History of racialism

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The colorful pseudoscience
Icon race.svg
Hating thy neighbour
Divide and conquer
See the main article on this topic: Racialism
The ancient Egyptians (4) saw themselves as differing both from "Caucasians" (1, 3) and Nubians (2). This distinction, however, was based more on ethnicity or nationality than race.[1]

The modern conception of race did not exist until the 1700-1900s. What follows is a very brief history of the race concept:[2]

When Europe's intellectual center was the eastern Mediterranean ("classical" times), skin colors were apparently perceived as forming a continuum. The ancient Egyptians placed themselves between Nubians and Greeks in skin color (see image) and noted that they had features that did not appear in either. Aristotle observed that "[t]he nations inhabiting the cold places and those of Europe are full of spirit but somewhat deficient in intelligence and skill, so that they continue comparatively free, but lacking in political organization and capacity to rule their neighbors."[3] Pliny the Elder tells of an African, the boxer Nicaeus, who married a white Greek woman; their children appeared white, but darker skins appeared in the second generation.[4]

As European colonization and the slave trade began to define modern global relationships, Europeans began to rely on the idea of "biologically distinct races", primarily based on phenotype such as skull shape, hair texture and skin color.

The table below documents the progression of racialist thought, beginning in Bernier's 1684 sexual exploit logbook division of the Earth by "species" of man and ending with Coon's 1930's-1940's five-race theory. Note that the maps depicted use modern political borders; they are at best an approximation of each taxonomist's (often-poorly-defined) race system.

Taxonomist Publication Races Map Legend Notes
Nouvelle division de la terre par les differentes especes ou races l'habitant
New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it (1684)[5][6][7]
Four races:
  • Species 1 (equally or less colored than Egyptians): America, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia (with Species 3), and Indonesia (with Species 3).[note 1]
  • Species 2 ("black"): sub-Saharan Africa
  • Species 3 ("truly white"): Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia (with Species 1), and Indonesia (with Species 1).[note 2]
  • Species 4: the Lapps (Sami). Described as ugly, brutish, and short.
  Species 1 (equally or less colored than Egyptians)
  Species 2 ("black")
  Species 3 ("truly white")
  Species 4 (Lapps)
  Both Species 1 and Species 3
After listing the races, Bernier spends 2 full pages -- 1/3 of his text -- discussing how beautiful foreign women are. A Frenchman to his core!
Systema Naturae
Systems of Nature (1735)[8][note 3]
Five races:
  • Europaeus (European): white race
  • Afer (African): black race
  • Americanus (American): red race
  • Asiaticus (Asian): brown/yellow race
  • Monstrosus (mythical creatures)
  Monstrosus (we're blaming Australia)
In the 1st edition, Asiaticus were brown. In the 10th, Linnaeus changed his mind the peoples of Asia spontaneously became yellow.
De generis humani varietate nativa
On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1775)[9][note 4]
Five races:
  • Caucasiae (Caucasian): white race including all Europeans
  • Mongolicae (Mongolian): yellow race including all East Asians and some Central Asians
  • Aethiopicae (Ethiopian): black race including sub-Saharan Africans
  • Americanae (American): red race including American Indians
  • Malaicae (Malayan): brown race including Southeast Asian and Pacific Islanders
  Not clearly distinguished
Blumenbach argued for what we might now call anti-racialism. Based on his examination of 60+ skulls, he asserted that "individual Africans differ as much, or even more, from other individual Africans as Europeans differ from Europeans" and that Africans weren't inferior "concerning healthy faculties of understanding, excellent natural talents and mental capacities".[10][11] Blumenbach's races formed the basis for modern racialist theories -- in particular, the idea of "Mongoloid", "Negroid", and "Caucasoid" have had incredibly staying power.
The diversity of origin of the human races (1850)[12][12][13][14] Eight races and six subraces:
  • White race ("Europe and the northern part of Africa[, ...] Arabia, Persia[, ...] the arctic circle in Europe[, ...] part of India[, ... and] encroached upon Tartary")
  • Arctic race ("treeless region near the Arctics in Europe, Asia, and America")
  • Samoyedes (Arctic Asia)
  • Laplanders (Arctic Europe)
  • Esquimaux (Arctic Americas)
  • Mongolian race
  • Malay race
  • Negro race ("Africa, south of the AtlasWikipedia's W.svg")
  • West Africans (Senegal etc.)
  • Central Africans (Congo etc.)
  • East Africans (Mozambique etc.)
  • Hottentot race ("Cape of Good Hope; KhoisansWikipedia's W.svg")
  • New Hollander race (AustraliaWikipedia's W.svg)
  • Indian (Americas)
  Whites and Mongolians
  New Hollanders
  West Africans
  Central Africans
  East Africans
Of note, Agassiz was a polygenesist. He believed that each of these races were separately created by God.[15]


