“In its origin, race was not a product of science but a folk ideology reflecting a new form of social stratification and a rationalization for inequality among the peoples of North America.” —Race scholar Audrey Smedley
Western European scientists began designing classification systems for all manner of life during the Age of Enlightenment (late 1700’s – late 1800’s). French physician François Bernier, Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus—the “father of modern taxonomy”—and German anthropologist Johann Bleumenbach were some of the first scientists of classify humans into subcategories based largely on physical characteristics like skin color and “cranial structure.”
Western European thought leaders then built on these classification systems to create a “scientific” hierarchy of races, in an effort to provide justification for colonial expansion and the international slave trade. Specifically in the US, European colonists adopted this ideology of racial heirarchy to furnish a rationale for the slaughter and removal of America’s Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans.
For decades, European and American scientists worked to produce “proofs” for this social construct of race and for “Caucasian”—or “white”—superiority. At the same time, Christian scholars developed specific theologies to support white supremacy and race-based slavery.
However modern science has rejected the construct of race as a useful categorization of the human species (see articles below.)
One last note: while race isn’t “real,” in the sense that it isn’t biological, the negative effects of living in a racialized society are very real.
Check out the resources below to learn more.
FEATURED VIDEO: The Origin of Race In The USA
- Origin of the Idea of Race by Audrey Smedley
- Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race by Larry Adelman
- Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue by Megan Gannon
- Race: What Is It? by Judy Wu Dominick
- Race Is Real, But It’s Not Genetic by Alan Goodman
DOCUMENTARY SERIES: Race: The Power of An Illusion and its helpful online companion/website
- The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
- Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields