The Origin of Race in the USA


Did you know that race was not always considered a biological or genetic category?
So how did we come to understand it that way today?
We all have a working definition of race.
Whether you kinda understand it, hate it, claim to not see it, or study it (hint hint,
cough cough: that’s me), it still plays a role in our daily lives.
From the way that people interact to the places they live and the stereotypes they face,
the race is still a determining factor in our social structures, both inside and outside
of the U.S.
But full disclosure, I do a lot of U.S. history so this is a U.S. specific video about race,
since these histories operate differently across various contexts.
Ok, so let’s get started by asking:
What were some of the earliest definitions of “race”?
Well, before we started thinking of race along the lines of biology, genetics, or phenotype
(aka physical appearance) did you know that it was largely considered a category of kinship
or group affiliation?
In the 16th century, we started to see the use of the word race in English, but it isn’t
attributed to physical traits or behavior.
It meant, quite literally, that you were all members of the same household, group, or shared
a common ancestor.
But, when did “race” shift to being less about kinship groups, to sounding more complicated
than the lyrics to “I’m my own grandpa”?
Well, we can see that starting in the colonial era.
And that brings us to our second question:
Why did we see the shift in the idea of race in the 17th and 18th centuries?
The answer to this question is firmly rooted in two things: the rise of global capitalism
that was backed by slavery and colonialism, and a period of theorizations in Europe known
as the Enlightenment.
When the Spanish began the colonization of the Caribbean, and later Latin America, after
1492, they looked to Native populations to mine silver and gold under brutal working
They set about enslaving, attacking, and murdering those who didn’t comply.
Thousands of Native people died as a result of overwork, genocide, or because they were
exposed to new diseases brought over with the Spanish settlers.
And when England established its first successful long term colonies in North America in Virginia
in 1607, they looked to mirror this pattern of enslavement with Native people, while also
seeking copious amounts of silver and gold.
But they had limited success with this route because: 1) Virginia wasn’t exactly rich
in gold and 2,) Native populations were able to resist the efforts of early settlers through
fighting back, or escaping and blending into adjacent Native groups.
English settlers still wanted to make money off of this venture so they began to look
to alternative ways of making Virginia profitable, and that came in the form of tobacco.
But a major problem with growing tobacco is that it requires a ton of labor, and the laborers
needed the agricultural skills to turn the crop into cash.
Because they had already met with sustained resistance from Native populations, English
settlers looked to other potential labor sources: enslaved Africans and indentured British laborers.
There are some important distinctions to make between these two groups.
First, indenture was a contractual agreement with fixed terms that varied widely.
Some indentured servants were brought to the colonies against their will either as a punishment
or because they were children.
The terms of these contracts were often very exploitative.
But many came willingly in exchange for their passage to the new colonies.
Many of these indentured servants finished the terms of their contracts and began lives
as property owners.
Enslavement of Africans was an entirely different category of labor from indenture.
1) Slavery was for life, not for a fixed term or number of years.
2) Slaves were not considered human.
3) It was not a contract, because it takes two consenting humans to enter into a contract.
And 4) Slave laws were enacted codifying hereditary slavery, meaning that if you were enslaved
and had children, then those children would also remain in slavery.
With the expansion of this system there was understandably some resistance, even from
So in order to continue to justify slavery, we start to see the pseudoscience of “race”
emerge that connected physical features, behavior and legal rights, right around the 18th century
when the colonial use of slaves was expanding.
Anthropologist Audrey Smedley notes that “scientific” ideas about physical appearance and racial
the difference in the 18th century were large “folk” ideas used to justify already existent
social norms.
So as a result of a desire to perpetuate systems of exploitation, more and more distinctions
were made about the supposed differences amongst races, primarily the differences of black
people from their white counterparts.
This evolution of race became more concretized after social structures of slavery were in
place and not before and was solidified by the Enlightenment.
Which brings us to our third question:
How did the Enlightenment impact definitions of the race?
The Enlightenment was a period of primarily European thought and ideological development
that saw the emergence of some key concepts that tie back into today’s discussion.
First: there was a push in scientific communities to categorize the natural world using “reason”
and creating elaborate hierarchical systems that emphasized the similarities between different
species and subgroups and the inherent differences amongst others.
And the race was fitted into this same mold.
As European theorists looked to classify the world into “scientific” groupings, physical
markers that were already established social norms through enslavement and genocide were
ways that they sought to “prove” that this was the “natural” order and not a
social construction.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, who was a proponent of concepts like individual liberty and freedom
for white men or those he considered his peers, also made claims that black slaves required
less sleep than their European counterparts to justify excruciatingly long and inhumane
work hours.
And Samuel Cartwright, who falsely claimed that “drapetomania” was a mental defect
that caused enslaved black people to run away from slavery as if wanting to escape a lifetime
of enslavement was…illogical?
The Enlightenment formulation of History also played a crucial role in the development of
social ideologies of race.
Kang, Hegel, and other philosophers of their day claimed that certain racial groups stood
outside of history or had no history, and this included all groups that they considered
non-white or outside of European ideals of modernity.
This meant that groups that were devoid of history and culture were inherently less valuable
and therefore subordinate to other races.
They were cast as the natural sacrifices of supposed “progress.”
These assumptions were also codified into law in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first naturalization laws of the United States in 1790, limited naturalized citizenship
to “free white persons” and excluded other groups.
Children born of enslaved mothers were said to inherit the legal statuses of their mother,
effectively keeping them in bondage perpetually.
And Native Americans were often denied legal property rights, which helped to expedite
the process of Westward expansion across the North American continent.
And “anti-miscegenation” laws were drafted in order to assure that people from different
racial backgrounds did not intermarry or have children in order to protect the ideals of racial
But these racial categorizations did not always neatly align with skin tone.
In his book Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants
and the Alchemy of Race, historian Matthew Jacobson notes that in the U.S. “white”
or “caucasian” was not always considered a unified race composed of anyone of European descent.
Whiteness was often considered exclusive to Anglo-Saxon descendants, while other European
groups were broken into different ethnic categories such as “Celt,” “Slavs,” “Iberics,”
and “Hebrews”, which were considered separate races from the 1840s to the early 20th century.
But in the 1920s, when there was stemming of migration from Europe, these different
races were subsumed into one category called “whiteness” to shore up a cultural majority
against other racial groups and immigrants.
And this persisted throughout the 20th century.
So how does it all add up?
Well, race started as a marker of kinship.
But then we see it shift to become less about familial inheritance and more focused on physical
indicators due to the rise of Enlightenment reasoning and labor exploitation.
But where does that leave us today?
Well, in the past several decades’ scholars have noted both an uptick in identifying with
your ethnic history, for example, pride in your country or culture of origin, instead
of just being “white” or “black.”
But we’ve also seen a revival of outdated theories of race being biologically determined
and attached to certain traits, like considering all people of one physical type as prone to
certain behaviors.
But regardless of how people identify themselves, race continues to be a complex topic of discussion
and debate.
With that final thought in mind:
Do you have any other historical points to add to the evolution of “race”?
And how has race been used in both positive and negative contexts throughout history?.


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