A Brief History of Race in the Western Thought

Race, as a concept, has important ontology in American society. In order to understand the relationship between race, genetic research, and the American class structure, it is necessary to first understand the historical production of race. The following section does not intend to be a comprehensive history of race but merely highlight trends in Europe and the United States, particularly focusing on ideology that divided the human species into disparate races. An appeal to Western intellectual history is necessary to grapple with American thought on race.

Today in America, race is intimately tied to biology, particularly skin color and other superficial phenotypes. These culturally defined racial characteristics are then tied to less visible- but still biologised—components of race such as aggression, athleticism, criminality, and intelligence, to name a few. Furthermore, race is intimately tied to class stations, which are also treated as natural categories. This coupling of race, class, and biology has a long history and as Europeans contacted more peoples with starkly different cultures, and science gains authority, the perceived cultural differences become linked to the observable differences in physical appearance. However, the study of race was not formalised until the eighteenth century.

In On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach systematised the study of race.19 Using skull shapes and other physical characteristics, Blumenbach categorised humans into five categories: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Caucasians are described as ‘Colour white, cheeks rosy; hair brown or chestnut-coloured; face oval, strait… In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming’.19 On the other hand, the Ethiopian variety is described as ‘Colour black…; hair black and curly…; head narrow, compressed at the sides…; forehead knotty, uneven.’19 From the sampled text, there is a clear value judgement being made; the Caucasians are ‘handsome’ due to symmetry whereas there is an implied asymmetry seen in the Ethiopian variety. The early days of race studies also served as the beginning of a fervent history of scientific racism that has resounding social effects which permeate American society today. Throughout history, difference was biologised, morphed into race—and with it—naturalised social class.

Early Western conceptions of race

Prior to Blumenbach’s formalisation of the study of race as a matter of scientific inquiry, one of the earliest examples of using difference to establish a social hierarchy and thus produce discrimination in the West is seen in ancient Greece. Here, character traits that were associated with being either civilised or a barbarian were attributed to groups that would be considered white by the modern American conception of race.20 Hippocrates (c. 460- c. 370 BCE) argues that the observable physical and behavioural peculiarities of contacted groups were the products of different climates, water sources, and environments.21 These differences were intrinsically tied to these designated groups and set in opposition to the ‘civilised Greek’ identities. Despite race being used as designations for different peoples inhabiting southern Europe of the time, Ashley Montagu argues that the discrimination seen in ancient Greece is not synonymous with the modern use and conception of race,22 and therefore race grounded in biological characteristics—a like physical appearance—did not emerge until much later.

Furthermore, class in ancient Greece does not map on to class structure in the contemporary United States. However, ascribed membership in a particular class, whether in contemporary America or ancient Greece, has been rationalised through appeal to some inborn ability, some people were born to rule and others to be ruled. Aristotle argues in Politics that slaves are not fully human and thus do not possess the necessary elements to rule. This begs for them to be dominated by those possessing the governing elements of the soul.23 Although the Greeks did not use readily identifiable features, like skin color, to designate difference, class differences were still attributed to some natural, inborn ability, as is seen in later biological deterministic models. These natural characters were then placed in a hierarchy: slaves and masters, barbarians and civilised; class as determined by intrinsic traits instead of resulting from cultural and historical processes.

The proto-biologisation of race

Prior to the pervasion of slave trade in Europe, there is little evidence to support the notion that White Europeans held strong negative beliefs about dark-skinned Africans.24 The Iberian Peninsula, the first region in Western Europe to adopt slavery, saw a co-existence between Christian and Muslim groups during the Moorish occupation. Muslims kept slaves and had a well-developed trade network that facilitated the movement of owned people from abroad into Europe. While they did not racialize slavery—both dark-skinned and light-skinned slaves were kept, dark-skinned slaves were often assigned the most menial work.25 This period also marks a decline of the use of White Christian slaves and so dark skin became a marker for servitude. As White Christians were no longer permitted as slaves, and those Eastern Europeans that were previously not Christian converted, Africans were left as the only group allowed under the shifting religious sanctions. In Racism, Fredrickson argues that the initial treatment of Africans as a slave class may have had more to do with religion and legal status than race, but this primed society to couple the differences in physical appearance to certain class stations.

