Four Things that Every American Should Know about the History of Race

In my last book, I spent a lot of time thinking about where the notion of race and racialized thinking came from, particularly racialized thinking related to Africans and people of African descent.

In the United States, most people think that racism against African Americans emerged somewhat organically from the transatlantic slave trade: from the forced deportation of 400,000 Black Africans to North America and another eleven million to other parts of the Americas between 1525 and 1866. The logic of the narrative is clear: in order to enslave, Europeans (and then white Americans) debased and brutalized people with black skin. But this is only the beginning of the story. We must look back even further (and cross an ocean) to truly understand how and when notions of human difference emerged. Only then can we challenge and move beyond the race-driven history of this country.

Here are four facts about the emergence of the notion of race that are rarely discussed:

 # 1) The persecution of humans who are perceived as “different” is surely as long as the history of humankind itself. Yet the elaborate (and increasingly “scientific”) conception of human difference that we know today only emerged about 300 years ago. This actually began in the 1740s, when European “scientists,” in an attempt to free themselves from a religious explanation for human origins, searched for theories that did not refer directly to the Bible. The most important racial theory to emerge during this time was called degeneration; this scheme posited that an original group of (white) humans spread out around the globe and “degenerated” into Asians, Blacks, and Amerindians as a result of different climates. Not surprisingly, this theory crowned Europeans as the prototype norm: Africans and other “degenerate” humans, such as Laplanders, were little more than unfortunate offshoots of a superior root stem. (Nazi ideology would make use of similar “scientific” ideas.)

 # 2) Medical practitioners fascinated by the “origins” and nature of blackness helped develop what we now call race. European anatomists not only dissected deceased slaves, but published illegitimate and baseless articles that asserted that Blacks had dark brains, bile, and even blackish sperm! From there, it was just a short step to associating the black body itself with laziness, hypersexuality, and diminished intelligence. Some of these unsubstantiated ideas still linger.

 # 3) Around 1750, naturalists in Europe began referring to human phenotypes as races as opposed to varieties. This signaled a significant change in the way that humans were perceived. The notion of a human variety, which is a much softer idea than a race, is a botanical metaphor that implies continuity and even hybridization. Race is a far more zoological notion that emphasizes inherited features, fixed categories, and, in the case of Blacks, inferior heredity.

# 4) Classification of different groups of humans – using the term race only – really began in the 1770s. Naturalists including J.F. Blumenbach – it was he who coined the term Caucasian because he believed that Whites originated in the Caucasus Region of what is now the Republic of Georgia – declared that science had identified real and measurable human categories. Some naturalists took the idea of biological difference to its logical conclusion, proposing that Africans formed a different, inferior species. These ideas thrived in the United States, particularly in the nineteenth century, when slave owners felt increasingly compelled to justify the plantation system.

Progressive thinkers, abolitionists, and, eventually, freed slaves including the writer Olaudah Equiano began critiquing this type of racialized thinking in the 1770s. Up until a few years ago, many people (including myself) believed that the battle against the most nefarious forms of unscientific racism had been won. Yet many of these same notions – including those related to White supremacy – have not only remained deeply embedded in our nation’s psyche, but have been essential tools of the Alt Right and, at times, the White House.

How do we combat these ideas and racism in general? Part of the solution may paradoxically come from teaching high school students about the anecdotal and spurious birth of race. While this knowledge may do little to address the ongoing problems associated with institutionalized racism, a bit of history might allow the next generation to debunk the original roots of prejudice.

Andrew Curran