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A History of Race

There is no definitive line in the historical sands to mark the moment where the concept of race entered our human consciousness. Humans have always created boundaries and tribal lines along differences in language, custom, color, and regionality since the dawn of human history. However, the concept of race as a means of systematic division of humans into categories of identifiable physical and social traits only began to take solid shape around the 17th century on the European continent. Scholarly works and papers can be found as far back as the 15th century on the matter but the elements that make-up race as we know it today really began with the age of enlightenment.   


This is a logical birth to race as a cultural concept and practice because it was during this time that great effort was being put into understanding the natural world through classification and documentation; known as taxonomy. The order of the natural world as we know and utilize it today in botany and biology was first developed by Carl Linnaeus. The Linnaean System is our methodology to organize organisms into a hierarchical classification: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. It must be noted that race is not included in this classification system. 


However, Mr. Linnaeus and his classification system were one of numerous philosophical and scientific modus operandi that was designed to bring order to the perceived chaos of nature. The general logic of the age was a juxtaposition of biblical ontology and scientific theory to bring about a new era of understanding of the natural world and humanities placed within it. The outcome of which was the foundational idea that mankind (used with great purpose here) was the center of nature and responsible to manage, tame, and have dominion over it.


Included in this effort are Darwin's theories on evolution, the religious dogma that emerges from Spains ongoing battles against Muslim incursion, the Spanish inquisition for dogmatic purity, and dozens of attempted treaties and compositions on the nature and classification of race within the human species. These ideas floated around the continent for the better part of a century; forming the groundwork for a concept of race that would allow the enlightened ideals to justify the harm done to others. I deeply encourage you to dive into your own research on these writings and philosophical ideas but if you think you can only spare an hour; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very good overview.  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/race/#HisConRac


Indeed, arguably it was the conflict between the Enlightenment ideals of universal freedom and equality versus the fact of the European enslavement of Africans and indigenous Americans that fostered the development of the idea of race (Blum 2002, 111–112; Hannaford 1996, 149–150).


This idea comes from a number of sources but is generally attributed to the German philosopher and scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who’s published work Decas craniorum (Göttingen, 1790–1828), serves as the basis for his later theory of the 5 races. In our most modern contexts, we narrow them down to 4: Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Negroids, and Australoids.


The names of the four races are derived from regional boundaries that separate large groups of human beings from one part of the planet from the other and are completely Euro-centric in nature. Caucasoid is what we commonly refer to as white today. The origins of which are primarily Western and Northern Europe. Named after the Caucasus mountains that create a natural barrier between modern-day Europe and the middle east; it was chosen to represent European peoples and has historically separated one group of people from another in superficial ways. Negroid has been utilized interchangeably with the word Congoid in centuries and decades past; Referring to people inhabiting the African continent. Austaliods refers to the aboriginals of Australia as well as south pacific and people of Oceania. Mongoloid is a bit more complicated since it has been a word debated and utilized to refer to Asian and indigenous groups of the Americas; basically any group of people leftover and discovered since the concept's inception. These names and their references to peoples, do not have any significant link to indigeneity because it groups massive collections of people together despite their cultural origins. 


Nationality can not possibly play a role in race since the boundaries of countries from five decades ago are ever-changing; much less the boundaries and identities of nation-states three centuries ago. The regional markers for the 4 races groups entire cross-continental groups and cultures into their definitions so nationality plays no role in the definition of race. 


Our modern understanding of the human genome, which is incomprehensible to the individuals who wrote these theories and light-years away from our understanding of the human species even in the latter quarter of the twentieth century; clearly demonstrates no linkage between genetics and race. In fact, once we had sequenced the human genome in the late 1990s, we learned that the genetic variance between humans around the globe was less than .06% of a total of 3.2 billion base pair of genomes sampled; an extremely slight amount of polymorphism and variance that can even be found in monozygotic (identical) twins. Chimpanzees have a larger variance of genetic polymorphism than that. As genetics has proven out, we are a single human species.


So, if race has nothing to do with ancestral lineage, nor with our genetic variation and race is devoid of definition in nationality, then what is it that allows the concept of race to continue its prolific impact on us as a nation and a globe? 


Simply put: It comes down to cultural and social agreement. We agree as a nation and as a world that has been dominated with the ideals of the enlightenment, colonization and warfare that race will be the defining feature of us as a collective human entity: Just as we utilize the social-constructs of nationality, gender and class to partition and segregate human being into hierarchical segmentation.


Why do we utilize race and other social-constructs to segment human culture? That is the real question and one that I will spend the next section trying to define. However, to move the point forward, we utilize them so that we can place controls into social structures in order to create idealized and beneficiary outcomes for specific groups within our social system. Capitalism is the best example of this at work. 


This agreement comes with significant problems: It is so very prolific that the use of race as a descriptor of human division is used in our laws, our lending systems, our pop-culture, educational segregation, neighborhoods and community identities. Even enlightened television shows such as the Star Trek series still depict race as a descriptor for the separation of species from planet to planet - star system to star system. This typifies the issue with race as a social agreement; although we agree to keep race in place as a social-construct we do not have any agreement of how it is consistently or grammatically utilized. 


