Race: What Is It?

God created human diversity, but it is humans who created race and narratives of racial difference/hierarchy. Perhaps nothing illustrates the point more clearly than the fact that “All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup.” Remarkably, God has designed all of humanity’s diversity to be contained in just 0.1% of our genetic code. We are far more alike than different. Science, then, has debunked the concept of biological race. And yet, conflicts about race and racism abound in the United States. There’s a reason for that. In this essay, I’m going to explore the origins of race and explain why it’s still so significant today.

The Origins of Race

Author Sharon H. Chang defines race as “a social construct that assumes people can be grouped by observable physical characteristics or phenotype. Though skin color is central, racial scanning also perceives eye and hair color, eye and nose shape, hair texture, and body proportions.”[1] Historically, the purpose of grouping people in this manner was to create a hierarchy that assigned greater value and humanity to some groups and lesser of those things to others. 

Formal theories of human hierarchy can be traced back to ancient Greece. In his book Politics: A Treatise on GovernmentAristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued, “It is also from natural causes that some beings command and others obey, that each may obtain their mutual safety; for a being that is endowed with a mind capable of reflection and forethought is by nature the superior and governor, whereas he whose excellence is merely corporeal is formed to be a slave.”[2] He came up with a human developmental theory based on geography and climate,[3] claiming that “barbarians are by nature more prone to slavery than the Greeks and those in Asia more than those in Europe.”[4] This reasoning was used to normalize Greek slaveholding practices.[5] To underscore the dehumanizing gaze, the label that the Greeks used for Africans was “Aithiops,” or “Ethiopian,” which was composed of two words that literally mean burnt-face. These and other aspects of Aristotelian thought influenced the early church fathers, whose writings in turn influenced both Catholic and Protestant Christians, including the Puritans.

Sir William Petty, an English scientist, philosopher, and economist who helped found the Royal Society in the mid-17th century, was one of the first to articulate a concept of human hierarchy based on physical characteristics. In his manuscript The Scale of Creatures (1680), he wrote that “Middle Europeans” belonged at the top of the scale of man, and the inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope, whom he described as “the most beastlike of all the souls,” were at the bottom. More significantly, he associated the physical traits of Europeans with superior culture and intellect and associated the physical traits of Africans with inferior culture and intellect. In April 1684, French traveler and physician François Bernier published a landmark essay proposing a comprehensive division of the world into distinct races, or racial types: Europeans, Negroes, Far Easterners, and Lapps.[6] But it was the racial hierarchical classifications of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach that had the most profound and far-reaching impact on western civilization.

In the 1795 revision of his seminal work, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, Blumenbach conceived a racial hierarchy pyramid based on his study of sixty human skulls. He wrote that a skull found in the Caucasus mountains was “the most beautiful form of the skull, from which… the [four] others diverge.” It’s not clear what standards he used to conclude that it was the most beautiful form, but the Caucasian (European, “white”) race was placed at the top of the pyramid. On one side of the pyramid was the Malaysian (Polynesian, “brown”) race, and below that, the Ethiopian (African, “black”) race. On the other side of the pyramid was the American (Native American, “red”) race, and below that, the Mongolian (Asian, “yellow”) race.

Image result for blumenbach racial pyramid
Figure 1. Blumenbach’s racial hierarchy pyramid,
Orbe MP, Harris TM. Interracial Communication: Theory Into Practice (2008)

Blumenbach embraced the “degenerative hypothesis” of racial origins, which purported that Adam and Eve were Caucasian and that other races came about by social degeneration due to environmental factors like excess sun exposure or poor diet. According to the same reasoning, he believed the degeneration could be reversed given the proper environmental factors. It was in this limited sense that he believed in the potential equality of all people—that is, the potential for them all to revert back to the Caucasian race. It was by this logic that he personally opposed slavery. Nevertheless, he had created a model of racial hierarchy; and proponents of scientific racism enthusiastically adopted his ideas in order to promote their own theories of white superiority and black inferiority. By the end of the nineteenth century, many people in the upper classes of the United States, Europe, and Great Britain took for granted the idea that a natural, God-given hierarchy of races elevated European people, or “whites,” above other races.

All of these racist theories played a significant role in justifying not only inhumane practices like the trans-Atlantic slave trade, domestic chattel slavery, forced migration and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and racial terror, but also discriminatory policies in housing, policing, criminal justice, education, lending, and immigration. They built on an already centuries-old practice of justifying atrocities against people deemed inferior. The papal bull Romanus Pontifex (Nicholas V, January 8, 1454), for example, made provision for christened explorers to:

“invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”

What Does It Mean to Be “White”?

