International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Editor: William A Darity Jr., 2nd edition, Volume 7, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

The concept of race as a categorization system for human beings did not exist formally until the late eighteenth century. Most analysts (e.g., Feagin and Feagin 1999; Allen 1994; Roediger 1991; Omi and Winant 1994) have linked the inception of the biologically based idea of distinct races of human beings to European colonization of the New World. Although prior to this time human beings certainly distinguished between themselves in many ways, these distinctions tended to be based upon tribal, clan, ethnic, or national differences that stemmed from place of residence/territory or shared belief systems rather than on innate, genetic characteristics. However, as capitalist-based exploitation of certain (often darkerskinned) groups began in the form of chattel slavery and other abuses of humanity, those in power began turning to science as a way to rationalize the oppressive conditions to which these groups were consigned. The rush to develop these pseudoscientific claims might have been spawned in part by the need of the colonizers to assuage their guilt and to resolve the cognitive dissonance and contradictions evident in rising new societies that prided themselves on freedom and democracy even as they relegated certain groups in their societies to a nonfree, even subhuman status (Horsman 1997). While the “science” that developed the idea of race is certainly discredited by today’s standards, the social ramifications of humans having separated themselves into races still remain firmly intact. As the Thomas theorem once stated, “when men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572). Thus, although the idea of race as a classification system of human beings is what social scientists call socially constructed rather than biologically based, it still is an enduring category of social analysis. It is so not because of its genetic or biological basis, but because of the power it has wielded as an idea to create dividing lines between different classes of human beings across the globe (Graves 2004).

Before Race

Prior to the eighteenth century, human beings were recognizing differences between themselves as they crossed national and continental borders in exploration and trade. Sometimes these differences would be reflected upon positively and at others, negatively, especially when groups clashed over territory and power. For example, there are Biblical writings where African kingdoms and Jewish kingdoms are regarded as allies of generally equal worth and status. And in Greek and Roman periods, these two societies expressed a great respect for the learning they gleaned from African cultural developments. Even as occasional negative images of blackness (associated with sin, devil, and non-Christianity) were expressed, “these views were never developed into a broad color consciousness viewing Africans as a greatly inferior species” (Feagin 2000, p. 71). Thus, although human beings reflected upon their own differences as they made contact with each other throughout time, there was generally a mix of negative and positive imagery, and prior to the idea of race, no discussion of an altogether inferior or superior species attached to physical differences yet existed.

From the 1400s to the 1600s, as colonization and enslavement expanded, the Spanish and other Europeans began to use consistently negative language to describe the African human beings they enslaved. This pattern was coupled with positive evaluations of their own group. However, these evaluations still did not amount to explicitly racial designations. The Europeans’ negative assessments of Africans at this point were rooted in cultural and religious differences rather than in any biological, unchanging facts of their physical chemistry. For instance, Europeans described themselves as rational and civilized while they described Africans as uncivilized and uncontrolled. Further, the Africans not being Christian resulted in Europeans characterizing them as “heathens,” and later in North America, European settlers used the same line of thinking toward the Native Americans (Feagin 2000; Takaki 1993). In fact, in the 1600s, a European named François Bernier (1625-1688) even developed a hierarchy of groups ranking them from the most primitive and civilized to the least, placing Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom (Feagin and Feagin 1999).

However ethnocentric and biased these claims were, they were based upon the assumption that these were cultural differences emanating from shared, learned beliefs rather than body composition or other unchangeable biological inheritances. Indeed, in the case of the Native Americans, for a brief time, the colonists in power considered the possibility that Native Americans could be civilized and thus considered equal by converting them to Christianity (Takaki 1993). These positions acknowledging a common human capacity for acquiring knowledge across all skin color gradations (even as it was perceived as underutilized or underdeveloped for some) still ran counter to later notions of biologically grounded races.

Race as Ideology and Social Relationship

Several scholars have identified the conception of human races as a key part of the development of a racist ideology (e.g., Feagin 2000; Yetman 2004). An ideology is a belief system intended to rationalize and justify existing social arrangements. In this way the concept of race is a decisively social concept because it is not observed as existing independent of the “racialized social systems” (Bonilla-Silva 1997) that hold it in place. Feagin identifies three dynamics that crystallized by the late 1700s to result in a clearly racist (as opposed to nationalist or cultural) ideology: “(1) an accent on physically and biologically distinctive categories called ‘races’; (2) an emphasis on ‘race’ as the primary determinant of a group’s essential personality and cultural traits; and (3) a hierarchy of superior and inferior racial groups” (Feagin 2000, p. 79). Thus, at this point in history, no longer are human differences attributed first and foremost to national, regional, and cultural variations. Instead, they become perceived in a biologically determined (static, unchanging) way, and the differences begin to be encoded into hierarchical categorization schemas that connote superior and inferior species of human beings.

