II. A Brief History of Race
The first conflict between one human group against another is a matter lost to history. Equally distant is the first enslavement of a defeated people by their conquerors. Even so, our modern language is peppered with pejorative terms referencing ancient conflicts. For instance, we understand colloquially what it is to be a “barbarian”; however, most of what we know about the actual “barbarian races” that plagued Greek and Roman society comes from the written records of the Greeks and Romans themselves. The Greek historian Herodotus made the following observation:
Their lust for gold is immense, their love of drink boundless. Barbarians are without restraint . . . they are given to gross personal hygiene. . . . Their reproductive energy is inexhaustible . . . [if] driven back or destroyed, another already emerges. . . . Indeed, there are no new barbarian peoples . . . descendents of the same tribes keep appearing. (Wolfram, 1992, pp. 6–7)
As Winston Churchill once quipped, “History is written by the victors.” In this case, as with many others, the victory need only be cultural, not military.
Etymologically speaking, the Greek root of the term barbarian means “strange, foreign or ignorant.” Thus, one sees that human history has long been shaped both politically and linguistically by negative reference to a defeated or marginalized “alien.” This kind of semantic (or actual) distancing of one group by another has played an important part in social policy throughout human history.
One of the first instances when a systematic consideration of race was used to inform modern European public policy is found in the 17th-century writings of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In 1671, Leibniz proposed the Consilium Aegyptiacum, or “Egyptian Plan” to King Louis XIV of France. In this scheme, an army of “semi-beasts” composed of slaves taken from “Africa, Arabia, Canada, New Guinea . . . Ethiopians, Negroes, Canadians, and Hurons” would be collected and trained as an elite force to be used for world conquest (Fenves, 2006, p. 14). Interestingly, the racial classification system Liebniz used relied primarily on religious distinctions (Christian vs. non-Christian) instead of phenotype or skin color to justify the enslavement of non-Europeans.
Although Leibniz put forth a very rudimentary theory of race based on religious and geographical criteria, the first detailed racial taxonomy of humans was advanced by the Swedish biological taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus in his 1735 work Systema Naturae (Uppsala Universitet, n.d.). Linnaeus divided human beings into four distinct categories based on skin color and geographical origin: (1) Europeaus (white), (2) Africanus (black), (3) Americanus (red), and (4)Asiatic (yellow). Each of these categories was described in terms of personal, mental, and physical attributes said to typify members of the respective groupings.
In an effort to promulgate a uniform theory of race, the German medical doctor and physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1775 proposed a racial classification scheme that proved very influential even into the modern era (Zammito, 2006). Blumenbach was vehemently opposed to viewing groups of humans as “different species.” He asserted that differences in complexion and phenotype were caused by climate. Blumenbach also protested against theories of racial superiority. As he observed, “[While non-Europeans may be different in color,] as a whole they seem to agree in many things with ourselves” (Zammito, 2006, p. 47).
The racial theories of Blumenbach and other social philosophers gained particular significance during the Age of Enlightenment. Likewise, the Aristotelian conception of “natural order” regained intellectual currency; and as an extension of this ordering, the “inherent” inequalities therein implied were used to rationalize the subordination of groups deemed “inferior” (Tucker, 1996, p. 10). Enlightenment thought heralded a move away from an understanding of human identity couched in religion and preservation of the nobility through biological understandings of lineage, to an identity vested in the context of race (Goldberg, 1993).
Paradoxically, as Malik (1996) argued, Enlightenment ideals of reason, rationality, and the scientific method do not necessitate understanding human difference in terms of race; instead, he contended that Enlightenment faith in reason, empiricism, and human equality were applied to justify entrenched social inequalities in terms of racial difference. Even as members of the poorer classes called for recognition of universal rights, dominant social forces provided a strong response. Universal rights were seen as directly oppositional to bourgeoisie notions of capitalism and the emerging free markets that displaced the old feudal and monarchic order. The inherent inequality stemming from the private ownership of property led thinkers such as Adam Smith (1789/2003) to conclude a necessity for limits on and exceptions to “universal equality” as a means to protect the “natural” rights of propertied classes.
As the world moved through the age of revolution and into the 19th century, the defense of private property as a natural right of humankind necessarily required a more nuanced concept of social equality. More than at any point in human history, a fundamental paradigm shift was poised to take place. The divide between a person’s natural right to social equality and freedom versus the natural right to own private property came to foment over the issue of slavery. Slavery was regarded as a form of private property and took its primary justification not on grounds of racial inequality per se but as a matter of economic necessity. Slavery was regarded as a “necessary evil” to support general economic progress and provide opportunities for poorer whites (Malik, 1996, p. 67). As discussed in a following section, the American experience of reconciling these interests has been as troubled and protracted in the courts as it was bloody on the battlefields of the Civil War.
The preceding treatment of race as an evolving social construct demonstrates several fundamental relationships that social scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries have used to examine race, crime, and social policy. First, the distinctions of race have, from first delineation, been used to inform public policy. Second, science has repeatedly been called upon to justify, with reference to “natural order” or “necessity,” the social and economic hierarchies present in society. Last, numerous criteria, including skin color, phenotype, religion, language, social class, geographic origin, and so on, have been used to substantiate purported racial differences and the social inequities predicated thereon.