ORIGIN OF THE IDEA OF RACE
by Audrey Smedley
Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997
Contemporary scholars agree that “race” was a recent invention and that it was essentially a folk idea, not a product of scientific research and discovery. This is not new to anthropologists. Since the 1940s when Ashley Montagu argued against the use of the term “race” in science, a growing number of scholars in many disciplines have declared that the real meaning of race in American society has to do with social realities, quite distinct from physical variations in the human species. I argue that race was institutionalized beginning in the 18th century as a worldview, a set of culturally created attitudes and beliefs about human group differences.
Slavery and the Coming of Africans
Race and its ideology about human differences arose out of the context of African slavery. But many peoples throughout history have been enslaved without the imposition of racial ideology. When we look at 17th century colonial America before the enactment of laws legitimizing slavery only for Africans and their descendants (after 1660), several facts become clear.
1). The first people that the English tried to enslave and place on plantations were the Irish with whom they had had hostile relations since the 13th century.
2) Some Englishmen had proposed laws enslaving the poor in England and in the colonies to force them to work indefinitely.
3) Most of the slaves on English plantations in Barbados and Jamaica were Irish and Indians.
4) Many historians point out that African servants and bonded indentured white servants were treated much the same way. They often joined together, as in the case of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) to oppose the strict and oppressive laws of the colonial government.
In the latter part of the 17th century the demand for labor grew enormously. It had become clear that neither Irishmen nor Indians made good slaves. More than that, the real threats to social order were the poor freed whites who demanded lands and privileges that the upper class colonial governments refused. Some colonial leaders argued that turning to African labor provided a buffer against the masses of poor whites.
Until the 18th century the image of Africans was generally positive. They were farmers and cattle-breeders; they had industries, arts and crafts, governments and commerce. In addition, Africans had immunities to Old World diseases. They were better laborers and they had nowhere to escape to once transplanted to the New World. The colonists themselves came to believe that they could not survive without Africans.
When some Englishmen entered slave trading directly, it became clear that many of the English public had misgivings about slave-trading and re-creating slavery on English soil. It was an era when the ideals of equality, justice, democracy, and human rights were becoming dominant features of Western political philosophy. Those involved in the trade rationalized their actions by arguing that the Africans were heathens after all, and it was a Christian duty to save their souls. By the early part of the 18th century, the institution was fully established for Africans and their descendants. Large numbers of slaves flooded the southern colonies and even some northern ones. Sometimes they outnumbered whites, and the laws governing slavery became increasingly harsher.
A New Social Identity
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the image of Africans began to change dramatically. The major catalyst for this transformation was the rise of a powerful antislavery movement that expanded and strengthened during the Revolutionary Era both in Europe and in the United States. As a consequence proslavery forces found it necessary to develop new arguments for defending the institution. Focusing on physical differences, they turned to the notion of the natural inferiority of Africans and thus their God-given suitability for slavery. Such arguments became more frequent and strident from the end of the eighteenth century on, and the characterizations of Africans became more negative.
From here we see the structuring of the ideological components of “race.” The term “race,” which had been a classificatory term like “type,” or “kind,” but with ambiguous meaning, became more widely used in the eighteenth century, and crystallized into a distinct reference for Africans, Indians and Europeans. By focusing on the physical and status differences between the conquered and enslaved peoples, and Europeans, the emerging ideology linked the socio-political status and physical traits together and created a new form of social identity. Proslavery leaders among the colonists formulated a new ideology that merged all Europeans together, rich and poor, and fashioned a social system of ranked physically distinct groups. The model for “race” and “races” was the Great Chain of Being or Scale of Nature (Scala Naturae), a semi-scientific theory of a natural hierarchy of all living things, derived from classical Greek writings. The physical features of different groups became markers or symbols of their status on this scale, and thus justified their positions within the social system. Race ideology proclaimed that the social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual inequality of different groups was, like their physical traits, natural, innate, inherited, and unalterable.
Thus was created the only slave system in the world that became exclusively “racial.” By limiting perpetual servitude to Africans and their descendants, colonists were proclaiming that blacks would forever be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. By keeping blacks, Indians and whites socially and spatially separated and enforcing endogamous mating, they were making sure that visible physical differences would be preserved as the premier insignia of unequal social statuses. From its inception separateness and inequality was what “race” was all about. The attributes of inferior race status came to be applied to free blacks as well as slaves. In this way, “race” was configured as an autonomous new mechanism of social differentiation that transcended the slave condition and persisted as a form of social identity long after slavery ended.
