Race and Racism

Andrew Wells

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Race and Racism

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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It has become an acknowledged commonplace that “race” and the other entities from and against which it has been defined—“racism” and “racialism”—are historically and culturally constructed. While it is recognized that race is a spurious concept with no scientific basis, the social reality of racism is impossible—and dangerous—to ignore. The role played by the opening of the Atlantic world in the development of the theory and practice of race and racism was profound. Beginning in the mid-15th century, a wider range of peoples, cultures, and colors were brought into closer interaction than ever before. The existence of a hitherto unknown population on a hitherto unknown continent posed serious questions, resulting in a flurry of intellectual and social activity that created, defined, and reified differences between peoples. Sexual interaction between peoples of the Atlantic world soon produced new populations through a process of ethnogenesis and resulted in the application of older thinking to new problems. One example was the use of Spanish concepts of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), originally developed to root out supposedly insincere converts of Jewish or Muslim origin, in a new colonial sistema de castas. Sexual interaction between groups not merely of different ethnic origin but within the same social rank (especially the “blue-blooded” nobility) as well as colonial domination both near and far (particularly in early modern Ireland) also resulted in the development of concepts of whiteness. At the same time as these ideas were elaborated, they were supported by a growing sense of substantial difference between peoples who were, in varying degrees, susceptible to European or tropical diseases. Demographic catastrophe only reinforced the importance of examining the origins of native Americans, even if it was speculation on those of Africans that was most recognizably racist to modern eyes. This is, no doubt, because such speculations went hand-in-hand with the development of one of the most monstrous racist abuses in world history, the transatlantic slave trade. Complicating this picture, however, is the fact that such activity could take place within a theological worldview that held that all the world’s peoples had sprung from the same origin. Productive conceptualizations of racism, therefore, have distinguished the concept from individual prejudice or even ethnocentrism through its institutionalization within authoritative discourses (concerning the body or the law/state, for example) and through its efforts to rationalize a fundamentally irrational prejudice. With the debunking of its claims to biological reality, it arguably lives on by having culture perform the function that science can no longer fulfill.

Article.  12882 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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