For at least 400 years, a theory of “race” has been a lens through which many individuals, leaders, and nations have determined who belongs and who does not. Theories about “race” include the notion that human beings can be classified into different races according to certain physical characteristics, such as skin color, eye shape, and hair form. The theory has led to the common, but false, belief that some “races” have intellectual and physical abilities that are superior to those of other “races.” Biologists and geneticists today have not only disproved this claim, they have also declared that there is no genetic or biological basis for categorizing people by race. According to microbiologist Pilar Ossorio:
Are the people who we call Black more like each other than they are like people who we call white, genetically speaking? The answer is no. There’s as much or more diversity and genetic difference within any racial group as there is between people of different racial groups.
As professor Evelynn Hammonds states in the film Race: The Power of an Illusion: “Race is a human invention. We created it, and we have used it in ways that have been in many, many respects quite negative and quite harmful.”
When the scientific and intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment came to dominate the thinking of most Europeans in the 1700s, they exposed a basic contradiction between principle and practice: the enslavement of human beings. Despite the fact that Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality inspired revolutions in the United States and France, the practice of slavery persisted throughout the United States and European empires. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American and European scientists tried to explain this contradiction through the study of “race science,” which advanced the idea that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races. If it could be scientifically proven that Europeans were biologically superior to those from other places, especially Africa, then Europeans could justify slavery and other imperialistic practices.
Prominent scientists from many countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Germany, and the United States, used “race science” to give legitimacy to the race-based divisions in their societies. Journalists, teachers, and preachers popularized their ideas. Historian Reginald Horsman, who studied the leading publications of the time, describes the false messages about race that were pervasive throughout the nineteenth century:
One did not have to read obscure books to know that the Caucasians were innately superior, and that they were responsible for civilization in the world, or to know that inferior races were destined to be overwhelmed or even to disappear.
Some scientists and public figures challenged race science. In an 1854 speech, Frederick Douglass, the formerly enslaved American political activist, argued:
The whole argument in defense of slavery becomes utterly worthless the moment the African is proved to be equally a man with the Anglo-Saxon. The temptation, therefore, to read the Negro out of the human family is exceedingly strong.
Douglass and others who spoke out against race science were generally ignored or marginalized.
By the late 1800s, the practice of eugenics emerged out of race science in England, the United States, and Germany. Eugenics is the use of so-called science to improve the human race, both by breeding “society’s best with the best” and by preventing “society’s worst” from breeding at all. Eugenicists believed that a nation is a biological community that must be protected from “threat,” which they often defined as mixing with allegedly inferior “races.”
In the early twentieth century, influential German biologist Ernst Haeckel divided humankind into races and ranked them. In his view, “Aryans”—a mythical race from whom many northern Europeans believed they had descended—were at the top of the rankings and Jews and Africans were at the bottom. Ideas of race and eugenics would become central to Nazi ideology in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Despite the fact that one’s race predicts almost nothing else about an individual’s physical or intellectual capacities, people still commonly believe in a connection between race and certain biological abilities or deficiencies. The belief in this connection leads to racism. As scholar George Fredrickson explains, racism has two components: difference and power.
It originates from a mindset that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the...Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group.
The idea that there is an underlying biological link between race and intellectual or physical abilities (or deficiencies) has persisted for hundreds of years. Learning that race is a social concept, not a scientific fact, may be challenging for students. They may need time to absorb the reality behind the history of race because it conflicts with the way many in our society understand it.