As Christian conflict with the Moors intensified, a rift began to form in what had been a more tolerant society that led to sectarian unrest and so the first proto-biologised conception of race emerged. ‘Proto-biologised’ is used to denote the conceptual connection between perceived intrinsic characteristics and social standing, but differs from contemporary notions of race—not using region of birth or skin colour, but purity of blood. Leading into the fifteenth century, Muslims and Jews came under attack and in Castille and Aragon; non-Christians were given the choice to convert or die. Those that converted were seen as inferior to true Christians as their impure blood impeded any true conversion.26 While religion was the central theme of discrimination, it was their blood, and thus an aspect of their intrinsic biology, that established their place in the social hierarchy. Certificates denoting pure blood were required for access to certain organisations and professions and what began as sectarian discrimination morphed into racial discrimination as Muslims and Jews were racialised. However, despite the linkage between skin colour and class, race as a concept had not yet come to fruition, which did not take place until the seventeenth century.

Race as a concept: enter biology

The concept of race was taking form but was not codified as a term until the late seventeenth century. Francois Bernier in A New Division of the Earth (1684), argued for the discrete categorisation of humans. Although ‘race’ was not being used in its contemporary form, and was more akin to a variety or strain, it still purports to divide the human species into discrete, observable types. Bernier used his travel experiences to classify the peoples he encountered, as quoted by Stuurman: ‘four or five Species or Races of men so notably differing from each other that this may serve as the just foundation of a new division of the world’.27 He decided on four races: Europeans and North Africans—which included indigenous Americans; sub-Saharan Africans; Asians—east through central Asia and Siberia; and the Lapps of northern Scandinavia. Although skin colour was shared between these four races and there was diversity within each demarcation, Bernier believed that each category constituted enough physical similarity to be categorised apart from the others. Bernier marked the beginning of the naturalisation of difference and value, and this permeated future thought on human difference.

Race and intrinsic superiority

At the height of the Enlightenment—the eighteenth century, the notion of race as a natural category was firmly established. Race was not only used as a means to describe purported natural divisions in the world as Bernier argued, but these divisions were also constructed into a Great Chain of Being, with White Europeans occupying the highest level of the hierarchy. The belief of European superiority was pervasive throughout Enlightenment thought and can be seen within philosophy and science.

Perceived European superiority is captured in writings of Kant as well as Linnaeus’ classificatory system. Immanuel Kant, in his essay “Of the Different Human Races” (1777) argues that all humans descend as ‘deviations’ from a common ‘lineal root genus’ in Europe which contained all the different predispositions for the observed physical characteristics which were then expressed through exposure to different environmental conditions like heat and humidity. While this sounds vaguely like natural selection a century before it was presented, he also espoused a hierarchy of races, with Whites being at the top and Blacks at the bottom. He writes ‘the Negroes of Africa have not received any intelligence from Nature that rises above foolishness… The difference therefore between the two races [Black and White] is an essential one. It appears to be equally big, both in regard to the capabilities of the mind as well as color.’28

Carl Linnaeus, in Systema Naturae (1735), introduced a classification system for living organisms. He subdivided and colour-coded the human species into four categories, coinciding with four major continents and Hippocrates’ four humours. The ‘red’ Indigenous Americans were choleric– irascible and free, and described as having straight black hair, harsh appearance, and ruled by custom. ‘Yellow’ Asians were melancholic- melancholy, strict, and greedy, having black hair and dark eyes, and ruled by opinion. ‘White’ Europeans were sanguine- vigorous, smart and creative, with long blond hair and blue eyes, and governed by law. ‘Black’ Africans were phlegmatic– lazy and careless, and described as having black kinky hair, silky skin, with special attention to descriptions of the women’s breasts and genitals. They are governed by caprice or whim.29 The descriptions of each of Linnaeus’ four races demonstrate clear value judgments about the quality of people comprising each race and were brash generalisations derived from their Eurocentric position. This places Europeans, again, at the top of an ontological hierarchy of existence—attributing positive traits to the Europeans.

Kant and Linnaeus represent a prevalent sentiment concerning non-European peoples of the world but exceed this by formalizing these beliefs in science and philosophy, thus granting them more power and legitimacy. By legitimising the belief of White superiority, they establish a premise by which Africans occupy a lower—and through argument and practice—the lowest station in a racial Great Chain of Being: a naturalised hierarchy of races indicating progress of evolution and inferiority.30 Beyond these cultural assumptions about race, both Western science and philosophy planted their flags on the issue and treated race, not as the product of social and cultural histories, but as discrete natural divisions of the human. These races were seen as distinct groups, not only in ontology but also in ability, and these ideas that began in Europe made their way to the New World with the superior European, colonizers. This laid the groundwork for justifying of the continued marriage of race to class throughout the history of the United States.

