Where the Idea of “Race” Came From

By Adolph Reed Jr.

The following is an edited version of the author’s talk at a “Labor Solidarity Day” rally in South Paris, Maine, on September 11, 1999.

The question of how the fight for racial equality can be incorporated into labor’s struggle has long vexed our movement — the labor movement, the left, the social justice movement. There is a long history in the United States of the debate over the question of race versus class.

I think before trying to address it directly that it will be useful to frame the question by saying what race is and is not. First of all, race is a pretty new idea in the history of the world. It is a new invention, like the idea of Western civilization — which actually dates from the period of European expansion, mainly from the 17th century through the 19th century. In fact the idea of Western civilization is even younger than race; it was born in drawing rooms at Oxford and Cambridge some time between 1850 and 1875.

So then, race is a notion that acquired its current meaning roughly between the 17th and 19th centuries. Even in the early period of Western expansion and colonization of the “new world” and systematic interaction with people in other parts of the world, the crucial distinction that justified subordination or that shaped contacts or defined differences was a different set of dichotomies — either “Christian versus heathen,” or “civilized versus savage.”

Over time race in the way that we think of it came to displace this other kind of differentiation of people for reasons that will be clear when I make it a little more concrete.

What I am saying is that race is a fairly new notion in the history of the world. There is no biological or “natural,” as it were, foundation for the concept of race. What molecular biologists now tell us is that within any gross human population, the range of biological variation is greater than the range of variation between any two populations. There’s no place to draw the line.

One interesting aside about all this is that the people doing so-called scientific race research in the public arena now, like Charles Murray or Richard Herrnstein, who wrote the Bell Curve, and J. Phillippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario (whose most recent work claims that there are almost species level walls between existing racial groups) are not biologists. Most of them are psychologists and IQ testers. (Rushton claims that there were several different migrations out of Africa with pre-Homo sapiens, hominid ancestors and that several different populations evolved into Homo sapiens along different tracks at different times.)

Why Are Some Features “Racialized” and Others Not?

But beyond the lack of DNA-level truthfulness or legitimacy to the idea of race, even the very superficial characteristics that we tend to think of as defining race — like skin color, facial features, hair texture — even those vary widely within any given racially defined population. And the range of variation within those populations, even on the basis of those superficially observable characteristics, is almost as great, if not greater, than the variation between populations. Those are only some of the obvious ways that human beings differ superficially from one another physically by appearance.

Yet there are other features that we don’t think of as being racialized, height, for instance, or body mass, or head shape, or left- or right-handedness. These differences haven’t become racialized in the way that others have been. What accounts for this disparity? A colleague, Barbara Fields, is a historian at Columbia University. She has an exercise that she does with her undergraduates. She asks them “How many of you are sitting next to a person of a different race?” And since it’s Columbia not too many hands go up. She then asks, “How many of you are sitting next to a person who looks just like you?” And of course no hands go up then either.

Adolph Reed, Jr.

There are many different ways that human beings as individuals vary within any given population. How do some of their features become racialized and others not? Why have characteristics like skin color and others come to be thought of as identifying racial populations? What has made those characteristics seem fundamental or “natural” is their familiarity as markers of groups in a system of social hierarchy, in a system of social power.

Early American History

To make that point a little more clearly, I will duck back into a couple of early moments in American history. In colonial Virginia, for instance, as the population of African slaves grew, there was really not much difference between them and white indentured servants. (This is less well known than the fact that the first African slaves in Virginia showed up in 1619, a year before the much-vaunted Pilgrims in their Mayflower.) The slaves tended to live in the same quarters as the indentured servants; they often hung out together and formed couples. The two groups were viewed as being only marginally different by the people who ran things, the planters.

