Racism or the Human Race?

How a Social Construct Divided the World

Where does the idea of race first appear in history? And what are the implications of making race a category of human beings?

Racism is an existential threat to America,” writes Theodore R. Johnson in When the Stars Begin to Fall, an impassioned plea to his native land to overcome the problem of racial prejudice.

He is not alone in his concern. Race, racism, racialization, and racist language and attitudes are very much on the minds of people in many countries. The United Nations has long campaigned against this scourge affecting various population groups. We are currently well into its International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–2024), whose aim is to promote not only the recognition and development of millions of people around the world who identify as of African heritage, but also justice in the face of racial bias against them. This effort by the General Assembly highlights just one aspect of a vexing, long-lasting problem.

How did we get to the place where racial conflict is a significant driver of global existential risk, alongside the others in this article collection? Is there any solution? Where does the idea of race first appear in history? Is it a modern idea, as some scholars today suggest? What are the implications of making race a category of human beings?

Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race. But once the idea was invented, it quickly began to reshape the modern world.”

Robert P. Baird, “The Invention of Whiteness: The Long History of a Dangerous Idea”

Certainly the predictable reaction to the history of the Americas (with its shameful slavery component) and imperial European history (with its Age of Colonization) has brought race to the forefront in our time.

There is race as 15th-century European history speaks of it, and there is race as 18th- and 19th- century science attempted to define it. And there is race as the Human Genome Project has revealed it.

It may seem odd to claim that race was so late on the scene. What about the ancient world? The fifth-century-BCE Greek historian Herodotus visited several countries and described them and their inhabitants. But race, as we understand the term, did not feature. While Greek culture recognized physical differences between peoples, they were not a basis for racial separation. The Greeks simply categorized people as of Greek culture or not (that’s to say, Greek or barbarian). This was social separation based on culture. Slavery was prevalent in the ancient world; but again, it was not based on race.

Limestone relief from the tomb of Horemheb XVIII, depicting Nubian captives awaiting sale in an ancient Egyptian slave market, ca. 1332–1333 BCE (Museum of Bologna).

Mike Knell, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Racial separation according to color seems to have begun in late medieval times in Portugal with the chronicler Gomes Zurara, who was also a commander in the proselytizing Military Order of Christ. Commissioned in 1452 to write a book about his master Henry the Navigator’s slave trading in West Africa, he categorized the captives there as “white enough,” “less white like mulattoes” and “black as Ethiops,” in descending order of perceived beauty. Together he regarded them as heathens and a “miserable race,” while “remembering that they too are of the generation of the sons of Adam”—fully human but in need of conversion. His description and justification of the Portuguese slave trade in terms of commercial endeavor and Christian mission set the stage for future colonial ventures, including by the French, the Spanish and the British in the Americas.

A few decades later, the expulsion of Jews and Muslim Moors from Spain added to racial considerations in European consciousness. Though attempts to convert the Jews and Moors to Roman Catholic Christianity were largely successful, the situation turned against the conversos when they were accused of secretly remaining true to their original faith. It was “in the blood,” so to speak.

According to Australian scholar Adam Hochman, “the Jews and the Moors were deemed to be unalterable razas, or races [though nobody else appears to have been given this label], and no amount of baptismal water could change this. The concept of race is not modern, but late-medieval.”

The term ‘race,’ used infrequently before the 1500s, was used to identify groups of people with a kinship or group connection. The modern-day use of the term ‘race’ (identifying groups of people by physical traits, appearance, or characteristics) is a human invention.”

David R. Roediger, “Historical Foundations of Race”

Early Science Weighs In

As Hochman goes on to argue, the situation changed with the coming of modernity and the beginning of scientific explanation. Thus, race as a scientific concept is deemed modern. By 1684, François Bernier could define humanity as divided by race. In his New Division of the Earth, Hochman writes, “Bernier described four ‘species or races’ that very roughly translate to white (which included Egyptians, Native Americans, and Indians who were, in his words, merely ‘sunburnt’), black (sub-Saharan Africa), Asian (all people from Muscovy to the Philippines) and Sámi (whom he admits to knowing little about).”

Hochman continues, “Whereas the 15th-century Spaniards racialised the Jews and the Moors, who were often physically indistinguishable from the old [Spanish] Christians, Bernier was primarily focused on observable differences in traits such as skin colour, hair texture and so forth.”