Nineteenth century racialised science and slavery in America

In the United States, racialised science was led by Samuel Morton and his disciples Gliddon and Nott. In Crania Americana (1839), using the measurement of the volumes of skulls and anthropological works, Morton argues for a hierarchy of the races which placed Whites with the greatest intellectual capacity at the top and Blacks at the bottom. Morton does not mince words, referring to the ‘negro’ as having a ‘joyous, flexible, and indolent disposition’ and while the race is composed of many nations, including those of Africa and Australia, they ‘present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.’31 Morton is creating a ‘natural’ division that supports persistent inequality and domination of Blacks by defining them as intrinsically inferior in intellect to Whites.

Going beyond the division and subsequent valuation of the races by Morton, Gliddon and Nott argued for the independent creation of the races—polygenism—in the widely read Types of Mankind (1854). They divided humans into types defined as ‘those primitive or original forms which are independent of Climatic or other Physical influences’ and ‘recognize no substantial difference between the terms types and species.32

Nott also commissioned An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1848) by French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau for dissemination in the United States by Confederate propagandist, Henry Hotze as The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races (1856). Gobineau’s arguments further anchored White-dominated society, believing in three distinct races of man: Europeans, Africans, and Asians. They were constructed by Gobineau as distinct entities—separated by natural barriers—and any race-mixing would be detrimental to the White race. White occupation of the elite class was due to less race-mixing with perceived inferior races throughout history. Less miscegenation resulted in the retention of the superior, inborn characteristics that allowed Whites to dominate other groups. The introduction of Gobineau’s ideas on race into the United States bolstered sentiments against the intermixture of Whites and Blacks, and given the thesis that Blacks were of inferior stock, they existed to be dominated—supporting the arguments from pro-slavery advocates.

Two decades after the publication of Crania Americana, Charles Darwin introduces an explanation for the diversity of species—the theory of evolution by natural selection—in his most notable work, On the Origin of Species. This pioneering theory implied that all humans belong to a singular species. However, Darwin scarcely mentions humans in On the Origin of Species, save for one sentence at the end: ‘light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’33 Instead, he devotes an entire volume to humanity’s place with The Descent of Man (1871). While Darwin’s theory did not necessarily support or facilitate the creation of race, it did reify the naturalness of class structure by presenting class as reproductive. In The Descent of Man, Darwin writes: ‘The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to a recklessness in marriage.’ Furthermore, ‘if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society.’34 Here, Darwin is describing class as a failure of heredity and not as a product of social circumstances.

Francis Galton, the first cousin of Darwin and the father of eugenics, used natural selection and the idea of inherited characteristics (genes were not understood yet) to argue for selected breeding among humans.35, 36 Galton believed that European-origin people, namely the British, represented the highest level of human progress and their superiority came from their superior characteristics, caused by civilisation. He argued that people of the best stock should be encouraged to breed together and through time, people of lesser stock would eventually be selected against, as they would be less fit than their superiors. These inferior people included the poor, the insane, the unintelligent, and inferior race types.

These arguments affirm Blacks inferiority and support White domination and colonisation. According to this line of reasoning, Blacks are ripe for subjugation because they lack the same level of desirable characteristics that are intrinsic to Whites and any inter-mixing would degrade White superiority. This maintains a structure of class that places Whites at the top of the social hierarchy and Blacks at the bottom.

Twentieth century genetics and eugenics

A mechanism of genetic inheritance, first proposed by Gregor Mendel, was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century and soon after made its way into studies of human biodiversity. The earliest work linking genetics to human races was by Hirschfeld and Hirschfeld.37 Their study examined differing frequencies of the A and B blood types between groups. This, the Hirschfelds argue, demonstrates a division of the human species into three macrogroups: the European type—including English, German, and Greek, having a high frequency of A; an intermediate type—including Arabs, Russians, and Jews, with a closer relationship between A and B; and an Asio-African type—including Negros, Indians, and Chinese. Due to the different frequencies, they argue that the different blood types have different origins which explains the intermediate frequencies.

Subsequent work by Lawrence Snyder and Reuben Ottenburg purported to further corroborate the division of the human species into discrete races. However, there was disagreement on the number of types that could be interpreted from the genetic data, with Snyder arguing for seven types and Ottenberg, six.38 Despite the disagreement in number, geneticists and serologists of the time agreed that the human species could be divided conveniently along the traditional racial lines. While this division is supported by scientific language, it is the projection of cultural beliefs onto data sets which bias the interpretation.

