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In this research paper we highlight the changing geographies of race and racism, from the era of European colonialism to the present. We emphasize the co-constitution of race and space and highlight how epistemological understandings of ‘race’ greatly inform racist practice. Our objective in this research paper is to consider the legacy and malleability of racial discourse and how the construction of ‘race’ has material consequences. Special emphasis is placed on eugenics, racial formation theory, and critical race theory.
- The Birth of Modern Racial Discourse
- Race and Eugenics
- Late 20th- and 21st-Century Race and Racism
To begin any conversation on race one must proceed from the standpoint that the very nature of the term is problematic (Kobayashi and Peake, 1994, 2000; Gilmore, 2002). Despite considerable efforts to ‘prove’ that race exists, it is now a widely accepted fact that racial differences are not rooted in any kind of biological or genetic difference, but are the result of social constructions that meet particular, economic, political, and cultural needs. Furthermore, the understanding of race in society is more often than not connected to overarching power relations. In addition, race is a geographical contextual in a process known as ‘differential racialization’ (Pulido, 2006). Consequently, by studying and understanding racial formation we are able to understand the sociospatial construction of space and place (cf Alderman, 1996; Holloway, 2000; Delaney, 2002; McKittrick, 2006; McKittrick and Woods, 2007; Heynen, 2009; Winders and Schein, 2013). In other words, to understand that race is a social construction is to understand not only the development of identity, but also the development of many other taken-for-granted concepts that connect to power relations (Sundstrom, 2003; Saldanha, 2006; Wilson, 2006; Inwood and Bonds, 2013).
The Birth of Modern Racial Discourse
While the identification of distinct human groups dates back to some of the earliest human writings “it was only after European explorers reached the Western Hemisphere” did any kind of “distinction and categorization fundamental to a racialized social structure” begin to appear and be used to understand human difference (Omi and Winant, 1994: 61). Thus, as European nations began to establish empires throughout Africa, Asia, and North and South America these states needed to come to terms with their conquests and to justify the exploitation of newly colonized peoples. Subsequently, there emerged an assemblage of scientific discourse that purportedly documented the natural division of humanity into a hierarchically ordered set of discrete races (Goldberg, 2002).
To place an object (such as a ‘human body’) in one class rather than another establishes its central characteristics and creates assumptions about matters that are not seen (Edelman, 1977: 123). This holds particularly true for the ‘scientific’ construction and promotion of racial categories. Out of the scientific discourses emerged (supposedly) objective criteria that purported to explain the spatial distribution and diffusion of racialized bodies. Classifications were initially constructed according to observed, yet highly selective, physical traits; these, in turn, were used to explain ‘cultural’ traits and behaviors, including poverty and promiscuity. In actuality, these presumed correlations worked both ways. The presumptive inferiority of ‘blacks’ for example (but, in general, all ‘nonwhites’) was taken as given and subsequently prompted the scientific search for associated morphological and anatomical signs between the ‘races’ (Tucker, 1994: 22; see also Miles, 1989).
While somatic differences were the most common indicator of racial difference, other measurements compared facial angles, cranial capacity, and hair texture. Other more innovative physical markers were used. Etienne Serres, for example, compared the distance between a man’s navel and penis to establish differences between Europeans and non-Europeans. Even more ambitious was the work of F.G. Crookshank (1924), who attempted to establish the relationship between ‘Orientals’ (Mongols), the ‘mentally retarded’ (Mongoloids), and orangutans. As evidence, he documented differences between palm markings and hand gestures, body and limb postures, eyes, noses, teeth, arms, feet, mouths, tongues, varicose veins, brains, stomachs, anuses, and scrotums.
