its emancipatory provisions to the French colonies. In 1794 the French National Assembly liberated more than 400,000 slaves and declared them citizens of the new French Republic. With the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), however, slavery was reinstated, and it would take complete separation from France for Haitians to defeat their colonial masters. On the nearby French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, freed men, women, and children were re-enslaved until final abolition came in 1848.

The war for American independence resulted in the expansion of slavery in the South, and slaves were enshrined in the new U.S. constitution as counting only three-fifths of a person when allocating congressional representation according to population. In Latin America, the wars for independence served to weaken forms of human bondage and racial domination as the indigenous population and slaves throughout the region joined the armies that fought against Spanish colonialism to lay claim to political liberty, among other motivations. When new nations drafted constitutions, however, the Creole elite assumed political control and did not equally share political power with those of African, indigenous, and mixed-race ancestry.

The reason pre-Darwinian scientific racism found an eager audience in the United States, France, and various Latin American countries, more than in England, derives ironically from the revolutionary legacies of the nation-states premised on the equality of all citizens. Egalitarian norms required specific reasons for exclusion. Many of the political elite of the nineteenth century adopted the view that biological unfitness as a result of racial ancestry was a reason to deny full citizenship to segments of the population. The emphasis on political virtue in nineteenth-century republican theory did not apply equally to those who were not of a "virtuous," white racial ancestry. The practice of excluding women, children, and the insane from the electorate and denying them political equality could be applied to racial groups deemed by science to be incapable of rationally exercising the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship.

The expansion and reception of Darwinian scientific theory in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, during the same period when the United States and Europe scrambled over colonial and imperial control of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, resulted in scientific theory and imperialism combining to justify human domination for racist reasons. Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) notion of "survival of the fittest" and "the struggle for existence" were transformed to explain global racial hierarchies based on colonial relations.

In the United States and Europe, colonial powers came to regard racism as a "natural order" for positive political evolution. Social Darwinism—Darwin's theory of human evolution applied to creating a hierarchy among human societies—was employed to justify the idea that colonialism required a racial hierarchy that "naturally" privileged the population of European ancestry. Darwinian scientific theory served to racialize the colonial relationship between the colonizer and colonized. Moreover, social Darwinism went so far as to blame the colonial subject for "burdening" the colonizer with the duty of colonizing the world in the interest of bettering humanity and racial superiority. The British author Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) summed up the racial ideology that underpinned late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonialism in the poem "The White Man's Burden," which he penned in 1899 in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898). Kipling's poem served as racist propaganda to encourage Americans to establish colonial rule over the Philippines.


Racism and overtly racist regimes of political and colonial domination reached their height during the twentieth century. W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963), the African-American civil rights leader and advocate for colonial peoples' right to self-determination, accurately predicted in the opening to The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." In the United States, and especially in the southern states, a whole series of racial segregation laws and restrictions on black voting reduced African Americans to lower-class status. Designed for economic exploitation and societal disenfranchisement, the goal of America's Jim Crow segregation was the complete separation of the black and white races from all social interactions from birth to death. Racial domination was maintained and exercised through public lynchings and other forms of brutal and deadly intimidation, often with tacit, and sometimes official, encouragement by the state.

Nazi Germany carried the logic of racial-supremacy ideology to its most deadly conclusion with attempts to exterminate an entire ethnic group on the basis of race. The revulsion and shock expressed by people throughout the world to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II (1939–1945) served to undermine scientific studies of racial superiority that had been respected and admired in the United States, Europe, and many other parts of the globe before the end of the war.

In South Africa, the apartheid system included laws banning all marriage and sexual relations between people of different races, and establishing separate residential areas for whites, mixed races, and Africans. While other racial regimes emerged across the globe in colonial and national contexts during the twentieth century, South Africa, Nazi Germany, and the United States stand out in the degree of legal and political authority exercised by the state in enforcing racial regimes.

Perhaps the single greatest force contributing to the end of racist regimes in the colonized portions of the world was the movement for independence and the struggle over national sovereignty that spread throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The decolonization movement that ended up bringing political independence to dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean directly challenged and refuted the racial ideology that underpinned colonialism. The supporters of radical movements for national sovereignty and independence—such as India's in 1947, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962, the independence of the Congo in 1960, the independence of British Caribbean countries in 1962, the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, and numerous other such movements—all called into question the colonial order by making claim to their own political future and right to self-determination.

In the United States, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s both inspired and took inspirations from the liberation of colonized countries, especially in Africa. The movement effectively ended legal segregation in the United States and provided African Americans with political rights. New countries quickly flexed their independence by confronting the economic, political, and racial hierarchies that structured relations between Europe and the United States and the developing world of people of color based in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. New nations had their representatives at the United Nations attack racism and promote decolonization for African and Asian countries in a display of solidarity born out of their common experience of colonialism and racial subordination.

By the end of the twentieth century, none of the European countries or the United States could openly justify their colonial and imperial policies on racist grounds. No longer could colonial subjects be described as childlike and incapable of running their own countries because of racial inferiority, as had been done less than a century earlier.

The cultural and scientific assumptions held by the West that endorsed and informed racial policies that guided colonialism for five hundred years no longer receive the full and explicit support of the state and the law. But racism does not require colonies or the endorsement of the state to thrive. The legacy of the relationship between Western colonialism and racism is that deeply entrenched notions of cultural differences tied to race continue to inform social interactions from personal relationships among individuals to state-to-state relations. The rise in hostility and discrimination against newcomers from the third world in several European countries and the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century has breathed new life into cultural criteria to explain racial differences that have their origins in past colonial encounters.

Historically, racist regimes have thrived in colonies because racism allows colonizers to treat the colonized in a way they would not treat themselves through such policies as enslavement and the denial of political and legal rights. In the twenty-first century, with millions of formerly colonized peoples and their descendents living in Europe and the United States, the racism that once structured relations between the imperial country and the colony is now often practiced in an altered form inside a single country, albeit without full and open endorsement by the state. Consequently, the ongoing relationship between racism and Western colonialism that began more than five hundred years ago has entered a new stage in Europe and the United States with the battle over what entitles an individual to the benefits of citizenship and political rights. Increasingly, those who are not considered representative of the ethnic and racial heritage that has historically defined the nation have unequal access to the protection of the law and are most vulnerable to economic exploitation.

see also African Slavery in the Americas; Apartheid; Race and Colonialism in the Americas; Social Darwinism.


Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press, 1966.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: McClurg, 1903. Available online from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/treatise/dubois/dubois_01.htm.

Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996.

Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Sweet, James H. "The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought." William & Mary Quarterly 54 (1) (1997): 143-166

Winant, Howard. The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Discrimination, Racial

views updated May 23 2018

Discrimination, Racial



The word discrimination is derived from the word Latin discriminare translated as to distinguish between. Racial discrimination, as a commonly accepted construct, is conceptualized as distinguishing in an unequal or less favorable manner an individual or institution by another individual, institution, or other entity with power to influence outcomes based on the perceived race, nationality, ethnicity, or national origin of the victim. It can occur as an overt action or in a subtler, covert manner.


Overt racial discrimination occurs when there is an illegal and direct link between an individuals perceived race, nationality, ethnicity, or national origin, or an organizations perceived characteristics and composition, and a particular negative outcome or pervasive disadvantage. Notably, the conceptualization of overt racial discrimination emphasizes the inappropriate reliance on fallible perceptions of another persons race or ethnicity as an estimate of their more general characteristics, skills, abilities, or worth. Consistent with the historical use of the word race, contemporary racial discrimination occurs when external characteristics such as skin tone are used as a mechanism for negative appraisal or social or political classification (Goodman 2000). Appropriately or not, race is commonly used to distinguish groups of people according to their ancestry and a more or less distinctive combination of physical characteristics. Ethnicity, a term that includes biological, behavioral, and cultural characteristics, is commonly used to describe groups of people with a common history, ancestry, and belief system. Because terms of categorization such as race and ethnicity are used to quickly appraise and then give meaning to individuals in our environments, they are also principle agents for overt overestimates of knowledge about an individual, group, or organization, and may facilitate inappropriate judgments and social outcomes.

Indirect racial discrimination has existed throughout the history of mankind but has only recently come to the attention of social and medical researchers. The essence of indirect racial discrimination is that a structure or policy that was designed without specific attention to race or ethnicity results in disadvantage and or detriment to a particular group of people based on race or ethnicity. One example is a policy that for security purposes prohibits a particular type of uniform, dress, or head dressing that is the normal uniform, dress, or head dressing of a particular group of individuals of similar racial composition or ethnic heritage. Other examples include the forced participation of school-aged children in a particular celebratory custom or ritual that is incongruent with the religious beliefs or customs of a particular racial or ethnic group of people.

These examples highlight several important factors about overt and indirect racism. The first is that in the context of the multifactoral dimensions of humanity and the multiple characteristics that unite and distinguish individuals (e.g., age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.), it is sometimes difficult to prove that a single characteristic such as race is the basis of a negative appraisal or outcome. Secondly, inherent in the construct of racial discrimination is the presence of a power differential such that benefits or gains are withheld from deserving or entitled individuals or entities. In the absence of a power differential or a negative consequence, racial discrimination cannot exist.

Based on the complex definitions of race and ethnicity, racial discrimination is sometimes difficult to identify. For example, the existence of racial discrimination is not dependent on the volition of the perpetrator; it can exist even when the (accidental) perpetrators intentions were honorable. Additionally, in some cases the negative impact on or consequences to a victim may be difficult to identify.

Racial discrimination can occur as a single event or as a more systemic and engrained intentional or unintentional policy. In cases where there is an established pattern of inequity based on race, ethnicity, or culture perpetrated by a definable individual, overt racial discrimination is usually easier to prove, but when it is a single occurrence at issue, or the perpetrator is a system or institution, discrimination may be difficult to document and prove.


Recent evidence presented in the American Journal of Public Health indicated that people who experience daily discrimination may be more susceptible to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular and pulmonary disease and chronic pains (2006). This study was notable because it was the first to explore such issues in a sample of 2, 100 Asian Americans, a population traditionally thought to be insulated from negative discriminatory experiences. Similar evidence predicted poor mental health outcomes in black and Latino immigrants who were subject to racial discrimination (Gee et al. 2006). Gary Bennett and colleagues (2005) found that minorities who perceived greater amounts of racial or ethnic harassment were more likely to use tobacco daily, and ultimately may manifest greater risk of tobacco-related morbidity and mortality.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to protect an individuals right to employment without negative consequence or discrimination as a function of his or her race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. Title VII applies only to employers with more than fifteen employees. Current laws and regulations prohibit racial discrimination that results in differences in recruiting, hiring, determination of salary and fringe benefits, training, work assignments, promotions, transfers, disciplinary actions, firings, and retaliation. Yet, the workplace remains one of the most fertile settings for claims of racial discrimination. Each year from 1997 to 2006, more than 26, 000 race-based discrimination charges were filed in the United States (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2007).


Beyond individual level explanations, economic models have been posited for many years to explain inequity and racial discrimination. For example, Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate and professor who was often referred to as the economists economist, was a strong advocate of personal liberty and freedom. Among his many lifetime achievements and controversial theories were ending mandatory licensing of doctors as well as ending social security as an unfair and unsustainable system exemplary of governmental intervention in a free market economy.

In a manner consistent with his previous writings, Friedman also indicated that market racial discrimination and market competition were antithetical. More specifically, that social and political freedom was maximized and racial equality was best achieved by minimizing the interventional and regulatory role of the government, and that free markets and their associated economic forces would facilitate a state of equilibrium and fairness to all who participated (Friedman and Rose 1962).

Certainly, not all social scientists and economists agreed with Friedman. From a sociological and spatial perspective, many argued that there was a positive relationship between the size of a racial minority and discrimination. More specifically, that market competition encouraged racial discrimination. As the relative size of a racial or ethnic minority group increases, motives for the majority racial population to discriminate against the minority population may also increase toward the reduction of market racial competition and reducing threats to the loss of jobs and other essential scarce resources (Blalock 1967).

The relationship between the size of the minority population and the magnitude of discrimination is imperfect, at best. For example, the more effective the discriminatory economic practices against minorities, the less threat there is to perceived or real resources and, consequentially, the less the need for discriminatory practices. In contrast, ineffective discriminatory practices promote the use of additional or more potent attempts to regulate racial competition and preserve resources of the majority. Adjustments to the marketplace mobility and economic growth of minority and majority populations is designed to preserve majority resources, particularly in the upper echelons of status, while maintaining incentives for the minority racial populations to remain engaged in such a limited and punitive system (Reich 1981).

