In the 1600s, European colonists, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans found themselves together in the New World. However, no one would have described the population in those terms at the time. They certainly would not have said that blacks, whites, and Indians were in the Americas. Instead, people identified as Shawnee, Creek, and Iroquois. Others identified as Scots or Irish. Still others identified as Ashanti or Fante. How, then, did the Ashanti come to be known as “black,” the Scots as “white,” and the Creek as “Native American”? How and why was the idea of race created? What distinguishes it from previous ways of thinking about human difference? …

In the contemporary United States, one of the first things we notice about someone we meet is race. When we aren’t sure of someone’s race, we may get inquisitive or begin to feel uncomfortable (Dalmage 2000). It is as if, before interacting, we have to know if the other person is white, black, Asian, Native American, or something else. The perceived race of the other person affects how we treat one another and what we expect the other person to say and do.

In light of the importance of racial classifications in our society, it may be hard to imagine a time when the idea of race did not exist … This time was not so long ago: humans have long used various factors to classify one another, yet the idea of race as a classificatory system is a modern invention … Race is a social construction, meaning that the idea of race is not based on biological differences among people, even though race has become important in how we interact. It is a particular way of viewing human difference that is a product of colonial encounters.

Defining Race and Racism

The word race refers to a group of people who share physical and cultural traits as well as a common ancestry. The idea of “race” implies that the people of the world can be divided into biologically discrete and exclusive groups, based on physical and cultural traits. The idea of race is further linked to notions of white or European superiority that became concretized during the colonization of the Americas. Racism refers to both (1) the belief that races are populations of people whose physical differences are linked to significant cultural and social differences and that these innate hierarchical differences can be measured and judged, and (2) the practice of subordinating races believed to be inferior.

Race is a social construction, an idea we endow with meaning through daily interactions. It has no biological basis. This might seem odd to hear, as the physical differences between a Kenyan, a Swede, and a Han Chinese, for example, are obvious. However, these physical differences do not necessarily mean that the world can be divided into discrete racial groups. If you were to walk from Kenya to Sweden to China, you would note gradual gradations in physical differences between people across space, and it would be difficult to decide where to draw the line between Africa and Europe and between Europe and Asia. There may be genetic differences between Kenyans and Swedes, but the genetic variations within the Kenyan population are actually greater than those between Swedes and Kenyans (Smedley 2007). Although race is a social, as opposed to a biological, construction, it has a wide range of consequences in our society, especially as a sorting and stratifying mechanism.

Race is also a historical construction, meaning that the idea of race was formulated at particular historical moments and places. Of particular note in its development are the eras of colonialism—the practice of acquiring political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically—and slavery in the Americas. The idea of race involves classifying humans into distinct groups. Through classifying people into groups and assigning cultural and moral traits to each group, Europeans and their descendants have used the idea of race to justify exploitation, slavery, colonialism, and genocide.

Race: The Evolution of an Ideology

The Need for Labor in the Thirteen Colonies

In the late fifteenth century, Europeans began to explore parts of North America, where indigenous people had lived for thousands of years. The English had heard of the great wealth Spaniards had accrued in the New World and were anxious to fill their coffers with riches as well. England first sent colonists to Roanoke in the late sixteenth century, but those attempts at settlement failed. The first permanent English settlement was at Jamestown in 1607. These English settlers reported that Native Americans were kind and generous and helped them to survive unfamiliar conditions. The amicable trade relations did not last long, however, as it became clear that the Englishmen’s intentions were not benign: they planned to take over indigenous land and resources (Zinn 2010; Morgan 1975) …