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Race And Racism

  In prescientific times, the term ‘race’ was used to classify any group or type of species in the natural world: people spoke, for example, of the ‘race’ of monkeys or ‘the canine race’. From the early 19th century onwards, however, the word began to be applied specifically to human beings, to describe what were (wrongly) perceived as mutually distinct groups of Homo sapiens. It is still commonly assumed that different ‘races’ of human beings can be distinguished, and that the distinctions reveal themselves in such things as bone construction, common descent, hair form and skin colour. But unbiased genetical and statistical data provide no evidence for such views; rather, they disprove them. To take a single example: the defining characteristics of the ‘negroid’ race were once claimed to include dark skin and tightly curled black hair. Yet Australian aborigines, to choose one group among many, tend to have dark skin but wavy and sometimes blonde hair. Advances in genetics have also shown that the differences within breeding populations who share certain physical characteristics are as great as those between such groups. Findings like these have led to the discreditation of ‘race’ as a scientific term, and to its replacement in anthropology and sociology with such concepts as ethnicity and ‘ethnic group’.

The so-called scientific study of race, as a biological feature of human beings, was a typical activity of 19th-century Europe, during the period of nationalist and imperialist expansionism. Typologies of humans were constructed, in which cultural and psychological characteristics were equated with perceived physical characteristics. Common distinctions in such ‘scientific racism’ were ‘caucasian’, ‘mongoloid’ and ‘negroid’. Each of these groups was considered to be distinct from the others, and to have come from different ancestry. (Some authorities identified the ancestors quite specifically, as Noah\'s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth in the Old Testament flood story.)

Once the idea of distinct races was accepted, the next step was to claim that the differences between them were not merely biological but indicated different levels of ‘elevation’ on the ladder of evolution, and that each population group had a unique set of characteristics, whether negative or positive. Beliefs about the inferiority of ‘negroid’ peoples were particularly rampant, and were used to legitimize discrimination against them, especially in the context of the expansion of capitalism which required the use of cheap labour. If, for example, the equality of black people with white could be denied on ‘scientific’ grounds, this legitimized the practice of whites treating black labour as a commodity. In India, British colonialist administrators engaged in the practice of ‘anthropometry’, in which selected physical features were measured to form a typology of caste groups. Not unnaturally, such practices appeared, to those who used them, to reinforce and ‘prove’ the perceived superiority of the white man, and to justify their presence in countries within their colonial dominion. It also served to construct a hierarchy of orders in which people could be allotted according to so-called ‘natural’ characteristics.

Such historical perspectives on race continue to have their legacy in contemporary times, in which political and economic factors persist in structuring perceptions of race. Ideas about race go hand-in-hand with forms of racism: the ideology and practice of discrimination against conceived racial groups, such as the Blacks, Jews and Irish. Racism need not necessarily be a visible brute force, but it could manifest itself as institutional racism in which a climate of discrimination against particular social groups permeates in a range of overt or covert ways.

Although race is a socially constructed phenomenon, it is a powerful motivating force behind people\'s thoughts and behaviours. Contemporary social theorists assess the extents and effects of racism on people, whilst some have engaged in political struggles against its iniquities. Historical analyses that explain the colonial conditions which underly contemporary thoughts about race have been considered in relation to how capitalist economies mediate these situations. For example, a gulf between black and white workers may act to undermine working class solidarity, which would be largely in the interests of those who seek to control the labour force. Such perspectives are complicated by a range of other social considerations, particularly when there is a diffusion of people and ideas across class and racial divisions. DA RK

See also assimilation; caste; colonialism; culture; dependency theory; ethnocentrism, evolutionism; Marxist anthropology; nationalism; orientalism; power; primitivism; social closure; social order; stratification; typifications.Further reading Michael Banton, The Idea of Race; , J.G. Gabriel, The Concepts of Race and Racism: an Analysis of Classical and Contemporary Theories of Race; , Paul Gilroy (ed.), The Empire Strikes Back.



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