The Evolution of Racism

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One of the many interesting facets of race ideology is that despite it being so ingrained in modern society – taught in schools, satirized in the media, actualized in the news – it is a fairly new concept. Today, it is hard to believe that people of different colors, cultures, and geographical origins had ever walked the earth without making mention of these differences. History indicates, however, that there was once a time when one’s physical appearance was in no way associated with any “significant social meanings” (A. Smedley and B.D. Smedley 18). The term “ethnicity” was indicative of culture – not physiology (A. Smedley and B.D. Smedley 17). As much as that sounds like a fairytale now, did the idea of race distinction sound then. But every fairytale must have a villain, and in the tale of humankind racism is the big bad wolf.

Audrey and Brian D. Smedley suggest that the sociopolitical implications of race preceded the biological, and isolate the 17th century as the era that conceived race ideology specifically in the United States (20). The chain of circumstances leading up to this conception is simple but gruesome. When African slavery was introduced in the U.S., it made racial hierarchization a physical reality. Despite this new way of life being one without substantial objection, the idea of White intellectual dominance was distributed as further justification (A. Smedley and B.D. Smedley 20). The practice of scientific classification did not come until the 18th century and, in England, was founded on the “subjective” accounts of those who had interacted with indigenous peoples (A. Smedley and B.D. Smedley 21). Adhering to the time-honored tradition of fearing “the other,” these accounts were predictably unflattering.

Unfortunately, the modern complications of racial difference remain based on the assumption formed in the 18th century, that the general physical features shared by a people are an accurate indication of their behaviors and beliefs as a group and as individuals. The 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, continued this tradition of xenophobic racial profiling into the 20th century. Ironically, throughout his campaign Wilson earned a number of supporters among the distinguished Black community by stating his intent to “be a president of the whole nation – to know no white or black” (O’Reilly 117). However, Wilson did not live up to this expectation during his run as president. He was a staunch believer in segregation before his election – evidenced by his term as the president of Princeton, during which he “closed off [the university] to black students” – and displayed no symptoms of a change of heart while in office (O’Reilly 117). The president, along with his primarily segregationist cabinet, “saw segregation as a rational, scientific policy,” and as a “part of the civilizing process” (O’Reilly 118). Not only did he buy into the position that Black intelligence is subordinate to the White intellect, but he went so far as to insult even the meager capacity he attributed to the Black population by securing its approval with bald-faced lies.

The hypothesis that there is a natural hierarchy of intellect, as well as a deviation of genetic traits among different racial groups is still a subject of much debate even today. In Hamilton’s “Taxonomic Approaches to Race,” race is defined as a “recognizably distinct division…distinguished from other groups by its unique clustering of genetically transmitted anatomical, physiological, psychological, and behavioral traits” (Hamilton 12). While this may seem like a sensible definition, the point of contention lies in both the claim that psychological and behavioral traits can be genetically transmitted and the belief that race is even a valid taxonomical classification, to begin with. Hamilton claims that it is foolish to ignore the biological evidence that supports the existence of race, asserting that the dismissal of its significance has become the common mode of thought simply because the truth of racial difference is morally perverse (O’Reilly 11).

Those who belong to the school of thought promoting race as a “social construct” (such as A. and B.D. Smedley) insist that the difference in genetic makeup from person to person is extremely minimal, and that based on that information alone it is nearly impossible to identify one’s racial background (A. and B.D. Smedley 19). Hamilton refers to this opinion as “race denial,” an ideology that he credits to Franz Boas who “shifted the focus of anthropology from race to culture “ (O’Reilly 18). Boas believed that humans’ impressions of one another were more largely based on the subject’s culture than the subject’s race (Morris-Reich 329). While this may have been an unpopular idea at first, the new tradition of “race denial” pointed out by Hamilton indicates that Boas was indeed a pioneer of the movement. Among his other radical anthropological contributions are Boas’ analyses of racial intermixing, a practice which he concluded to have a “favorable effect on the race” due to the fact that “half-breed” women generally bore more children than their “pure stock” sisters (Morris-Reich 318).

These findings continue to be relevant in the debate over race, as Boas’ work serves as the backbone for race deniers everywhere to continue denying its relevance to both anthropology and biology. But whether or not race is relevant in those fields, it certainly remains relevant to society at large. Segregation is not merely a relic of the 17th century and Wilson-era politics, to deny it is idealistic and to accept it is pessimistic. In an American city like Chicago, for example, it is easy to witness modern segregation just by taking a ride on the El. The riders slowly change demographics from one end of the line to the other, marking the stark separation between black and white. And even though Chicago is a notable example (Martin Luther King Jr. famously remarked that the city was perhaps the most “hateful” and “hostile” he had visited during the civil rights movement), its public transit system is certainly not the pinnacle of contemporary racism. Perhaps less time should be spent attempting to prove or disprove the existence of racial difference, and more should be exerted to reconcile it.

Works Cited

Hamilton, Andrew. "Taxonomic Approaches to Race." The Occidental Quarterly 8.3 (2008): 11-36. Print.

Morris-Reich, Amos. "Race, Ideas, And Ideals: A Comparison Of Franz Boas And Hans F.K. Günther." History of European Ideas 32.3 (2006): 313-332. Print.

O'Reilly , Kenneth . "The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 17 (1997): 117-121. JSTOR. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. "Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race." American Psychology 60.1 (2005): 16-26. Print.