Confronting Race and Ethnicity

Confronting Race and Ethnicity

Our concepts of race do not emerge from antiquity. They spring from the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Notions of race, predicated on a matrix of ancestry, ethnicity, religion, and cultural practices, reveal how deep-seated racial prejudice is. The Jefferson ideal of equality falls short in American discussions of race. Despite the ideal, Jeffersonian himself believed that the differences between the races were “fixed in nature” and therefore the equality set out in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to all.

At the core of American racial studies one finds the American School of Anthropology and its theory of polygeny—that a hierarchy of human races had separate creations. Like the Nazi school of human differences, the American anthropologist Samuel Morton developed a scheme of racial differences based on cranial capacity to prove his theory that “Caucasian and Mongolian races had the highest cranial capacity and therefore the highest levels of intelligence, while Africans had the lowest cranial capacity and thus the lower levels of intelligence” (Ibid.).

Modern racism predicates its notions of race based on the biology of hereditary genetics. This eugenic concept of race gave way to a 20th century concept of racial ideology and opposition to miscegenation in fear of weakening the white race; ergo the unalterable proposition that “neither education, nor change in environment or climate, nor the eradication of racism itself could alter the fate of non-whites” (Ibid.) In 1924, Virginia passed a Racial Integrity Act, an anti-miscegenation law “to stop what it feared to be the mongrelization of the races” (Ibid.).

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