NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY & CULTURE
TALKING ABOUT RACE
The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history. The U.S. has never been without it.
Race is a human-invented, shorthand term used to describe and categorize people into various social groups based on characteristics like skin color, physical features, and genetic heredity. Race, while not a valid biological concept, is a real social construction that gives or denies benefits and privileges. American society developed the notion of race early in its formation to justify its new economic system of capitalism, which depended on the institution of forced labor, especially the enslavement of African peoples. To more accurately understand how race and its counterpart, racism, are woven into the very fabric of American society, we must explore the history of how race, white privilege, and anti-blackness came to be.
THE INVENTION OF RACE
The concept of “race,” as we understand it today, evolved alongside the formation of the United States and was deeply connected with the evolution of two other terms, “white” and “slave.” The words “race,” “white,” and “slave” were all used by Europeans in the 1500s, and they brought these words with them to North America. However, the words did not have the meanings that they have today. Instead, the needs of the developing American society would transform those words’ meanings into new ideas.
The term “race,” used infrequently before the 1500s, was used to identify groups of people with a kinship or group connection. The modern-day use of the term “race” (identifying groups of people by physical traits, appearance, or characteristics) is a human invention. During the 17th century, European Enlightenment philosophers’ based their ideas on the importance of secular reasoning, rationality, and scientific study, as opposed to faith-based religious understandings of the world. Philosophers and naturalists were categorizing the world anew and extending such thinking to the people of the world. These new beliefs, which evolved starting in the late 17th century and flourished through the late 18th century, argued that there were natural laws that governed the world and human beings. Over centuries, the false notion that “white” people were inherently smarter, more capable, and more human than nonwhite people became accepted worldwide. This categorization of people became a justification for European colonization and subsequent enslavement of people from Africa.
Slavery, as a concept has existed for centuries. Enslaved people, “slaves,” were forced to labor for another. We can point to the use of the term slave in the Hebrew Bible, ancient societies such as Greece, Rome, and Egypt, as well as during other eras of time. Within the Mediterranean and European regions, before the 16th century, enslavement was acceptable for persons considered heathens or outside of the Christian-based faiths. In this world, being a slave was not for life or hereditary – meaning the status of a slave did not automatically transfer from parent to child. In many cultures, slaves were still able to earn small wages, gather with others, marry, and potentially buy their freedom. Similarly, peoples of darker skin, such as people from the African continent, were not automatically enslaved or considered slaves.
The word “white” held a different meaning, too, and transformed over time. Before the mid-1600s, there is no evidence that the English referred to themselves as being “white people” This concept did not occur until 1613 when the English society first encountered and contrasted themselves against the East Indians through their colonial pursuits. Even then, there was not a large body of people who considered themselves “white” as we know the term today. From about the 1550s to 1600, “white” was exclusively used to describe elite English women, because the whiteness of skin signaled that they were persons of a high social class who did not go outside to labor. However, the term white did not refer to elite English men because the idea that men did not leave their homes to work could signal that they were lazy, sick, or unproductive. Initially, the racial identity of “white” referred only to Anglo-Saxon people and has changed due to time and geography. As the concept of being white evolved, the number of people considered white would grow as people wanted to push back against the increasing numbers of people of color, due to emancipation and immigration. Activist Paul Kivel says, “Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”
European colonists’ use of the word “white” to refer to people who looked like themselves, grew to become entangled with the word “race” and “slave” in the American colonies in the mid-1660s. These elites created “races” of “savage” Indians, “subhuman” Africans, and “white” men. The social inventions succeeded in uniting the white colonists, dispossessing and marginalizing native people, and permanently enslaving most African-descended people for generations. Tragically, American culture, from the very beginning, developed around the ideas of race and racism.
The racial identity of “white” has evolved throughout history. Initially, it referred only to Anglo-Saxon people. Historically, who belonged to the category of “white” would expand as people wanted to push back against the increasing numbers of people of color due to emancipation and immigration.