The crucial difference between people who were serving out terms of indenture and those who were permanent bondsmen was that the latter were purchased as permanent bondsmen, and the people who were serving out indentures were basically purchased as indentured workers. It was not like there was even a notion of free labor in the Anglo-American world to compare either of these populations to. At that time there was no such thing as free labor!  The notion of free labor is a later invention, one that was won through the struggle of working people in the 18th and 19th centuries. [The struggle of the Levellers in England in the 1640s was a forerunner of the struggle for the rights of free labor, for the idea that those who were not big property owners also had rights; see Labor Standard No. 5, November-December 1999. — The Editors.]

At this point we are thinking back across a huge historical divide. A new political, economic, and social system was basically being formed out of the breakdown of feudal social relations. Under that older system, basically there were, on the one hand, property owners and, on the other, everybody else, who didn’t count for anything, practically the equivalent of serfs.

There is the question, then, of how to explain where this distinction between permanent bondsmen and indentured servants came from. Through the first half of the 17th century the principal division was between those who were Christian and those who were heathen. There was some variation depending on what county you were in and who the judge was. There were cases — not very many — of slaves who were able to sue successfully in court for their freedom by showing that they had been Christians – had been baptized prior to their being enslaved. You know how the law works; the boss always crafts the law to fit his own interests, so it was O.K. to buy or sell a slave who wasn’t a Christian, sell anybody who wasn’t a Christian — that part is easy. But what happens if the slave converts after being purchased? Well, that doesn’t count! But if he was a Christian prior to being enslaved, then maybe he could be let go.

The Virginia Planters and Bacon’s Rebellion

But what happened next was the arrival over the first half of the 17th century of the planters, people who had come over here to plant with their money. There may have been some talk about escape from religious persecution up at this end of the 13 colonies, but down at that end it was always a cash-and-carry proposition. The first couple of generations of planters had seen themselves as basically English gentlemen who came here to make a lot of money and then go back home. But instead they began to develop an American identity and to consolidate as an American upper class who ran the colony of Virginia according to their own prerogatives.

Among other things what that meant was that they were a nascent, a new upper class, and kind of like California, they had to wear their wealth as ostentatiously as possible. They had to use the force of the state to beat down any hint of disrespect for their social, political, and cultural superiority. So they turned out a bunch of laws that made life incredibly hard for indentured people and for those that owned no property. For example, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed laws that made crimes punishable by corporal penalties such as having the tongue pierced or being put in the rack for speaking disrespectfully to a burgess. (That doesn’t sound like much of a crime now, does it?)

So why do I go into this? What happened is that over time word got back to England that while the life of an indentured servant was never really a good time, it had gotten so very harsh that the supply of indentured servants began to dry up. This happened at the same moment historically when there was an expansion of the slave trade and dependence on slave labor was growing among the planter class. Then in the middle of all this there was a rebellion called Bacon’s rebellion in the 1670s led by a disgruntled member of the upper class. This insurgent movement drew popular support from runaway slaves, free Blacks, and indentured servants who also knew that they were getting the short end of the stick from the ruling class.

 (As is so often the case in real history, this rebellion was a complicated, not  entirely laudable affair. One of Bacon’s main complaints was that the British authorities and the local burgesses were not aggressive enough in exterminating the Native American populations in the colony to make more land available for settlers.)

This popular alliance drove the Virginia elite nuts, and it’s during this period that a couple of interesting things happened. One, in law and public ideology there was a firm, steady, and marked shift away from the Christian versus non-Christian, savage versus civilized way of explaining social difference – a shift to Black versus white. This took a couple of very concrete forms, increased penalties on the association of slaves and indentured servants, forcing sharp legal distinctions between them, and on the other side eliminating legal distinctions between free Blacks and slave Blacks. This is the context in which the Black-white distinction and the idea of race began to take shape.

