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Learning Goal: I’m working on a sociology discussion question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

1) What are the origins of the idea of race and how did it develop?

Although many people today believe that race is based on biological differences, it is merely a social construct. Slavery and oppression existed long before 1619—when the first enslaved Africans arrived in what is now the state of Virginia—but were not tied to the idea of race and racial discrimination until later. The social, or human-made, construct of race was intentionally created by Europeans around the 17th century to justify the vicious, unequivocally inhuman actions they took to build and assert power. Instead of building community and reciprocal relationships with the self-sufficient groups they came across, like Africans and Native Americans, Europeans chose to act on an “us versus them” mentality, othering those they seeked to (forcefully) extract knowledge, resources, and labor from.

Additionally, Europeans’ desire to spread Christianity plays an important role in the eventual development of race. Specifically, during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or be subject to abuse or extermination, and even converting didn’t ensure their safety. Although, at this point in time, the discrimination faced by Jews and Muslims was “more religious in nature than racial” (Golash-Boza, 2015/2021, p. 9), the purity of blood ideology that was inherent in it opened the door for later attempts to classify human beings into hierarchical categories, like racial categories, which become cemented in the 1660s slave codes. The slave codes specified “legal differences between African slaves and European indentured servants,” and, similar to during the Spanish Inquisition, these codes penalized slaves who had, in fact, converted to Christianity for their “heathen ancestry.” This new idea that ancestry could determine social status, even if an individual has converted to the religion they’re being pushed to convert to, created an opening for the development of the idea of race (Golash-Boza, 2015/2021, p. 20)

Lastly, there was a rise in questions of human difference in the scientific community in the 17th century, and there was an eagerness by white scientists to find data that matched the social order and validated white supremacy culture and the widespread reprehensible treatment of non-white groups. This led to scientific racism, which is “the use of science or pseudoscience to justify or reproduce racial inequality” (Golash-Boza, 2015/2021, p. 29). Scientist and physician Samuel George Morton attempted to collect information on human brain size to support his hypothesis that “brain size could be used to rank the various human races,” and, of course, his findings “consistently showed that Europeans had larger brains than Africans or American Indians.” Almost a century later, Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist and scientific historian, found that much, if not all, of Morton’s work was ruled by unconscious bias and his findings were not based in reality (Golash-Boza, 2015/2021, p. 30). It’s clear to me that the idea of race was created and clung to by many white Christians to make them feel better about their own shortcomings and lack of meaningful culture and community.

2) How are colonialism, mass genocide, and brutal exploitation connected to the idea of race?

The invention of race was a deliberate choice to legitimize the acts of mass genocide and brutal exploitation that came with colonialism. Colonialism, by definition, is “the practice of acquiring political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically” (Golash-Boza, 2015/2021, p. 8). There’s no polite, fair way to completely take over another country, fill it with settlers to keep its people from standing up for themselves, and steal its resources and creativity for profit. For countries that are fueled by power and status, even if they have some respect and appreciation for the accomplishments of the people they’re coming in contact with—the way Christopher Columbus is said to have had for the Indigenous people he encountered in the Americas in 1492—if their ultimate goal is to acquire wealth and resources, mass genocide and exploitation are inevitable. The Spanish conquistadores, for instance, enslaved native peoples from the Americas for free labor, and once it was no longer widely acceptable to enslave Indigenous people, they moved on to enslaving Africans. I get the impression that there was a clear risk for colonizers that enslavement—and, therefore, free labor—could become banned at any moment, so the eventual construction of race served as an attempt to ostracize non-”white” people to such an extent that their mistreatment, enslavement, exploitation, and genocide would be seen as a valid step towards white Christian prosperity and supremacy.


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