It is commonly argued that even as the concept of race itself is questionable, it is academically debated that the concept of racism may have existed in the world prior to its European conception. However, that argument is moot in its broken circular logic: There is no racism without the concept of race to back it up.


Other examples include our general use of race, racism and racist. What is often called out as racism may be better described as prejudice? Calling a person racist due to an isolated incident such as a gaff of language or unintended use of bias may better be warranted as an act of prejudice than racism. We have no clear, nor agreed-upon definitions for the words we associate with the subject of race and therefore have no clear path forward on how to navigate out of its archaic influence. 


In an effort to move this discussion forward and provide a viable context to work from in this book, I will be laying the groundwork for the definition and use of these words as provided by social justice advocates and race-based teachers from all walks of life. 


Let’s start with the word race: an arbitrary method of dividing human beings by social agreement to perpetuate archaic ideals of social status and identity. Would you prefer I utilize a more traditional definition for race? Race: each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: "people of all races, colors, and creeds".


Racism is commonly defined as a belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. I think this is lacking, especially given the fact that we are now under the conviction that we are working from a social agreement. 


The definition I prefer comes from several sources: Racism is a system of oppression that utilizes generational prejudice and institutional power to propagate the advantage and privilege of one group in a society over another. I prefer this definition because, as we established before, we are talking about a social agreement; whether that agreement is acknowledged or understood by all parties within the system - advantaged or otherwise is irrelevant to its existence. 


I also prefer this definition because it puts the concept of racism and the influence that it inflicts at the proper level of hierarchy within human society: the systemic level. This is the level of interconnectedness of institutions, government, corporations, religions and fraternal organizations. It is the level above the human individual because these entities are made up of human individuals working off of present agreements of operation; some of which have the perpetuation of race and racism deeply built into their foundations. To recognize racism, we must see the systems in which it inhabits.


Phenotype Is the term used in genetics for the composite observable characteristics or traits of an organism. In discussions around race, it is used to describe the outward appearance of an individual human without the context of ancestral entanglement, cultural affiliations, behavioral expectations or family connections. It is also devoid of the connotations that come with descriptions of race. Phenotype is a neutral method of describing the appearance of a person.


This is particularly important in our society because, regardless of our willingness to see it for ourselves, we are an incredibly genetically-mixed nation of human beings. Upon the arrival of our European ancestors, there were 60 - 100 million people living in the continental Americas. The Spanish, their indigenious subjects and Mexican descendants inhabited large portions of modern Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and even Oregon until Mexican Concession in 1848. Three centuries of chattel slavery in the US and Caribian Islands brought in an estimated 12.8 million slaves into the United States, the Caribbian, Mexico, Central & South America. The foolish notion of white racial purity in the US is easily dispelled. 


The proliferation of mail-in genetic testing attests to this quite clearly. The Pew Research Center August 2019 article records that 1 in 7 US adults (25%) have done a mail-in DNA test and of those:


About four-in-ten (38%) say they were surprised by what their DNA test results showed about what countries or continents their ancestors came from, while 27% express surprise at what these results indicated about their ancestors’ racial or ethnic background.


The inter-mingling of these ‘races’ for the past 300 years within the Americas has been a certainty and make up a significant, if not a major portion of the citizenry of the US. This means that a significant portion of ‘white’ appearing Americans have African DNA and an even more significant portion of ‘black’ appears Americans have European DNA. Therefore, race and racism are perpetuated upon phenotype alone. We create a separation of experiences and access of individuals in this country based on the outward appearance of a person within the lines of the grocery store, banking experiences, interactions within the community, experiences with law enforcement and the ability to participate in government are all based on the outward appearance a person might display rather than some definitive method of racial identification because such a system of discernment is a myth. It doesn’t exist. 


The last definition I want to explore is that of the concept of white. If being white is not an identifier of genetic make-up, cultural heritage or continent of origin, then what is it? Simply put, it is a system of privilege and access that was foundational to the establishment of our nation as a means to acquire and hold land, wealth, resources, power and influence under a form of governance that would perpetually sustain itself. This system of privilege and access has extended itself through the descendants of those who helped to establish this nation and through those that meet the requirements of what ‘white’ looks like. This is often referred to as white privilege.  


However, to be identified as white in this nation does not necessarily afford individuals' power or privilege equally. There are large numbers of ‘white’ individuals that struggle to make ends meet and are victims of generational and circumstantial poverty. The concept of white privilege that is commonly thrown around lacks the influence of class. Just because the foundational structure and laws of this nation were set up for the benefit of those of the white race, we must overlay class with it to understand the plight of poor white folk. 


What white privilege does afford all white folk is opportunity. However, it is parsed out in unequal terms. It is remarkably easier for a white individual to get a loan, avoid long jail sentences, avoid a traffic citation, not be followed by security in malls & shopping centers, not be expelled from school or be chosen for opportunities to advance in both large and small means. The amount of data and study put into the aforementioned areas of inequity between people of color and white is significant. Regardless of class, white privilege affords all people able to navigate whiteness opportunities to avoid harassment and step up in the social ladder that people of color are not easily given without great effort, luck and a skill for navigating around a system designed to oppress.


So, if the system we live in is a social agreement, then the real question is why do we continue to proliferate such a system into existence? 



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