Survey information Question Percent agreeing Percent disagreeing Other/nonresponse Summary
Survey authors (year): Lieberman and Reynolds (1978)[16]

Population surveyed: 256 physical anthropologists from the American Anthropological Association

Number of respondents (N): 141

Races are the taxonomic unit below the species level, and if such units are not called race, 'it still has exactly the same taxonomic meaning.' (Pro-racialism) 57.4% (N=81) NA[note 5] 42.6% (N=60) Most anthropologists believed in the race concept in 1978.
Races vary from populations 'differing only in that frequencies of a few genes to those grouping have been totally isolated for tens of thousands of years and are at the least incipient species'. (Pro-racialism) 45.4% (N=64) NA 54.6% (N=77)
Clines (gradations) exist but it is necessary to distinguish clines between subspecific populations and clines within subspecific populations. Interracial clines are found in intermediate populations between subspecific populations or races. (Pro-racialism) 58.2% (N=82) NA 41.8% (N=59)
Biological variability exists but 'this variability does not conform to the discrete packages labeled races.' (Anti-racialism) 79.4% (N=112) NA 20.6% (N=29)
So-called racial characteristics are not 'transmitted as complexes.' (Anti-racialism) 63.8% (N=90) NA 36.2% (N=51)
Human differentiation is the result of natural selection forces which operate in ecological zones and such forces and their zones do not coincide with population boundaries. Furthermore, different selective forces may operate in overlapping ecological zones. Thus, 'geographic distributions of more than one trait have no necessary correlation.' (Anti-racialism) 75.9% (N=107) NA 24.1% (N=34)
Races do not exist because isolation of groups has been infrequent; populations have always interbred. (Anti-racialism) 28.4% (N=40) NA 71.6% (N=101)
Boundaries between what have been called 'races' are completely arbitrary, depending primarily upon the wishes of the classifier. (Anti-racialism) 63.8% (N=90) NA 36.2% (N=51)
No races exist now or ever did. (Anti-racialism) 17.0% (N=24) NA 83.0% (N=117)


Survey information Time Period Races Exist Races Do Not Exist Author is Noncommittal Race Not Mentioned No consensus Summary
Survey authors (year): Littlefield, Lieberman, Reynolds et al. (1984)[17]

Population Surveyed: "The 58 textooks inclued in our study were selected according to the following criteria: each was (1) a comprehensive introductory textbook such as might be used for undergraduate survey courses in physical anthropology, (2) available in one volume devoted to physical anthropology, and (3) not an anthology. Both original and subsequent editions of a text were included when copies were available. Only textbooks published in the United STates and written by persons working primarily in the United States were selected for inclusion.

Methods: "A panel of university undergraduates, each working independently, was asked to read the sections of the textbooks dealing with human variation and to classify them into one of four possible categories in accordance with the authors' expressed views on race: (1) races exist (author uses the concept in describing human variation); (2) races do not exist (author rejects the race concept as invalid); (3) author seems contradictory or noncommittal( discusses the issues but comes to no clear conclusion; (4) race is not mentioned. Each text was read by at least five students and its classification determined by the majority view of the panel members. In the seven cases where no majority emerged, the book was classified under 'no consensus'."

1932-44 2 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) Textbooks increasingly present the race concept as controversial or reject the race concept outright.
1944-49 2 (66.7%) 1 (33.3%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
1950-54 2 (66.7%) 1 (33.3%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
1955-59 1 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
1960-64 2 (50%) 1 (25%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 1 (25%)
1965-69 4 (57.1%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 2 (28.6%) 1 (14.3%)
1970-74 7 (43.75%) 4 (25%) 2 (12.5%) 2 (12.5%) 1 (6.25%)
1975-79 5 (20%) 10 (40%) 2 (8%) 1 (4%) 4 (16%)

See also[edit]


