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Race and Racism in Europe

Making Race And Racism Modern

The Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and the development of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all played important roles in the unfolding of race and racism in Europe. The Enlightenment of the 1700s marked an intellectual shift defined primarily by an enthusiasm for organizing and understanding the world through secular reason. This shift coincided with a geopolitical expansion that made Europeans far more cognizant of human differences throughout the world. The Enlightenment impulse drove Europeans to categorize the diversity of life on Earth, especially in the arrangement of human difference. The first to use the term race to connote categories of people was François Bernier in 1684. For Bernier, race was entirely a physical distinction: people who looked different were clearly members of different races.

Others took up racial studies in an attempt to identify the exact number of races in the world. The most definitive efforts of the era were Carolus Linnaeus's 1735 four-part division of humanity ("White European, Red American, Dark Asiatic and Black Negro") and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's 1776 division into five races ("Caucasians [a term he introduced], Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays"). Others countered that there were some thirty to eighty races. How thinkers distinguished between races mattered less than what united each of their approaches. Each definition used physical features as the primary measure of human difference. This physical basis relied on a hierarchical notion of proper development that was rooted in the Enlightenment's exaltation of the classical world as the epitome of beauty and ideal Michelangelo's David (1501–1504). In the ancient art of Greece and Rome, gods and other notable figures were frequently depicted as possessing very pale or white features. This classical trend could also be found in art during the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. © SCALA /ART RESOURCE, NY physical form. Thus, the statuary of ancient Greece and Rome was seen to depict the apex of humanity. The result was that the "milky whiteness of marble and the facial features of the Apollos and Venuses" created a standard against which most other people would be measured, and found deficient (Fredrickson, p. 59).

These early formulators of the concept of race did not actively ascribe the other important trope of racism—the correlation of talent, success, and value—to these physical differences. The qualitative differences between races arose when enlightened theorists sought to explain the source of human differences and the varieties of societies that Europeans were encountering. Most Enlightenment thinkers saw distinct races developing over time as a result of environmental influences, such as climate and soil, which ultimately determined the nature and success of different races.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, was one of the first, in his Spirit of the Laws (1748), to present human history as composed of stages, introducing the idea that races of people had developed their own legal and political systems rooted in their climate and their temperament, or, as he called them, their race. Politics and race ran together; different races created the political systems only they were capable of creating. Other thinkers, like Immanuel Kant in his On the Different Races of Man (1775), aligned peoples' characters with their physical appearance. Now, behavior and appearance ran together; one could assess peoples' potential solely by looking at them. For the most part, however, Kant, like others at this time, used the term race loosely, without any real concern for scientific precision or exactness. Such systems provided a vocabulary for distinguishing between people based on (supposedly) natural differences that determined people's abilities and justified differing applications of rights and liberties. Yet, the rise of natural sciences and the modern nation-state gave racism its modern, more violent and dangerous character.

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