The already unsettling attempt to give scientific support to such racial stratification took a troubling turn in 1739 in France, when the Royal Academy of Sciences in Bordeaux met to discuss the subject of their 1741 prize competition. They invited submissions in the form of essays explaining the physical cause of the African’s skin color and hair quality, and of the degeneration assumed to underlie both traits. This was an inquiry into the source of blackness by a group of white men in a port city involved in the slave trade between France, Africa and the West Indian islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and, predominantly, Sainte Domingue (Haiti today).

Responders to the question advanced various ideas to explain why Africans are black. Scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew Curran note that “in addition to both climatological and biblical explanations, the Bordeaux Academy members had heard about new scientific discoveries and theories related to Africans: anatomists were sending back reports of anatomical dissections of slaves from the colonies; naturalists were putting forth secular histories of human mutation; and taxonomy-minded thinkers had begun proposing human classification schemes that separated the world’s peoples into races for the first time.”

To varying degrees, we have all inherited a muddled understanding of race, ancestry and phenotype from the Enlightenment.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew S. Curran, “We Need a New Language for Talking About Race”

In the background of the Bordeaux scientific society’s work was the slavery issue, a financial concern for some of its members who were also involved in commerce. It suited them to publish findings that dehumanized the slaves, even though they later tried to make sure they did not die of disease on the journey to the West Indies (not out of humanitarian concern so much as to protect their investments). No surprise, then, that the explanation for blackness was mostly negative toward the slaves. They were considered inferior beings to white Europeans. They were simply part of what was needed for business to succeed.

Enter Pseudoscience

About 50 years on from the Royal Society’s competition, the pseudoscience of phrenology had its origins in Vienna. It was a pseudoscience, because as we’ll see, it was based on ideas that had no basis in fact. A dictionary definition of phrenology reads, “The detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.” It involved the collection of skulls (and plaster casts of skulls) from around the world for investigation and measurement. It was believed that the brain was the organ of the mind, and that there was a connection between bone, brain and character. Phren is the Greek for “mind.”

In Victorian times, the so-called science spread widely. According to historian of science James Poskett, “by the middle of the nineteenth century, phrenologists were self-consciously promoting their work as part of an international scientific movement. Phrenological books were the global best sellers of the day.” By 1900, Poskett reports, one of the primary books on the subject, The Constitution of Man (1828) by George Combe, had sold 300,000 copies, six times more than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

Like many other ideas that become paradigms, phrenology spread into many aspects of life. Because it was centered on the idea that character could be determined by examining the shape and size of the skull, it had effects on, among others, politics, prison reform, race studies and slavery.

Combe gave a lecture in New York, where he showed various skulls. According to Poskett, he was “inviting his audience to ‘compare the heads of the Negroes with those of the North American Indians.’ It was phrenology, Combe told his audience, that best explained the history of the different ‘races of man.’ Holding up a Native American skull, Combe pointed out that ‘the Indian has more Destructiveness, less Cautiousness, less Benevolence.’ This explained why Native Americans could not be enslaved. According to Combe, ‘he has retained his freedom by being the proud, indomitable, and destructive Savage which such a combination indicates.’ In contrast, the ‘Negro’ was ‘gentler in nature’ and so more easily subdued. Combe concluded by comparing the Native American and African skulls, suggesting that ‘had the Negroes possessed a similar organization, to make useful slaves of them would have been impossible.’ Phrenology, therefore, both explained and reinforced racial divisions.”

Important in the background of this pseudoscience were imperialism and colonialism. For example, British officers stationed overseas collected skulls to send back to Edinburgh’s Phrenological Society for analysis as to the character of defeated peoples. Of course, it also often resulted in a pejorative report on the specimens involved.

Phrenology was both a mental science and a racial science.”

James Poskett, Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race and the Global History of Science, 1815–1920

Advanced African Culture

The consigning of a different people to an inferior status is very much part of human nature’s response to the Other. We minimize others not in our circle to promote self. This also happens within groups, tribes and nations.