The Historical Evolution of Race (and Racism) in Colonial and Early America
Fueled by the Enlightenment ideas of natural rights of man, spurred by the passion for religious freedom, in search of property, and escaping persecution, European colonists came to North America in search of a place to create a new society. The ideals of Enlightenment spread to the North American colonies and formed the basis of their democracy as well as the most brutal kind of servitude – chattel slavery.
In the world before 1500, the notion of hierarchy was a common principle. Every person belonged to a hierarchical structure in some way: children to parents, parishioners to churches, laborers to landowners, etc. As the ideas of the natural rights of man became more prevalent through the 18th century, the concept of equality becomes a standard stream of thought. By categorizing humans by “race,” a new hierarchy was invented based on what many considered science.
Within the first decades of the 1600s, the first Africans were captured and brought to the American colonies as enslaved labor (most colonies had made enslavement legal). At this time in colonial America, enslaved Africans were just one source of labor. The English settlers used European indentured servants and enslaved indigenous people as other forms of coerced labor. These groups of enslaved and forced labor often worked side-by-side and co-mingled socially. The notion of enslavement changed throughout the 1600s. In this early period, enslavement was not an automatic condition, nor did it uniformly apply to all African and African-descended people. Very importantly, being enslaved was not necessarily a permanent lifetime status. The boundaries between groups were more fluid but began to shift over the next few decades to make strict distinctions, which eventually became law.
By the late 1600s, significant shifts began to happen in the colonies. As the survival of European immigrants increased, there were more demands for land and the labor needed to procure wealth. Indentured servitude lost its attractiveness as it became economically less profitable to utilize servants of European descent. White settlers began to turn to slavery as the primary source of forced labor in many of the colonies. African people were seen as more desirable slaves because they brought advanced farming skills, carpentry, and bricklaying skills, as well as metal and leatherworking skills. Characterizations of Africans in the early period of colonial America were mostly positive, and the colonists saw their future as dependent on this source of labor.
The trajectory of Virginia’s development of chattel slavery highlights how the system of chattel slavery and, along with it, anti-blackness (opposed to or hostile toward black people), was codified in colonial America. Labor status was not permanent nor solely connected to race. A significant turning point came in 1662 when Virginia enacted a law of hereditary slavery, which meant the status of the mother determined the status of the child. This law deviated from English common law, which assigned the legal status of children based on their father’s legal status. Thus, children of enslaved women would automatically share the legal status of “slave.” This doctrine, partus sequitur ventrem (see below), laid the foundation for the natural increase of the enslaved in the Americas and legitimized the exploitation of female slaves by white planters or other men. In 1667, the last of the religious conditions that placed limits on servitude was erased by another Virginia law. This new law deemed it legal to keep enslaved people in bondage even if they converted to Christianity. With this decree, the justification for black servitude changed from a religious status to a designation based on race. See more information about the timeline of “Slavery in the Making of America.”
Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 was a short-lived but had a long-reaching effect of deepening the racial divide in the colonial Chesapeake region. Coalitions of poor white people, free and enslaved Africans, rebelled against the rising planter class because they wanted to acquire land reserved for Virginia’s indigenous people. Elite colonists determined that they needed to amass more native lands for their continued expansion, to pacify poor European colonists who sought economic advancement, and to keep a dedicated labor force to do the grueling agricultural work. By the mid-1700s, new laws and societal norms linked Africans to perpetual labor, and the American colonies made formal social distinctions among its people based on appearance, place of origin, and heredity.
The Africans physical distinctiveness marked their newly created subordinate position. To further separate the social and legal connections between lower-class whites and African laborers (enslaved or free), laws were put into place to control the interaction between the two groups. These laws created a hierarchy based on race.
