Racism can be described as an extreme form of ethnocentrism (i.e., seeing one’s language, customs, ways of thinking, and material culture as preferable). But instead of using cultural factors to mark differences that can be overcome if some are willing and able to adopt beliefs and customs of others, racial boundaries depend on perceptions of physical distinctions between human body types, which are seen to be expressions of innate, biological divergence.
A number of historians have argued that racial divisions and racist attitudes were already present in societies such as Greece and Vedic India in ancient times. In any meaningful usage, however, these ways of conceptualizing and responding to differences between human groups originated in an age of global expansion and cross-cultural interaction in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ce. This era saw the first sustained contacts between the Eastern and Western hemispheres as well as greatly intensified regional and intracontinental interactions among societies across the world. Like all of the other peoples involved in cross-cultural contacts in these centuries, the Europeans who traveled overseas to trade, explore, and proselytize were highly ethnocentric, that is inclined to see their languages, customs, ways of thinking, and material culture as preferable—if not superior—to those of the diverse societies they encountered in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This very human propensity to emphasize cultural differences was much in evidence in ancient times among peoples such as the Greeks, who distinguished themselves from the “barbarians” because the latter could not speak Greek, or the Chinese, who viewed such nomadic, pastoral peoples as the Turks and Mongols as uncouth and inferior because they lived in regions with too little rainfall to support the sedentary agriculture and sophisticated urban lifestyles that the Chinese deemed essential for civilization.
Racism can be seen as an extreme form of this ethnocentrism, which for a number of reasons explored below developed for the first time in the early modern era of expansion, and—at least in this time period—only among peoples of European descent. Rather than cultural markers of difference, which are malleable and can be overcome if some groups are willing and able to adopt the beliefs and customs of others, racial boundaries are based on perceptions of somatic or physical distinctions between human body types, which are seen to be expressions of innate, biological divergence. Although the physical attributes stressed by those who construct or adhere to beliefs in the racial distinctiveness of human groups have varied considerably by time period and the society in which they are nurtured, racist thinking has almost always encompassed convictions that some peoples are inherently superior or inferior to others and presumed—at least implicitly—that this state of inequality arises from innate and immutable differences in intelligence.
The Genesis of Race and Racism
Whether based on a sense of religious or material superiority, European ethnocentrism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ce was blinkered and self-congratulatory, but it was usually not racist in any meaningful sense of the term. Until the late seventeenth century, humanity was seldom divided into clearly demarcated categories by European travelers or writers, and when attempts were made to distinguish human types, the criteria were invariably vague and inconsistent. Physical differences between peoples encountered overseas were, of course, frequently described in considerable detail. But even in reports of contacts between the fairest-skinned northern Europeans and the darkest peoples of the rain forest regions of Africa or coastal South Asia, differences in skin pigmentation or hair texture are often noted in a matter-of-fact way. Contrary to the arguments of a number of Western scholars, which themselves may be expressive of ethnocentric preferences, European travelers did not necessarily admire light-skinned peoples more than “tawny” or “black” ones. In fact, numerous explorers explicitly commented on the beauty or well-proportioned bodies of both males and females of peoples described as dark-skinned. For example, François Bernier, one of the most famous French travelers of the late seventeenth century, was one of the first writers to attempt to classify the different types of humans he had encountered in his peregrinations. He had, however, very little to say about the basic human types that he proposed in a rather desultory way, and was a good deal more interested in ranking the peoples he had encountered according to which had the most beautiful women, which included at the top of his list relatively dark-skinned Egyptians and Africans. In a number of accounts by other Western observers, peoples described as tawny or black are ranked above their lighter-skinned neighbors in terms of their intelligence and the level of cultural development they have achieved. And few Europeans who traveled overseas made any attempt to link facial features or hair quality to more general assessments of a people’s aptitudes or intelligence. Like differences in culture, physical variations were usually linked to environmental influences rather than seen as innate products of reproduction and biological inheritance.
This page from an 1878 geography text sets forth a classification of races that remained popular well into the twentieth century.
