In this two-part article, we publish excerpts from Charles Quist-Adade’s book Social Justice Issues in Local and Global Contexts . The first part begins with a discussion of the absurdity of the concept “race” and destructive power of racism. It debunks the notion that race is encoded in our genes and argues that ‘race’ is a socially constructed idea, which has been used to the benefit of ‘whites’ and to oppress the ‘non-white other.
Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned everywhere is war...Bob Marley sang the above in Zimbabwe in April 1980.
Does race matter?
The answer to this question depends where people stand on the “race question.” The question has gathered steam and currency with the election of the first African-American president of the United States of America in 2008. In academia as in popular culture, heated debates have been raging as to whether race continues to be a salient issue of our “post-racial” time.
Michael Jackson versus Cornell West
In his 1991 hit “Black or White Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop sought to answer the question in the negative: Race does not matter. “It don’t matter if you’re Black or white” Michael Jackson’s color blindness reflects the position of many people in the mainstream society, a position reinforced and disseminated by popular culture. Many who hold this view are well meaning, taking their cue from Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a Dream” speech, in which he called on his fellow citizens not to use skin colour to judge a person’s worth. They appear to naively believe that by not “seeing” race makes race to disappear.
However, most sociologists and scholars who study race answer the question in the affirmative: “Race matters.” Indeed, Cornell West wrote a book with the same title: Race Matters. Race is a fundamental issue in most multiracial and poly-ethnic societies, including Canada. Race is a bread and butter issue and life and death matter. It determines people’s life chances; what schools they attend, the quality of education they get, whether or not they can access healthcare, the quality of healthcare they get, whether they have a roof over their heads and the quality of housing they get, and most of all, how long they live.
This chapter examines the enigma and destructive power of race and racism and contends that these twin notions, while illogical and irrational, have real, abiding influence on the collective human psyche.
The Myth of Race and the Reality of Racism
Race and racism are paradoxically different things. Race does not exist, at least in the scientific sense; it is a chimera, a phantom. Racism, however, is a powerful reality: an invention that is absurd, illogical, irrational, and nonsensical. Race is a figment of the collective imagination. Racism manifests itself in a destructively powerful way. Yet together the two are interdependent, feeding upon each other.
The twin notions of race and racism combine to make a powerful concoction, poisoning human relations, maiming, killing, and destroying people everywhere in both hidden and open ways. Sometimes people appear to understand both the absurdity and the power of the twin notions as expressed in the following trite phrases: Our differences are only skin deep and we all belong to the human race. These two phrases are often invoked across the ‘color bar’ either to promote racial harmony or to expose the fallacy of racial exclusiveness. The truth in these two observations is beyond contest. Yet the history of the human race suggests that people use these terms without really meaning the idea behind them.
What Is Race? What Is Racism?
So, then, what is ‘race’ and what is ‘racism’? What follows is an attempt to answer this and other related questions: How did race and racism happen? What are their effects? How can the notion of race be dislodged from popular consciousness? How can racism be dismantled? Can it be dismantled? The question of race does not lend itself to easy answers. Yet, it must be fully assessed.
There is little scholarly consensus on the meaning of the term ‘race.’ However, most social scientists, and indeed biological scientists and geneticists, are in agreement that ‘race’ is a concept invented by humans.Thus, ‘race’ can be defined as a grouping of human population characterized by socially selected physical traits. What this definition points to is that race is a social construct (society’s invention). What we see and know as race is based on a small set of physical characteristics (e.g., skin color, hair color and texture, facial features, etc.) which are superficial manifestations of eons of genetic mutations and gene-environment interactions. In other words, race is neither natural nor biological. Instead, the concept was artificially and arbitrarily created by human beings. It also suggests that ‘race’ is not genetically predetermined or divinely created.
The physical differences we see are adaptations to geographic and climatic conditions and are a survival mechanism for everyone. Long periods of adaptation to geographic and climatic conditions ensure the interaction between genes and the environment. Mutation took place in the original Englishman and original Ibo man in their efforts to survive in the polar and tropical regions respectively. In time, they passed on these survival genes to their offspring. Thus, the Englishman and his offspring became paler in their complexions, while the Ibo man and his descendants became darker, but with no clinical way to pinpoint where the “Black” race ends and where the “White” race begins.
However, that does not explain why the Ibo man became a member of the so-called black race and the Englishman became a member of the so-called white race. The Ibo man did not call himself a Black man until others defined him so. This suggests that race is a social construct. It is those who called the Ibo man a black man and the Englishman a white man who gave birth to the idea of racism: the systematic means of denying access to resources and opportunities to a group based on their skin color or ethnicity. In other words, people created the concept of race at one point in time and produced ideas to justify the concept.