The compelling logic of this socioeconomic model of discrimination is that the more prominent minorities are in a labor force equally accessible to majority and minority populations, the worse their ultimate economic position at the hands of the majority. Secondly, that a ceiling of economic achievement and mobility will be imposed and maintained by the majority population to preserve economic status and resources as a function of the degree to which minority racial populations are perceived as threatening. Lastly and particularly, for example, in the U.S. market, discriminatory practices against minorities will most likely persist due to the increasingly large number of minorities in the workplace and their perceived threat to the economic existence and stability of the majority unless there are regulatory and other governmental remedies.


There are several marketplace and non-marketplace forms of racial discrimination. For example, statistical discrimination is unfair or unequal treatment of a racial group because of stereotypes or generalized estimates of group behavior or assumptions about an individual within a group based on the average estimated behavior for that group (i.e., greater interest rates for home mortgages for African Americans due to perceptions of greater risk of loan default). Customer discrimination refers to the process by which the racial composition of customers of a direct-public-contact business influences the race of who is hired as an employee. Although customer discrimination occurs in businesses that serve white and black customers, this practice appears to result in some reduction in overall labor demand and wages for blacks (Holzer and Ihlanfeldt 1998).

Social discrimination is the process by which non-meritorious judgments are made and differential treatment is given based on estimates of lower social status or lower social class of an individual secondary to their race or ethnicity. Governmental discrimination, like any other form of racial discrimination, is committed by governmental personnel or in a government setting against an individual based on their race or ethnicity. This can be manifest as direct actions against an individual or as policies that negatively effect groups of individuals. The difficulty of defining and then distinguishing racial discrimination from other concepts such as preference or choice is highlighted by non-market forms of private discrimination. An individual, based on previous experiences, social norms, or preferences can decide to exclusively pursue or exclude members of a group for mate selection. When is preference for a race elevated to the level of racial discrimination? Is this form of private discrimination harmful? Who gains and, if anyone, who is disadvantaged by such actions? Answers to these types of questions are as varied as the individuals who attempt to answer them.


In the context of a growing list of psychological and physical morbidities associated with racial discrimination, and what appears to be consistent numbers of claims of discriminatory acts each year, there remains a robust interest in factors that influence equity of processes and outcomes. Some theories suggest that racial discrimination is pathological and is to be remedied with policies and regulations. Others suggest that marketplace factors should produce a form of equality and that there is no role for government in facilitating equality of process or outcomes. Independent of theoretical orientations for resolving racial discrimination, its economic, social, interpersonal, psychological, and physiological consequences are not in question nor is the degree to which it demoralizes its victims.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Colorism; Discrimination; Discrimination, Statistical; Discrimination, Taste for; Discrimination, Wage; Discrimination, Wage, by Age; Discrimination, Wage, by Gender; Discrimination, Wage, by Occupation; Discrimination, Wage, by Race; Disease; Ethnicity; Inequality, Racial; Latinos; Mental Health; Mental Illness; Prejudice; Race; Race-Blind Policies; Race-Conscious Policies; Racism; Stereotypes


Bennett, Gary G., Marcellus M. Merritt, Christopher L. Edwards, and John J. Sollers III. 2003. Perceived Racism and Affective Responses to Ambiguous Interpersonal Interactions among African American Men. American Behavioral Scientist 47 (7): 963976.

Blalock, H. M., Jr. 1967. Toward a Theory of Minority Group Relations. New York: Wiley.

Friedman, M., and D. Rose. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holzer, H. J., and K. R. Ihlanfeldt. 1998. Customer Discrimination and Employment Outcomes for Minority Workers. Quarterly Journal of Economics 113 (3): 835867.

Krieger, Nancy, Pamela D. Waterman, Cathy Hartman, et al. 2006. Social Hazards on the Job: Workplace Abuse, Sexual Harassment, and Racial DiscriminationA Study of Black, Latino, and White Low-Income Women and Men Workers in the United States. International Journal of Health Services 36 (1): 5185.

Merritt, Marcellus M., Gary G. Bennett, Redford B. Williams, et al. 2006. Perceived Racism and Cardiovascular Reactivity and Recovery to Personally Relevant Stress. Health Psychology 25 (3): 364369.

Reich, M. 1981. Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, Albert M., Gilbert C. Gee, and David F. Laflamme. 2006. The Association between Self-Reported Discrimination, Physical Health, and Blood Pressure: Findings from African Americans, Black Immigrants, and Latino Immigrants in New Hampshire. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 17 (2 Suppl): 116132.

Terrell, Francis, Aletha R. Miller, Kenneth Foster, and C. Edward Watkins Jr. 2006. Racial Discrimination-Induced Anger and Alcohol Use among Black Adolescents. Adolescence 41 (163): 485492.

Tigges, L. M., and D. M. Tootle. 1993. Underemployment and Racial Competition in Local Labor Markets. Sociological Quarterly 34 (2): 279298.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2007. Race-Based Charges FY 1997FY2006. http://www.eeoc.gov/stats/race.html.

Wadsworth, Emma, Kamaldeep Dhillon, Christine Shaw, et al. 2007. Racial Discrimination, Ethnicity and Work Stress. Occupational Medicine 57 (1): 1824.

Christopher L. Edwards

Race and Racism

views updated May 18 2018


eighteenth-century debates
race as a dominant category of classification
the spread of "racism"

Ideas about race, so commonplace in the early twenty-first century, emerged in very specific historical settings. Concepts of race changed remarkably over time, and from place to place. The use of the word race began to appear in English in the sixteenth century, but its usage was unusual and infrequent, and even then might refer to all kinds of groups. It is widely accepted that modern concepts of race derived essentially from the years of Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century. Ideas about racism (largely a twentieth-century phenomenon) were similarly prone to change and variation across time and place.

eighteenth-century debates

Although theories about race flowered, and became most influential, in the nineteenth century, their origins are to be found in the previous century, and in the varied efforts to comprehend the origins of humankind. What gave the eighteenth-century debates such a sharp edge was their relevance for Europe's dealings with the wider world. Indeed it was the encounters with an obviously amazing variety of human types, societies, and people as Europeans traveled, traded, and colonized that formed the basis both for the inspiration and the data for the debate and writing about the nature of humankind. There had been observations about the distinctions between people in any number of historical settings. But it is really only since the early nineteenth century that Europeans (and then Americans) turned to the concept of race as the key concept for the categorization of human beings.