The Atlantic Plantation System, Slavery, and Racism
It is still not clear exactly when attitudes and responses that were genuinely racist first emerged. But decades of careful research on the Atlantic slave trade and slave societies throughout the Americas have thoroughly documented the connection between chattel slavery as it developed in the centuries of European expansion into the Atlantic world and the emergence of increasingly elaborate arguments for the inherent and immutable differences between peoples sold into bondage for the slave plantations of the New World and the Europeans who shipped them across the Atlantic and profited from their enforced servitude. Even though we cannot determine precisely when and why the belief in extreme differences between Europeans and Africans was first articulated, by the seventeenth century it was widely held by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and other nationals deeply involved in the slave trade. And there can be little question that the socioeconomic conditions under which the Atlantic slave trade was conducted directly affected the widespread acceptance of arguments for the Africans’ innate, or racial, inferiority, and in some circles the conviction that they were a separate species from the rest of humankind.
One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
Early, inchoate racist sentiments were to some degree elicited by extreme differences in skin color and other obvious (but not genetically significant) variations in physical appearance between both those who sold slaves and those actually reduced to slave status. But cultural differences were in most cases far more critical in shaping European attitudes toward different peoples and societies. These ranged from the Africans’ alleged paganism—which was said to revolve around the “worship” of what the Europeans misguidedly lumped together as “fetishes”—to European disparagement of what they judged to be low levels of material development, based on everything from the coastal peoples’ lack of impressive stone structures (including forts), large cities, powerful rulers, and strong states, to their indifference to semi- or complete nudity. These assessments were, of course, problematic in a number of ways. To a significant degree, for example, they were shaped by the fact that the slave traders concentrated their activities in coastal areas, where, due to environmental conditions and human choice, political power was in fact less centralized than in much of Europe, and building materials and modes of dress were well suited to hot and humid ecosystems rather than the colder temperate conditions in the lands from which the Europeans set forth. The few European explorers who traveled inland throughout the vast savanna lands of the Sudanic belt (the desert and semi-arid zone between the North African Maghrib and the rainforest regions of West Africa) before the nineteenth century encountered impressive cities—such as Jenne and Timbuktu (Tombouctou)—as well as states and armies often larger than those in Europe, extensive trading networks, monumental architecture, and Islam, a monotheistic religion that had emerged from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and thus—despite intense Christian–Muslim rivalry—one Europeans could relate to their own. Because so much of what the Europeans found in the interior of Africa matched their ethnocentric expectations regarding human achievement and worth, the African peoples of the Sudanic zone were generally given more favorable treatment in Western writings. Until well into the nineteenth century, Europeans usually dissociated the peoples of the Sudanic zone from the racist strictures often directed against the peoples of the societies on the west and southwest coasts of the continent, where the slave trade was concentrated from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
Few of the European travelers, slave traders, merchants, or missionaries who became involved in ongoing cross-cultural exchanges with African coastal peoples had any real understanding of their complex, sophisticated social systems and religions or appreciation for their splendid art, music, and oral literature. In addition, most of the Africans whom Europeans came into contact with were either merchants engaged to varying degrees in the slave trade or groups and individuals who had the misfortune to be captured and marched to coastal entrepôts in bondage, where they would be sold to the Europeans and transported to plantation societies across the Atlantic. Not only were the enslaved understandably profoundly disoriented and in states of shock and despair, they had been suddenly and violently snatched from the cultures where their skills were valued and they had won respect and social standing. In the Atlantic system, slaves were regarded as chattel, the property of other humans, and merely drudge labor. Even if they served as house servants on plantations in the Americas, they had no chance of becoming full members of the households and kinship networks to which they were usually connected in the largely domestic systems of slavery that predominated across most of Africa and Asia. Thus, there was little opportunity for most slaves to demonstrate their intelligence or talents. In fact, once enslaved, their burdens as laborers, and often their very survival, could depend on feigning incompetence or stupidity. “Smart” slaves were viewed with suspicion by members of the planter classes as potential troublemakers who might rouse others to resist the oppressive existence to which they had been condemned.