  1. To be specific: Most of Europe (excluding "part of Muscovy"), most of Northern Africa (Fez, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli "up to the Nile"), some of Asia (Egypt, Arabia, Turkey, India, Gelconda, Visapore, Maldivias; and part of Araucan, Pegu, Siam, Sumatra, Bantan, and Borneo), and the Americas.
  2. To be specific: The Philippines, Japan, Pegu, Tonkin, Cochin-China, China, Chinese Tartary, Georgia and Muscovy, Usbek, Turkistan, Zaquetay, "a small part of" Muscovy, and short residents of the Fertile Crescent; also part of Aracan, Siam, Sumatra, and Borneo.
  3. The 1st edition of Systems of Nature was published in 1735. 10th editition was published in 1758.
  4. The cited edition comes from 1795. The differences aren't substantial for our purposes.
  5. Lieberman 1978 only examined whether anthropologists agreed with a statement or did not — and as such, did not have a "disagree" classification.


  1. Early Concepts of Human Variation by James R. Bindon (2010) Anthropology 275, Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama.
  2. Yudell, Michael. "A SHORT HISTORY OF THE RACE CONCEPT", in Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture (2011).
  3. Aristotle, Politics, book 7.
  4. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book VII.
  5. Bernier, Francois. "New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it" , in Memoirs read before the Anthropological Society of London. London: Trübner and Co.
  6. Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
  7. C. Loring, Brace. "Race" is a Four-Letter Word: the Genesis of the Concept. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  8. Linnaei, Caroli. Systema Naturae, pp. 26-29. Holmiae: Impensis Direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1758-1759. Full quote: see File:Systema Naturae on Homos.png.
  9. Johann Frederick Blumenbach. De generis humani varietate nativa, pp. XII-XLII. Gottingae : Vandenhoek et Ruprecht.
  10. Jack Hitt, "Mighty White of You: Racial Preferences Color America’s Oldest Skulls and Bones," Harper’s, July 2005, pp. 39–55
  11. Marvin Harris (2001). The rise of anthropological theory: a history of theories of culture. Rowman Altamira. pp. 84–. ISBN 978-0-7591-0133-3. https://books.google.com/books?id=yUUYN3X18dwC&pg=PA84. Retrieved 5 April 2012. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 The diversity of origin of the human races Christian Examiner (July, 1850). Full quote:
    The white race [1] in its different branches lies spread over the broadest area. It has covered, not only Europe and the northern part of Africa, including the valley of the Nile and all the region north of the Atlas, but also Ara- bia, Persia, and a part of India. It has encroached upon Tartary, and has extended as far as the arctic circle in Europe. At a later period it has established itself beyond the oceans, in the New World, at the Cape of Good Hope, in the Easl Indies, in the Sunda Islands, in New Holland, in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and upon the southern and eastern borders of the continent of Asia. But within this range the different nations which have succeeded each other in the course of time, even where they have assumed new peculiarities in consequence of their mixture in these new homes, have never differed more than the various families of the other races differ within their respective limits. The Arabs and Per-sians, the Berbers and Jews, the Germans and Greeks, the Italians and French, the Spaniards and Portuguese, the Swedes and Normans, the Dutch and Danes, the Russians and Turks, the Anglo-Saxons and Irish, and their descendants in the Transatlantic colonies, have presented at all times the same physical characteristics, and have resembled each other within the same limits within which we find the different tribes of negroes to resemble each other. The differences between the Sene- gal negro and the negro of Mozambique, or between the negro of Congo and the negro of Caffraria, are as great, and perhaps even greater, than the differences existing between the different nations of the white race.

    Let us, however, now return more specially to the geo- graphical distribution of the human races, and begin with Asia. There, within the arctic district, we have the race of Samoyedes [2.1], who are small, short men, with a round, broad face, and thick lips, but whose eyes, or rather the openings of their orbits, are narrow, though neither oblique nor very elongated, as is the case among the Chinese. A very similar type, that of the Laplanders [2.2], occurs in Northern Europe. The Esquimaux [2.3] on this con- tinent present the same general features. But if we go farther south, as far as Japan, for instance, we have an- other race in which the features already present marked differences, a race almost intermediate between the Chi- nese and the inhabitants of Kamtschatka. The Chinese fchemselvea have those very prominent cheeks, that pale- yellowish color, and those very oblique, narrow fis- sures of the eyes, which are so characteristic of that race of men generally known under the name of the Mongo- lian type [3]. But it is very important to take into consid- eration, that northwards, between the Mongolian and the arctic nations, we have intermediate types, in South- eastern Siberia. Again, if we pass from China into Indo- China and the Sunda Islands, or from the high plateaus of Asia into the Malayan peninsula, we meet another race, the Malays [4], who have some resemblance to the Chinese in their color, but differ from them in many respects, especially in the regularity of their face, and what we may call their beautiful Caucasian features. Towards the primitive seat of the white race, the Mongo- lians assume another appearance ; they resemble some- what the Caucasian type. But towards Indo-China we have also a transition from the Malayan type into the Caucasian, as we have from the Mongolian type into the Caucasian farther North.

