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Race: History, Perspectives, and Ethics

As racial tensions seemingly rage high in the United States in 2016, it is fitting to undertake an analysis of the historical meaning of race from both a biological, and social perspective. As race has been a concept that has helped structure many societies, it is key to understand not only the social implications, but the potential biological, scientific implications as well. The fundamental question is, are these concepts valid? And how can these concepts be ethically used so as to not incite more tension among people who simply look different?

Throughout history, nations and cultures have included many people whose skin color, eye color, and other phenotypic characteristics have varied. In ancient Egypt for example, there were different terms used for those who were phenotypically different depending on who was in power, those who were darker skinned were referred to the lighter skinned as “the evil race of Ish” and the darker skinned referred to the lighter skinned as “the pale degraded race of Arvad” (Gossett). The sacred Egyptian Book of Gates also distinguished various groupings based on appearance, these were Egyptian, Libyan. Asiatic, and Nubian (Book of Gates, 151). These examples demonstrate that differences have been distinguished for thousands of years, but it began to develop into a science many years later as the age of enlightenment dawned.

As the age of enlightenment began, reason and science took a leap forward, and many theories were developed throughout Europe. The beginning of the definition of race as we see it today began to develop during this period. This system of modern race classification begins with Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century.

Born and educated in Sweden (Nicholas Linnaeus), in 1735 he published his work Systema Naturae in which he proposed his division of racial classifications, dividing mankind into four subgroups. In a short history of the race concept Dr. Michael Yudell summarizes Linnaeus’ groupings explaining that Linnaeus,

divided humanity into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus. To these groups he ascribed typological, or physical and behavioral characteristics. Americanus were “reddish, choleric, and erect; hair black… wide nostrils… obstinate, merry, free… regulated by customs.” Asiaticus were “melancholy, stiff; hair black, dark eyes… severe, haughty, avaricious… ruled by opinions.” Africanus were “black, phlegmatic… hair black, frizzled… nose flat; lips tumid; women without shame, they lactate profusely; crafty, indolent, negligent… governed by caprice.” Finally, Europeaeus were “white, sanguine, muscular… eyes blue, gentle… inventive… governed by laws” (Yudell, 3).

Later building on the works of Linnaeus, a scientist from Germany named Johann Blumenbach developed a racial classification system containing five categories: American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian. He considered Caucasian to be the superior race and those other variants to be inferior (Yudell).

The idea of superiority of races was obvious throughout many, but not all of the scientific intellectuals during the subsequent centuries. For example, Charles Darwin stated in his book On the Origin of Species, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (Darwin, Charles, and Charles Darwin, 521). These ideas of natural division and superiority were considered science but the question fundamentally remains regarding its validity. Was it simply a cultural construct, or is there biological merit to these assumptions and hypothesis made by Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and Darwin?

From a biological perspective to divide Homo Sapiens into subcategories, or races, based on phenotypes is problematic in at least two different ways, if not more. The first reason being because of genetic interchangeability. Although humans throughout the entire world have entirely different phenotypic features such as eye color, hair color, skin tone, and other characteristics, we still have the ability to reproduce and create viable offspring, making us one species. However, this viable offspring can take on the characteristics of their parents, no matter their phenotypic makeup, thus intermixing and leaving a great variety of humans with distinct individual traits (Marger, 17). The second problem is found in the question, what are the characteristics that can define race? As we attempt to define them by phenotype, it becomes difficult because of the broad variations that exist among humans. And as Martin Marger explains in his book Race and Ethnic Relations, “Moreover, attempts to clearly categorize humans have proved futile because differences among individuals of the same group (or “racial type”) are greater than those found between groups” (Marger, 18). He later explains that statistically speaking there are groups that appear similar, yet “racial categories form a continuum of gradual change, not a set of sharply demarcated types” (Marger,18).

Biologically it may be difficult to define race, but despite its possible biological invalidity its social implications are what give the concept strength. As aforementioned, the divisions of people due to visible difference has been apparent for millennia within societal structures such as in ancient Egypt. We also know of racial disparities within other cultures, and anthropologist Robert Redfield said that “it is on the level of habit, custom, sentiment, and attitude that race, as a matter of practical significance, is to be understood. Race is, to speak, a human invention” (Marger, 22). Men see differences from themselves from their own perspective, and label them accordingly. However, what may be considered “black” in one culture say America, may be considered “white” in another such as Brazil. The categories defining race don’t always coincide from culture to culture (Marger, 22).

Analyzing race as a social construct necessitates the exploration of the ethical concerns for dividing men into racial categories. Racial disparities as aforementioned have existed in many cultures, and two prime examples are found in Germany in the 1930’s, and here in America.

The ideology of the Nazis, in the 1930’s was highly influenced by the writings of Joseph-Arthur Gobineau in which he laid forth a hierarchy of races. This hierarchy was based on who was most developed and creative, with the “Aryans” or the whites at the top, and Jews at the bottom because they were considered undeveloped and fundamentally uncreative. This social construct of race, not based on scientific fact, but rather an ideology of superiority led to the anti-Semitic fascist regime that caused the death of nearly 6 million Jews (Heywood, 217).

In the United States, the words were penned by Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” (US, 1776) yet for years it didn’t seem as if the black man was truly an equal. This was due to the social structure and attitude towards blacks perpetuated throughout pre-American European culture, especially in the south. As scientists and intellects divided up races into superior and inferior, it gave society less of a reason to resist and to change the ways of slavery. It required years of change, a war that claimed the lives of roughly one million people, and years of social reconstruction and healing for the black man to be recognized as legal equals to the white man.

Because of the above examples, and personal experience living in the south, I do not believe dividing man into racial categories is ethical. It is tolerable to recognize difference, however to begin to categorize carries more weight than simply a label. It has rippling effects in society, and impacts social structure, social attitudes, and intercultural communicative practices. Man can see difference in culture, but historically speaking, a development of racial classifications has led to disparities and attitudes of superiority. Biologically speaking, as animals who can reproduce and have viable offspring, we are not all that different. We may look different at time, but as a species, we are one.


“The Book of Gates.” Sacred Texts. Evinity Publishing Inc., 2011. Web. 28 July 2016.

Darwin, Charles, and Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life; And, the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Modern Library, 1990. Print.

Gossett, Thomas F. Race; the History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1963. Print.

Heywood, Andrew. Political Ideologies: An Introduction. 5th ed. New York: St. Martins, 2012. Print.

Marger, Martin. Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 2003. Print.

“Nicolaus Linnæus.” Geni_family_tree. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2016.

Yudell, Michael. “A Short History of the Race Concept.” Science, Myth, and Culture Race and the Genetic Revolution (2011): 13-30. Web.


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