The ‘medicalization’ of ‘race’ afforded a significant degree of legitimacy and authority to existent racial beliefs, thus infusing them with power. Racial classifications were ordered hierarchically. Northern and western European ‘races’ were held as normative yardsticks against which all other ‘races’ were measured. The most common standard included a tripartite division of the ‘white race’: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans. The tall and fair-skinned Nordics (e.g., people from northern and western Europe) were thought to represent the highest echelons of humanity; lower down the ladder of civilization were the shorter and somewhat darker Alpines (e.g., people from central Europe), followed by the supposedly much shorter and darker Mediterranean peoples (e.g., people from southern and eastern Europe). Trailing behind the ‘white races’ were the various ‘yellow,’ ‘brown,’ ‘red,’ and ‘black’ populations.
The effort to construct (and justify) racial differences intensified as European and later North American colonies and nations turned to the enslavement of Africans to reap incredible profits out of the lives and work of chattel slaves (Du Bois, 1935). It is important to note that chattel slavery as practiced in North America differed from the way slavery was historically understood and used in the ancient world. As a consequence early colonists and European governments went about codifying slavery into colonial societies in ways that increasingly subordinated slaves thus translating racial hierarchies into law racial that placed white men above all others. According to Du Bois (1935) the role that slavery plays in North America is central to the development of racial hierarchies not only within North America, but also within the broader Atlantic World. He argues
—Black labor [in the form of slavery] became the foundation stone not only of the Southern [US] social structure, but on Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale, new cities were built on the results of black labor. (1935: 5)
As slavery began to play an increasingly important role in the spread and development of capitalism throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slavery is at the center of this economic development.
As national economies began to rest more fully on racially organized exploitation (e.g., slavery) and as these colonies and nations expanded it became ever more difficult to justify and rectify the needs of the nation with the exploitation of people of color (Omi and Winant, 1994: 63). Thus, “the invocation of scientific criteria to demonstrate the ‘natural’ basis of racial hierarchy was both a logical consequence of the rise of this form of knowledge, and an attempt to provide a more subtle and nuanced account of human complexity” (63). It is from these roots that many of our present day misconceptions about race and the continuing significance of racism emerge.
Critical for geography is the way constructed racial differences have been translated in and through space and place. For example, in North America as slavery became an ever more viable alternative to other forms of labor, laws were passed that restricted the movement of people of African descent (Delaney, 1998). Laws were also passed to prevent the so-called miscegenation of ‘races’ in an attempt to maintain a ‘pure’ racially defined society (Tyner and Houston, 2000). The legacy of these racist practices, as detailed below, continues to inform contemporary American society.
Race and Eugenics
Up through the late nineteenth century the physiological mechanisms of heredity were obscure (Paul, 1995). It was generally assumed that characteristics acquired by organisms during their lifetimes were transmissible to their progeny; such as belief was forward by the writings of Jean Baptise de Lamarck. In what became popularly known as Lamarckism, it was understood that animals, for example, would alter their behaviors in response to changing environmental conditions. One consequence of such changes was that certain, and selected, organs would come into or out of use (Paul, 1995: 40). When applied to humans, this ‘principle of inheritance of acquired characteristics’ would have direct policy relevance. Simply put, the environment in which children were born and raised would have a major bearing on subsequent generations.
By the late nineteenth century the scientific study of both heredity and (racialized) populations underwent a paradigmatic change. The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), most notably, began to undermine ideas of fixed biological categories and the principle of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Darwin’s work posited that humans evolved through natural laws of selection and competition. As Noel Castree (2005) summarizes, Darwin – from his expeditionary observations and his studies of pigeon-breeding – derived the metaphor of ‘natural selection’; from his reading of Thomas Malthus’s work on population and resources, Darwin derived the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’; and from his understanding of the work of geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell, Darwin articulated the idea of ‘deep time’ – the idea that change occurs slowly over the longue durée. Combined, these elements suggested to Darwin that species interacted with each other and that those species best able to adapt to their conditions of existence were most likely to survive and to produce offspring similarly well adapted.