There were a number of major themes to eighteenth-century discussions of race. First, a race was seen to have a fixed set of characteristics that remained unchanged by outside conditions. Second, it was argued that a key feature of this racial typology was mental/intellectual, and that these features were not the same from one race to another (that is, some races were more intelligent or brighter than others). Third, it was argued that intellectual capacity revealed itself by outward physical characteristics: it was possible to tell, by physical appearance, the nature (and limitations) of a person's (or a group's) intellectual capacities. Thus were complex arguments about race simplified, over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, into relatively simple rules of thumb that gained remarkably widespread acceptance (through print and formal education) to become popular ideas that had a potency of their own. Thus did abstract literary and intellectual debates of the eighteenth century pass directly (if clumsily) into popular politics of the early twentieth century.

The early polarity of division, between Christians and pagans, gave way to ever more complicated divisions of humans, partly because the complexities of humanity were revealed as Europeans encroached on distant peoples, and partly as European intellectual traditions of philosophy and natural science also changed. The "discoveries" of the world's varied peoples pushed scholars toward new taxonomies (classifications). Inevitably, Western scholars inherited a powerful biblical tradition that explained the origins of humankind in relatively simple terms (via Adam and Eve). Inevitably too, these early analysts sought to strike a balance between the simple biblical explanation of human origins, and the geographic complexity of the world currently unfolding before them. In the process a string of new classifications emerged—most notably from the Swedish botanist Linnaeus (Carl von Linné; 1707–1778), and the German zoologist and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840)—that were inherited and used by subsequent scholars. But the core belief was that environment shaped human differences, whatever term was used to describe those differences. Different climatic regions produced different human types, which in their turn created very different social forms and structures. More troubling, because of its obvious theological consequences, was the emergence of polygenism; that is, the idea that humanity did not spring from a single point of creation. But to promote such a case was to confront the biblical argument of the origins of humans through Adam.

All commentators on the origins of humankind had to wrestle with the extraordinary diversity and geographic spread of humanity. How had humankind spread itself so widely across the surface of the earth? Perhaps the most influential writer who tackled the origins of humankind was Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–1788), whose massive work (running to forty-four volumes) sought to explain human features (color, appearance, size) in terms of environment. Transplant people around the globe and they would, he argued, adapt to local physical conditions. The problem however was that there was a growing volume of data that simply refuted such claims. There were for example sizable black minorities in Europe by the mid-eighteenth century that simply did not grow paler the longer they stayed in northern Europe. Equally, whites migrating to the tropics did not (if they survived) take on the physical features of local peoples. The clear problem was how to explain the diversity of humankind. For all Buffon's intellectual influence (a string of notable authors picked up and expanded his ideas), the human and anthropological evidence simply contradicted his case. A number of scholars wrestled with the concept of the human diversity, and by the late eighteenth century a number of scholars had begun to use the word race to describe the different groups they claimed to have identified.

race as a dominant category of classification

From the late eighteenth century the idea of "race" emerged as a dominant category in the classification of humankind. Science, medicine, and early anthropology (not fully developed until the nineteenth century) turned to race. But it also spilled over into popular usage and custom, both as part of the popular spoken vernacular and as an expression of popular opinion.

Atlantic slave empires

One critical element in this convergence of intellectual and popular usage of race stemmed directly from the emergence and significance of the Atlantic slave empires. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, especially after the development of the sugar plantations in Brazil and then the Caribbean, Europeans turned to Africa for slave labor. This in itself was a curiosity: why shift boatloads of Africans across the Atlantic to produce tropical staples for distant societies in western Europe? Moreover it was doubly curious in that slavery in Europe had effectively ended at the very period Europeans turned to Africa for slaves. Unable to persuade indigenous Indians to work in their new settlements, and incapable of securing adequate supplies of European settlers (free or indentured), colonists and their metropolitan backers turned to Africa. African slaves were already being used in the newly settled Atlantic islands. It seemed a natural step to transplant African slave labor into the Americas. The initial trickle became a flood after the establishment of the sugar plantations.

By the late eighteenth century, the Atlantic slave trade (now dominated by the British) ferried tens of thousands of Africans across the Atlantic every year. It is now known that some twelve million Africans were loaded onto the Atlantic slave ships, and about ten and half million landed in the Americas. Slavery was not, of course, unique to these newly created societies in the Americas. But what distinguished them—what made them unique—was their racial basis. At the height of the slave empires, to be black was to be a slave: to be a slave was to be black. Moreover this form of slavery hinged on the reduction of the African to the status of object/thing/chattel. Black humanity was, via the Atlantic slave trade, reduced to the level of thing.

Objectifying the African

This may, at first sight appear to be simply an accidental consequence of trade and colonization. In fact the reduction of one branch of humanity—African—to the status of property was consciously and deliberately shaped and orchestrated by metropolitan commercial and political interests. British laws, for example, specifically designated Africans as things in acts of Parliament governing the slave trade. Colonial legislation regulating government in the slave colonies, even English courts, designated Africans as items of trade—as things. As early as 1677 the English solicitor-general declared that "Negroes ought to be esteemed goods and commodities within the Acts of Trade and Navigation."

There were numerous occasions when English law and lawyers confirmed the property status of black people. In 1749 Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke, declared that slaves in England were "as much property as any other thing." Thus even before the intellectual debate about lack of humanity had begun to focus on race as a category, colonizing nations had created a special category for Africans and their descendants: The black was a thing, a nonhuman.

Implications for ideas of race

There was, of course, an abundance of evidence to the contrary. And the very idea of the black as a thing posed a serious intellectual challenge to a broadly based cultural acceptance of the African as Homo sapiens. Equally, there were powerful voices, growing in numbers and stridency by the late eighteenth century, that spoke out against the relegation of the black to the level of thing. Yet the critical fact remains indisputable. In order to tap the prosperity of the Americas, and to enhance the well-being both of the colonizing peoples and of their metropolitan nations, Europeans had created a special status for millions of humans. They had created a new form of slavery for their economic self-interest: a highly racialized form of slavery. Not surprisingly, this peculiar institution—so fundamental to life across swathes of the Americas until the mid-nineteenth century—had far-reaching consequences for the emergence of the debate about race, and for the development of a racism that had recognizably modern features. Stated simply, white society treated and viewed black humanity as a deeply inferior subset of humankind. The practical, intellectual, and popular consequences of black slavery were ubiquitous and pervasive.