Frank Willett was an expert on the Ife sculptures of southern Nigeria. As a schoolboy I enjoyed a visit he made to his alma mater. He came with examples of copper-alloy sculptures dating back to the 14th–15th century, rediscovered beginning in 1938. They were so beautifully crafted and technologically advanced that white scholars said they could not have originated among the indigenous Yoruba people. The alloy must have come from Central Europe, Mauritania, the Byzantine Empire or Morocco.

Yoruba copper mask for King Obalufon II (ca. 1300 CE), discovered at Ife, Nigeria, and currently housed in the Ife Museum of Antiquities.

WaynaQhapaq, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The archaeologist who found the first sculpture was the German scholar Leo Frobenius, who in the early 1900s had advanced the idea of an African Atlantis. He theorized that the lost Greek civilization was the root of African culture and social structure, proposing that such a white civilization existed in Africa long prior to the European colonizers. He claimed that this white remnant of Atlantis helped native Africans to develop military and political power, and that they then disappeared, leaving the native peoples to deteriorate. But it’s now known that a high level of indigenous art existed in many other parts of West Africa in prior centuries.

Here again we hear the voice of European superiority.

A Misconstrued Bible Passage

In this general period, secular scholarship was paralleled by equally biased religious teaching. The story of the American slave mother explaining to her child that Black people are destined to live under the curse of slavery brought on by the bad behavior of Noah’s son Ham is a crucial reminder of the power wielded by false teachers and the harm they do. Because the mother has been raised under a particularly damaging misconception, she affirms to her child that it is God’s will. The son cannot understand why God would do that. And of course, the truth is, He didn’t. Human beings caused the descent into racism.

In the biblical account we read that “Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants He shall be to his brethren’” (Genesis 9:24–25).

This passage has been used by white religious teachers to justify slavery, particularly in the history of the United States. The argument was that those African peoples who descended from Ham, from the Cushites (later Ethiopians or Nubians), were cursed to be perpetual servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth, the Semitic and white peoples. But the curse fell on Canaan, not Ham. The Canaanites did not live in Africa but in the Levant and did not resemble the dark-skinned Cushites in appearance. We know this from the Egyptian artwork of the period.

Composite of paintings found at the tomb of Egyptian official Khnumhotep II: A group of West Asiatic foreigners (from Canaan and, more broadly, the Levant) visits Khnumhotep, ca. 1900 BCE. The leader is labeled a Hyksos. Bottom: Modern rendition of the original composite.

Top, A.D. Riddle, Brown University, Macquarie University (public domain); bottom, NebMaatRa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This misunderstanding stands in stark contrast to the Bible’s opening statement about the origins of the human race: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, New Revised Standard Version). This is the overarching, defining scripture on human equality and justice. Here there is one way of understanding what all people are in God’s sight: children in His image, male and female. There is nothing here about race, unless it’s about the human race. To use the Bible to justify the idea that God has a special place for people of white European ancestry is at best to misunderstand the Scriptures. The Bible nowhere supports such a notion.

Interestingly, some of Shem’s descendants—the ancient Israelites—were required by their God-given law code to treat those “strangers” who chose to live among them as equal citizens. In biblical Hebrew, the ger is the resident foreigner and the ezrach is the citizen. The Israelite, freed from slavery in Egypt, where he was a stranger, must treat the stranger among his own people with great respect: “And if a stranger [ger] dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you [ezrach “homeborn,” “native”], and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers [gerim] in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33–34).

If we trace our family trees back far enough, they all become one and the same. . . . Biological conceptions of race have long been used to justify oppression.”

Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

This speaks to the enduring truth that underlies everyone’s birth. Whatever variations there may be among us, one thing unites us: we are all made in God’s image, and we all deserve each other’s care. As the Human Genome Project shows, we are 99.9 percent the same genetically. Race, it turns out, is a social construct that divides, whereas our DNA shows how much we are the same.

It’s that social construct that author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses when he writes: “Race is the child of racism, not the father” (Between the World and Me).

Hochman asks: “Does this mean that we should aim to be post-racial? No. We cannot go past something that never existed. We should aim to be post-racist instead.”

For their part, Gates and Curran note that a new approach is needed to discuss race: “It feels urgent that we develop new language for discussing the relationship between identity, ancestry, history and science. DNA analysis could help create that language.”

Here’s where a correct reading of the biblical record, alongside today’s genetic findings, provides the antidote to racial prejudice.