RACE AND RACISM (Western Colonialism)

With the expansion of European power outside of the region’s own borders in the fifteenth century, and the continuous colonization of territories outside of Europe through the twentieth century, the practice of labeling both the colonizer and the colonized on the basis of cultural differences tied to conceptions of race became widespread. Cultural notions of identity tied to race, which have their origin in the fifteenth century, remain in practice in the twenty-first century. As a result, any understanding of race and racism requires an understanding of the history of Western colonialism, which laid the foundations for current ideas of differences tied to race. For purposes of clarity, it is necessary to distinguish between the terms xenophobia, bigotry, and racism before providing a brief overview of the history of race and racism in Western colonialism.


Where race, racial classifications, and racism (i.e., the subordination of one racial group by another) have been the defining features of Western societies, they have contained three broad elements. First, in its most restricted sense, racial identity represents an inheritable status that cannot be overcome by change in education, legal status, religious affiliation, or nationality. Europeans came to conceive individuals as born into their race—they did not become their race. Thus, regardless of wealth, religious conversion, or changing legal status, individuals remained primarily identified by race.

Second, while societies throughout history have shown a tendency to view some groups and nations as inferior, and have therefore treated them differently, racism involves the organization of the political and legal apparatus of the state for the exploitation of a subordinated racial group. Such exploitation has primarily involved limited access to political and legal rights because of racial identity. And third, racial classifications have primarily been used to organize and justify the economic exploitation of one group by another, most commonly by coercive labor regimes.

Xenophobia and bigotry also involve extreme antipathy of one group toward another, but unlike racism, they do not represent an inheritable and unchangeable status. For example, while the ancient Greeks and Romans described other groups as “barbarous” and “savage,” they believed members of these groups could become “civilized.” While not common, it was possible for slaves to become full members of society in the ancient world if they adopted the ideals and beliefs of the dominant group.

Likewise, the religious bigot may have condemned and persecuted others for what they believed, but not for what they intrinsically were. Thus, missionaries may have despised the beliefs of the group they attempted to convert, but they did believe these groups were convertible. If an individual could be redeemed through baptism, or if an ethnic stranger could be assimilated into a culture in such a way that their origins ceased to matter in a significant way, this more accurately represented a situation of ethnocultural discrimination, not necessarily racism.

Unlike xenophobia and bigotry, racism does not allow for individuals the possibility to become members of the dominant society, regardless of cultural changes. In societies structured by racial hierarchies, the subordinated groups are forever shut out of society because of their “inferior” racial condition. It is when differences that might be explained as ethnocultural become regarded as innate, indelible, and unchangeable that a racial order often comes into existence to divide society into separate racial categories. The history of Western colonialism has created two dominant racial orders that are (1) tied to pigmentation, as in white supremacy, and (2) tied to religion, as in anti-Semitism.

By serving as one of the dominant guiding ideologies for Western colonialism since the fifteenth century, racism has involved the articulation of difference and the exercise of power. Differences between the colonizer and the colonized resulted from a mindset that regarded “them” as different from “us” in ways that were permanent and unbridgeable. The sense of difference between the colonizer and the colonized provided a motive and rational for treating the racial subordinate in ways that the dominant group would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of its own society. At their core, societies structured around racism presume that the racia-lizers and the racialized cannot coexist, except on the basis of domination and subordination.


Race, as a concept that defined an individual’s identity as unchangeable and innate, dates to roughly the fifteenth century. The ancient Greeks distinguished between the civilized and the barbarous, but did not regard these states as hereditary. Likewise, while the Roman Empire was built on slavery, Romans held slaves of all colors and nationalities, and these slaves could become citizens.

During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, sub-Saharan African slaves were introduced into Iberia (Spain and Portugal). In the Iberian cities of Seville and Lisbon, witnessing who labored for whom daily solidified the association between blackness and slavery. In the second half of the fifteenth century, as Portuguese slave traders began to trade down the west coast of Africa, they brought back black slaves, and the association between Africans and racial slavery was further solidified. Europeans were ceasing to enslave other Europeans at the time that the African slave trade began to expand, which fueled the purchasing of sub-Saharan slaves and their use throughout Europe.

Further evidence of how slavery became identified with the black race in the minds of Iberians was that Africans were non-Christians, and thus could be treated as heathens and not like Christians. Hence the temptation to acquire them and treat them as unfree did not raise any major religious dilemma. Initially, it was less skin color and more availability and existing trading patterns that explain the presence of sub-Saharan African slaves in Europe. There is very little evidence of an explicitly racial nature that justifies or even explains the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans. The significance of this early trade was that it set an initial pattern and a means of easily identifying by pigmentation a group of individuals to be exploited for racial slavery.

