Where did “race” come from?

Race is not a biological reality, but a social reality that evolved over time.  The word “race” at first had nothing to do with skin color.  It entered the English language about four hundred years ago to justify nation-formation.  The Anglo-Saxons (who inhabited England ) used “race” to describe their own distinct traditions.

Along with other groups of Europeans, the English grew rich off the transatlantic slave trade.  They colonized large parts of the world, using their superior military technology to dominate indigenous peoples and take control of their land and resources. 

It was in this period of European colonization of other people’s land that “race” was first used in a biological sense.  European scientists attempted to classify all living things, including people, I n the world.  Using the new science of anthropology, they measured human skulls to evaluate “races” and line them up along something they called the “Chain of Being.”  At the head of the Chain, they placed their countrymen, the white Europeans.  A German professor, J. Friedrich Blumenbach, gave them the name “Caucasian” in 1795 because he thought that the mountains of the Caucasus were probably their original home.

“White” or “Caucasian” has been as difficult to define as “Black.”  In the United States there were bitter struggles in the 19th century about which groups should be accepted as “white.”  The nation’s founding immigrant group, the English, did not want to share their status with Southern and Eastern Europeans, or the Irish and Jews. 

In the United States , the confusion surrounding categories of “race” remains unresolved, and becomes more illogical as the country becomes more diverse.  By the middle of the 21st century, various “minority” groups will be the majority of the population.