The Social-Historical Construction of Race
In fact, race and racism are modern inventions. Contrary to popular belief, the twin notions of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are not a natural part of humanity. Rather, race is a social, historical and cultural construct. Historian Ira Berlin tells us in an interview for the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) video documentary (Race: The Power of an Illusion, 2003) that: “In early American society, people distinguish themselves by religion; they distinguish themselves by nationality; they distinguish themselves by family. And however they distinguish themselves, they arrange themselves in a hierarchical order in which a few are on top, and many are on the bottom… Hierarchy is providential; it’s a way that God ordered the world.” According to another historian, Gary Nash (1999), when Jamestown colonist John Rolfe took his new bride, Pocahontas (who had converted to Christianity), back to London in 1616, they caused an uproar among nobility of the Court of King James. This conflict did not arise because Rolfe, an Englishman, had married an Indian, but because Pochahontas, a princess, had married a commoner (Race, 2003). Kupperman points out that as for physical distinctions, Native Americans were most struck by the English colonists’ beards and scent. The colonists wore the same clothes for weeks, were covered with lice, and rarely bathed. The English did not describe the Indians’ color as red in the early days, but rather as tanned or tawny.
Race as a Modern Idea
The concept of race has not always been with us. There was a time before the concepts of race and racism existed. The term, according to historians, was first used in the 15th century by an English poet to refer to a line of British kings. Other historians trace the beginnings of the term to about 1580, when it was used to denote a group of people with common descent. Increasingly, the term came to refer to various nations, such as the German, British and Russian ‘races’. The modern use of the term can be traced to the 19th century and the advent of the European Enlightenment movement. Enlightenment scholars, preoccupied with the application of science in the study of human society, paved the way for scientific racism. The classification of the humans into subgroups or categories, was done in the same manner that faunal and floral types were pigeon-holed by biological scientists.
The pioneer in this field was the Frenchman Francois Bernier, who classified the human ‘race’ into four categories: Europeans, Far Easterners, Sub-Saharan African, and Lapps. After Bernier, a long line of the so-called naturalists emerged, including Georges Cuveir, James Cowels Prichard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering, and Johann Friederich Blumenbach, each with his own number of racial groups.
Not surprisingly, all these European race categorizers placed the European (White) ‘race’ on top of the human pile. The European ‘race’ was not only assigned the best human characteristics, it was also elevated to the apex of human civilization. Blumenbach allotted the first place on the human classificatory ladder to the Caucasian ‘race’ by contending that this stock displays the most handsome features. The other ‘races’ are believed to have been degenerates of the Caucasian stock. The Caucasian, white or European ‘race’ then was made the yardstick with which other ‘races’ were measured. Several pseudo-scientific experiments were carried out aimed at proving the intellectual superiority of the European ‘race.’ These ‘scientific’ racists employed several techniques and theories, including Craniometry (the technique of measuring the bones of the skull) and Phrenology (a theory claiming to be able to determine character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head), trying desperately to prove the intellectual, moral and ethical superiority of whites to non-whites.
Futile Attempts at Race Classification
Samuel Morton , the first famous American scientist who claimed to have measured brain capacity through skull size, made systematic errors and skewed his data in favor of his biases. Thus, he concluded that their larger skulls indicated racial superiority (Race, 2003:34). Others measured brain sizes of the so-called races and not surprisingly, concluding that Europeans, particularly Nordic (northern and western European) men had the largest brain size and therefore superior intellect.
In The Eye of the Beholder: Your “Black” Person is My “White” Person
It is ironic that race scientists did not provide one standard definition of ‘race.’ Even in contemporary times, there lacks a uniform definition of the concept and confusion is rife regarding racial identity in the global community. What constitutes a ‘white’ person in Brazil, Haiti or Ghana is different from what constitutes a ‘white’ person in the United States of America or England. In the United States, thanks to the one-drop laws , any degree of African ancestry has historically made a person black . Such is not the case in Latin America or the Caribbean. There, any degree of non-African ancestry means that a person is not black. Thus, the same person defined as black in the United States may be considered colored in Jamaica or Martinique and white in the Dominican Republic.