Post–Civil War America

I want also to look at a second historical moment, one that walks the other side of the street, the thirty years after the Civil War. The old planter class was displaced by the victory of the Civil War, but it never lost economic power because of the incomplete character of that social revolution. This period was exciting, however, because of the opening up of access and opportunity for self-activity among the freed people in the South. At the same time it was a period during which planters in the old Confederacy were haunted, motivated, dogged, obsessed by the fear of the freed Blacks joining with displaced whites to create a political movement from below. This is an oft-told story certainly, but it is not commonly recognized that it took 30 years for the planter class to finally satisfy itself that it had broken the possibility of this alliance, 30 years even with the extended power of racist ideology in American life at that point, white supremacist ideology in the South, with a systematic terror campaign, and political and electoral perfidy at the state and local levels.

The beginnings of such an alliance (between freed Blacks and disadvantaged whites) were seen in the state of Virginia going back to the 1870s after the Hayes-Tilden compromise that ended Reconstruction officially. There was a semi-populist kind of movement called the Readjuster movement that was built on a Black-white workers’ coalition. It actually took state power under Governor Mahone. And there were similar alliances like it throughout the South through the period of the heyday of populist activism in the early 1890s.

It was only with the crushing of the populist movement that the planter class in the late 1890s was actually able to reassert its political power, to change the nature of the situation, and reshuffle the political deck in the South by excluding Blacks from citizenship and from voting. Once Blacks had been taken out of the political equation (and by the way, about one-third of the Southern white population was also disenfranchised) then the only game left in town was engaging in politics on white supremacist terms. In such a context people will naturally adapt to what the political opportunities are and to what the name of the political game is, so in that sense racial ideology became more deeply embedded as a political reflex in the South.

The Late 19th Century and “Scientific Racism”

The story, in general, is obviously very complicated, because at the same time that there were signs of this biracial political insurgency in the South, the final push of the periodic campaigns of genocide against indigenous people was being conducted by the same federal government in the West. This was also the period  — from the 1850s through the end of the century — of an explosion of immigration from Europe and from Asia. That occurred in a context of an upsurge of racialist social theorizing and ideology, what we think of as the school of “scientific racism.” (In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson actually made the first “scientific” racist argument to be cited in American political debate.) It was an invention of academics in the late 19th century that provided the rationale for most modern racist theories, at least according to the common understanding among leftists.

There was an explosion of racial categories in the late 19th century.  A racial adaptability chart that a Pittsburgh industrial relations firm did for a company there in the 1920s lists 36 different races, and this chart laid out which races were supposed to be good at what jobs. You know it’s like a big ethnic joke. In fact, this kind of race “science” was a big part of the rationale for the origin of “industrial relations” — the profession that has been doing that kind of stuff ever since.

One view says that this explosion of racial categories was a tool of the bosses to keep the workers divided. I don’t think that they were that smart really, and one of the tendencies that we need to be careful about is reading too much intelligence and coherence into the ruling class. They are as smart as the police forces that they buy and the propagandists that they hire.

What I think is probably a little closer to the mark is that the last 25 years of the 19th century was a period in which the pendulum was swinging to the right in a repressive direction in American politics in a number of different ways. After the big labor strikes of 1877 coming right on the heels of the Hayes-Tilden compromise, the opinion-making elites were especially open to notions of fundamental and natural human inequality and hierarchy, so they were open to ideas of “scientific racism” as an adaptation of Darwin, a kind of social Darwinism.

For the bosses these ideas provided a mechanism for sorting out labor to perform various tasks in the newly industrializing production system. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a logical system or be true; it just has to work. If the person doing the hiring thinks that an Italian is by definition a good stone mason, then it works, because you hired the Italian and he did his work as a stone mason. In this context maybe some of those who ran the factory figured out one day that this system was also useful for pitting one group of workers against another.

I think, therefore, that the idea of race hardened over this period, the last 30 years or so of the 19th century, as a metaphor or symbol of fundamental differences and hierarchy, in fact the way we understand race now. And it was rammed down workers’ throats in many instances, as it was with white workers in the South. This was also true in the case of organized workers’ reactions to Asian immigrants in the West, and that puts it mildly.