Along with the use of genetics to support the cultural beliefs about the existence of biological races came the practice of demonstrating differences in behaviour and ability, particularly between Whites and Blacks. Madison Grant argues in The Passing of the Great Race (1916) that all great achievements of Europe were the result of ruling by the superior Nordic race. He attributes notable accomplishments in other regions to colonisation by the White race and their superiority is the result of the hereditary transmission of the superior character traits. An inability to acclimate to a region, destruction by brunette types, or inter-mixture between the Nordic race and inferior types resulted in the degradation of the ruling class.

Grant’s arguments for the protection of the superiority of the White race from miscegenation was put into practice, both in law and science. Laws were passed that facilitated the coerced and sometimes forced sterilisation of mostly poor Black women,39 while middle and upper class White women were expected to reproduce and discouraged from taking birth control. Eugenics is conceptualised into two different camps, positive and negative. Positive eugenicists promoted the increased procreation of those in the upper-classes while the negative eugenicists favored sterilisation and disincentivisation of those in the lower-classes, particularly those with undesirable characteristics or belonging to undesirable racial groups.

While Grant was no scientist—in fact, he was a lawyer—geneticist and eugenicist Charles Davenport presented eugenics with all the fervor of scientific authority. He was a staunch anti-miscegenationist and proponent of sterilisation of those deemed unfit. In Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Davenport argues that character traits, behaviors, and dispositions are heritable and there lies some social barriers, race and class as two, that prevent the introduction of inferior genetic characters into fit groups. These groups deemed fit were the White, upper-class as Davenport demonstrates in the book’s chapter on “The Study of American Familes.”40 As seen historically, race is a marker of class and the prevention of race intermingling will preserve the dominance of the White race.

Legitimising inequality via biologisation

Historically, race and class are inextricable. Throughout Western history, the construction of race serves as a means to identify class standing and the biologisation of race naturalises class and enacts cultural violence on certain groups within society. In a sense, it is the colonisation of bodies of People of Colour by European ideas—their very existence is necessarily in relation to their inferiority to Whites. There is a vested interest in this colonisation as it preserves hegemonic ideals of power, keeping power centralised in a particular dominate class at the expense of others. In Orientalism, Edward Said argues that the ‘othering’ of a group of people permits their subjugation and attaching difference to biology makes the subjugation necessary as those ‘others’ do not possess the constitution or ability to rule themselves. This is a scientific reformulation of the Aristotelian assertion that there are those born to rule and others to be ruled.

With the introduction of genetics into the study of human difference, a new realm, ripe for colonisation, became available as it was not merely Black bodies that could be colonised, but what constituted their inner essence and being. This geno-colonisation allows for the quantification of Black-ness—that value is then ascribed—and parsed out onto the social landscape. Science grants legitimacy to Whites’ occupation of the highest-class stations and confirms their domination over perceived subordinate groups. The cultural authority of science and its practitioners grants them a pervasive power that infiltrates nearly every aspect of society. This power justifies class inequality that is expressed along racial lines, but also enacts structural violence—causing harm to Black Americans by setting them in biological opposition to Whites.


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13 Comments Add yours

  1. “These culturally defined racial characteristics are then tied to less visible- but still biologised—components of race such as aggression, athleticism, criminality, and intelligence, to name a few.”

    It is hard for me to tell if you write this to discredit it, or to support it. Race is not tied to criminality, or intelligence. Furthermore, because you are born with all of your muscles in the right place, does not mean you will be athletic. Using race, instead of genetics to support aggression or intelligence is reckless.


    1. I am saying these traits are biologised, that is, they are treated as if they are biological.
      It is also reckless to try to locate criminality, aggression, or intelligence in genes. These are complex behavioral patterns that can’t be reduced to genetics or anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ariane says:

    Adam, thank you so so much for taking the time to do this brief survey of the historical origins of the concept of race. It was very interesting and taught me a few things (ex Dalton was the first cousin of Darwin).


    1. If you’re interested in exploring this topic more, I highly recommend this book by George Fredrickson: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvc779fw


      1. Ariane says:

        Thank you for the suggestion.


  3. Ariane says:

    Also, where is the picture to the left from? Thank you.


    1. The picture is from a book by Ernst Haeckel called “Natürliche Schöpfungs-Geschicte“.


    2. Ariane says:

      Thank you! I think I will check it out.


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