Paradox of Liberty in America’s Consciousness
Colonists’ belief in natural laws produced revolutionary political thought in the last part of the 18th century. New generations of Americans, many born in the colonies, seized upon ideas like that of John Locke’s “Social Contract” which argues that all people naturally had a right to life, liberty and property, and that any created government is legitimate only with the consent of those people being governed. Thomas Jefferson built upon these ideas in the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were inalienable, God-given rights to all men. After the Revolution, the U.S. Constitution strongly encoded the protection of property within its words. It is within these twin founding documents that the paradox of liberty – the human right to freedom and the socially protected rights to property – became the foundation and essence of the American consciousness. The question(s) of who could – and can – claim the unalienable rights has been a question for America through time.
Colonists’ belief in natural laws produced revolutionary political thought in the last part of the 18th century. New generations of Americans, many born in the colonies, seized upon ideas like that of John Locke’s “Social Contract.” It argues that all people naturally had a right to life, liberty, and property and that any created government is legitimate only with the consent of the people it governs. Thomas Jefferson built upon these ideas in the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were inalienable, God-given rights to all men. After prevailing in the American Revolution, our founders created the U.S. Constitution, which contains strongly-worded property rights. It is within these twin founding documents that the paradox of liberty – the human right to freedom and the legally protected rights to property – became the foundation and essence of the American consciousness. The question(s) of who could – and can – claim unalienable rights has been an American debate since our inception.
America would come to be defined by the language of freedom and the acceptance of slavery. Along with the revolutionary ideas of liberty and equality, slavery concerns began to surface as black colonists embraced the meaning of freedom, and the British abolished slavery within their lands. The fledgling United States sought to establish itself and had to wrestle with the tension borne from the paradox of liberty. It became necessary to develop new rationales and arguments to defend the institution of slavery. How does one justify holding a human as property? Major political leaders and thinkers of American history promoted theories of difference and degeneracy about nonwhite people that grew in the late-18th century. Physical differences were merged with status differences and coalesced to form a social hierarchy that placed “white” at the top and “black” at the bottom. By the beginning of the 19th century, “white” was an identity that designated a privileged, landholding, (usually male) status. Having “whiteness” meant having clear rights in the society while not being white signified your freedoms, rights, and property were unstable, if not, nonexistent. Ironically, Jefferson and Locke also both made arguments for the idea of inferior “races,” thereby supporting the development of the United States’ culture of racism. Their support of inferior races justified the dispossession of American Indians and the enslavement of Africans in the era of revolution. It was this racial ideology that formed the foundation for the continuation of American chattel slavery and the further entrenchment of anti-blackness.
The successful American Revolution and the new Constitution resulted in fierce debates about the future of slavery and the meaning of freedom. However, the nation did not end slavery nor the uses of racial ideology to separate groups, choosing to maintain the existing hierarchy. The U.S. outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the institution of slavery and its connection to African descendants remained. Boosted by the Louisiana Purchase, cotton agriculture (made profitable by the invention of the cotton gin), and seized American Indian lands, a new internal slave trade reinvigorated slavery, justified by 19th-century pseudo-scientific racist ideas.
In the mid-19th century, science and the scientific community served to legitimize society’s racist views. Scientists argued that Africans and their descendants were inferior – either a degenerate type of being or a completely separate type of being altogether, suitable for perpetual service. Like the European scholars before them, American intellectuals organized humans by category, seeking differences between racial populations. The work of Dr. Samuel Morton is infamous for his measurements of skulls across populations. He concluded that African people had smaller skulls and were therefore not as intelligent as others. Morton’s work was built on by scientists such as Josiah Nott and Louis Agassiz. Both Nott and Agassiz concluded that Africans were a separate species. This information spread into popular thought and culture and served to dehumanize African-descended people further while fueling anti-black sentiment.