What is odd is how this central fact—with consequences for four continents over more than four centuries, has rarely been recognized as a critical issue in the evolution of attitudes toward race in these years. It is worth asking the simple question: is it remotely possible that so prolonged a process of dehumanization for so many people (and scattered over such huge expanses of the globe) could not have shaped attitudes about race? The fundamental inspiration behind the Atlantic slave system was economic of course. But it came to be authorized and justified, in law, economic custom, and popular convention—and eventually in popular culture—in racial terms. Only black people could be slaves in the Atlantic system.

As part of the process of justification, commentators began to attribute to blacks "slavish" characteristics: ignorance, sloth, stupidity, duplicity, and mendacity—these and other vices were imputed to blacks as basic racial features that only the constraints of slavery could overcome. Without slavery, blacks would simply revert to their "natural" African vices and would prove of no value to society. Thus did slavery and all its punitive habits come to be explained and justified in terms of race. Blacks were of no economic use unless marshaled, regulated, and controlled by the repressions of slavery. What slavery did was to mark out millions of human beings (blacks) for special categorization. And in the process there was a marked slippage in definitions. The simple process of describing all black people as a type—a race—changed into something quite different: an explanation of human behavior by reference to race. What Atlantic slavery achieved was to lay the secure foundations for a form of racism. And that racism was to flourish, in changed and quite different circumstances, long after slavery itself had been abolished.

the spread of "racism"

This relegation of black humanity to a deeply inferior level was confirmed by a range of popular cultural expressions: cartoons, prints, newspapers, tracts—all and more described black humanity in grotesque, often animal-like, terms. What compounded this tradition was the work of men closely linked to the slave system, notably the planters and their hired scribes intent on maintaining the slave as an item of property and keen to deflect any hint of black equality. And it was at this point—in the increasingly frenetic late-eighteenth-century debate about black humanity (prompted by the early abolitionist movement), that the pro-slavery lobby began to speak of blacks as a "race." Until roughly 1750 race had been used simply as a classification—a type. But the abolitionist-plutocratic debate was crucial in shifting the meaning of the word. Henceforth race came to mean a group of people whose differences lay in their physical features—their skin, color, shapes. It was possible henceforth to spot a person's race simply by looking at them (though it is also true that an increasing trend toward human mixing, as peoples moved and settled around the globe, confused this pattern still further).

How this view of race spread and was made popular is a complex story, bound up with the emergence of a new culture of print, the transformation of urban life and the emergence, eventually, of widespread literacy. Equally, the establishment of popular education, in western Europe and North America, confirmed and extended the popular and scientific views of race by entering the classroom. Racism in a recognizably modern sense began to make itself felt both as an intellectual typology and as a popular concept.

Slavery left a distinct racial legacy. It was based on the proposition (however obviously flawed) that black people were things: chattels and objects of trade. Abolitionists' first task was to establish the humanity of slaves ("Am I not a man and a brother?"). But the theme persisted well into the nineteenth century. In the confused and widening debate about slavery (and the justifications for and against) the blackness of humanity was a central issue. But what made the older views about black inequality even more virulent was the emergence of new sciences that sought to discover categories of humans, and to provide a new scientific basis for that categorization.

The scientific urge to seek distinctions among humans concentrated not merely on color of course: shape, size, outward physical features (notably of the head), all and more were recruited to the task. But color remained the most obvious and immutable distinction. It was a protracted and confused process, but the outcome was a clear school of science, promoted by early anthropology and later social sciences, that claimed to explain human differences in racial terms. Not surprisingly, it led to a league table of humanity—with whites at the top. Blacks—inheriting the status endured by slaves in earlier centuries—were consigned to the lowest reaches of humankind.

There were also other forces at work, notably the emergence of powerful, popular attachments to racial feeling. Propagated by different but converging forces, popular racism equally consigned black humanity to the lowest rungs of humanity. One key explanation was the disappointment felt with the results of abolition. The high expectations of abolitionists, in the Caribbean and North America, that freed slaves would quickly take their place as a free and prospering peasantry, were soon disappointed. The poverty and continuing deprivation of former slaves in the Caribbean islands and in the U.S. South (in both cases, they were generally denied access to the land, education, and facilities required to improve themselves) confirmed the worst accusations of the pro-slavery lobby that blacks could never rise from the humblest of stations. They were, in effect, doomed to exist as the simple helots or serfs of superior peoples. Even in South America, where there had long been a powerful tradition of racial mixing, new waves of European immigration saw a hardening of local racial distinctions, and especially of the separation of black and white, in order to enhance and preserve the status of the more recently arrived white immigrants.

The language of race became hugely popular and widespread. Indeed it was so pervasive that it was applied, by the late nineteenth century, to much wider areas of society than previously. "Race" was thought a suitable category to describe a host of contemporary social structures. The British for example used race in the most casual and commonplace fashion: they called themselves "an island race" and even the lower orders of the British people (poor, urban, and industrial) were described as a "race" or a "race apart." In Europe as a whole, by the end of the nineteenth century, race had taken on an entirely new and more pervasive meaning. Germans viewed themselves as a national race, and scientists wrestled with the idea that Europeans might best be divided into racial groupings. What is remarkable about all this is the speed with which race became the widely and popularly accepted means of social categorizing and description. Race was no longer simply a tool used by social and natural scientists. It had taken on an entrenched and popular dimension.

It was greatly assisted by the rise of two related issues: mass education and literacy, and the urge to empire. The creation of modern empires (especially in Africa), the political debate in Europe about empire, and the classroom discussion of empire and of the wider world confirmed many of these new and simplistic views of race. What better way of confirming the superiority of the white person than pointing to the imperial maps in European classrooms and letting the evidence speak for itself? Maps seemed to confirm that the white world had triumphed easily and swiftly over the nonwhite world, and offered positive proof, it was argued, of the superiority/inferiority that lay at the heart of the whole process.

