Explore The Evolution of an Idea

Race hasn't always been with us. Ancient people didn't stigmatize physical difference, and our modern concept of race emerged out of specific historical circumstances.

400 BCE Ancient views of difference The ancient Greeks distinguish themselves from others according to culture and language, but not physical differences. In fact, the word for "barbarian" comes from the Greek "barbar," which means a person who stutters, is unintelligible, or does not speak Greek. People from many regions of the world, including Africa, can shed their barbarian status and be accepted as Greek citizens if they adopt the language, customs and dress. Conversely, Greece, like Rome, is an "equal opportunity" society that enslaves people regardless of appearance.
1300s Origin of "slave" It is thought that the word "slave" derives from the word Slav: prisoners from Slavonic tribes of northern and eastern Europe captured by Germans and sold to Arabs during the Middle Ages. Throughout much of human history, societies enslave others, as a result of conquest, war or debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority. In America, a unique set of historical circumstances leads to the enslavement of peoples who share similar physical traits and common African ancestry. Justification in terms of "race" comes later.
1616 Pocahontas marries John Rolfe When the English first arrive in America, neither the colonists nor Indians think of themselves or each other in terms of race. On the contrary, Protestant England's hated rival is Catholic Spain, while the Indians see themselves not as Indians, but different nations divided by language, custom and power. When the Powhatan princess Pocahontas marries colonist John Rolfe, the union causes a scandal in the British court, not because Rolfe has married an Indian, but because Pocahontas, a princess, has married a commoner. In 17th-century England, status and social station are more important than physical differences.
1676 Social identities fluid In early colonial America, social identities are fluid, and class distinctions trump physical difference. On Virginia plantations, European indentured servants and African slaves mix freely - they work, play, and make love together. In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion unites poor Africans and Europeans against Indians and wealthy planters. Although the rebellion is short-lived, the alliance alarms the colonial elite, who realize the labor system based on indentured servitude is unstable. Coincidentally, captured Africans, perceived as stronger workers by Europeans, become more available at this time. Planters turn increasingly to African slavery for labor, while granting increased freedoms to Europeans.
1705 Virginia slave codes passed As wealthy planters turn from indentured servitude towards slavery, they begin to write laws transforming Africans and their descendantsinto permanent slaves , dividing Blacks from whites and slaves from free men. As skilled farmers, resistant to European diseases and unable to escape and hide among neighboring tribes, Africans are an ideal labor source. African Americans are punished more harshly for crimes and their rights (whether as slaves or freemen) are increasingly curtailed. Poor whites are given new entitlements and opportunities, including as overseers who police the slave population. Over time, poor whites identify more with wealthy whites and the degradation of slavery is identified more and more with Blackness.
1776 Freedom creates contradiction Wealthy planter and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson pens the Declaration of Independence establishing a radical new principle: human equality and the natural rights of man. Although this document lays the foundation for our American democracy, it also creates a moral contradiction - how can a nation built on freedom hold slaves? Previously, slavery has been unquestioned. It is only challenged on moral grounds when freedom and equality are introduced. Rather than abolish slavery, some founding fathers seek justification in the "nature" of slaves. Contempt for slaves begins to harden into an ideology of racial difference and white supremacy.
1810 Indians take on racial idea Increasingly lumped together as the enemy by encroaching settlers, some Indians begin to think of themselves as sharing a unified identity - or at least a common fate. Delaware, Miami, Sauk, Mesquakie, Potawatmi, and Kickapoo warriors join the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (known as the Prophet) to forge a pan-Indian movement and drive white Americans off their lands. However, many tribes divide or refuse to join their army, and in October 1811, the alliance is attacked and defeated in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tecumseh himself is later killed during the War of 1812. "Where today are the Pequot, Narraganset, Mohican, Pokanet and many other such powerful tribes? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man....[note: 4 dots]The only way to stop this evil is for all the red men to unite and claim an equal and common right to the land." - Tecumseh
1833 Abolition fuels racial idea The American Anti-Slavery Society forms in Philadelphia. By 1835, the society has established hundreds of branches throughout the free states, and anti-slavery sentiment is on the rise. But as attacks on slavery grow, so do the arguments in its defense. Slavery advocates turn to scientific and biblical arguments to "prove" that Negroes are distinct and inferior to whites. The "nature" of slaves, they maintain, not slaveholders' greed and avarice, is the cause of their condition. No longer is slavery defended as a "necessary evil" but as a "positive good." The rationale for slavery is so strong that when the institution is finally abolished in 1865, the racial idea lives on.
1845 Manifest Destiny and war with Mexico In a news editorial about the annexation of Texas, John O'Sullivan writes of America's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." This now-famous phrase is used throughout the latter 19th-century to justify the U.S.-Mexican War and American territorial expansion. White superiority and innate racial difference have become "common sense" and are invoked not only against Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans, but also to rationalize the acquisition of overseas territories.
1899 White Man's Burden In February 1899, McClure's Magazine publishes a poem by Rudyard Kipling which advocates American imperialism in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Picking up where Manifest Destiny leaves off, the concept of the White Man's Burden not only justifies expansion, it presents the colonization of people as a noble enterprise. Racial superiority has become more than common sense - whites now have a moral imperative to govern inferior peoples, a mission preordained in the hierarchy of races. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation and mass immigration from Europe and Asia, the concept figures prominently in debates over citizenship and social fitness at home and in the newly acquired territories.


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