In Brazil, one survey of Blacks generated forty different words to describe their race or color. Degler reports that, some ‘Blacks’ in Brazil change their designations as they move to different social classes. Davis has observed that three fifths of Puerto Ricans who come to the U.S. mainland and are identified as black were defined differently in their homeland. To a West Indian or African Black is a literal description; you are Black if your skin is black. If you are lighter you would describe yourself as ‘middle-class brown’ or ‘a light chocolate.’
Even more absurd is the fact that at one point in time, some Europeans were not considered ‘white’. The Irish, the Italians, and indeed Mediterranean Europeans were not considered ‘white’ in the USA; they had to "earn" their ‘whiteness.’
Race was never just a matter of how you looked, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look (Race, 2003). According to historian Robin D. G. Kelley, Africans came to the New World not as Black people, not as Negroes. They didn’t see themselves that way. They saw themselves according to their own sort of ethnic identities. The same was true of Europeans who viewed themselves as Portuguese, or English, or Irish (Race, 2003). Larry Adelman, Executive Producer of Race (2003) adds that the American Indians didn’t see themselves as Indians. Nor did the English see themselves as white. Neither saw themselves as a race. Amerindian nations such as the Algonquians differentiated themselves from the Iroquois or Cherokee by religion, language and customs just as Protestant, English-speaking Britain distinguished itself from Catholic, Spanish-speaking Spain. Further, there is no agreed upon way to determine what constitutes ‘race.’ Some have used skin color; while others have used facial features, brain size, cranial capacity or skull shape. Some have delineated several ‘geographic races’, including the Amerindian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian, Australian, African, Indian, European and the Asiatic ‘races’.
Even more intriguing includes the arbitrary numbers of races various race scientists have introduced. Arthur Gobinneau, who is regarded as the founder of ideological racism, identified three: the European or Caucasian (White) race, the Mongolian or Asiatic (Yellow) race, and the Ethiopian or African (Black) race. Linnaeus (1758) identified four races; Blumenbach (1781) delineated five; Hooton (1926) discovered three; and Garn (1965) found nine races.
Hindsight and more than two hundred years of science tell us that the race scientists were badly mistaken. All the frenetic attempts to categorize the human groups into distinctive ‘racial’ groups were discredited with the passage of time. Despite all the efforts by the ideological and intellectual heirs of the race scientists today, it has been shown, due in large part to the completion of the Human Genome Project,that it is illogical to classify the human species into distinctive and separate ‘races’ or to isolate one pure, unadulterated ‘racial’ group.
Debunking “Race”: We’re All Mongrels!
There is no pure ‘race’; most people are ‘racially’ mixed. Goodman (2003) notes that all individuals are ‘mongrels’; that we are the biological products of mixed ancestry (Race). In fact, Europeans and Americans may be the most blended. Centuries ago, Moors from northern Africa overran Spain and moved to France. The Greeks, Romans, Barbarians and Normans, all occupied southern Italy at various times. Spanish and Native Americans have combined in Mexico and in southern and Central America. A Hawaiian may have a mixture of Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Polynesian blood. Angolans may be Black and Portuguese; Cubans and Puerto Ricans may be Black and Spanish. Polynesians are a mixture of Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid blood. One in four White Americans have a black ancestor; three in four Blacks have a White ancestor. These figures may be even higher for Native Americans.
There are no genetic markers that set the so-called races apart and no objective reason for splitting or lumping at any lower taxonomic level. As Pilar Ossorio points out in Race (2003), it is impossible to locate any genetic markers “that are in everybody of a particular race and in nobody of some other race.” For example, Europeans who reside near the Mediterranean have dark, curly hair. The Khoisan peoples of southern Africa have facial features that closely resemble the people in northern Europe. The !Kung San have epicanthic eye folds, similar to Japanese and Chinese people. And as Marshall A. Segal rightly notes, “Beneath the skin, we are all Africans.” Our human species first evolved in Africa before some of us left and spread out in other parts of the world. Thus, each of us carries in us traits and genetic markers inherited from Africa (Race-2003).
‘We Are More Alike Than Unalike’
In fact, 96.8% of the genetic code in Blacks and Whites is shared, with only a maximum of 0.032 of the genes varying between any white or black person. The variation between Whites and Asians is 0.019 (98.1% similarity), and the difference between Blacks and Asians is 0.047 (95.3% similarity). These differences are far too small to indicate subspeciation, as such phenomenon would typically be characterized by variation many times greater than the above numbers.There are no subspecies of a given phylum with this high a degree of genetic overlap, anywhere in nature (Orbe, 2001). Holmes (2003:5) observed that one is smart if she or he is able to determine her or his ‘race’, but even smarter if the individual does not know what race she or he is. The findings of the Human Genome Project and a great number of scholars across the globe appear to have fully discredited scientific racism, at least for now.