I should also say that in the late 19th century in addition to the invention of hard racial grouping concepts, there were teachings from American social science that reinforced these ideas. There was a tendency to talk about working class whites as being of a different race from the white upper classes, and women as being of a different race from men, and this kind of bizarre stuff. The long and short of it is that once race had hardened as a kind of socially consequential metaphor, as a category that at least partially helped define peoples’ lifelong chances, then people began to act accordingly. So in that sense the metaphor and symbol became real because people, and most especially the state, the governmental power, treated them as real.

Two Epitaphs

Thus we can end up with what I think are two really powerful epitaphs. W.E.B. DuBois, in an autobiographical work, Dusk of Dawn (1940) offered a fanciful dialogue with a foreigner who was trying to understand the American race issue. The foreigner keeps asking DuBois to explain what a Negro is. He was onto something because he realized that he was being offered something that did not work as a category. DuBois concluded by saying that a Black man is one who has to ride Jim Crow in Georgia.

The other is from Joseph Sandy Himes, who was a Black sociologist. He said that to be a Negro, one has to be available for treatment as a Negro.

The point of both apothegms is that race is a social category. But  to say that race is not real or is a social category is not to say that people do not experience themselves through these categories. It is not to say that they don’t have a sense of common identity based on that common experience or perception of common experience, including the notion of shared heritage as a collective understanding. Nor does it mean that racial categories do not shape people’s lives and opportunities; in this society they quite obviously do. What it means is that race, like gender or sexual orientation or anything else, does not exhaust an individual’s identity, nor does it mean that everyone who is assigned to a label will experience, or interpret, or operate in the common experience of being assigned to that label, or even the common set of social experiences that may be associated with that label in the same way, or work with that label.

One more example for the sake of clarity: Even in the Jim Crow era, under racial segregation, not all Black people were affected by racial segregation in exactly the same way. Some of the differences were purely random, some of them having to do with geography. There was a difference between plantation areas and the border states, between urban and rural segregation, between different counties and different cities. And there were also class differences.

Even though the social system was framed and shaped by an overarching white supremacy, people occupied a variety of positions in that social system that enabled some of them to insulate themselves from the potentially most degrading and dangerous aspects of the system more than others. Some people performed functions in the system that actively helped to manage conflict and to reproduce the system. Some people were linked to it in different ways. I think we can see that also somewhat more clearly in the period since segregation was defeated in the 1960s when the experience of racial identity as a fact in people’s lives has varied widely in its material meanings and consequences. That does not negate seeing race as a mechanism for assigning people to slots in a system of hierarchy.

And there is another way that I have been thinking about race; it is useful for suggesting a basis for the kind of broad solidarity that Maria Alves was describing in order to establish the kind of movement we need, to make this country what it ought to be, to make the world what it ought to be or could be. [For Maria Alves’s speech about the Workers Party of Brazil, given at the same “Labor Solidarity Day” rally in Maine where Adolph Reed spoke, see Labor Standard No. 5, November-December 1999.]

If you can allow what may come across as a shameless plug, that’s really what we’re trying to do in the Labor Party  — to take the simplest experience of that which is summarized by another category, the working class, which we understand as being the condition of having to work for a living or being expected to work for a living, whether or not you actually work, to take that category as a programmatic and rhetorical and ideological basis for establishing a broad solidarity of shared experience on which we can come together to fight for what we all want and need and to struggle through and to discuss all the ways that we differ, especially the workings of racial, gender, and other forms of oppression or other strains of hierarchy that all have emerged within the same political and economic system. What is involved is not just organizing workers or the working class. It means expanding the idea of who the working class is in a way that includes what people characterize otherwise as social movements.

I end with this example. One of the most visible and, in this regard, most significant affiliates of the Labor Party is the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in the Philadelphia area. We understand, as they do, that the working class is not what the National Labor Relations Board says is the working class. The working class is us, all of us, people who work for a living and/or who are expected to work for a living. It includes as well all those being driven to the edge of the labor market, the unemployed and the under-employed and those on welfare.

Adolph Reed Jr., a former professor of political science at the New School for Social Research and the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of many books.

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