Although Darwin’s theory of natural selection is in many respects counter to that of Lamarck, Darwin’s theory of heredity (which he termed ‘pangenesis’) premised that acquired characteristics were heritable. According to pangenesis, minute particles thrown off by various cells circulate through the body and ultimately concentrate in the ‘germ cells’; through this, changes in parents’ bodies could be manifested in their children (Paul, 1995: 41). In opposition to the concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics was Francis Galton (1822–1911), a statistician, naturalist, policy advocate, and cousin of Darwin. Galton premised that hereditary material was transmitted from one generation to the next. Both specific talents and traits of character and personality were inherited; so too was tuberculosis, longevity, madness, gambling, sexual passion, criminal inclinations, and alcoholism thought to be heritable (Kevles, 1995; Paul, 1995).
The mechanisms for inheritance were most clearly articulated by a German biologist, August Weismann. Throughout his writings, Weismann forwarded his theory of the continuity of the ‘germ plasm.’ He argued that there existed two types of cells that constituted the human body: germ cells – present in the gonads and which give rise to sperm and egg – and somatic cells, which are present in other tissues in the body. For Weismann, the germ cells (or ‘germ plasm’) were isolated from somatic cells; and while the somatic cells could be affected by the environment, the hereditary units of the germ plasm could not. In proposing that the germ plasm was completely independent from the rest of the cells, Weismann argued that it was the germ plasm which was inherited continuously by one generation from another without alteration from outside influences. Of significance, and in contrast to Lamarckism, Weismann’s theory of germ plasm posited that environmental conditions were largely inconsequential; that no matter how much parents worked to improve their bodies or minds, their heredity would be unchanged and their children none the stronger or smarter (Paul, 1995; see also Stepan, 1991).
By the turn of the twentieth century, scientists and social reformers had already begun to advance the idea that society should recognize the power of heredity in its social laws, in such a way as to favor reproduction of the physically and morally fit (Stepan, 1991: 26). Now, with the sustained assault against the belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, there appeared to be clear understanding of the task at hand. Specifically, the emerging science of genetics – buttressed by statistical and biometric studies – indicated that environmental factors played at best a minimal role in affecting the human condition.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concern grew among the academic community that contemporary society – through charity and welfare programs – was ‘tampering’ with the laws of nature; that ‘unfit’ people were being allowed to survive and reproduce; that ‘lives not worth living’ constituted an unbearable financial burden on national and local budgets. These political valuations of life identified a grievous and imminent social problem and demanded an immediate solution. Fueled by Darwinian concepts of sexual selection and evolution, competing concepts of genetics, Malthusian perspectives on overpopulation, and environmental determinism, widespread fears of racial and societal degeneration permeated both popular and scientific venues. These fears were augmented by a growing – and scientifically documented – understanding of demographic changes. In the United States, for example, long-established patterns of immigration were drastically changing. Prior to the 1880s immigration was dominated by northern and western European nations; in the decades surrounding 1900, however, the main source areas shifted to southern and eastern Europe and, increasingly, Asia. Citing these changes, the labor historian and university professor John Commons (1907: 70) warned that “the change is one that should challenge the attention of every citizen.”
Threats to the body-politic of the United States were not simply external. Following the abolition of slavery a moral panic ensued over the moral presence and economic position of newly freed blacks in American society. Thus, in the wake of the American Civil War, Southern politicians implemented a series of laws to retain blacks as docile, landless laborers. Known as the Black Codes, these laws were designed to affect white social control over black occupational, social, and geographic mobility. And while varying by state and by more local jurisdictions, the Black Codes generally denied freed slaves the right to marry whites, bear arms, or to assemble after sunset (Hummel, 1996). Unfair labor arrangements were also instituted and, consequently, African-Americans often became debt-bound to their former slave-owning masters.
