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.
The concept of race did not originate with science. On the contrary,
science emerged in the late 18th century and helped validate
existing racial ideas and "prove" a natural hierarchy of groups.
Throughout our history, the search for racial differences has
been fueled by preconceived notions of inferiority and superiority.
Even today, scientists are influenced by their social context.
Ideas and definitions of race have changed over time, depending
on social and political climate. Historically, racial categories
were not neutral or objective. Groups were differentiated so
they could be excluded or disadvantaged, often in explicit ways.
For example, in the early 20th century, U.S. courts had to decide
who was legally white and who wasn't for the purposes of naturalized
citizenship. This was done in arbitrary and sometimes contradictory
Groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos
and Asian Americans have played a significant role in shaping
American society. Many of the freedoms we take for granted were
fought for and won by those who were originally excluded by
discriminatory laws and practices. In struggling for their own
inclusion, nonwhites have guaranteed fair treatment and equal
rights for everyone.
Which came first - slavery or race?
Throughout human history, societies have enslaved others due
to conquest, war or debt, but not based on physical difference.
The word "slave" in fact comes from "Slav": prisoners of Slavonic
tribes captured by Germans and sold to Arabs during the Middle
Ages. Prior to the Enlightenment, slavery was simply a fact
of life, unquestioned. Race, on the other hand, is a much more
recent idea, tied up with the founding of the U.S.
In colonial America, our early economy was based largely on
slavery. When the new concept of freedom was introduced during
the American Revolution, it created a moral contradiction: how
could a nation that proclaimed equality and the natural rights
of man hold slaves? The idea of race helped resolve the contradiction
by setting Africans apart. The notion of natural Black inferiority
helped our founding fathers justify denying slaves the rights
and entitlements that others took for granted.
Later, as the abolitionist movement gained popularity and attacks
on slavery grew, so did arguments in its defense. Slavery was
no longer explained as a necessary evil, but justified as a
positive good. The rationale for slavery was so strong that
after emancipation, ideas of innate inferiority and superiority
not only persisted but were intensified.
Were Africans enslaved because they were thought to be inferior?
In colonial America, Africans weren't enslaved because they
were thought to be inferior. On the contrary, they were valued
for their skill as farmers and desired for their labor. Planters
had previously tried enslaving Native Americans, but many escaped
and hid among neighboring tribes or were stricken by diseases
brought to the New World by Europeans.
In the early years of the colonies, the majority of workers
were poor indentured servants from England. In fact, during
Virginia's first century, 100,000 of the 130,000 Englishmen
who crossed the Atlantic were indentured servants. Conditions
of servitude were miserable, and nearly two thirds died before
their term of indenture ended. After several decades, African
slaves began arriving in the U.S. and worked side by side with
indentured servants. Many played together, intermarried, and
ran away together. Racial categories were fluid, and slavery
was not yet codified into law.
In the mid-17th century, a crisis arose in the colonies. As
economic conditions in Mother England improved, the number of
volunteers willing to journey across the Atlantic to endure
such harsh treatment dropped dramatically, causing a labor shortage.
At the same time, tension and hostilities were mounting domestically,
as more servants were surviving their indenture and demanding
land from the planter elite. The entire plantation labor system
and colonial social hierarchy was threatened; the situation
came to a head when poor servants and slaves allied and attacked
the elite classes during Bacon's Rebellion.
After the system of indentured servitude proved unstable, planters
turned increasingly to African slavery and began writing laws
to divide Blacks from whites. Coincidentally, African slaves
became more available at this time. Poor whites were given new
entitlements and opportunities, including as overseers to police
the slave population. Over time, they began to identify more
with wealthy whites, and the degradation of slavery became identified
more and more with Blackness.
Go to the For Teachers section of this site for
a lesson plan on the emergence of a racial ideology in Jamestown.
How was the racial idea expanded to include other groups?
Imbued with a new validity by scientists, race
evolved into the "common-sense" wisdom of white America by the
middle of the 19th century. It was invoked not only to justify
the enslavement of Africans, but also the taking of Mexican
and Indian lands, the exclusion of Asian immigrants, and eventually,
the acquisition of overseas territories such as the Philippine
Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico. Racial superiority was seen not
only as "natural" and inevitable but a moral responsibility
for whites. The notions of Manifest Destiny and the White Man's
Burden best capture this ideology of "civilization"
and racial difference.
Ideas of racial inferiority have been institutionalized
- both explicitly and implicitly - within our laws, government,
and public policies. Not surprisingly, racial definitions have
also changed over time, depending on the political context.
They have also been arbitrary and inconsistent from group to
Mexicans, for example, were classified as white
until 1930, when nativists lobbied successfully for them to
be classified separately in order to target them for discrimination
and emphasize their distinctness from whites. Historically,
African Americans in the Jim Crow South were classified according
to "blood" ancestry, but the amount (one quarter,
one sixteenth, one drop) varied from state to state, which meant
that, as historian James Horton points out, "you could
cross a state line and literally, legally change race."
Since the 19th century, Native Americans have
been defined in terms opposite those defining African Americans.
Rather than the "one-drop" rule, a minimum "blood
quantum" requirement has been the standard for tribal membership
and racial classification. Historically, membership in many
Native American tribes was based on acceptance of tribal language,
customs, and authority, not "blood" degree. Escaped slaves,
whites and other Indians were able to join tribes and be accepted
as full members. However, in the 1930s, tribes wanting federal
recognition were forced to follow government guidelines, including
membership based upon "blood" degree. A 1991 Bureau
of Indian Affairs inventory of 155 federally recognized tribes
in 48 states showed that 4 out of 5 condition membership on
proof of blood, ranging in amount from 1/2 to 1/64th.
Since the Civil Rights era, we are faced with
the conundrum of having arbitrary racial categories which nevertheless
reflect real social experiences and are necessary to track and
remedy discrimination. As we grapple with what to do about race,
it's useful to understand the historical circumstances and historical
meanings surrounding the concept.