Whatever mix of these factors accounted for the emergence of racist attitudes among different European groups operating within the Atlantic slave trading network, on the plantations of the Americas, or in drawing rooms of Europe where natural philosophers deliberated over the latest treatise on the divisions within the human species, racist ideas were regularly enlisted in the defense of the enslavement of Africans and the brutal systems of social control that were essential to hold them in bondage. Emphasis on the innate inferiority of the African “race,” or in extreme cases the contention that Africans were subhumans, served to rationalize the lives of humiliation, servitude, and misery that tens of millions forced to labor in the Atlantic plantation system endured through over four centuries. In these same centuries, far smaller numbers of Asian peoples, such as the Malays imported into the Dutch Cape Colony in South Africa or impoverished bonded servants from the lower castes of India, were also enslaved by Europeans overseas. But at least until the late eighteenth century, there were few attempts to argue for the racial distinctiveness of these groups. And those, such as the effort by the sixteenth-century Spanish jurist Juan Ginés Sepúlveda, who sought to demonstrate that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were soulless subhumans who could legitimately be enslaved, were fiercely contested—most famously by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who energetically disputed Sepúlveda’s contention that wars to subjugate Amerindian peoples were just. Although in recent decades there has been considerable debate over the extent to which North American settler colonists distinguished themselves from the indigenous peoples in racial terms, the evidence suggests that until the nineteenth century at least, settler prejudice against the Native Americans was predominantly based on perceived cultural rather than physical differences.
Scientific Verification and Theories of Race
Until the last decades of the eighteenth century, racial distinctions and the concept of race itself remained vague and mutable. Early attempts to distinguish basic types within the human species in the mid-seventeenth century were crude and impressionistic. It is believed that the first of these was by the humanist Isaac de la Peyrère who in a 1655 treatise on the descendants of Adam and Eve, chose skin color as his key marker and lumped most human groups according to whether they were reported as “red,” “yellow,” “black,” or “brown.” In the 1680s the indefatigable traveler François Bernier argued there were five main types of humans, including a catch-all “light-skinned” category and an equally variegated “African” grouping, and opined that the relatively minuscule Lapp herder peoples of the Scandinavian north composed a comparable category. Neither of these writers sought to set forth clear criteria on which these differences between human groups could be discerned and tested. A century later, a number of natural philosophers, most prominently the Scotsman Lord Monboddo, who had not even seen most of the peoples he wrote about, asserted that Africans, or Negroes, were closer (mainly on the basis of physical appearance) to apes than humans. In contrast to Lord Monboddo and other armchair naturalists, the physician Edward Long had lived for decades in the midst of the large African slave population in Jamaica. Large sections of Long’s History of Jamaica (first published in 1774) were devoted to descriptions of the unflattering physical features and signs of cultural debasement of the slave population that set them off from the European planter class. Like Monboddo, Long went to great lengths to chronicle the biological differences that made the Africans more akin to “lower” animal species than “whites.” But Long also argued at great length, and with considerable pretension to scientific authority, that miscegenation between Negroes and “whites” invariably resulted in infertile hybrids; thereby proving they were separate species.
In the last decades of the eighteenth century, a number of prominent scientists, including two Germans, S. T. Soemmering and Christopher Meiners, conducted extensive anatomical investigations of different human types, using mainly skeletal remains for which they had only limited non-European samples. The purpose of these exercises in comparative anatomy was to provide an empirical grounding for determining specific bodily differences between racial groups and to establish more precise—hence ostensibly scientific—classifications of basic racial types within the human species. Popularized, and in many cases seriously distorted, by numerous nineteenth-century racist thinkers, including physicians who sought to refine or revise the findings of earlier investigators, racial classifications proliferated steadily. In some cases race studies were merged with “scientific” explorations of innate criminal types or utilized in tracts by eugenicists and other evolutionist thinkers arguing for the prohibition of race mixtures or promoting ones deemed advantageous for the improvement of dominant, hence superior races, whether “Caucasian” or “Mongoloid.” By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the scientific study of race had fostered the production of a remarkable variety of instruments to measure the anatomical features of cadavers, skeletons, and skulls of specimens for different racial groups. Increasingly, the focus of these efforts to quantify racial distinctions came to be concentrated on the comparative measurements of skull samples from different human groups. By the last decades of the century, the “science” of phrenology was pervasive in European societies, a constant presence in venues as disparate as the ponderous deliberations of scientific societies and anthropological associations, such best-selling books as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the seaside amusement stands of Great Britain, where one could have one’s head measured in considerable detail for a small fee. The influence of evolutionary thinking, the assertion of Christian doctrine, and some of the more credible scientific studies led over the last half of the nineteenth century to the slow decline in the popularity of polygenetic explanations of racial difference, which traced them to separate creations, in favor of monogenetic theories, which stressed the essential unity of humankind, while attempting to argue ever wider, less permeable differences between racial types.