Throughout the late nineteenth century – but especially during the early twentieth century, the problem of the African-American found its most forceful crystallization in the eugenic-inspired fear of sexuality. In part, (white) scientists reasoned at the time that slavery had been beneficial – from an evolutionary standpoint – to the black. Slavery, in fact, was re-presented as a form of genetic welfare, a viewpoint often reflecting a misappropriation of Darwinian thought and the process of natural selection. George T. Winston (1901: 108), President of the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in North Carolina, for example, argued that slavery “transformed the Negro so quickly from a savage to a civilized man.” H.E. Belin (1908: 517), writing in the American Journal of Sociology, concurred: “Slavery, so far from degrading the Negro, has actually elevated him industrially, mentally, and morally, the term of his involuntary tutelage [slavery] to the white race raising him to a vastly higher level than that ever occupied by his kinsmen in Africa.” According to these experts, however, the abolition of slavery threatened to curtail this evolutionary improvement. The black was, on this account, retrogressing to his or her ‘natural’ and ‘uncivilized’ condition. Belin (1908: 519) described this transformation as ‘frenzied,’ noting that blacks who “but one brief hour before, were laughing, chattering, peaceable members of the community, are subject at any moment to be converted by some trivial occurrence into fierce, howling, blood-thirsty savages.”
In short, academics and other so-called experts maintained that African-Americans, now freed from the ‘beneficence’ of slavery, posed direct threats to the well-being of American society. These threats, moreover, were often sexual in nature and revealed a stark-gendered component. African-American men posed a threat to the purity of the white race, through their supposed and unquenchable desire for virginal white women. African-American women, on the other hand, posed a threat also by their supposedly hypersexuality and hyperfertility. Combined, these discourses contributed to an overall image of ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncontrolled’ blacks who retained no positive productive capability but considerable negative reproductive potential (Mencke, 1976; Hodes, 1997; Tyner and Houston, 2000).
Ongoing demographic and family studies revealed that immigrants and African-Americans exhibited higher fertility rates. If left unchecked, these reproductive trends allegedly would lead to an overall decline in the proportion of the ‘original’ Nordic stock of the United States. Numerous – and widely circulated – texts of the period attest to these fears: Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and The Conquest of a Continent (1933), Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), and James Herbert Curle’s Our Testing Time: Will the White Race Win Through? (1926).
For many ‘social Darwinists’ concern was raised that welfare and charity programs were tampering with the ‘bloody hand’ of evolution; hence, rather than succumbing to nature’s law of the ‘survival of the fittest,’ misguided philanthropy – including minimum wages, set working hours, free public education, and public health reforms – was enabling inferior races to live longer and reproduce. Progress in the natural and social sciences – coupled with a proper political will – was required to understand both the implications of human interference on natural selection and, if possible, to provide viable methods to promote a more healthy, vital population. What was required, in practical terms, was a biopolitical control over the three fundamental processes of population change: migration, fertility, and mortality. What emerged was the eugenics movement.
As Ekland-Olson (2012: 21) writes, the eugenic argument was attractively simple: Would it not be better to have a society enriched by those who are productive, healthy, emotionally stable, and smart, than one stifled by degenerate, feebleminded, disabled, and criminal citizens? Framed as a concern over differential worth, the eugenics movement effectively combined sexist, racist, classist, and nationalist sentiments. Indeed, as Saul Dubow (1995: 101) writes, eugenics coincided with the rising intensity of imperialist feelings, which also helped augment nationalist fervor and provide a convenient rational for the colonial subjugation of non- European peoples. Thus, as a globalizing paradigm, eugenics sought not only to identify differences within the human population, but also to evaluate and calculate the potential contribution of racially defined groups toward the betterment of society. As explained by the eugenicist L.H.M. Baker (1912: n.p.), “When we have ascertained . the qualities we want to preserve and the characteristics we desire to eliminate we must be courageous in the application of our remedy.” From the United States to Germany, from Japan to Mexico, an array of segregation policies, immigration legislation, relocation schemes, antimiscegenation laws, sterilization, and euthanasia programs emerged as tangible – and viable – instruments in the practice of statecraft (Burleigh, 1994; Kühl, 1994). These racist practices would find their apogee in the Holocaust.