The language of race as a pseudobiological category of humans emerged first in the 1770s with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). As noted by Emmanuel C. Eze in his 1997 publication, Kant’s categorization hierarchy for “races of mankind” was laid out as follows:

Stem genus, white brunette;
First race, very blond (northern Europe), of damp cold;
Second race, copper-red (America), of dry cold;
Third race, black (Senegambia), of dry heat;
Fourth race, olive-yellow (Indians), of dry heat.

Roughly two decades later, another German scholar (of human anatomy) named Johann Blumenbach (1752-1840) ventured into similar territory of racial hierarchies founded on what he viewed as biological premises. Ivan Hannaford noted in his 1996 work that Blumenbach’s categories were conceptualized in the following order (top to bottom; superior to inferior):

Caucasians (Europeans)
Mongolians (Asians)
Ethiopians (Africans)
Americans (Native Americans)
Malays (Polynesians)

Blumenbach was the one who coined the term Caucasian simply because he felt the Europeans he observed in the Caucasus mountains were the most beautiful, and he erroneously concluded that the first human remains were found there (Gould 1994). Yet the power of this pseudoscience remains in contemporary consciousness, as some modern-day Americans who view themselves as white, for example, refer to themselves as Caucasian, even when their genealogy hails from nowhere near the Caucasus mountains from which this category got its name. It is work like this that laid the groundwork for the centuries that followed, with human beings across the globe viewing themselves as members of distinct racial groups. These groupings were never just nominal categories; they were always hierarchically arranged and structured by dominance (Hall 1980).

An important point to note about these racial categories is that they did not just come to have meaning simply because a couple of scholars penned these categorizations systems and they attained popularity. They were reified because racialized social systems were structured around them. That is, the social relations of the day mirrored the order that the categories suggested. They would not have acquired such powerful social meaning without the systems that held them in place. Thus, one way to conceptualize race is a way of relating within a particular racial social system. Since its inception in the eighteenth century, the meaning of any particular race changes over time and is culturally specific. A single individual could be deemed one race in one society but move or travel to a different society (or even between states in the same society, as in the case of the United States) and be categorized as a different race. Its basis for meaning resides in a particular society’s racialized social system and not within an individual body. Some social scientists use the term reification to describe this process of turning a social relationship into a thing in and of itself. As noted by Margaret Radin, once reified, race “acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people” (Harris 1998, p. 107).

Using Blood to Determine Race

Although the social distinction of a race of human beings was often based upon physical characteristics, the question of which physical characteristics were used to determine race and in what proportion has varied greatly across cultures and across time. These distinctions are usually set by those in power for a distinctly political purpose. For example, in the United States, the so-called “one-drop rule” predominated for all of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. This rule stated that an individual having even a distant ancestor who was categorized as black (conceived as one drop of black blood) also made that individual black as well. It is important to note that this determination was not, of course, made from blood testing but rather from knowledge of the individual’s family tree and the racial categorizations (socially) attached to each member. This rule served the political purpose of limiting the numbers of persons who could cross the racial dividing line to become white and enjoy all the perquisites and privileges thereof. In the United States, chattel slavery was officially permitted and governmentally sanctioned until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. However, shortly into the nineteenth century, no further importation of slaves from overseas was permitted under the Constitution. Thus, it was convenient for the white patriarchal powers of the country that any offspring resulting from the sexual exploitation of their black female slaves (even though these children were also half white) would still be considered their own property and not eligible for freedom (Graves 2004). However, even after slavery was abolished, individuals who were defined as black by the one drop rule had severely curtailed rights, and many lived in a status that was similar to slavery except in name, due to sharecropping, the convict lease system, and white terrorism holding all of this in place.

According to court records, in order to escape this awful fate, many individuals attempted to remove their black racial categorizations by way of the law. What fraction of black blood was needed in order to categorize one as black? In Louisiana, for example, it was one-32nd of “black blood” that made someone into “black.” The U.S. Census identified the racial categories of Negro, Mulatto (one-half black blood), Quadroon (one-fourth black blood) and Octoroon (one-eighth black blood) as late as 1890 (Lee 1993). When individuals were not able to attain legal freedom from blackness but were somewhat light-skinned, they sometimes participated in passing by portraying themselves as white. It is notable that such passing activities almost always occur when someone categorized as an “inferior” race attempts to pass as a member of the “superior” race and not the other way around. This indicates how race is explicitly hierarchical and designed to keep dividing lines between who does and who does not receive the full rights and privileges of citizenship in any given society.