Such views were embedded at the heart of the literature to which generations of schoolchildren were exposed before 1914. Textbooks, maps, and lessons from teachers who were themselves steeped in the rhetoric of race became the basic educational diet of millions of schoolchildren. The lessons of history, geography, and even literature were harnessed to the task of expounding a racial view of the world that saw white society at the top and black society at the bottom (wherever one looked). It was furthermore a view confirmed by popular culture: by the hugely influential popular newspapers and print culture of the late nineteenth century. Children's books, comics, and magazines extolled the virtues of empire, and of the bravery of white men bringing the benefits of empire to the less developed corners of the globe. Even the contemporary cult of popular games (the very games that dominate the social landscape to this day) had a role in this process: they were training grounds for the perfection of imperial and military qualities, and physical expressions of the very process of racial/national superiority. No one thought—or imagined—that one day (not far hence) those very games would be usurped by the subject people to whom they were introduced, and those same people one day might even beat their masters at their own games. What happened to the old theories of superiority when black men beat white men at football, cricket, boxing, and track and field?

The strength of popular racism can be seen in most forms of early twentieth century popular culture: in print, of course, and in cartoons and music—especially in music halls and vaudeville (where "blacking-up" was a peculiar variant of the wider theme). It passed directly from this tradition into the early day of cinema and silent movies. Thus did the racism of the few—of "scientists"—become disseminated among millions of people, on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before World War I.


This account is, inevitably, a shortened account of what is a hugely complex and confusing story. But the basic point is simple enough. On the eve of World War I millions of people, throughout Europe and North America (and even wider afield) believed (and expressed) views about race that had, not long before, been the preserve of a small educated minority. The racism of the early twentieth century was a unique phenomenon. It was not, like the racial views of the era of slavery, a debate among relatively small numbers of interested parties and observers. It had become enormously popular and pervasive. It also had the potential to become a major political force. And that is exactly what happened. Scientific ideas about race were used by political groups, from the late nineteenth century onward, to develop a political case that hinged on concepts of racial superiority. This was transformed, in the 1920s and 1930s into its most virulent form, in the rise of fascism: a highly racialized philosophy that was to convulse Europe until 1945.

The line of descent between racial views in the eighteenth century and the ideological conflicts of twentieth century Europe may seem tenuous. In fact they were direct and unbroken. Views about race, and the emergence of modern racism, passed from the world of the slaveholder to the architects of twentieth century racial superiority. Naturally enough, the process, spread over such a long period (years marked by unprecedented social, economic, and demographic change) was complex and confusing. Yet there are recognizable elements from beginning to end. The categorization of humankind into racial groups, identified by outward appearances (color most notably) was perhaps the most striking and immutable legacy that passed from the world of racialized slavery in the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. At one level, the fact that racism, in all its varied and fluctuating forms, survives, is an indirect testimony to the persistence and durability of the ideas that underpinned the slave system in a long-distant era. It is as if the sins of the fathers continue to trouble descendants down to the present day.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Chamberlain, Houston Stewart; Civilization, Concept of; Eugenics; Evolution; Imperialism; Slavery.


Augstein, Hannah Franziska, ed. Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760–1850. Bristol, U.K., 1996.

Back, Les, and John Solomos, eds. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London, 2000.

Bulmer, Martin, and John Solomos, eds. Racism. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Chaplin, Joyce E. "Race." In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 154–172. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K., 2002.

James Walvin


views updated May 23 2018






Racism is intertwined with discrimination in two dimensions. On the one hand, discrimination is a specific practice that can arise from racism. On the other hand, racism is a specific form of discrimination directed against a social group that is constructed with regard to physical attributes, for example the color of the skin or the hair type. To these physical attributes specific social features such as behaviors and values are ascribed, thus naturalizing social attributes. Privileges and disadvantages of groups are therefore grounded in nature and gain their legitimacy through this naturalization. The identity of a person is always dependent on the marking, the ascription, and the perception of others. Self and other are defined in a reciprocal relationship: Racism is a specific process of producing self and other (see Darity, Mason, and Stewart 2006). It is the praxis of a dominant group classifying and characterizing an inferior group. Thus some scholars argue that racism transforms political or economical interests into apparently natural facts. Because racism affects social relations, class and race should be examined together (see Hall 1980).

Racism is produced on different levels of societies. On the macro level, racism comes into being through institutional rules, guidelines, and processes of exclusion that are based on and justified by racist discourse. Examples are the Jim Crow laws in the United States, the Nazi regime in Germany, and the apartheid system in South Africa. On the micro level, individual racism comes into being through generalizations, stereotypes, and discrimination against the others everyday activities.

The phenomenon of racism existed long before social scientists defined the term. In the 1930s the term racism was first used by the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld (18681935) to describe the ideology upon which the Nazis based their identification of the Jews as members of an alien, subordinate, and dangerous race, providing an ideological foundation for the Holocaust (for a wider analysis see Horkheimer and Adorno 1947).


Ideological racism developed from the processes of construing the human races as apparently homogenous and then building a hierarchy of these races on the basis of ascribed features. These concepts were developed in Europe in the eighteenth century in the context of the Enlightenment and the increased trust in scientific knowledge. Laws of nature were presented as the foundation for differences between social groups, and scientists tried to classify human beings according to categorizations developed in the natural sciences.

Some argue that these classifications based on nature replaced former classifications based on religion, following a trend to secularization. In contrast, Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown argued in Racism (2003) that the clash between the idea of biologically constituted different races and the religious belief that all human species descend from Adam and Eve and are therefore homogenous was harmonized by the claim that in response to human sin God damned the sinners and their descendents by distinctive features, such as black skin.

The main impulse to formulate racism as a theory came from French aristocrats striving to get back the privileges they lost in the French Revolution. According to them, the French aristocrats were descendants of the Franconian conqueror, so any restriction of their privileges was a violation of their inherited rights; this idea was formulated as the legend of the Franconia by the French historian Henri de Boulainvilliers (16581722). Socially different estates in France became referred to as different races. In consequence, the privileges of the aristocracy became legitimized not only by the legal system, but also by what were presented as hereditary, physical traits. Charles Darwins theory of natural selection and evolution (1863) provided further justification for this theory of the naturally grounded inequality of human beings. The adaptation of Darwins theory of evolution to society is called social Darwinism (see Hawkins 1997, Dickens 2000). Following this theory, disadvantaged races have their social positions because of their inferior qualities, and those inferior qualities are translated to inevitably lower social status in the common struggle for existence. The idea of a racial hierarchy based on nature became important during the colonization period beginning at the end of the fifteenth century when in the process of oppressing and exploiting Africans, Asians, and Native Americans the supposed racial superiority of whites was established (for a discussion of whiteness, see Bonnett 2000 and Allen 1994).

