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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.'
<BACK TO TOP