|The Story of Race Transcript
How did the idea of race begin in America? The answer can be found in the long and complex history of western Europe and the United States. It is that history—influenced by science, government and culture—that has shaped our ideas about race.
When European colonists first arrived on North American shores beginning in the 1500s, the land was already inhabited by Native Americans. The Spanish, French and English encountered frequent conflicts with indigenous people in trying to establish settlements in Florida, the Northeast area bordering Canada, the Virginia colony, and the Southwest.
By the 1600s, English colonists had established a system of indentured servitude that included both Europeans and Africans.
But by the time of Bacon’s Rebellion in the mid-1670s—an insurrection involving white and black servants against wealthy Virginia planters—the status of Africans began to change. They were no longer servants who had an opportunity for freedom following servitude, but instead were relegated to a life of permanent slavery in the colonies.
In the 1770s, English colonists in the U.S. became involved in a rebellion of their own—this time the opposition was the British Crown.
But while the colonists battled the British for independence, they continued to deny Africans their freedom and withhold rights to Native Americans. Ironically, one of the first casualties of the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave of African and Indian parentage.
Before the idea of race emerged in the U.S. European scientist Carolus Linneaus published a classification system in System Naturale in 1758 that was applied to humans. Thomas Jefferson, was among those who married the idea of race with a biological and social hierarchy. Jefferson, a Virginia slave owner who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and later became President, was influential in promoting the idea of race that recognized whites as superior and Africans as inferior. Jefferson wrote in 1776 in Notes on the State of Virginia, "…blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." Scientists were among those who were influenced by these ideas, and began to develop their own theories about race.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists, influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, developed a system of categorizing things in nature, including humans.
Although Carolus Linnaeus was the first to develop a biological classification system, it was German scientist Johann Blumenbach who first introduced a race-based classification of humans, which established a framework for analyzing race and racial differences for the next hundred years.
By the 19th century the debate over race centered around two theories: one theory was that different races represented different species; the other was that humans were one species and that race represented variation in the human species—a view that was compatible with the teachings of the Bible.
Among those who espoused the multiple species theory, or polygeny, were Philadelphia physician Samuel Morton and European scholar Louis Agassiz. Their work was popular in the mid-19th century. The most prominent scientist who believed in monogeny, that all humans were one species, was Charles Darwin.
By the mid-19th century scientific debates over race had entered the mainstream culture and served to justify slavery and mistreatment. Some, like plantation doctor Samuel Cartwright tried to explain the tendency of slaves to runaway by coining the term, drapetomania, and prescribed whipping as method of treatment. Though there was resistance to slavery in both the U.S. and Europe, scientists, for the most part, continued to advance theories of racial inferiority.
The abolitionist movement of the 19th century sought to humanize the plight of African slaves in various ways, to influence political power and public opinion. The resistance to slavery and the image of Africans as sub-human can be found in protest hymns like Amazing Grace, which was written by John Newton in 1772 in response to the horrors he witnessed working on an English slave ship.
One of the ways that race played out in popular culture was in the publication in 1852 of the most widely read novel of its time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted a more realistic portrait of slavery and tried to humanize slaves.
The 19th century also marked a period of widespread racialization—not just of African Americans—but of Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Chinese Americans as well. Much of the racializing of non-Europeans, and even the Irish, served an economic and political purpose. African slavery, for instance, provided free labor and added political clout for slaveholding states in the South.
Taking Native American land and belittling Native American cultures was made easier by defining Native people as savages.
At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. experienced another wave of European immigration. This time the immigrants were southern and eastern Europeans and their presence challenged ideas about race, specifically who was white and who was not. Unlike earlier European immigrants who were mostly German, Scandinavian and Irish, these newer immigrants were Polish, Italian and Jewish, and brought with them customs and traditions that were different from their European predecessors.
They were often the victims of discrimination. Even U.S. immigration policy tried to limit the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe by imposing quotas.
At the beginning of the 20th century, African Americans migrated north for factory jobs that opened up during World War I and to escape the violence in the South.
Between 1889 and the early 1920s, roughly 50 – 100 lynchings a year took place in the U.S. While blacks were mostly the victims, Italian Americans, Asian Americans and Jews were also lynched. Even in the North, blacks encountered racism as they competed with whites for jobs. Several northern cities—St. Louis, Tulsa, Detroit and Chicago among others—were the sites of major race riots from 1915 to the early 1920s.
During the Depression, some race scientists sought to justify economic and social inequality by attributing certain characteristics such as criminal behavior, work ethic and intelligence to race, using a theory of genetic inheritance. In other words, you were poor or a criminal or less intelligent because it was in your genes.
This idea was the basis for eugenics. Charles Davenport, the director
of the Eugenics Records Office, was among the scientists who promoted
these ideas. The eugenicists' expert testimony was influential in
getting Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924 and provided the
social framework embraced by Nazi Germany.
By World War II, the U.S. had expanded the racial categories in the census to include various ethnic groups, among them Mexicans, Japanese, Indians from Asia and Philippinos. These categories and the demographics associated with each group would be used to limit immigration as well as provide the statistical data to analyze racial discrimination in the U.S. that followed in the post-war era.
The 1950s and 60s were a time of enormous social change in the U.S. Discrimination and institutional racism were being challenged at every turn. To some extent, the racial and social hierarchies that had long been accepted were being contested. And perhaps more slowly, attitudes about race and racial difference were beginning to change.
The way we view race and ethnicity today is far more complex than the
simple categories in the first U.S. Census. In fact in the 2000 census the "mark one or more" standard allowed for 63 possible racial combinations, reflecting the diversity of the country. By the year 2010, the U.S. population will barely resemble what it was 400, 100,even twenty years ago. That means we will probably have to reconsider the term race, and whether it is relevant to describing who and what we are.
Back to top