    All over Africa we have but one type [5], or rather we gen- erally consider the Africans as one, because they are chiefly black. But if we take the trouble to compare their different tribes, we shall observe that there are as great differences between them as between the inhabitants of Asia. The negro of Senegal [5.1] differs as much from the ne- gro of Mozambique [5.2] as he differs from the negro of Congo or of [Equatorial] Guinea [5.3]. The writer has of late devoted spe- cial attention to this subject, and has examined closely many native Africans belonging to different tribes, and has learned readily to distinguish their nations, without being told whence they came; and even when they at- tempted to deceive him, he could determine their origin from their physical features.


    The circumstance, that, wherever we find a human race naturally circumscribed, it is connected in its limitation with what we call, in natural history, a zoological and botanical province, — that is to say, with the natural limitation of a particular association of animals and plants, — shows most unequivocally the intimate relation existing between mankind and the animal kingdom in their adaptation to the physical world. The arctic race of men [2], covering the treeless region near the Arctics in Europe, Asia, and America, is circumscribed in the three continents within limits very similar to those occupied by that particular combination of animals which are peculiar to the same tracts of land and sea. The region inhabited by the Mongolian race [3] is also a natural zoological province, covered by a combination of animals naturally circumscribed within the same regions. The Malay race [4] covers also a natural zoological province. New Holland [6], again, constitutes a very peculiar zoological province, in which we have another particular race of men. And it is furl her remarkable, in this connection, that the plants and animals now living on the continent of Africa, south of the Atlas, within the same range within which the negroes are naturally circumscribed, have a character differing widely from that of the plants and animals of the northern shores of Africa and the valley of Egypt; while the Cape of Good Hope [7], within the limits inhabited by Hottentots, is characterized by a vegetation and a fauna equally peculiar, and differing in its features from that over which the African race is spread.


    Again, on the continent of America, have we not in the Indians evidence of another mode of existence, indications of other dispositions, of other feelings, of other appreciations of the advantages of life. The character of the Indian race [8] has been so well sketched out by Dr. Morton, in his able works upon that subject, that we need not repeat what he has said. We would only ask, Does not that Indian race present the most striking contrast with the character of the negro race, or with the character of the Mongolian, especially the Chinese and Japanese? The indomitable, courageous, proud Indian, — in how very different a light he stands by the side of the submissive, obsequious, imitative negro, or by the side of the tricky, cunning, and cowardly Mongolian ! Are not these facts indications that the different races do not rank upon one level in nature, — that the different tendencies which characterize man in his highest development are permanently brought out in various combinations, isolated in each of these races, in a manner similar to all the developments in physical nature, and, we may also say, similar to all the developments in the intellectual and moral world, where in the early stages of development we see some one side predominant, which in the highest degree of perfection is combined with all others, in wonderful harmony, even though the lower stages belong to the same sphere as the highest? So can we conceive, and so it seems to us to be indeed the fact, that those higher attributes which characterize man in his highest development are exhibited in the several races in very different proportions, giving, in the case of the inferior races, prominence to features which are more harmoniously combined in the white race, thus preserving the unity among them all, though the difference is made more prominent by the manner in which the different faculties are developed.
  13. Types of mankind: or ethnological researches, based upon the ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races by Josiah C. Nott (1854) Trübner. Page 78.
  14. Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man by Edward Lurie (September 1954) Isis Vol. 45, No. 3 , pp. 227-242.
  15. An Examination of the Physical History of the Jews, in its bearings on the Question of the Unity of the Races by Josiah C. Nott (March 1850) Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Page 107
  16. Lieberman, Leonard, and Larry T. Reynolds. "The debate over race revisited: An empirical investigation." Phylon, 1978, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 333-343.
  17. Littlefield, Alice, et al. "Redefining race: The potential demise of a concept in physical anthropology." Current Anthropology, 1982, vol. 23, no. 6, pp 641-655.