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racism human species race

Race and racism are two distinct concepts which have separate histories. The term race was borrowed by human biologists from general biology, and simply means a local kind or variety within a species , especially applied to those common plants and animals which were of interest to early naturalists and philosophers such as Herodotus (484–425 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Lucretius (99–55 CE) and Albertus Magnus (1193–1280). With the discovery of genes in the early twentieth century, a species was defined more precisely as a group which shares an inventory of genes, freely exchanging genetic material among themselves, but not with other species. A race, then, might represent a minor adaptation to local conditions within the species. A species of butterflies, for example, might include “races” which present different patterns of camouflage on their wings in different parts of their range where the vegetation and assortment of predators and other butterflies are different. Arctic races of mammals tend to be whiter than southern varieties, while races of forest mammals tend to be more emphatically striped or spotted than races of the same species living on the plains. A single species, then, might consist of several component local races, all of which are mutually fertile with one another.

Members of the human species are highly variable in appearance, which should be expected in a species with a wide—in this case world-wide—distribution. For reasons explained in this encyclopedia, regional populations of humans have adapted themselves to local conditions of climate, nutrition, and diseases, so that some human groups are darker in color than others, some taller, some shorter, some with curly hair, and some with straight hair.

These variations in appearance among human populations, seemingly trivial in the eyes of early observers, were suddenly seized upon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by biologists, anthropologists, historians and even philosophers, who alleged that these superficial traits were far from trivial, but signified deep and profound differences among human populations in their psychology, temperament, and even moral structure. And thus the ideology of racism was invented, the belief that human races were not just different from one another, but that some were superior to others. Not surprisingly, the persons who invented racism were themselves members of the race that they alleged was superior—the white race— Nordic and European. Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), Johann Blumenbach (1752–1840), and Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) are usually “credited” with inventing racism, if we can use that word, and they alleged further that their taxonomy of racism was not based on mere opinion but was “scientific,” based on careful methods of observation and analysis.And thus the phrase “scientific racism” has survived to describe a field of study which is not truly scientific, but pretends to be. As the reader will see in example after example in this encyclopedia, the use of numbers and statistics does not automatically mean that an assertion is logical or correct by scientific standards.

It is not mere coincidence that racism was invented during the time that tens of thousands of Africans were being captured, enslaved, and transported in chains to the Americas to work as field hands and manual workers for European owners. And it is interesting and important to note that the institution of chattel slavery, in which human beings were considered as mere property, was put into place before scientific racism was invented. Chattel slavery in North America was put into law in Virginia in 1640, but Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae was not published until 1735, Blumenbach’s Natural Varieties of Mankind in 1775, and Gobineau’s The Inequality of Human Races not until 1853. Thus racism was practiced for about one hundred years in North America before scientific racism was put into print to justify what was already a highly developed institution.

Although racism is a recent invention, with its assertions about inherent human inequality, slavery was a very old institution in the Mediterranean region of the Old World. Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome all maintained vast numbers of slaves, which they had acquired by various means. The Spartans, for example, subdued neighboring Laconians and forced them into slavery. The Romans captured slaves from Britain to Carthage, and likewise created a slave-based economy. But these slaves were not marked by their outward physical appearance—in fact, their physiognomy was very much like that of their owners. Greek and Roman slaves had to wear collars or distinctive dress to differentiate themselves from other members of society.

Blackness in ancient times was not equated with the status of slave. In Rome there were prominent black men, like Emperor Septimius Severus, Consul Lusius Quietus, and a Roman general who became Saint Maurice, the patron saint of medieval chivalry. But according to Plato, there were invisible, inherent differences among men which led some to be kings and others to be slaves. Plato tried to capture the essence of the supposed inequalities among men (leaving aside his allegations about female inferiority) in a supposed dialogue between his teacher Socrates and Socrates’s student Glaucon, included in Plato’s Republic . Author Stephen Chorover has called this fragment of philosophy “the most frightening document in European history.”