In the contemporary context in the United States, the pseudoscientific notion of a blood quantum (one-fourth) has to be proven in order for citizens to be able to racially categorize themselves as American Indian. Additionally, this one-fourth fraction of Native American blood must be with a tribe that is officially acknowledged and sanctioned by the federal government (Thornton 2001). In early 2006 there were about 569 such tribes (Taylor 2006). In order to get one’s tribe recognized by the government, one goes through a lengthy process of forms and bureaucracy, which is sometimes a challenge for older members of a tribe struggling with the level of literacy in bureaucratic language that these forms require. Thus, there are probably many more U.S. citizens who consider themselves to have Native American ancestry than are officially counted by the federal government, who estimates they are only about 1 percent of the total population. This official count, estimated by the U.S. Census, experienced a sizable increase between the 1960 and 1990 censuses. Researchers pointed out that this “growth” in the American Indian population was not due to increased births, and certainly not to migration, but to the increase in individuals who decided to categorize themselves as Native American (Thornton 2001; Nagel 1995). This finding again underscores the socially constructed basis of race.

Religion, Economics, and Shared Stigma as Race

While examining one’s family tree and ancestors is one way that societies go about determining who belongs in which race, occasionally, other factors are used. For example, government officials sometimes transform religious groups into races. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) during Nazi Germany spoke of the Jews as a race and structured gruesome genocidal public policy around this claim. Additionally, the U.S. Census records show that in 1930 and 1940, Hindu was given as a choice for racial categorization (Lee 1993). Besides these cases of religion being racialized, sometimes, one’s social class is used as a marker for race. In Brazil there is a saying o dinheiro embranquece, which means “money whitens.” Because there are many mixtures of skin types in Brazil, skin tone combines with socioeconomic status to create the notion of race. For example, if a person is of a mixed skin tone but is dressed professionally and holds a prestigious position, that person may be considered white while a person with an even lighter skin tone who appears impoverished might be labeled black (Taylor 2006).

In a minority of cases, groups who are not in the majority racially sometimes come together to create a racial group and ask those in power to sanction it as a new race. For example, the pan-ethnic racial category of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) appeared on the U.S. Census for the first time in 1990 (Lee 1993). This race was created by bridging some major differences in terms of national origins, languages, and religions. In fact, the United States had a history of finding favor and disfavor with different ethnic groups that are now in the API category depending on the political and economic climate of the day. When the economy became saturated with Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. At this time, it was more favorable to be Japanese. However, during World War II (1939-1945) when the federal government placed Japanese Americans (even those who were born and raised in the United States) into internment camps, it was more favorable to be Chinese. Despite these and many other cleavages between the groups that are now united in the API race, the groups came together under a specific political climate in the 1980s when the United States was experiencing an economic recession and some dominant rhetoric blamed a global Asian face for the job loss and downward mobility of those who considered themselves white. Thus, regardless of national origin, many API individuals began to be scapegoats and targets of white hostility and even vicious hate crimes (Espiritu 1992). Perceiving common issues of oppression shared across ethnic lines in the U.S. context was an important motivating factor in the creation of the API race.

Omi and Winant (1994) developed a theory of racial formation that underscores how racial categories such as the API are socially constructed, usually for political ends. Although in the majority of cases of racial formation the state uses its power to control what defines a race and who is allowed to claim membership within it, in a minority of cases (such as the API category), the initiative to construct a racial category comes “from below.” These minority individuals still have to find favor with the state in order to make their category official. In the case of the one-drop rule, many people were denied their legal efforts to challenge the state and become recategorized racially. But it is important to note that in the case of the one-drop rule, permission was being asked to join into the dominant group (whites) whereas the API group created a new category that did not upend or challenge the existing racial hierarchy. Similarly, in 2000, a group of individuals who considered themselves multiracial effectively lobbied to change U.S. Census procedure so that for the first time people could check more than one box to define their race. Again, this was a movement from below to create new racial possibilities, and it did not seek to challenge the dominance of the category white. The closer policing of the boundaries of whiteness by the state is indicative of how structured by dominance race is.

