Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: race from Greenwood Dictionary of Education

A socially constructed category classifying groups of people according to selected physical and inherited characteristics. Skin color and hair texture, but not eye or hair color, are used in the assignment of race. The concept of race has become questionable, as science has demonstrated that all humans share about 97 percent of their genes. (jc)

See also culture; ethnicity.

Summary Article: race from The Dictionary of Human Geography

A historical means of social classification and differentiation that attempts to essentialize political and cultural differences by linking physical traits (i.e. skin, blood, genes) and social practices (i.e. religion, violence, passion) to innate, immutable characteristics (see essentialism). Race as a concept presumes that characteristics (tendencies, behaviours, dispositions, interests) of an individual can be projected to understandings of essential traits of a population or that the presumed traits of a population can be discerned through the characteristics of an individual. Though these assumptions have been widely and exhaustively disproven, they still operate as ‘common sense’ in society with powerful and violent effects. As such, race is a social construction but racism is a material fact.

The contemporary meaning of ‘race’ has roots in older forms of hierarchy and classification, but its contemporary form as an innate physiological or genetic means of differentiating individuals and populations is largely the product of eighteenth-century social relationships associated with the European enlightenment and colonialism (see also europe). Most scholars agree that earlier forms of social differentiation and hierarchy were different from modern ideas of race. In the ancient world, for example, the Greeks distinguished between the ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarous’, the Romans between freedom and slavery, and the Christians between the savage and the saved. But in all these cases difference was not fixed: barbarians could become ‘civilized’ in Greek cities, Roman slaves were not determined by inherited traits, and Christians were offered the possibility of salvation through conversion.

The most powerful antecedents to the contemporary notion of race can be found in the Christian notion of the Great Chain of Being, which depicted a hierarchy in the order of things as immutably fixed by God, and the idea of succession to kingship or royalty based on a line of descent (or bloodline). These notions provided the basis for identifying populations through a fixed and defining feature such as blood. In the fifteenth century, for example, it was deemed impossible for Jews to convert to Christianity by virtue of their blood, a doctrine that helped to define the notion of a Jewish population that was supposedly distinctive and unassimilable through its shared immutable qualities. Similar appeals to a naturalized hierarchy were made in the sixteenth-century debates between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, concerning the treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of the Spanish colonies in South America as either child-like human beings (who could thus be converted to Christianity) or ‘savages’ (whose exploitation could be justified through their lower position in the natural order of things). The Spanish Empire developed a doctrine of ‘blood purity’ (limpeza de sangre) that allowed and even required the differential treatment of those who could not be converted because of the supposed impurity of their blood, and the subsequent hierarchical classification by blood provided an influential precedent for modern formations of race (Darder and Torres, 2004).

The term ‘race’ came into English usage in the seventeenth century and here too it was most forcefully articulated through Anglo-American projects of colonization in the New World. In developing a concept of civilization that was supposedly coterminous with the west, particularly in the eighteenth century, Europeans and Americans fabricated cultural and behavioral (‘racial’) traits that legitimized their own superiority and exploitative colonial practices. But these ascriptions were more than the product of an expansive, exploitative and European project of modernity, and scholars such as Ann Stoler (1995) and Paul Gilroy (2000a) have sought to show that ‘race’ is constitutive of modernity itself.

The modern notion of ‘race’ thus has a complex genealogy, but it has been most forcefully advanced through the claim that it is a demonstrably scientific concept. As such, ‘race’ is inseparable from the development of so-called ‘natural history’ in general and the work of the Swedish scholar Carolus Linnaeus (1707–71) in particular. Linnaeus is usually regarded as the founder of modern scientific systems of classification. He divided human beings into four taxonomic sub-orders, whose distinctive traits he directly linked to skin colour. Thus the Europeaeus was supposedly white, gentle, sanguine, inventive and ruled by law, while Africanus was black, crafty, negligent and governed by caprice. In developing this taxonomy, Linneaus effectively subsumed cultural formations within the taxonomical order of nature. In 1745, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707–88) explicitly introduced the term ‘race’ into natural history and, developing Linnaeus’ categories, divided human beings into separate ‘races’. Although Buffon acknowledged the artificiality of these divisions, they were subsequently reified by the German anthropologist and physiologist Johnann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), who developed a classification of five human types based on cranial skull measurements: this system served as the ‘scientific’ basis for racial classification for almost 200 years – and even though it has been widely repudiated, it is still present in popular culture today.