Late 20th- and 21st-Century Race and Racism
After the atrocities of the Nazis the biological classification of race has become discredited; earlier theories of race and racial difference have been demonstrated to be themselves racist. In the years after World War II it became increasingly problematic to justify racial exploitation through pseudoscientific means. This was both a result of the atrocities of the Nazis, which justified the genocide of millions of Jewish and other European minorities, through scientifically grounded understandings of race and racism, and also because of the increasingly globalized struggle to overthrow colonial projects. The practices of colonialism came under increased pressure as global antiracist and anticolonial movements gained visibility and exposed contradictions in the old racial order (Inwood, 2013: 2122). Instead, we have now come to understand that race is not a “biologically given, but rather a socially constructed way of differentiating human beings” (Omi and Winant, 1994: 65) that nonetheless has real and meaningful consequences for society. The question then becomes, how do we come to understand race and why do we continue to live with and through the consequences of racism? The simple answer is because the discourse of race (and racism) is not profitable, it continues to reinscribe hierarchies that reinforce and retrench historic practices of exploitation. How, one might ask? While the answer is complex the social sciences have increasingly turned to questions of ‘systemic racism’ to address the continuing significance of race.
For the past quarter century understandings of race and racism, particularly in a North American context, have been dominated by the work of Omi and Winant (1994) and their seminal work on racial formation. Omi and Winant argue that to understand race one must focus on the link between “structure and representation” the way “racial projects do the ideological work of making links” between these two positions (1994: 56). They argue we should view race and racial formation as a sociohistorical process in which race and concomitant racial categories are created, transformed, or destroyed depending on contemporary political and economic necessity. Critical for understanding their argument is the way racial ideology is dialectically linked to social structure and the ways these relations come “to shape the nature of racism” (Omi and Winant, 1994: 74).
Recently this approach to racial formation has been challenged by critical race scholars who argue that we need to place racism more centrally into analysis of race (Chari, 2008). This argument has been made most forcefully, and some would argue persuasively, by the work of Joe Feagin and Sean Elias, among others (cf Feagin, 2006; Feagin and Elias, 2013), who argued that we need to focus more intently on ‘systemic racism approaches.’ Systemic racism critiques argue
—the past and present racial hierarchy and perpetuation of unequal socio-economic power relations among different groups are viewed as endemic to a race-based social system involving much more than conceptual meanings, ideologies and biased actions. In the case of US society, systemic racism is foundational to and engineered into its major institutions and organizations. (Feagin and Elias, 2013: 936)
Systemic racism approaches begin from the premise that racism and racial stratification have operated for centuries and, while sociospatially contingent (Pulido, 2006; Chari, 2008), have consistently reinscribed historic racial hierarchies. Systemic racism approaches argue that it is only through the consideration of racial oppression that we can begin to understand the true nature of race (Golash-Boza, 2013). In so doing a ‘diverse assortment of racist practices’ becomes readily evident including the unjustly gained economic and political power of whites; continuing resource inequalities; the rationalizing white racist frame; and the major institutions created to preserve white power and advantage (Feagin, 2006).
What is central to this approach is that the focus of critical race scholars needs to be on the ways the “recurring and unequal relationships between groups and individuals” (Pulido, 2006: 13) are continuously made and remade through time and space. In other words, and what makes systemic racism approaches relational to critical geography, is the way racism is understood as being dialectically linked to other social, economic, and political systems in the US (and elsewhere) and the way those systems perpetuate white racial rule (Peake and Schein, 2000). In taking such an approach we can more fully come to terms with the reality that white supremacy is a permanent fixture of life in many parts of the world. The continuance of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom is testimony to the perniciousness of an inherited legacy of virulent forms of racism and racial violence (cf Blee, 2005).