Racial inequality is a matter of scholarly debate. Some academics argue, with the help of recent genetic research, that there are more genetic variations within races than between them. In this view, races do not naturally exist, but instead are powerful social constructions of racist people (see Miles and Brown 2003). Adherents to this theory argue that there are no clear natural borders between the races; racism itself constitutes these borders and tries to maintain them by ignoring any exceptions. Two crucial aspects of the impact of racism emerge: On the one hand, there is the practice of defining an apparently homogenous group of human beings as a race by negating differences between the individual members of the group; on the other hand, it is essential that the differences between the social groups that are constructed as races are emphasized.

Other scholars argue that the reason for racism is not that there are different races. According to them, racism is caused by the ascription of specific attributes to the races, and they hold that by identifying races as an ideological effect the racial solidarity of the disadvantaged race is undermined.


Racism gets its full power by infiltrating peoples own specific perceptions. In the minds of both victims and perpetrators, racism is produced and reproduced with prejudices and stereotypes from the other and the own. It has been widely demonstrated that from the perspective of whites, blacks are seen as violent and criminal. Studies in psychology illustrate that the same behavior pattern is interpreted differently depending on the race of the actor (see, for example, Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, et al. 2004). From the point of view of whites, a positive action by a black person, like being smart and helpful, often is seen as an atypical event explained by special circumstances, whereas a negative action by a black, like committing a crime or an aggressive behavior, is seen as typical of the genuine personal characteristics of black people. For the actions of whites, the relation is reversed. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson illustrated the harmful effects of stereotypes when they demonstrated that the mere presence of a question asking the race of those taking an academic test led to a distinct decrease in the scores of participating African American college students: The race question activated negative stereotypes and self-confirming mental representations of poor academic performance. In consequence, the test participants confirmed unwittingly the stereotype that African Americans are intellectually inferior. Different tests showed that the simple activation of race stereotypes had different effects on test performances, depending on the kind of stereotypes (Shih, Ambady, Richeson, et al. 2002).


Because racism depends on economic and political factors, it is important to point out that racism came into being in different forms depending on the historic epoch and geographical region in which it appeared.

Slavery Slavery came into existence in China, imperial Rome, and West Africa without relying on racist concepts. However, in the colonial period the ideology of racism was useful in circumventing any of the conquerors religious or moral considerations that would make all human beings equal before God and thus require that they be treated equally by man. Using racist arguments, white conquerors could justify slavery, the use of slaves as property, the destruction of their social and cultural identities (Patterson 1982), and their exploitation. This was possible because the conceived hierarchy of races presented the whites as superior to other races; from a racist perspective, human beings are not equal and therefore they can be treated unequally.

The main reasons for the growth of slavery were economic. Slaves were used as a cheap labor force and as a profitable trade good. In the United States the profits acquired through slavery were an important factor in the growth of the shipping industry and a source of surplus wealth for early industrialism. Slaves worked in households, in mines, and on sugar and cotton plantations in the southern states of North America, in Brazil, and in the Caribbean. Most of the 4 million slaves in 1860 were the property of a small upper class in the U.S. southern states, and for this elite, their own economic power was bound directly to their property of slaves. They justified slavery by identifying blacks as a weak race that had to be protected by the slave owners, who knew how to treat them according to their natural status.

Before the end of the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century, between 11 and 15 million Africans were enslaved and transported to Europe and South, Central, and North America. Most of them were enslaved during the eighteenth century, and most came from the West African coast and from central Africa.

After the Civil War After the U.S. Civil War (18611865) slavery was legally banned in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Because there was no land reform most African Americans were solidly concentrated in the southeastern states, nominally free but economically tied to the same cotton lands and the same employers as before the war. Former slaves were still stigmatized and pressed into economic poverty. From the perspective of racist whites in the northern and southern states, African Americans were an inferior race without the right to participate equally in political and social life. After the end of slavery in the United States racism took shape in the oppression of the African American population and in defining them as a subordinated race.

Discriminatory practices continued in the United States; the Jim Crow laws (18901912) banned African Americans from public places, curtailed their educational rights, and allowed widespread violence against people of color, including the lynching of more than 3,000 African Americans in the southern states between 1882 and 1936. Clandestine organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan murdered and harassed African Americans.

The Twenty-First Century The civil rights movement in the United States led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending institutionalized racism in the United States. However, racism is still alive; the durability of ideological racism and the idea of naturally based inequality between races still is present in the attribution of social traits to racial groups. In consequence, economic and educational opportunities are still unequal between the races. African Americans are still put into a position of inferiority in the hierarchy of races; an expression of this is segregation in urban ghettos (see Massey and Denton 1993 and Wilson 1987). Racist discourse still exists and reproduces itself in the stereotypes; it is part of everyday discrimination, and it leads to different chances for access and participation in the contemporary United States and elsewhere.

SEE ALSO Discrimination; Economics, Stratification; Hierarchy; IQ Controversy; Prejudice; Race; Stigma; Stratification; White Supremacy; Whiteness; Whites


Allen, Theodore. 1994. The Invention of White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control. London: Verso.

Bonnett, Alastair. 2000. White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives. Harlow, U.K.: Prentice Hall.

Darity, William A. Jr., Patrick L. Mason, and James Stewart. 2006. The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Identity Norms. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organizations 60 (3): 283305.

Dickens, Peter. 2000. Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Phillip Atiba Goff, Valerie J. Purdie, and Paul G. Davies. 2004. Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87 (6): 876893.

Fredrickson, George M. 2002. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance. In Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, 305345. Paris: UNESCO.

Hawkins, Mike. 1997. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 18601945: Nature and Model and Nature as Threat. London: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. [1947] 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miles, Robert, and Malcolm Brown. 2003. Racism. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shih, Margaret, Nalini Ambady, Jennifer A. Richeson, et al. 2002. Stereotype Performance Boosts: The Impact of Self-Relevance and the Manner of Stereotype Activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (3): 638647.