Humans as Property
American slavery was unique in another way; that is, how North American slave-owners resolved the age-old dilemma of all slave systems. Slaves are both persons and things—-human beings and property. How do you treat a human being as both person and property? And what should take precedence, the human rights of the slave or the property rights of the master? American laws made clear that property was more sacred than people, and the property rights of masters overshadowed the human rights of slaves. Said Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the famous Dred Scott case of 1857, “Negroes were seen only as property; they were never thought of or spoken of except as property” and “(thus) were not intended by the framers of the Constitution to be accorded citizenship rights.”
In order to transform people solely into property, you must minimize those qualities that make them human. Literature of the early nineteenth century began to portray “the negro” as a savage in even stronger terms than those that had been used for the Irish two centuries earlier. This was a major transformation in thought about who Africans were. Historian George Fredrickson states explicitly that “before 1830 open assertions of permanent black inferiority were exceedingly rare” (The Black Image in the White Mind, 1987). By mid-century, the ideology of “negro inferiority” dominated both popular and scholarly thought.
Science and the Justification for “Races”
What is so striking about the American experience in creating such an extreme conception of human differences was the role played by scientists and scholars in legitimizing the folk ideas. Scholarly writers began attempting to prove scientifically that “the Negro” was a different and lower kind of human being. The first published materials arguing from a scientific perspective that “negroes” were a separate species from white men appeared in the last decade of the eighteenth century. They argued that Negroes were either a product of degeneration from that first creation, or descendants of a separate creation altogether.
American intellectuals appropriated, and rigidified, the categories of human groups established by European scholars during the eighteenth century, but ignored Blumenbach’s caution that human groups blend insensibly into one another, so that it is impossible to place precise boundaries around them.
When Dr. Samuel Morton in the 1830s initiated the field of craniometry, the first school of American anthropology, proponents of race ideology received the most powerful scientific support yet. Measuring the insides of crania collected from many populations, he offered “evidence” that the Negro had a smaller brain than whites, with Indians in-between. Morton is also famous for his involvement in a major scientific controversy over creation.
The very existence of a scientific debate over whether blacks and whites were products of a single creation, or of multiple creations, especially in a society dominated by Biblical explanations, seems anomalous. It indicates that the differences between “races” had been so magnified and exaggerated that popular consciousness had already widely accepted the idea of blacks being a different and inferior species of humans. Justice Taney’s decision reflected this, declaring, “the negro is a different order of being.” Thus slave-owners’ rights to their “property” were upheld in law by appeal to the newly invented identity of peoples from Africa.
Scientists collaborated in confirming popular beliefs, and publications appeared on a regular basis providing the “proof” that comforted the white public. That some social leaders were conscious of their role in giving credibility to the invented myths is manifest in statements such as that found in the Charleston Medical Journal after Dr. Morton’s death. It states, “We can only say that we of the South should consider him as our benefactor, for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race” (emphasis added). George Gliddon, co-editor of a famous scientific book Types of Mankind, (1854) which argued that Negroes were closer to apes than to humans and ranked all other groups between whites and Negroes, sent a copy of the book to a famous southern politician, saying that he was sure the south would appreciate the powerful support that this book gave for its “peculiar institution” (slavery). Like another famous tome (The Bell Curve, 1995) this was an 800-page book whose first edition sold out immediately; it went through nine other editions before the end of the century. What it said about the inferiority of blacks became widely known, even by those who could not read it.
During discussions in the U.S. Senate on the future of “the negro” after slavery, James Henry Hammond proclaimed in 1858 “somebody has to be the mudsills of society, to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” Negroes were destined to be the mudsills. This was to be their place, one consciously created for them by a society whose cultural values now made it impossible to assimilate them. In the many decades since the Civil War, white society made giant strides to “keep the negro in his place.” Public policies and the customs and practices of millions of Americans expressed this racial worldview throughout the twentieth century.
These are some of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the racial worldview in North America. Race ideology was a mechanism justifying what had already been established as unequal social groups; it was from its inception, and is today, about who should have access to privilege, power, status, and wealth, and who should not. As a useful political ideology for conquerors, it spread into colonial situations around the world. It was promulgated in the latter half of the 19th century by some Europeans against other Europeans and reached its most extreme development in the twentieth century Nazi holocaust.
All anthropologists should understand that “race” has no intrinsic relationship to human biological diversity, that such diversity is a natural product of primarily evolutionary forces while “race” is a social invention.
Fredrickson, G. M. 1987. The Black Image in the White Mind. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Smedley, A. 1993 (1999). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press.
Stepan, Nancy. 1982. The Idea of Race in Science. London: Macmillan.
Audrey Smedley is a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is author of the American Anthropological Association’s position paper on ‘race,’ and the new millennial edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on ‘race.’