Racism and Ideologies of Oppression
In the half century before World War I and the two decades following the conflict, racial thinking reached the peak of its influence in shaping the ways in which societies in many parts of the world were organized, providing justifications for imperial expansion, supplying ideological fodder for mass social movements, and generating unprecedented intra-human strife and oppression. In the late nineteenth century, notions of racial superiority, often expressed in terms that were clearly nationalistic rather than biological, were constantly invoked by those who advocated colonial expansion and the domination of “lesser” peoples. Racist assumptions undergirded the civilizing mission ideology that was used to justify this aggressive behavior, explain away the marked decline in the living conditions of colonized peoples, and rationalize often draconian measures taken to repress popular resistance to imperial domination.
In colonies from Morocco to Vietnam, racist pronouncements informed all aspects of life from urban planning to schemes aimed at promoting the work ethic among the indigenous laboring classes. In the American South, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, many of the same ideas (though far less infused with scientific racism in the case of South Africa) provided the ideological basis for societies organized around extreme racial segregation and discrimination against people of color: African Americans in the southern United States; “kaffirs” or the Bantu-speaking majority in South Africa as well as immigrant Indians and mixed-race “coloreds”; Aboriginal people in Australia; and Maoris in New Zealand. In Germany, racist thinking intensified centuries-old religious and cultural prejudice against the Jews with ever more virulent expressions of anti-Semitism. After abetting the Nazi rise to power, racist invective made possible segregation, dispossession, removal and incarceration, and finally a massive, systematic campaign to exterminate not only the German Jews but all of those in the areas that were forcibly incorporated into the short-lived Nazi Empire from the late 1930s. In Japan in roughly the same decades, ultra-patriotic ideologues who stressed the importance of racial purity as the key to the superiority of the Japanese people played critical roles in launching an increasingly militarized society on the path to external aggression, empire building, and ultimately a disastrous war against the United States and its European and Pacific allies.
Racism Repudiated and the Persistence of Prejudice
Those who sought to develop a science of race or promoted racist ideologies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were no more successful than earlier thinkers had been in establishing meaningful, widely agreed upon points of demarcation between different human groups, much less in setting forth acceptable, non-ethnocentric standards by which the superiority or inferiority of different racial types might be judged. In the early decades of the twentieth century, when the influence of racist-charged ideologies and demagogues as well as racial discrimination at the everyday levels of social interaction remained pervasive in societies across the globe, an intellectual counteroffensive was mounted. One of the prime movers of this assault on racist thinking was Franz Boas, a prominent German anthropologist who spent the most productive decades of his distinguished career training graduate students in the United States, among whom were Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Boas, the anthropologists his teaching inspired, and allied ethnographers challenged the widespread assumption that racism had been validated by objective, culturally neutral, scientific investigation. They also sought to supplant race or biological difference with an emphasis on cultural variations in the study of human societies. By the early 1940s, the genocidal nightmare that the Nazis unleashed across Europe in the name of race purity and the racially charged war then raging in the Pacific generated widespread revulsion against racist social and political agendas. In the decades that followed, the spread of movements for independence organized by colonized peoples across Asia and Africa, as well as civil rights agitation against the segregationist regimes in the American South and South Africa, further discredited theories of racial difference and their use to legitimize discrimination.
Despite these countervailing trends and campaigns explicitly aimed at eliminating racial prejudice mounted by international organizations such as the United Nations, racism has persisted both in popular attitudes in many societies and, in some instances, state policy, such as the regime based on institutionalized discrimination that lasted in South Africa well into the 1990s. In some of the more militant, extremist strands of movements for liberation from racial oppression, such as some Black Power organizations in the United States and settler Zionism in Palestine, reactive racist sentiments were nurtured. Theories of race were also kept alive by scientists and social pundits who persisted in efforts to demonstrate empirically that there were genetic differences, centered on intelligence quotient, or IQ, averages, in the capacities of different human groups. But by the final decades of the twentieth century, the idea of race and the racist prejudices and behavior that had been associated with it for nearly half a millennium were rejected by the overwhelming majority of scientists and social thinkers worldwide.