Invention of race
Race and ethnicity are social constructs, not biological categories. They are the product of history, made and remade over time. As historians, we try to understand how these social categories are constructed and used; how racial and ethnic identities are lived and experienced; and how they intersect with other group identities, such as class, gender, nationality, and region. The history of race and ethnicity is tied to histories of political and economic power, labor and class struggle, and cultural expression. By studying race and ethnicity together, and by incorporating racial and ethnic formation and perspectives into other categories, we get a deeper understanding of social and cultural interactions, the distribution and contestation of power, and political action and social mobilization.
- What is race? What is racism? How do ideas about race affect how we see others and ourselves?
- How do we decide what labels to apply to people? Why do we use racial and ethnic labels? What do we gain or lose by using these labels? If it were possible, would it make sense to eliminate such labels entirely? Would that change our understanding? How and why? How do racial and ethnic labels shape the way we understand identity?
- Are there aspects of your identity that are important to you that are not revealed by these labels? How would our understanding of your identity be different if we asked different questions or labeled you differently?
- How is our identity shaped by the language we use to describe it? Do we construct our identity with our language or do we describe an identity that exists apart from language?
Racialization Throughout U.S. History
Race is a modern idea - it hasn't always been with us. In ancient times, language, religion, status, and class distinctions were more important than physical appearance. In America, a set of specific historical circumstances led to the world's first race-based slave system. Throughout our history, the search for racial differences has been fueled by preconceived notions of inferiority and superiority.
Ideas and definitions of race have changed over time, depending on the social and political climate. Racial categories were never neutral or objective. Groups were differentiated so they could be excluded or disadvantaged, often in explicit ways.
Race and the Political Economy
To understand the political economy, we have to look at the relationships between markets, social institutions, history and culture, and the ever-shifting role of government. Like all other aspects of society, racialization impacts economic relationships. Its cumulative and structural effects, or structural racism, appear in ways that perpetuate race-based economic inequities. Racialization and the political economy continually interact, from who controls sources of wealth in society, such as land, labor and capital, to where people live, go to school, get access to transportation and healthcare.
Throughout U.S. history, the country been engaged in a debate over the role of government in the economy. Going back to the colonial period, the struggle for ‘states’ rights,’ which was meant to limit federal government powers, was shaped mostly to preserve slavery and the racial order of the time. During Reconstruction, states’ rights were called on to stop the federal government from protecting the economic and political rights of former slaves (it was called ‘preserving our traditions’ by white elites). When Reconstruction came to an end, states’ rights meant former slave-holding states could implement a new racial order in the form of Jim Crow.
Science as a Justification for Race
In 1859, Charles Darwin published, On the Origin of the Species, his book documenting the process of evolution. Darwin believed in a natural order to the development of species; the weak die off and the strong survive. Although Darwin's theory was not racist, philosophers and social scientists, used his theory to justify genocide and racism. This thinking was later called “Social Darwinism” and it had brutal implications. In 1838, J.C. Prichard, a famous anthropologist, lectured on the “Extinction of Human Races.” He said it was obvious that “the savage races” could not be saved. It was the law of nature. In 1864, W. Winwood Reade, a member of both London’s geographical and anthropological societies published a book called, Savage Africa. He ended the book predicting the future of the black race. “England and France will rule Africa. Africans will dig the ditches and water the deserts. It will be hard work and the Africans will probably become extinct. We must learn to look at the result with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.”
Religion as a Justification for race
During the reformation (1500s & 1600s), a key question among Christian religious leaders was whether Blacks and “Indians” had souls and/or were human. In this time period, Europeans more frequently encountered Africans and the indigenous peoples of North and South America, and the church vacillated between opinions. The Catholic and the Protestant churches arrived at different answers to the question at different times, which created significant differences between the two systems of slavery. The Catholic Church was the first to admit Blacks and Indians had souls, which meant in many Catholic colonies it was against the law to kill a slave without reason. The Protestant-Calvinist Church wanted to separate and distinguish themselves from Catholicism, and therefore was much slower in recognizing the humanity of Africans and Indians. With the increasing importance of slavery, religion was used as a means to justify racist divisions, classifying people of color as ‘pagan and soulless’.