Steele, Claude M., and Joshua Aronson. 1995. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797811.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lars Meier


views updated May 14 2018

racism According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term describes ‘the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race’. The word itself is rather recent, probably going back only to the 1930s. There are two attitudes towards the concept of racism: one says that ‘racism’ is usefully applied only where it is derived from a perception of race and the ensuing fixation on ‘typical’ racial traits. In this sense ‘racism’ describes the racialist attitudes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deriving from the merger of physical anthropology und ethnography on the background of the idea of evolution. Another school has argued that racism consists in intentional practices and unintended processes or consequences of attitudes towards the ethnic ‘other’. According to this line of thought, it is not necessary to possess a concept of ‘race’ to entertain prejudices towards other peoples.

As the term was coined in reaction to the rise of German Fascism and its antisemitic theory of race, ‘racism’ carries in itself the condemnation of what it means — it is true indeed that self-professed racists are very rare. Basically, racism lives in practice, not in theory; sociologists such as Michael Banton, therefore, have denied that the phenomenon of racism might be accessible to theory. Some theoreticians of imperialism have argued that only whites could be racists. Marxist thinking has tended to consider it as a corollary of the development of capitalist society. The sociologist Robert Miles, by contrast, has pointed out that pre-capitalist societies, too, afford manifold opportunities to observe racism. Concentrating on racism under the conditions of colonialism and in societies with a large contingent of foreign immigrants, Miles has put forward the suggestion that it must be regarded as an ‘ideology’. To rescue the concept of ‘racism’ from indiscriminate conflation with exclusionary practices, on the one hand, and from being tied up too closely with the nineteenth-century understanding of ‘race’, on the other hand, he has suggested that racism refers ‘to a particular form of (evaluative) representation which is a specific instance of a wider (descriptive) process of racialisation’.

The psychological precondition of racism is anxiety. On a sociological level it may be said that mobile societies and those experiencing great social changes are especially prone to develop some or other sort of racism: contempt of the ‘other’ provides a reassuring feeling of identity. Philosophically speaking, racism is the result of a world view that does not leave any conceptual room for the strange, the unknown. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has surprised his audience with his discovery that the Indians of Southern America possessed the very rare ability to accept the ‘other’. According to Strauss, the cosmogony of these Indians included the idea that the world was complete thanks only to the existence of other beings different from themselves. When the conquistadores arrived they were initially taken for this complement to Indian identity.

Racism has many faces; its particular expressions are dependent on the socio-economic, religious, and cultural situation of any given society. This versatility notwithstanding, the moral overdetermination of skin colour is one of its most conspicuous, ever-recurring elements. The Christian world has excelled at consigning dark complexion to the realms of the mysterious and the bad. In pagan antiquity, however, this was quite different: the stereotypes associated with black Africans were rather of a positive nature: blackness signified qualities such as wisdom, or the love of freedom and justice.

One of the earliest examples of what, in modern parlance, amounts to state-organized racism in European history was the persecution of the Jews in fifteenth-century Spain. In 1492 King Ferdinand succeeded in defeating the Arabs at Granada. Eight hundred years of Muslim rule in Southern Spain came to an end. In the wake of the victory, the Jews were expelled. Though converts to Christianity were allowed to remain, the enforced Jewish exodus signalled that the times were over when political rulers could tolerate the existence of the ‘other’ on their territory. This had been possible in the Roman Empire as well as in Greek city-states. Post-medieval, centrally governed countries, by contrast, had lost the will and the philosophical preconditions for putting up with foreign ethnic groups. Since the fifteenth century instances of organized racism have accumulated. The holocaust happened in a cultural climate of which it has been said that it bore many resemblances to the atmosphere in Spain at the time of the expulsion of the Jews.

H. F. Augstein


Benedict, R. (1983). Race and racism. Routeledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Miles, R. (1989). Racism. Routledge, London.
Banton, M. (1970). The concept of racism. In Race and Racialism, (ed. S. Zubaida). Tavistock Publications, London.

See also anthropology; genocide; race.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The belief that members of one (or more) races are inferior to members of other races.

Racism is most commonly used to describe the belief that members of one's own race are superior physically, mentally, culturally, and morally to members of other races. Racist beliefs provide the foundation for extending special rights, privileges, and opportunities to the race that is believed to be superior, and to withholding rights, privileges, and opportunities from the races believed to be inferior. No scientific evidence supports racist claims, although racism exists in all countries and cultures. The definition of racism has evolved to describe prejudice against a group of people based on the belief that human groups are unequal genetically, and that members of some racial groups are thus inferior. Sociologists distinguish between individual racism, a term describing attitudes and beliefs of individuals, and institutional racism, which denotes governmental and organizational policies that restrict minority groups or demean them by the application of stereotypes. While such policies are being corrected to eliminate institutional racism, individual racism nonetheless persists.

Scientists have acknowledged individual differences among ethnic and racial groups, citing the importance of environment in shaping performance and measurable ability . When test results appear to indicate differences in ability and performance that follow racial lines, the effect of environment must be considered in interpreting the results. In addition, tests and other instruments for evaluating ability may be biased to favor knowledge and experiences of one racial or ethnic group over others. Thus, test scores must be analyzed with great caution with regard to patterns of performance and their relationship to race.

By studying genetic patterns in humans, scientists have demonstrated that genetic differences between races are not very significant. As humans migrate from continent to continent and ethnic groups intermingle, racial categories will have less meaning, but prejudice is not likely to disappear.

See also Ethnocentrism; Eugenics

Further Reading

Balibar, Etienne. "Racism and Anti-Racism." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 14+.

Dawes, Kwame. "Clothed Against Naked Racism." World Press Review (April 1996): 32+.

Jacquard, Albert. "An Unscientific Notion." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 22+.

Wieviorka, Michel. "The Seeds of Hate: Racism and Nationalism After World War II." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 104+.


views updated May 21 2018

rac·ism / ˈrāˌsizəm/ • n. the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. ∎  prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief: a program to combat racism.DERIVATIVES: rac·ist n. & adj.


views updated May 14 2018

racism Doctrine advocating the superiority of one human race. Racism has been the avowed policy of certain regimes that, as a result, sanctioned slavery and discriminatory practices, such as the anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and the apartheid system in South Africa. In 1967, UNESCO defined racism as “anti-social beliefs and acts which are based on a fallacy that discriminatory inter-group relations are justifiable on biological grounds”.