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Racial EqualityRacism As Ideology

The idea of racial equality has disputed long-standing beliefs in racial inequality that can be traced back several hundred years. Centuries ago, the colonization or enslavement of a people was often justified on grounds of cultural superiority (as in the case of British colonial control over India) and even on religious grounds (for example, slavery was rationalized as biblically ordained by Noah's curse of Ham or as a process of bringing Christianity to heathens). In the 1700s, however, racial inequality was increasingly given a scientific justification.

Contemporary categories of race ("white," "black," etc.) were given a scientific status by Carolus Linnaeus and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Typical of the era, each explained race with reference to climate and geography. In 1758, Linnaeus classified humans as "Americanus" (currently Native American), whom he described as red, upright, choleric, and ruled by habit; "Europaeus" (currently European), whom he described as white, sanguine, muscular, and ruled by custom; "Asiaticus" (currently Asian), whom he described as pale yellow, melancholy, stiff, and ruled by belief; and "Africanus" (currently African), whom he described as black, phlegmatic, relaxed, and ruled by caprice. Later, in 1795, Blumenbach asserted the moral equality of races but still categorized and ranked them according to his conception of beauty: Caucasians were his ideal, with Malays and Ethiopians representing one line of "degeneration" and Americans and Mongolians representing a second line. These typologies had the inevitable result of not only reifying race as a scientific category, but also solidifying the alleged link between race, beauty, intelligence, and the capability of exercising self-government.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial inequality was justified by several different scientific approaches. First, polygenism attempted to explain that each race is genetically distinct, with Europeans seen as superior to blacks, Asians, and Native Americans. Indeed, in his Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau asserted that whites were superior to other races and advised great nations to preserve their racial purity, since racial mixture, he claimed, led to cultural degeneration and political decline. Then craniometry was used in an attempt to explain intelligence according to brain size. Similarly, criminal anthropology attempted to explain criminality with reference to facial features such as the slope of one's forehead. Also, World War I–era intelligence quotient tests were originally used to link intelligence to heredity, ranking whites above European immigrants and African-Americans. By reducing race to biology, these approaches, as Ashley Montagu observed:

alleged that something called "race" is the prime determiner of all the important traits of body and soul, of character and personality, of human beings and nations. And it is further alleged that this something called "race" is a fixed and unchangeable part of the germ plasm, which, transmitted from generation to generation, unfolds in each people as a typical expression of personality and culture. (p. 14)

Because biological determinism alleges that race is fixed, unchangeable, and hierarchical, these approaches lend favor to discriminatory, reactionary, or do-nothing policy approaches (Gould, pp. 51–61).

These approaches, however, were flawed both because they were tainted by the prejudices of the researchers and because they lacked scientific rigor. For example, Montagu's reanalysis of early intelligence quotient tests found that the average score for blacks from the North was higher than the average score for whites from the South. If these results reveal anything, it is not that intelligence is innately connected to race but that the quality of and funding levels for public education are strongly correlated with results (Gould, pp. 249–250). This lends support not to heredity and biology as inherently connected to intelligence but to an approach that stresses the social and educational environment in which a person grows up. Since racial inequality in practice provides some groups with access to good educational opportunities and denies them to others, it is no surprise if test scores differ across these groups. If racial inequality is affected by unequal social factors, this environmental approach suggests that improving those social factors will promote racial equality.

In the twentieth century, scholars such as Franz Boas and Montagu have argued that attempts to reduce race to biology should be rejected because they prop up ideologies and practices of inequality. Going one step further, Montagu suggested, "[b]ased as it is on unexamined facts and unjustifiable generalizations, it were better that the term 'race,' being so weighed down with false meaning, be dropped altogether from the vocabulary" (p. 62). Many scientists continue to point out that race does not exist in any scientific sense. For example, human beings are genetically 99.988 percent identical, with more genetic variation existing within racial categories than between them. Despite this, social scientists have not dropped "race" from their vocabulary. Instead, while they agree that race is indeed a useless scientific category, it is nevertheless real because race has very real social consequences that affect an individual's or group's opportunities, rights, and resources, or lack thereof, in a particular society.

In this sense, race is socially and legally constructed, and its meaning varies across time and place. F. James Davis, for example, illustrates how different legal definitions of "black" were codified during slavery and segregation to maintain the racial hierarchy on which each was based. Furthermore, Howard Winant illustrates how race is defined differently according to historical, cultural, economic, and legal contexts when one compares the United States, South Africa, Brazil, and other countries. Scholarship such as this rejects the biological or scientific notion of race as a myth but accepts the notion that race is socially, politically, and economically "real" because of the ways in which people are privileged or disadvantaged by its meanings and practices.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEquality - Racial Equality - Racism As Ideology, The Politics Of Racial Inequality, The Struggle For Racial Equality, The Continuing Struggle