Racism and racial violence however need not be so apparent. Over the last quarter of a century there has been a transformation of racism to subtler and more covert manifestations of white supremacy (Coates, 2008; Finney, 2013). Such practices have in large part been aligned with the penetration of neoliberalism. As Berg (2012: 511) argues, neoliberalism “produces an epistemological space in which humans are all the same (the so-called ‘level playing field’) and – ironically – where to even raise the specter of ‘racial difference’ is itself read as an act of racism.” Berg (2012: 511) continues that the attempt to erase ‘race’ has a long history; what is distinctive to neoliberalism is that “certain forms of difference are highlighted, but others are effaced.” In the maelstrom of neoliberalism, consequently, has emerged the discourse of ‘postracialism’ and the concomitant claim that North American and European societies are becoming ‘race-blind’ or ‘color-blind’ (Haney-López, 2010). Within the United States, the recently enacted Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, signed into law by Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, seems to confirm what a number of political pundits – both liberal and conservative – have been arguing: that American society has entered into a postracial era. The term ‘postracial,’ in this context, encompasses the idea that if racial attitudes today are the same as they were in the last few decades, then it would have been impossible, for example, that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act would have been signed into law; or that Obama would have been elected. According to this view, therefore, the United States has finally transformed from a place where racial slavery and segregation were legally sanctioned and commonplace practices, to a place in which the American people could put aside their racial prejudices and unite to elect a president of African origin (Young, 2012: 501).
Despite such claims, or perhaps because of these claims, the malignant effects of racism have not abated. If anything, racism has intensified – albeit disguised in part by coded language that is not necessarily amenable to either empirical study or criminal prosecution (cf Coates, 2008). Perhaps as a result over the last three decades critical race theory (CRT) has become a dominant paradigm in the study of race and racism (Price, 2010).
Critical race studies is related to the development of CRT that emerged during the 1970s from the work of legal scholars Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman who were frustrated over the ‘slow pace of racial reform’ and wanted to understand the way race was reproduced in the US legal system (Delgado and Stefancic, 2000: xvi). Since that time, CRT has evolved to encompass a variety of academic disciplines and incorporates a wider critique of the processes involved in sustaining systems of racial oppression in the United States (Lynn et al., 2002). CRT leads to a shift in our understanding of racism from “willful acts of aggression” to “discussions of [the ways] race and racism are deeply embedded within the framework of American society” (Parker and Lynn, 2002: 8). CRT posits that “racism is normal, not aberrant in American society” and argues that current efforts at addressing racial injustices only “remedy the more extreme and shocking forms of injustice,” noting that more subtle forms of racism are almost impossible to address using current legal and economic solutions (Delgado and Stefancic, 2000: xvi). The overarching goal of CRT is to “expose the historical, ideological, psychological, and social contexts in which racism has been virtually declared to be eradicated” and instead to show how racism is still a fundamental organizing principle in society (Parker and Lynn, 2002: 10). Those who adopt a CRT approach frequently (1) recognize that race is a social construction and argue for the eradication of racism; (2) draw important relationships between race and other axes of domination, thus illuminating the way racism links with other forms of injustice; and (3) present narratives and other qualitative approaches as valid approaches through which to examine race and racism (Parker and Lynn, 2002: 10).
Critical race studies integrate concepts from CRT through an integrative, qualitative methodology. Critical race methodology (1) foregrounds race and racism in all aspects of the research process; (2) challenges traditional research paradigms used to explain the experiences of persons of color; (3) offers transformative solutions to racial, gender, and class subordination; and (4) focuses on the experiences of persons of color (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002: 24). Critical race methodology seeks also to integrate these goals by emphasizing counternarratives (Milner, 2008; Solorzano and Yosso, 2002; Delgado, 2000). Montecinos (1995) for example argues that the ideology of racism works through the use of master narratives which justify and maintain systems of oppression. Nash (2003: 639) similarly argues that research informed by a critical race studies perspective offers the field of geography a number of useful research tools to address the “multi-scaled processes that shape the lives of racialized groups” and invites the “bridging of perspectives across economic, cultural, urban, social and political geography” (639).
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