Occurring at roughly the same time as the introduction of sub-Saharan Africans into Iberia, the concept of “purity of blood” and ancestry became increasingly important to Europeans. Dating back to the thirteenth century, an increase in anti-Semitic thought based in folk mythology resulted in Europeans associating the region’s Jewish population with the devil and black magic. At the time of the Black Death (a plague pandemic) in the mid-fourteenth century, thousands of Jews were massacred because of the widespread belief that they had poisoned the wells. In fifteenth-century Iberia, a wave of pogroms and discriminatory legislation against Jews resulted in coerced conversion to Christianity. These actions culminated in 1492 with the expulsion or forceful conversion of Spain’s Jewish population. As a result, as many as half a million Jews became ”New Christians” or conversos. Previous forced conversions across Europe involved small towns or regions that could be relatively easily assimilated into the larger society.

Spain faced a unique set of circumstances—the question of how to deal with a substantial ethnic group that, despite its official change of religious beliefs, retained distinct cultural elements. As a result, for legal, political, bureaucratic, and religious offices, Spain began to emphasize family ancestry as a prerequisite for employment. Certificates of pure blood were required for many positions, and Jewish ancestry took on negative connotations that followed individuals beyond their conversion and from one generation to the next. Spanish legal culture permitted individuals to purchase purity-of-blood certificates for a fee, which allowed for flexibility against rigid racial categories. The emphasis on purity of blood, however, resulted in the stigmatization of an entire ethnic group on the basis of deficiencies that could not be eradicated by conversion or assimilation.

Taken together, the importation of sub-Saharan African slaves into Europe and the legal, political, and cultural actions against the Jewish population provided Iberians with a unique historical experience compared to the rest of Europe. They were accustomed to dealing with large groups of individuals who were considered outsiders. They developed a legal system that served to incorporate these groups by providing them a legal identity in codes such as the Siete Partidas (Seven Parts) and by recognizing them as part of society, but at the same time they made sure to separate and stigmatize them from society as whole. The concept of racial difference tied to skin color, the idea of labor associated with African slaves, and the notion of purity of blood in dealing with the Jewish population provided Spain a cultural and historical framework that it would draw upon when it set up colonies in the New World in the sixteenth century.


Although the voyages of Christopher Columbus (14511506) and subsequent explorers ushered in the beginning of European colonization of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, it was interactions with Africans and the indigenous populations on the Atlantic islands during the 1400s that provided the initial racial framework. When Columbus first wrote about the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, he described them as being similar in color to the Canary Islanders, which Spain had colonized in the early part of the fourteenth century. The Iberians, and in particular the Portuguese, had already created racial categories for the sub-Saharan African population and the indigenous populations that inhabited the islands just off the West African coast. The Iberians drew upon this experience and knowledge in their interactions with the indigenous populations of the New World. Consequently, indigenous Americans were quickly classified as a different group that required its own set of laws to govern interactions, subjugation, and conversion.

In the Spanish Caribbean and later on the Spanish mainland of Latin America, the legal, geographic, and political concept of the ”two republics”—the Spanish republic and the Indian republic—generated a different set of laws for each group. While these laws were rarely followed, their historical importance is that they indicate how the colonized subjects were being racially classified by the juridical and political institutions of the Spanish state. In brief, they were being placed outside of the colonizer’s society and racialized as the subordinated colonized. As a result, various indigenous groups with their own history, culture, and language became collapsed together under the racial category of the ”Indian.”

The Portuguese followed a similar pattern in their colonization of Brazil. They did not recognize ethnic differences among the indigenous population, at least in terms of legal identity. They also applied the term Indian to the various Native American groups they encountered. Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese made a more direct connection between the indigenous population of Brazil and slave labor. Stemming from their familiarity with sub-Saharan African slaves in the West African regions of Angola and the Congo, whom they classified as negros (the Portuguese term for black slaves), they referred to the indigenous population of Brazil as negros da terra, literally, ”blacks of the earth.” They did this not because of the skin color and physical appearance of the indigenous population, but because of their enslavement for hard labor. In the Portuguese colonizing mind of the sixteenth century, the black race and slavery were synonymous. Consequently, they applied the term negro to those who labored as slaves, even when they were not black in skin color. Unlike the Spanish, who had a philosophical debate over whether the indigenous American population should be enslaved, which in the end had little effect on everyday colonial policy, the Portuguese voiced no significant reservations at all.

The Treatment of African Slaves in the New World. This engraving was included in Theodor de Bry's 1594—1596 edition of La historia del Mondo Nuovo (History of the New World) by Girolamo Benzoni, originally published in 1565. It depicts Spaniards overseeing slaves from Guinea as they labor in the Americas.

The Treatment of African Slaves in the New World. This engraving was included in Theodor de Bry’s 1594—1596 edition of La historia del Mondo Nuovo (History of the New World) by Girolamo Benzoni, originally published in 1565. It depicts Spaniards overseeing slaves from Guinea as they labor in the Americas.

The British, French, and Dutch all followed in the Iberians’ wake to the New World during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like the Spanish and Portuguese, they would build their colonies on a racial hierarchy that exploited the indigenous population and imported Africans as slaves. By 1700 all of the European countries had devised legal codes that extended different legal rights to the indigenous and African population. For example, the French developed the Code Noir (Black Code) at the end of the seventeenth century to specify the treatment of its enslaved African subjects. Significantly, it defined slavery in terms of race and as an inheritable status that passed from mother to child. Collectively, these different legal codes served to fully distinguish the European, indigenous, and African populations from each other. Buttressed by a distinct legal code and reinforced by everyday policy, the various populations now represented separate and distinct races in colonial policies.

