The Origin Of Race In USA

By Jason Shvili on August 10 2020 in Society

Credit: Shutterstock image by Laurin Rinder
Credit: Shutterstock image by Laurin Rinder
  • "Race" is a man-made concept with no scientific basis - used to define and divide people for millennia.
  • Religion, pseudo-science, and eugenics have all been used to justify discrimination by white people against people of color.
  • Movements like Black Lives Matter are a symptom of America's failure to deal with its racist past and present.

Race. It’s a touchy subject in many parts of the world. The concept of race has been at the center of many of the world’s conflicts; used to justify the evils of slavery, genocide, and other forms of discrimination. The American past and present perfectly illustrate how the made-up label has been used not only to define people but also to divide and control them.  But where did this concept come from? Why do so many people in the world believe that people should be treated differently because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes?  Here is a short summary of the origin of race in the United States.

Race, Ethnicity, Nationality

Staring at the beginning of the 18th century, the concept of race was created as a classification of people in the English colonies. While today “ethnic group” refers to people with common ancestry, language, or traditions before the 20th-century ethnicity was often associated with the region the people came from or what language they spoke. Thus, people from Central America were called Mayan, those from New Mexico were called Pueblo, those who spoke Arabic were of Arab race, etc.

Nowadays, "race" usually refers to a group of people with similar physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, and eye shape. Oftentimes, race, ethnicity, and nationality – being a citizen of a particular nation - overlap. 

Race is a human construct with no scientific basis

With the help of modern science, we now know that the concept of race is a human construct with no scientific basis whatsoever. We are all part of the same human species, regardless of what we look like.

But scientists of previous eras believed differently. They lacked the tools and knowledge to ascertain how different genetic traits were carried over generations or the role a person’s home and environment plays in genetics. In the U.S., during the first half of the 19th century, a renowned scientist named Samuel Morton – the father of scientific racism - hypothesized that humanity could be divided into five races, with the so-called Caucasian race, meaning white people, being the most intelligent. He based his findings on his pseudo analysis of the skulls he collected from people of different backgrounds. Morton’s ideas were often repeated by the pro-slavery supporters and many of the horrors of the past few were based on the concocted belief that one race is superior to another.  

Science, of course, cannot be blamed for all the racial discrimination. People have been justifying their bigotry - and the horrific acts they commit in the name of it – for millennia. During colonization, religion proved to be an effective tool to promote the concept of racial superiority. It was only after people of so-called inferior races, such as Africans and Native Americans, converted to Christianity that racists switched to pseudoscience, as well as eugenics, to justify the supremacy of white people.

 Racism in the U.S. yesterday and today

In the era of the New World, the shortage of labor in the colonies had European landowners force African men, women, and children into slavery. To further dehumanize African slaves, planters in the southern colonies and the Caribbean islands passed laws that turned them from human beings to property. Their physical differences became the symbol of their inferior stature. A marker which to this day is used as a reason for systemic racism

Despite the fact that science has proved the idea of "race" to be men-made, the consequences of this ideology still dominate the world and the U.S. with movements such as Black Lives Matter a symptom of America’s failure to come to terms with its racist past. According to Dr. Anita Foeman, a professor of communication and media at West Chester University, the fact that race is a human concept doesn’t mean we all fall into the same group.

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