Here are a few of the findings based on Race (2003):
(1) What has been called ‘race’ has no genetic basis. The so-called races share a common gene pool and operate within an open gene system on the basis of what social scientists call “genetic interchangeability.
(2) Human subspecies don’t exist. Unlike many animals modern humans simply have not been around long enough or been isolated enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface appearances, we are one of the most similar of all species.
(3) Most traits are inherited independently from one another. The genes influencing skin color have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, eye shape, blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence.
(4) Most variation is within, not between, ‘races’. Of the small amount of total human variation, 85% exists within any local population. About 94% can be found within any continent.
(5) Slavery predates race. Throughout human history, societies have enslaved others, but due to a unique set of historical circumstances, the European enslavement of Africans was the first instance where all the slaves shared similar physical characteristics. Until then, slavery was ‘colorless’.
(6) Race and freedom evolved together. The United States was founded on the radical new principle that ‘All men are created equal.’ However, the slavery based early economy was rationalized by the new idea of race. This concept justified the denial of rights and freedoms for one group.
(7) Race justified social inequalities as natural. In America, it justified not only slavery but also the extermination of Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that professed a belief in democracy. Racial practices were institutionalized within American government, laws, and society.
(8) Race is not biological, but racism is still real. Race is a powerful social idea that gives people differing access to opportunities and resources. Governments and social institutions have created advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power, and resources to White people, affecting the whole population.
So why did the ‘race scientist’ go to such lengths to categorize the human groups and then assign different meanings and ranks to the various groups, you may want to know. The attempts to categorize the so-called races were born out of an ideology of white supremacy, an ideology which holds that the white race is superior to the non-white races. ‘Scientific’ racism was invented to rationalize this ideology. The ideology of white supremacy itself stemmed from Social Darwinism, a racist, sexist, and classist theory based on the premise of ‘survival of the fittest.’
The term ‘survival of the fittest’, coined by the English sociologist Hebert Spencer, was a vulgarization of a more complex theory by his compatriot Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution by natural selection. Herbert Spencer perverted Darwinism which sought to explain the origin and evolution of the plant and animal species through natural selection and struggle.
Darwin, Smith, and Spencer: Race, Europe and Social Darwinism
The basic assumption of Social Darwinism is that some societies, races, etc., are endowed with superior genes, while others inherit inferior genes. Those fortunate enough to have superior genes are better able to survive and thrive and control their social environments, which includes those others unlucky enough to have been endowed with inferior genes. Social Darwinists drew on the idea of struggle and survival as natural mechanisms for improving the ‘stock’—i.e., genetic characteristics—of human beings. In fact, inferior races and societies, it was hypothesized, would ‘naturally’ wither away. Any attempts to save them were in defiance of the laws of nature.
Subsequently, Adam Smith’s laissez faire economic theory, which proposed non-government intervention in economic affairs of individuals and the promotion of a free-market economy based on the ‘invisible hands’ of the market, was incorporated into Social Darwinism. The aim was to let the ‘natural laws’ of the market take their due course, during which the;economically deficient’ peoples would be weeded out and the ‘economically progressive’ would thrive.
According to Mills , in the 19th century Europeans increasingly became preoccupied, even obsessed, with ‘race’ for various reasons:
(a) the development of technology (particularly military technology) gave White Europeans tremendous weapons and power superiority over non-white peoples. Power indeed corrupts and breeds arrogance. White Europeans came to regard ‘race’ as an explanation for the disparities between their societies and other societies. Ultimately, they began to attribute military and technological advantage and superiority to the actual characteristic of ‘white-skin’ or ‘race’!
(b) the social sciences (especially anthropology—social as well as physical—and sociology) were heavily influenced by biological sciences both in method and the adoption of analogies; thus social scientists set out to classify different ‘races’ by attempting to perceive of human beings as members of different sub-species or even different species.
(c) exclusionist ideas of nationalism contributed to and drew from racist thinking; thus a homogenous ‘nation’ (one which shared a language, and whose people shared physical characteristics, culture, etc.) constituted a race there were frequent references to the British race or to the French race or to the German race.
Writes Mills: Alternately, it was asserted that many of the homogenous characteristics (not only physical characteristics but also moral, intellectual and “spiritual” characteristics) were transmitted genetically and were thus racial”. Mills outlines several consequences of Social Darwinism and ultimately, white supremacy:
Ranking: This generated the ideas that not only human beings could be classified into different ‘races’ but also that the ‘races’ could be ranked on a scale from higher to lower. As a criterion for ranking, sometimes culture or technology was used, but especially as the ‘new imperialism’ and the ‘scramble for Africa’ ensued, military power (brute strength) seemed to be the chief criterion to determine ranking. Thus ‘proficiency in subjugating or even exterminating one’s opponents’ was the measure of ‘higher’ races relative to ‘lower’, ‘more primitive’ races: someone who kills with a spear or bow and arrow is more primitive than someone who kills with machine guns and artillery. Of course, those who obliterate with atomic weapons must be a ‘higher’ race still!
Morality: Social Darwinists rejected the idea of morality as an important consideration in human affairs: It was not ‘right’ but survivability or plain might that mattered. Nature, they argued, was amoral. In the law of nature, might is right—the strong should and would inherit the earth, with no namby-pamby platitudes about the meek: the hungry lion does not care whether or not the antelope in its view is sick or is only a calf. Thus any people or ‘race’ which could not defend its land deserved to lose it. This, of course, was the rationalization for colonization of vast stretches of Africa, of Asia and of Latin America.
Competition: Social Darwinists saw competition and struggle operating both internally and externally in societies, and competition separated the efficient and able from those less evolved, at least if laissez-faire policies were in place. They called for an end to ‘interference’ in the natural processes and for ‘survival of the fittest’. While they did not condone physical violence and destruction, they sought to achieve their objective—the destruction of their rivals—through economic means. Moreover, they insisted that the prosperous and dominant peoples should produce children at high rates while the poor and unsuccessful, with fewer resources and opportunities, should be discouraged and even prevented from producing children on as large a scale. Societies worldwide, however, were not in accord with Social Darwinism: fertility rates were declining among the upper social and economic classes but on the rise among the lower classes.
Social Darwinists,” notes Mills (2006), “often blamed the government, including policies which relieved unemployment and destitution, as the reason for the contrary outcome.” They argued that social welfare measures preserved inferior racial stock and encouraged their reproduction. They pointed to the demographics: the poor (i.e. “the inferior”) had many children while the well-to-do (“the superior” had fewer children— the opposite of what ‘should’ have happened.
Eventually Social Darwinists began to argue that society and government should become actively involved to ensure that what they thought should happen actually did happen, and this line of thinking led to the birth of Eugenics—biological engineering and selective breeding of humans. Eugenicists tried to apply to humans the knowledge and practices that had been developed for the breeding of domestic animals.
In Canada and the U. S., eugenicist and Social Darwinists tended to focus on immigration policies. Both countries passed anti-Asian legislation and erected political and social barriers to immigration. In British Columbia, serious riots and public pressure induced the legislature to pass laws to restrict the immigration of Indians from Asia.
Among the Imperial Federationists in Canada (many of whom were Social Darwinists), there was a great deal of concern in the last two decades before 1914 about immigration from southern, eastern and central Europe, from which increasing proportions of immigrants were coming. These immigrants were regarded as greatly “inferior” to “British,” “Germanic” or “Nordic” “races,” and therefore their presence threatened to reduce the quality of the “racial stock” in Canada.
Mills offers amusing sidelights to this Social Darwinism. Charles Kellogg was a Social Darwinist and a zealot for ‘moral purity’. He thought that eggs and meat stimulated sexual appetites and urges. Thus, his invention of corn flakes was an attempt to find a quick and easy cereal substitute for bacon and eggs. He hoped this switch in diet would help young men to preserve their ‘moral purity’. The concern for ‘moral purity’ was certainly partly religious (Kellogg was active in the YMCA, which was a religious organization at that time), but it was also related to his concern to maintain and even to raise the quality of racial stock among young American men, as he was convinced that only the ‘pure’ could father healthy, sturdy children.
To be continued
About the author
Dr. Charles Quist-Adade is a faculty member and immediate past chair of the Sociology Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada. He is the author and co-author of several books, including In the Shadows of the Kremlin and the White House: Africa’s Media Image from Communism to Post-Communism, Social Justice in Local and Global Contexts, The Intellectual and Political Legacies of Kwame Nkrumah (with Frances Chiang), Africa’s Many Divides and Africa’s Future: Pursuing Nkrumah`s Vision of Pan-Africanism in an Era of Globalization (with Vincent Dodoo). His research and teaching interests are: social justice, globalization and global inequalities, racialization and anti-racism, media and society, and social theory. His other areas of teaching and research interest revolve around Global South issues and religion.