Modern racial classification schemes emerged in the eighteenth century during a period of European colonization and empire building. Racial classifications have been central to state formation, nation building, and the establishment of hierarchies that determine access to power in the form of material, social, cultural, and natural resources. The racial classifications schemes employed in the English-speaking, French-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and Portuguese-speaking worlds were established during European colonialism, when indigenous peoples were conquered, enslaved, and forcefully incorporated into European nation-states as colonial subjects. These classification schemes are not simple reflections of "biological" or natural differences in physical appearance, but power relations that were established during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as colonial expansion brought people in diverse regions under the control of Europeans.


The scientists who produced classifications of human groups were Europeans. Carolus Linnaeus (1707—1778), a Swedish botanist, produced the first modern classification of human populations in 1735. Linnaeus, the founder of scientific taxonomy, divided the genus Homo into four racial types: Eurapaeus, Americanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus. During this period the dominant view was monogenesis—the view that all humans were the descendants of a common original ancestor. Johann Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German professor of medicine, became the most influential of the scientists who classified human populations. Between 1770 and 1781 Blumenbach proposed the division of humans into four and later five "varieties" that represented the world’s major regions: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Blumenbach considered women from the Caucasus region in Russia to be the most beautiful of all Europeans, so he chose them to represent the European ideal type, and all other human groups were a departure and degeneration from this ideal. These racial typologies were ranked and were not considered equal in aesthetic beauty, intelligence, temperament, or morality. The racial typologies created by Blumenbach reflected a belief in European supremacy, legitimated racialized slavery, and the subordination of groups of people based upon their physical and cultural differences. These racial classification schemes linked physical traits such as eye color, skin color, hair texture, nose shape, and mouth size to intellectual capacities, cultural traits, and moral temperaments. To formulate these classification schemes Blumenbach and other scientists relied primarily on the written observations and descriptions of "ordinary" men who earned their living as slave traders, slave owners, merchants, or others in dominant positions over peoples whom they considered "savages."

By the end of the eighteenth century the economic interests and political goals of European colonizers had firmly established racial classification systems as tools employed by nation-states to subordinate the people whom they had colonized and conquered. Three hundred years after the establishment of modern racial classification systems, patterns of social and economic inequalities remain between racial and ethnic groups in multiracial nations throughout the world. The racial typologies established by European men during the eighteenth century are used as "legal" and political identities, and they continue to inform "scientific" thinking today. Many of these typologies’ terms remain in use today. For example, the term Caucasian continues to be used as a reference to white people of known and visible European ancestry, and is a term of self-identification in North America. In some countries such as the United States it is common to classify children by race when they are born in hospitals. Race, like gender, has become part of people’s "legal" identities, which follows them through their lives as they move from various institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons. Their "racial" and ethnic identity may change as they move across nation-state boundaries where the criteria for inclusion or exclusion in a racial category changes. In other cases, individuals may be "reclassified" as adults upon their request. For example, prior to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, special legal courts were established to handle racial reclassification cases.


In nations that were structured by state-sponsored racial segregation (and white supremacy) such as the United States and South Africa, one’s racial classification determined where one could live, purchase a home, and attend school, whom one could marry, and what occupation was suitable. In other words, all aspects of one’s economic, intimate, social, and political life were structured along racial lines. In the late twentieth century as state-sanctioned racial inequality such as Jim Crow segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa were dismantled, nations established a range of public policies designed to remedy past group-based discrimination. These policies have taken various forms, such as affirmative action in the United States and positive discrimination in the United Kingdom. Although nation-states have dismantled de jure (legal) racial segregation and formally criminalized discrimination against members of racial and ethnic minorities, one’s racial status continues to over determine an individual’s life chances and access to resources in multiracial societies.

Social scientists have documented patterns of social inequality that demonstrate that belonging to a racially dominant or racially subordinate group is correlated with infant mortality rates, educational achievements, access to healthcare, housing, and wealth, and freedom from routinized violence. In other words, resources and privileges are unequally distributed along racial and ethnic lines. Public-policy initiatives by nation-states and local governments depend on racial classifications to remedy and counter group-based inequalities. Governments employ census data that classifies individuals by race and "ethnicity" in order to redistribute resources such as education, health care, housing, public assistance, and other resources in an effort to eliminate and minimize racialized inequality that continue to determine life chances. For example, in the United States, the direct descendants of American Indians and the descendants of enslaved Africans are more likely to endure intense poverty, lower life expectancies, residential segregation, social isolation, higher suicide rates, and higher infant mortality rates, and are more likely to be victims of hate crimes when compared to European and Asian Americans in the same age cohort and/or class position. One’s racial classification is strongly associated with one’s location in economically impoverished regions and communities where access to valued resources is minimal.


Racial classification schemes reflect power relations and political constituencies and thus are not stable. For example, in the United States, racial categories have been added, removed, revised, and altered during the past 300 years in response to demographic changes, immigration, political mobilization, technologies, cultural shifts, and economic interests. The United States is unique in its historical enforcement of what has become known as the "one-drop rule," in which a person of multiracial ancestry, who had known or visible African ancestry, is legally classified as "black," regardless of appearance, cultural training, and self-identification. The one-drop rule has been consistently upheld by state and federal courts. In states such as Louisiana there were so many people of African ancestry socially classified and living as "whites" that "race clerks" were hired to strictly enforce the one-drop rule. A number of significant changes have occurred in the census during the past 100 years including changes in census categories, instructions to the census enumerator, and the ability of individuals to self-report their race and ancestry.

In 1918, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at least three-fourths of all native blacks were racially mixed, and it predicted that pure blacks would disappear (see Davis 1991, p. 57). Consequently after 1920 the mulatto category was removed from the census and no further attempt was made by the U.S. government to systematically count the number of visible mulattos in the United States, partly because there were so many persons with some black ancestry who appeared white.

Social scientists have documented the inconsistencies in the logic employed by the U.S. census and the disparity between social-cultural and scientific definitions of race. By 1960 the practice of self-identification by race replaced the earlier practice in which the census taker assigned race. Beginning in 1960 the head of household indicated the "race" of all of its members. Surprisingly this did not introduce any noticeable changes in the numbers of blacks in the population. In 1970 the Hispanic category was added to the U.S. census for the first time. While in 1980, for the first time, a question on ancestry was included in the census. In response to increased political mobilization by members of interracial or multiracial families, the United States added the category "multiracial" to the 2000 census. In the following year the United Kingdom also added a "mixed race" category to their 2001 census. These changes in the official census reflect political struggles over the boundaries between and within racial groups, as well as how resources will be distributed and who will be counted and included in racial and ethnic minority categories. Racial classification schemes are socially produced, yet they have real material, social, and economic consequences for members of racialized groups.

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