The History of the Idea of Race… And Why it Matters

The History of the Idea of Race… And Why it Matters

Conference: Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers
American Anthropological Association (AAA)
Warrenton, Virginia
2007-03-14 through 2007-03-17
9 pages

Audrey Smedley, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and African American Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University

The position taken by many anthropologists, both biological and social, and increasingly many other scholars in the social sciences is that “race is a cultural construct.” It should be clear that this is not a definition or even a characterization of “race,” but an assertion about the scholarly or existential domain in which we can best examine and explain the phenomenon of race. Race should be analyzed as a social/cultural reality that exists in a realm independent of biological or genetic variations. No amount of research into the biophysical or genetic features of individuals or groups will explain the social phenomenon of race. When five white policemen shot a young unarmed African immigrant 41 times in the doorway of his New York apartment, this can’t be explained by examining their genes or biology. Nor can we explain employer preferences for white job applicants or discrimination in housing or any other of the social realities of racism by references to human biological differences.

This does not mean that we deny that there is a biological basis for some human behaviors at the individual level which is a perfectly legitimate perspective for those who are engaged in this kind of research. Nor does it mean that the existence of race as a cultural phenomenon has no impact on the biology of human beings. On the contrary we know a lot about the sometimes devastating effects of race and racism on the biology and behavior of individuals and groups. Because of several hundred years of racism, during which both physical and psychological oppression have characterized the lives and environments of those people seen as members of low status races, differences in health status and life styles among them have appeared and continue to impact all of us.

The significance of History

In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. They spent decades exploring all of the original documents relating to the establishment of colonies in America. What these scholars discovered was to transform the writing of American history forever. Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness. This is the story that I will briefly tell here. (One of the first of the publications and perhaps the one with the greatest impact was a book by Edmund Morgan entitled, American Slavery, American Freedom [1975]. It is the detailed story of Virginia, the first successful colony. On its publication it was hailed as a classic that has inspired numerous other historians.)…

…Edmund Morgan wrote, “There is more than a little evidence that Virginians during these years were ready to think of Negroes as members or potential members of the community on the same terms as other men and to demand of them the same standards of behavior. Black men and white serving the same master worked, ate, and slept together, and together shared in escapades, escapes, and punishments” (1975, 327). “It was common for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together” (1975, 327).

No stigma was associated with what we today call intermarriages. Black men servants often married white women servants. Records from one county reveal that one fourth of the children born to European servant girls were mulatto (Breen and Ennis 1980). Historian Anthony Parent (2003) notes that five out of ten black men on the Eastern Shore were married to white women. One servant girl declared to her master that she would rather marry a Negro slave on a neighboring plantation than him with all of his property, and she did (P. Morgan 1998). Given the demographics, servant girls had their choice of men. One white widow of a black farmer had no problem with remarrying, this time to a white man. She later sued this second husband, accusing him of squandering the property she had accumulated with her first husband (E. Morgan 1975, 334). In another case, a black women servant sued successfully for her freedom and then married the white lawyer who represented her in court (P. Morgan, 1998)…

Read the entire paper here.

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