Most Americans who think of themselves as white have never given much thought to what being “white” actually means. They’re likely to have a basic notion that it refers to fair skin but unlikely to realize that the label “white” represents a sociopolitical inheritance associated with historical advantages. Sharon H. Chang explains:

“White” as a race-color designation for European traders and colonists was occasionally used before the English developed the North American colonies, but really came into regular use in the later decades of the 17th century, when it congealed into a distinctive racial group with shared heritage at the top of a clear racial hierarchy. The word ‘white’ was mainly conceptualized in contrast to the word ‘black.’ The primary purpose of constructing an essentialized white group was to consolidate power among differing Europeans by minimizing their cultural differences, thereby fostering commonality, while hardening the division separating them from non-white others. [9]

The Institutionalization of Race and White Supremacy

Racist ideas and racial prejudice impacts people negatively at the individual level, but when they are written into law and become inseparable from policy and governance, then the entire governing system becomes racist.

Take, for example, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which the framers of the Constitution agreed to make population the basis of both taxation and apportioning of seats in the House of Representatives. While they were deliberating, delegates from the Southern states sought to increase their representation by demanding that their large enslaved population be counted as human, even though they did not actually consider enslaved people human. Northern delegates, not wanting their own power to be diminished, argued that slaves were not people but property. Eventually, the delegates arrived at the Three-Fifths Compromise, adding a provision to Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandating that a census be taken every 10 years beginning in 1790 and that population would be determined by “the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” With that provision, race went from something conceptual and informal to a concrete metric that determined how the body politic was to be governed.

The inaugural U.S. census had five demographic categories: free white males 16 and up, free white males under 16, free white females, other free persons, and slaves. So, in terms of race, the government categorized people as white, slave, or other. It may seem like things have changed significantly since then, but let’s take a closer look. The race question on the 2010 Census looked like this:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Figure 2. Question 6 on the 2010 U.S. Census

A separate question for people of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin preceded this and collected national-origin information.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Figure 3. Question 5 on the 2010 U.S. Census

It’s easy to think from all the extra boxes that unique ethnic groups were being recognized and honored on the 2010 census; but if you visit the Census Bureau website, you’ll see that in reality, the U.S. Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards tracks only five minimum categories for data on race: White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. And these categories correlate almost exactly with Blumenbach’s racial taxonomy from 1795 (see Figure 1)—the very one that was adopted by the European ruling class (“whites”) with the express purpose of maintaining power, wealth, and representation over and above the people they sorted into the categories of “slave” and “other.” Chang points out,

Indeed, white as a single racial category has never fluctuated nor been a subcategorized group on the census even though it has long been quite diverse and the largest numerically… By stark contrast, when counting non-white groups who are numerically much smaller, considerable effort has been expended in providing many categories showing lasting concern with minority populations from the beginning.[10]

According to the Census Bureau website, “Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”

Put another way, the racial construct was so fundamental in the building of American institutions, so effective in its original purpose—to create a clear demarcation between the rulers and the ruled—that the only way to reverse its effects, it seems, is to attempt to use it to undo its own damage. As you can see, the impact of race in America is difficult to overstate.

Putting It All Together

This 18-minute video produced by Phil Vischer provides a very helpful overview of the way race became embedded in American institutions following those very early days of the Constitutional Convention.

If you’re looking for a more detailed read on any of the issues covered in the video, here is a list of books, articles, and online resources.

Black Codes, Re-enslavement, Lynchings

The Great Migration

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Through a combination of narrative and historical analysis, this book describes how the migration of 6 million Black Americans from the South fleeing racial terror and oppression shaped the demographics American cities all over the U.S. It details the terrible conditions and specific forms of racial persecution and disenfranchisement they faced in the West and the North.)

Segregation, Housing, and Inequality

Crime, Policing, and Mass Incarceration

I was a history major at Rice University, but truthfully, I didn’t learn most of this history until the past 7 years when I began doing my own research. Yet without knowledge of this history, it’s impossible to understand modern America. It’s become obvious to me that the way American history is taught reflects the desire of the racial majority to gloss over centuries of human rights violations. But genuine healing isn’t possible without a full accounting and reckoning of them. And what I’ve covered here barely scratches the surface. It doesn’t include the human rights violations experienced by the Indigenous Peoples of North America or those of other sub-dominant groups, all of which are extraordinarily significant. But this essay is merely a primer, not a comprehensive treatment of race.


[1] Chang, SH. Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), p.13.

[2] Aristotle. Politics: A Treatise on Government, William Ellis translation (New York, NY: E.P Dutton & Co., 1912).

[3] Ibid., Book Vii, Chapter VII. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6762/6762-h/6762-h.htm#link2HCH0086 Accessed on 11/8/19.

[4] Ibid, Book III, Chapter XIV. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6762/6762-h/6762-h.htm#link2HCH0039 Accessed on 11/8/19.

[5] Kendi, IX. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2016), p.17.

[6] Berneir, F. “Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races qui l’habitent.” (New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it.) Journal des Sçavans, April 1684.

[8] https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johann-blumenbach-and-classification-human-races Accessed on 11/8/19.

[9] Chang, pp.21-22.

[10] Chang, p.22

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1 reply

  1. I’m very grateful for the education. Thank you!

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