The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race

The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race

Population and Development Review
Volume 30, Number 3 (September, 2004)
pages 385-415

Charles Hirschman, Boeing International Professor of Sociology and Professor of Public Affaris
University of Washington

Physical and cultural diversity have been salient features of human societies throughout history, but “race” as a scientific concept to account for human diversity is a modern phenomenon created in nineteenth-century Europe as Darwinian thought was (mis)applied to account for differences in human societies. Although modern science has discredited race as a meaningful biological concept, race has remained as an important social category because of historical patterns of interpersonal and institutional discrimination. However, the impossibility of consistent and reliable reporting of race, either as an identity or as an observed trait, means that the notion of race as a set of mutually exclusive categories is no longer tenable. As a social science term, race is being gradually abandoned. Physical differences in appearance among people remain a salient marker in everyday life, but this reality can be better framed within the concept of ethnicity.

To modern eyes, especially American ones, the reality of race is self-evident. Peoples whose ancestors originated from Africa, Asia, and Europe typically have different appearances in terms of skin color, hair texture, and other superficial features. Although racial differences may be only skin deep, it is widely assumed that races have been a primordial source of identity and intergroup antagonism from the earliest societies to the present, with ancient hatreds, exploitation, and discrimination among the most common patterns. Even in modern societies, which have exposed the myth of racism, race remains a widely used term for socially defined groups in popular discourse—and, in some countries, also in scholarly research, and public policy.

A basic problem, with this perspective is that it is increasingly difficult to define and measure race as a social category. Are Jews a race? What about Muslims in Europe or Koreans in Japan? If Filipinos and Samoans are official races listed in the US census form, why can’t Arab Americans or Middle Easterners be included? And how might the golfer Tiger Woods respond to the standard question about his racial identity?

Although these questions may seem merely pedantic many critical issues of public policy are shaped by the perceptions of racial identities and racial boundaries. Who should be eligible for preferential admission to universities in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, India, South Africa, and other societies that have affirmative action policies? What are the rules for defining the descendants of indigenous peoples who are seeking redress for the expropriation of their ancestral lands in the United States, Canada, and many other countries around the globe? Who decides one’s racial origins—are they based on subjective identity or are there objective criteria that observers can use? These are challenging questions that will tie policymakers and scholars into knots in the coming years as they attempt to take race into account in order to fashion nonracial or postracist societies.

In this essay, I review the history of the concept of race and its ties to social science, including demography. My conclusion (drawing on the work of other scholars) is that race and racism are not ancient or tribal beliefs but have developed apace with modernity over the last 400 years and reached their apogee in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Social science did not originate the belief that innate differences are associated with racial groups, but many social scientists in the Social Darwinist tradition were complicit in the construction and legitimation of racial theories.

In the twentieth century, social scientists made strident efforts to challenge the assumptions and reveal the lack of empirical evidence behind the racial theories of humankind. However, it took epochal events, most notably the specter of Nazi Germany and the nationalist movements of colonized peoples, to weaken the grip of racism as a popular and scientific theory. Although biological theories of race have been largely discredited by these political events and scientific progress, racial identities, classifications, and prejudices remain part of the fabric of many modern societies. I maintain that social science, and demography in particular, have an obligation to show that it is impossible to discuss the issue of race with any logic or consistency without an understanding of the origins and characteristics of racism…

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