But it was through darwinism and populist simplifications of Darwin’s ideas of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ that the most pernicious formations of ‘race’ were naturalized. Most notable was Francis Galton (1822–1911), Darwin’s half-cousin, who applied a version of Darwinian theories to human society and in 1883 developed the concept of Eugenics (‘good genes’) to encourage socially engineered heredity as a means of improving the human race. In the USA, the Eugenics movement found an appreciative audience in the context of increasing immigration, poverty and violent labour politics, where it seemed to offer a means not only of social improvement but also of social control. The initial focus was on ‘positive eugenics’ through birth control, selective breeding and eventually genetic engineering to assure ‘better babies’; but a ‘negative eugenics’ was subsequently developed, which advocated forced sterilization and segregation to preserve the purity of the white race. These concepts reached their hideous climax in Nazi Germany under the banner of ‘racial hygiene’, when ‘Aryan’ women were impregnated by SS officers, hundreds of thousands of people who were declared unfit were sterilized, and millions more ‘undesirables’, primarily Jews but also gypsies and homosexuals, were murdered to protect the ‘purity’ of the Aryan race (see holocaust). Here, modern biological racism was taken to its ‘logical’ end, in which some presumed innate behavioral qualities and social status could only be addressed through the extermination of the biology of individuals who were considered the sources of the problem (Larson, 1995: cf. biopolitics).

Even after the widespread postwar repudiation of Nazi race science and Eugenics, the claim that there is an innate scientific basis to ‘race’, fusing physiological features to social behaviours, is still a common means of social classification, and continues to be a powerful strategy of dividing, ranking and controlling people around the world. Newer efforts from sociobiology, neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, some strains of evolutionary anthropology and biology as well as some versions of genetics continue to search for a physical basis for ‘racial’ difference, while state-sponsored systems of racial profiling assume that such a basis has been found and can be deployed as an effective weapon against crime or terrorism.

The problem with the debates around race, as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out over a century ago when he abandoned his efforts to show its erroneous foundation, is that the very idea of race has been so comprehensively woven into the social and psychological fabric of society that simply revealing the fallaciousness of racial classification does little to expunge the term or diminish its extraordinary power. He wrote that ‘in the fight against race prejudice, we were not facing simply the rational conscious determination of white folk to oppress us; we were facing age-long complexes sunk now largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge’ (Du Bois, 1986 [1940], p. 296). This realization that constructs of ‘race’ are embedded within the formation of modern human subjectivity was developed by Frantz Fanon (1925–61) who, in Black skin, white masks in particular, emphasized how ‘race’ is implicated in both how one comes to know and define a self and how that self is articulated and transformed as it acts and is acted upon in the world (Fanon, 1967 [1952]). These and other critiques prompted a shift towards an analysis of how ‘race’ comes into being though law, popular culture and everyday practices of racial formation (see also post-colonialism).

The critique of race-based cultural formations has been reinforced by parallel debates within and, indeed, about the very ‘nature’ of science. Most famously, Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould challenged the biological and genetic basis of racial identification, arguing that there is more genetic variation within a nominally ‘racial’ group than between such groups. However, these and other scholars effectively placed nature outside the field of culture and politics, arguing either that ‘race’ was cultural and not natural or that genetic maps could not be projected on to cultural behaviours (Haraway, 1989). As such, the debate often became polarized between nature and nurture: Was race a biological category or a cultural one? Science was assumed to have the authority to speak for nature and, as a result, the cultural politics of the supposed ‘science of race’ was left largely unchallenged. More recent scholarship in science and technology studies by Donna Haraway (1989), Nancy Stepan Leyes (1990 [1986]) and Ian Hacking (1999) has help move away from the nature–culture dualism that underwrote these discussions, and has shown that nature and the voices that speak for and about race and the science of race are always already bound up in politics.

These approaches to understanding race have been echoed in contemporary black cultural studies, Chicano studies, ethnic studies and critical race theory, which have approached racial difference and affinities as constructed through social struggles, shared histories and everyday practices positioning racialized subjects and their formation within multiple relations of power. Rather than fixed difference, ‘race’ is understood as a contingent formation unevenly produced in different times and places with no invariant meaning or universal form (see, e.g., Hesse, 2000; Fregoso, 2003; Moore, Kosek and Pandian, 2003). As such, many scholars of difference have abandoned the term ‘race’ altogether, moving ‘beyond race’ to address the multiple forms and particularities of social relations, and denying any overarching integrity or coherence to race as an analytical concept while still being attentive to the ways in which racism(s) are a lived daily reality.

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Essed and Goldberg (2002)

Gilroy (2000)

Miles and Brown (2003).

Jake Kosek
Assistant Professor
University of California, Berkeley, USA
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Race
Reader's Guide to the Social Sciences

Anthias Floya Nira Yuval-Davis , Racialized Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour, and Class and the Anti-Racist Struggle , ...

Full text Article Race
Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

The issue of race in the Americas includes its construction during the colonial period, both from the perspective of colonial elites and social...

Full text Article Race
Reader's Guide to the History of Science

Bernal Martin , Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Greek Thought , 2 vols , New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University...

See more from Credo