By the 1850s, antislavery sentiment grew intense, in part, spurred by white Southerner’s aggressive attempts to protect slavery, maintain national political dominance and to spread the “peculiar institution” to newly acquired American lands. Proslavery spokespeople defended their position by debasing the value of humanity in the people they held as property. They supported much of this crusade through the racist scientific findings of people like Samuel Morton, which was used to argue the inferiority of people of African descent. As the tension between America’s notion of freedom and equality collided with the reality of millions of enslaved people, new layers to the meaning of race were created as the federal government sought to outline precisely what rights black people in the nation could have.
It was in this philosophical atmosphere that the Supreme Court heard one of the landmark cases of U.S. history, the Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott and his wife claimed freedom on the basis that they had resided in a free state and were therefore now free persons. The Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not bring a suit in federal court because Black people were not citizens in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney also ruled that slaves were property based on the Constitution, and therefore owners could not be deprived of their property. Ultimately, Taney declared with the full force of law that to be black in America was to be an “inferior being” with “no rights” which the white man was bound to respect,” and that slavery was for his benefit. Taney used the racist logic of black inferiority that saturated American culture of the time to argue that African descents were of another “unfit” race, and therefore improved by the condition of slavery. The court’s racist decision and affirmation that African descendants were mere property would severely harm the cause of black equality and contribute to anti-black sentiment for generations to come.
The nation fiercely defended slavery under the guise of property rights because the forced labor of black people was extremely profitable to the entire country. America further developed its concept of race in the form of racist theories and beliefs – created to protect the slavery-built economy. These beliefs also resulted in the establishment of widespread anti-black sentiments, which would influence the American consciousness long after slavery ended.
Reconstructing Race in the Nadir
When the Civil War ended slavery, the entire nation shifted its economic reliance to free labor. Still, the damage of anti-blackness and the hierarchy of race continued to shape how people related to one another and how the government would regard and legislate to various “races.” The U.S. came to depend on the exploitation of cheap labor, especially that of those considered nonwhite people, but also that of poor whites, including women and children. White society, particularly in the South, were reluctant to shift their views of black Americans and sought ways to continue exploiting the labor of African descended people while simultaneously remaining privileged. The debt-bonded labor system called sharecropping and hierarchical social order of segregation called Jim Crow would lay the foundation for a deepening racial divide.Expand / Collapse Aside
Keeping the Concept of Race Alive
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, many localities and states enacted laws and social norms that would re-establish the social order where whiteness was supreme. The U.S. legally affirmed the practices of segregation through the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case [see video below]. By law, Americans could lawfully separate people in society and discriminate against black Americans based on race. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision of “separate but equal” legitimized the idea of white supremacy in America as well as the de facto segregation already occurring in the nation outside the South. It resulted in the creation of a multitude of new racist laws and practices whose ramifications are still impacting the country today. American society drew upon centuries of racist ideas to justify this new form of exclusion and exploitation, especially that of scientific racism and Social Darwinism. Newly elaborated racist concepts reinforced the societal belief in supposedly inherent differences between black and white people – helping keep alive the concept of race and racial difference for all people in America.
Backed by the scientific racism of the mid-19th century, a branch of pseudoscience called eugenics contributed to further legitimizing societal belief in the biological superiority of those people considered white and the subjugation of other groups in descending order as skin tones darkened. Eugenics argued that people could be divided up into various races of people according to their genetic descent and were predisposed to be either superior or inferior by nature and in culture. As the 19th century drew to a close, one of the most elaborate displays of this new scientific belief was the Anthropology Exhibition at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In this very public forum, people were displayed in various arrangements of progress and reinforcing to the general and visiting public the racial hierarchy of the time.
Similar to earlier decades, the category of white expanded or contracted during the early 20th century to include various groups of people such as the Italians and the Eastern European immigrants that were coming to America. Other groups, such as the Chinese, Indigenous people, and black people, would remain outside the world of whiteness. As a result, they would struggle to gain the same privileges afforded to whites, such as voting, education, citizenship, and a share in the nation’s wealth. Acceptance into American culture was closely linked with the assimilation of whiteness, thereby creating an unconscious connection between who is American and whiteness.
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