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The Making of the Great White Race

A column by Julianne Jennings on the history of the white race.

Historically, when different groups of people came into contact with one another, they offered different explanations for the phenotypic variations they saw. Because skin color was so noticeable, it was the most frequently explained trait and most systems of racial classification came to be based on these explanations. Race would later become both a classifier and ranking of human beings according to inferior and superior types. Although race is a concept developed in the west during the Enlightenment period, it eventually spread to many parts of the non-Western world through international commerce, including the slave trade and, later colonial conquest.

The predominant colonial theory of race was “the great chain of being…” the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior. The chain starts from God and progresses downward to angels, demons, stars, moon, kings (the top of humanity's social order is the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings), princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, minerals, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom. There is no mention of Indians as they were considered proto-human and did not descend from the original pair (Adam and Eve).

Swedish Botanist Carolus Linnaeus, “The Father of Taxonomy,” who in 1735 published Systemae Naturae, which formalized the distinctions among human populations based on race. Within Homo sapiens, Linnaeus proposed five taxa or categories. At first the five categories were based on place of origin. Later these categories were based on skin color. Linnaeus believed each race had certain endemic characteristics. His work is the first to mention Native Americans as choleric, or red, straightforward, eager and combative as opposed to Europeans who were sanguine and pale, muscular, swift, clever and inventive.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German anatomist, also classified humans into five categories or races: European/white race, Mongolian/yellow race, America/red race, and Ethiopian/black race, he added Malaysian/brown race. Blumenbach realized that divisions based on skin color were arbitrary and that many traits, including skin color, were not discrete phenomena. Blumenbach pointed out that to attempt to classify all humans using such a system would omit completely all those who did not fit neatly into a specific category.

In 1795 Blumenbach dropped the word “European” and coined the term “Caucasian,” based on a discovery he thought important enough to warrant the change. A single skull excavated from the Caucasus region had measurements that closely matched those of German skulls in his collection. “He concluded on the basis of this single skull that all European people must have originated in the Caucasus, thereby substituting it for the name European. His hypothesis, however, would later be proven wrong. From Blumenbach’s error we derive a racial category for whiteness that is widely misunderstood as ‘scientific’ for its genetic purity.”

Samuel George Morton, provided “scientific evidence” of Indian inferiority. In his 1839 study, the “Crania Americana,” Morton measured 144 Indian skulls from across the continent and compared those measurements to Caucasian skulls. His interpretation of collected statistical data concluded that the brain size of Europeans was far greater than that of Native people and thus reflected a correspondingly greater intellectual capacity. “The structure of the mind appears to be different from that of a white man, nor can the two harmonize in the social relations except on the most limited scale. . . Indians are not only adverse to the restraints of education, but on the most part are incapable of a continued process of rationing on abstract subjects.”

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In 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species crystallized the understanding of the evolutionary process (particularly the crucial role of natural selection) and for the first time thrust evolutionary theory into the consciousness of the general public. Darwin believed that evolution resulted in individuals and groups better adapted to their environment and equated the entire process of evolution with the process of adaptation.

Skin color, a poly genetic trait that is influenced by three substances: hemoglobin, carotene, and most important, the pigment melanin. These substances are found deep within the epidermis and have the capacity to absorb potentially dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays present in sunlight. Together these substances provide protection from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation which can cause genetic mutations in skin cells that can lead to skin cancer.

Other poly genetic traits, such as body build, lips, hair and eyes, are long-term adaptations to specific environmental factors contributing to individual or group survival. Reproductive “fitness,” the ability to survive and reproduce in humans and other species is strongly influenced by natural or environmental factors making natural selection one of the most important mechanisms for biological change.

Since the time hominids migrated out of Africa into Europe and Asia, selective pressures changed man’s physical shape as a means to survive in diverse environments. Eventually, the notion of biological race became the primary source of American social identity based on these differences in appearance. By mid-nineteenth century, the concept of race moved clearly toward a hierarchical view, where skin color, along with the shape of the head, placed Africans, Indians and people of color at the bottom and where northern, light-skinned populations were considered superior. Also, the fact that non-Europeans were not Christian and were “uncivilized” implied an inferiority of character and intellect

The word “race” and many of the ideas now associated with the term were products of European imperialism and colonization during the age of exploration. After 1850, biological determinism was the underlying theme to most thinking as well as scientific research in Europe and in the United States. Today these views would be considered racist but were held by some of this country’s most critical thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University.