The dialogue consists in part of an analogy between human character and metallurgy. According to Plato, although all Greeks might look alike on the surface, they were different inside. Some were essentially “golden” in their intelligence and character, while others were silver, brass, iron, wood, or lead. Those with golden spirits, the children of golden parents, were destined to be monarchs or “philosopher-kings.” Those who were brass or iron would become soldiers, craftsmen and tradesmen, while those who were wood or lead, would be slaves. The frightening part of this idea is the notion of an invisible inner self, an early forerunner of the notion of intelligence, and hence of “intelligence quotient” (IQ), which emerged as the foremost rationale for racism in the twentieth century. Plato is clearly a forerunner of the idea that human character and intelligence are innate, are inherited from parents to children, and can be measured by specialists such as philosophers, or in modern times, by psychologists.

The study of race, and of racism, presently requires at least two general and somewhat different approaches, one from science and the other from the humanities. It is up to scientists to test the biological assertions of racist theory—that human groups, regional populations, “races,” are significantly different from one another in their mental, artistic, and physical abilities. The struggle between racist and antiracist biologists has been continuous since the invention of racism. But it seems that as soon as one racist allegation is refuted, others spring forward. Much of this encyclopedia is devoted to examinations of particular propositions and how they have been criticized in the last three hundred years.

Even if all racist assertions about human inequality are refuted, it remains to explain how and why these assertions were generated in the first place, and what functions these beliefs served in human society. As the reader will see in this encyclopedia, the perspective loosely called “post-modernism” has provided a critical vocabulary for explaining how opinions and ideologies are “socially constructed” or “culturally constructed” in a particular time or place. It is not enough simply to refute the supposedly scientific biological assertions of racist individuals; it is also necessary to explain how and why people came to believe these propositions, and who was promoting them.

Racism is not merely a psychological disorder, then, curable by hearing the biological facts. Racism not only poisons minds, it also lines the pockets of certain well-placed elites. American farmers, contractors, store owners, and manufacturers, for example, reap enormous profits from the difference between what they pay workers of color and what they would have to pay white workers to do the same jobs. In the past, some of the greatest advances in human rights have been on those occasions when racism, by various means, was made to be unprofitable. When industrial capital expanded into the South after World War II, for example, industrialists did not want to build factories with dual facilities for whites and blacks, and so they joined the struggle for integration.

The nearly four hundred articles in this encyclopedia are roughly of two kinds— biological and historical. But many articles are both historical and biological, and overlap with one another in the coverage of a particular geographical region, historical figure, or topic. For example, “civil rights,” “migration,” and “people of color” are mentioned in several places, in different contexts. To help the reader navigate among overlapping articles, we have listed “Related Topics” at the end of each article. Each article also contains a list of suggested readings where the reader can find more information and more references to the topic under discussion. All articles are signed by authors who are prominent in their fields. All of them are well published, and their other books and articles can be found in local libraries.

This project began in 2004 with a discussion among Macmillan editors concerning the need for a new reference source which would “fit a wide range of the social sciences, from history to multicultural studies to sociology and psychology,” but would also be “appropriate for the high school curriculum.” That is, the publisher wanted a kind of “one-stop” reference for students in high school and college to lead them to other inter-related sources in the subjects of race and racism.

There followed a telephone call from editorial director Hélène Potter to me, asking me to serve as editor in chief of the proposed volumes on the basis of my research in both the scientific and humanist sides of race and racism and based on the distribution of topics I had included in the on-line course syllabus which had guided my teaching of a college class called “Race and Racism” for more than twenty years.

The next step was the selection of a board of editors, who would solicit articles for particular fields of scholarship, their own specialties, and edit the manuscripts they solicited. Our first meeting was at Macmillan offices in New York City on September 2–4, 2004. The editors are as follows, along with their institutional affiliations, and primary responsibilities as editors.

Introduction - How Each Entry Is Organized [next] [back] Introduction - SCOPE, SELECTION CRITERIA, ORGANIZATION AND METHODOLOGY

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