Determining Which Ethnicities Get to Be White

Unlike ethnicities that are often directly linked to a particular continent, and usually a specific nation, the concept of race is an obviously socially constructed category due to its inability to be traced to any one geographic region. One cannot point to black or white on a map as one can with an ethnicity, such as Chinese, Japanese, Jamaican, Irish, or Mexican. This is particularly evident when studying the dominant category of whiteness. While some might equate the term white with a term such as European American, such terminology conceals how much whiteness has adapted to incorporate various non-European groups over time when it served the purpose of solidifying the material and ideological advantage of the category white in a particular area. For example, although people claiming either Chinese or Japanese ancestry are placed into the API category (usually known as Asian Americans) in the United States, during apartheid in South Africa, individuals with these two ethnicities had very different racial experiences. The Japanese were classified into the white category, enjoying the social privileges of the dominant group, while the Chinese were placed into the “colored” category. Although coloreds were not treated as poorly as those considered Africans, they nonetheless were well below whites on the racial hierarchy (Marger 2006). Thus, when it was crucial and beneficial for South Africa to maintain positive economic relations with Japan, it was not in their best interests to consign Japan’s citizens to second-class status. Treating the Japanese as whites meant that South African whites could still cash in on the material advantages that came from trading and doing business with the Japanese in an increasingly globalized marketplace in which China was not yet a key player.

In the U.S. context, the Irish and the Jews are two examples of ethnic groups that, although still predominantly European, were not regarded as white upon arrival into the country and had to “earn” their incorporation into whiteness. In the early nineteenth century, the Irish arrived in a mass migration, escaping famine and British oppression. They had no kind of shared identity with the largely British white majority in the United States since the Irish saw the British as their oppressors. Furthermore, the Irish found themselves still excluded outright from many of the best jobs and were even targets of the exaggerated big-lipped, ruddy-skinned caricatures that students of history would typically associate with African Americans. Yet when the political question of the abolition of slavery reached front and center by the middle of the 1800s, the side that the Irish chose to take en masse would be an important deciding factor in whether they became incorporated into whiteness. To side with the slaves, they perceived, would consign them to the second-class citizenship they had just worked so hard to flee in their native land. In coming out decidedly antiabolition on the slavery question, already speaking the English language, and attaining access to some key positions in civic life (particularly in New York City), the Irish solidified their position into the dominant race, white, by the middle of the nineteenth century (Allen 1994; Roediger 1991; Takaki 1993).

The Jews also faced the kind of in-between racial status upon first arriving to the United States that the Chinese faced by being categorized as colored in South Africa. The immigrant Jews certainly were not as ostracized, disenfranchised, and terrorized as African Americans were, but they were not at first deemed worthy of receiving the full benefits of whiteness. They were excluded from most major universities and were victims of prejudices and ethnic slurs (Takaki 1993). Further illustrating the point that race is a relational category, it was the outright exclusion of blacks from the educational and housing benefits of the post-World War II GI Bill that catapulted Jews into middle-class status. Not unlike the situation of the upper class Brazilians, Jews gained the favor of whiteness by their newly acquired socioeconomic status during an economically prosperous era of U.S. history. This prosperity was generated in part by huge government subsidies for both college scholarships and home mortgages, which could be characterized as the nation’s first affirmative action program, giving all those deemed white a leg up over their African American counterparts. Although many blacks technically were eligible for these benefits due to their service in great numbers to the military during World War II, they were often unable to cash in on them when prejudiced southern commanders would give them dishonorable discharges for no particular legitimate reason. Moreover, since the Fair Housing Act was not passed until the late 1960s, it was perfectly legal for African Americans to be excluded from buying any of the quality housing to which those deemed white had full access. The events of this time period have been identified as the major factor contributing to the movement of Jewish Americans from nonwhite to white (Brodkin 1998).

State-Created Categories Versus Personal Identities

While one’s state-defined race clearly plays a crucial role in whether one can access the full material benefits of a society, due to its explicitly hierarchical basis, it is also the case that individuals are not completely without agency in navigating their relationship to these racial categories. People all over the globe have always resisted their oppression in various ways. For example, a U.S. professional golfer named Tiger Woods resisted the society’s one-drop rule categorization of himself as African American and invented the term Cablinasian to encompass his Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian heritage (Taylor 2006). Furthermore, there is a large group of U.S. citizens who think of themselves racially as Latino or Hispanic even though the nation’s census does not allow them the option of identifying this as their race (unless they write it in as “Other,” as many do). The census only includes the racial choices of White, Black/African American, Asian Pacific Islander, Native American Indian, and Other but lists various Hispanic national origins under a separate ethnicity question. This structure actually encourages persons of Latino heritage to either identify as a white Hispanic or a black Hispanic (as 50% did in 2000), further reifying the country’s dichotomous black-white divide. Nonetheless, as this group of persons with Latino heritage in the United States grew exponentially by the advent of the twenty-first century, national conversations began to occur about the inadequacy of the state categories for race to adequately measure their experiences (Swarns 2004).

Because of the extreme occupational, residential, and social segregation that continues to exist in the United States, distinct cultural and ethnic patterns have come to be associated with these state-identified racial categories. For example, due to their exclusion from white churches, African Americans developed decisively different worship patterns even from those who shared their same denominations as Christians. Additionally, due to the many prohibitions during slavery of African Americans from socializing and congregating with each other, they also developed their own distinct linguistic patterns. Cultural developments and distinctions like these often lead to people talking about feeling (or not feeling) black, white, Asian, and so on. France Winddance Twine found that some young women of African descent who had mixed parentage and grew up in affluent suburban communities stated that they did not feel black until they came to college campuses where they were not the only token minority and together with others developed a more politicized understanding of racial identity (Twine 1997). Conversely, many whites who subscribe to a colorblind racial ideology state that they do not feel white or see themselves as white at all (McKinney 2005; Bush 2004). Nonetheless, due to the sedimentation of racial inequality (Oliver and Shapiro 1995) where whites collectively transmit their “ill-gotten gains” from slavery and segregation in the form of wealth to succeeding generations (Feagin 2000), these whites still gain a material advantage from being white even if they do not see themselves that way.

Beyond feeling culturally and emotionally linked (or not) to particular racial identities, some individuals may eschew state-created racial categories for other reasons. When perceiving that the dominant culture has a particular disdain for individuals of a certain race, new immigrants may seek to distance themselves from that racial categorization, especially when the dominant culture’s tendency is to lump them into that negatively perceived category. For example, some members of immigrant groups who would be classified as blacks in the United States, such as Samoans, West Indians, and Haitians, have been found to distance themselves from the racial category of black due to the pervasive antiblack stereotypes they encounter about such things as work ethic and dedication to education (Waters 1999). Similarly, sensing negative prejudices about Mexicans in the United States, some Cuban Americans and other South American Latinos have chosen to stress their national heritages over a more global racial identity as Hispanic (Fernandez-Kelly and Schauffler 1994). Although it is difficult to escape the systemic benefits or lack thereof of being deemed within a particular racial group (as a pseudoscientific birthright), individuals certainly do participate upon occasion in challenging, at least at the personal identity level, their affiliation with an assumed racial group.

Social Construction, Material Reality

Race is not skin color, nor is it ethnic identity. It is not reducible to genetics. Indeed, there is much more genetic and physiological variation within the members of any given race than between individuals of different races. It has been estimated that the overlap between genetic material of people of any two racial groups is about 99 percent, so less than 1 percent of physiological differences can be explained by race (Lewontin 1996). Moreover, eventually, all genetic material of human beings traces back to Africa, where the earliest human remains were found (Feagin 2000). It has been established that any separate race (other than the human race) is not an actual scientific category and is, instead, a social construction. The assertion that race is a social construction, though, should not be confused with the notion that race is a complete fabrication only needing deconstruction (or simply ignoring/discrediting) to no longer be relevant. Even if governments decided to stop recording the racial categorizations of their citizens (as many outside of the United States have), race would still continue to be a fundamental organizing principle in society.

As has been demonstrated, the concept of race originated as an ideology meant to justify colonization and exploitation of people who happened to be, usually, darker-skinned than their exploiters. Material conditions between those who were eventually to be considered separate, superior/inferior races were already starkly unequal by the time the pseudoscientific category of race was formalized. Rigid laws enforcing the so-called superior racial group’s advantages and the so-called inferior group’s disadvantages continued for centuries. These chains have only been lifted, as of early 2006, for a few decades, and the material advantage/disadvantage gap has been so solidified that people’s ways of thinking, being, and doing are still very much tied to this way of relating called race. Moreover, the pseudoscientific claims of racial difference in intelligence, athletic/physical ability, and other characteristics are constantly resurging into the present day. People are also finding other ways to further racialized understandings of the world without even mentioning race by using various code words and rhetorical strategies to camouflage what, in the end, has a very similar effect in organizing the social world into superior and inferior beings (Bonilla-Silva 2003).

Thus, regardless of how socially constructed race is, for better or for worse, society is stuck with its legacies. The rigid boundaries it was invented to enforce have created distinct cultures and ways of being. To even expect that these racial categories could eventually remain in society in a more benign way as nominal ways of distinguishing between separate but equally valued cultural groups is to confuse race with ethnicity. Race’s raison d’etre was never solely to distinguish between various national and cultural heritages; it was always proposed in a hierarchical order, with attached value judgments of superior/inferior and corresponding material advantages or disadvantages. Until society addresses the material foundations of race and rectifies the resulting imbalances, simply deciding to erase race linguistically from the vocabulary will hardly get rid of it as a fundamental organizing principle of social life.