As a result of colonial encounters and the defining of colonized subjects as “others,” it is during this period that the term race began to be used in European languages to refer to a people and nation. Just as they identified subordinate groups by the collective racial categories of black or Indian, Europeans defined themselves in contrast to these groups. The French and the English began to refer to themselves as a “race” of people unified as much by who they were as by who they were not. By the end of the seventeenth century, the term race increasingly came to be used and was understood as an inherent and unchangeable characteristic.


When two hundred years of colonial history, constructed in part by the process of racially subordinating colonized subjects, combined with the Enlightenment-era fascination for establishing order over the natural world through classifying and defining organisms, scientific racism emerged in European intellectual thought. The scientific thought of the Enlightenment served as a precondition for the growth of modern racism based on physical appearance. Such well-known Enlightenment scientists as the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), and others began to classify humans into distinct races that were not based on political or legal status such as nationality, but on somatic appearance and phenotype.

Although many Enlightenment scientists were not interested in creating a racial hierarchy of intelligence and superiority, once science classified human beings as part of the animal kingdom rather than viewing all people as children of God, the way was open for a scientific explanation for racial differences rather than a cultural one. To the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), for example, it was obvious that differences between black and white pigmentation were the result mainly of the differing effects of sun and temperature. These geographic and racial differences then influenced intelligence, he dubiously reasoned, because Africans could easily provision themselves from their lush environment, whereas European survival required greater ingenuity due to the need to raise food on barren soil.

The racial typologies that emerged from Enlightenment thought established a framework for specifying racial differences and biological racism, but they did not have an immediate practical application beyond scientific circles. It would take a new discourse over natural rights and who should exercise these rights to spread these views for political purposes.

The ”age of the democratic revolution,” roughly 1750 to 1850, marked the end of the eighteenth century with the American and French revolutions, followed by the creation of independent countries throughout Latin America from 1808 to 1830 and then the final blows against many European monarchies with the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. These developments brought serious ideological challenges both to racial enslavement and the legalized pariah status of Jews. The idea that people were endowed with natural political rights rather than being accorded those rights by a monarch or sovereign was difficult to reconcile with lifetime enslavement based on race or exclusion based on religion. As a result of convenience and expediency, scientific racism could be used to describe blacks, mixed-blood peoples, and indigenous populations as less than human, and consequently not entitled to the natural rights exercised by the white European population.

The age of the democratic revolution and the first wars against European colonialism in the Americas were not designed explicitly to strengthen racism, but racism became one of the byproducts of the period with the formation of new independent nations organized along racial hierarchies. The French Revolution of the late 1700s initially extended its emancipatory provisions to the French colonies. In 1794 the French National Assembly liberated more than 400,000 slaves and declared them citizens of the new French Republic. With the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), however, slavery was reinstated, and it would take complete separation from France for Haitians to defeat their colonial masters. On the nearby French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, freed men, women, and children were re-enslaved until final abolition came in 1848.

The war for American independence resulted in the expansion of slavery in the South, and slaves were enshrined in the new U.S. constitution as counting only three-fifths of a person when allocating congressional representation according to population. In Latin America, the wars for independence served to weaken forms of human bondage and racial domination as the indigenous population and slaves throughout the region joined the armies that fought against Spanish colonialism to lay claim to political liberty, among other motivations. When new nations drafted constitutions, however, the Creole elite assumed political control and did not equally share political power with those of African, indigenous, and mixed-race ancestry.

The reason pre-Darwinian scientific racism found an eager audience in the United States, France, and various Latin American countries, more than in England, derives ironically from the revolutionary legacies of the nation-states premised on the equality of all citizens. Egalitarian norms required specific reasons for exclusion. Many of the political elite of the nineteenth century adopted the view that biological unfitness as a result of racial ancestry was a reason to deny full citizenship to segments of the population. The emphasis on political virtue in nineteenth-century republican theory did not apply equally to those who were not of a ”virtuous,” white racial ancestry. The practice of excluding women, children, and the insane from the electorate and denying them political equality could be applied to racial groups deemed by science to be incapable of rationally exercising the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship.

The expansion and reception of Darwinian scientific theory in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, during the same period when the United States and Europe scrambled over colonial and imperial control of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, resulted in scientific theory and imperialism combining to justify human domination for racist reasons. Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) notion of”survival of the fittest” and ”the struggle for existence” were transformed to explain global racial hierarchies based on colonial relations.

In the United States and Europe, colonial powers came to regard racism as a ”natural order” for positive political evolution. Social Darwinism—Darwin’s theory of human evolution applied to creating a hierarchy among human societies—was employed to justify the idea that colonialism required a racial hierarchy that ”naturally” privileged the population of European ancestry. Darwinian scientific theory served to racialize the colonial relationship between the colonizer and colonized. Moreover, social Darwinism went so far as to blame the colonial subject for ”burdening” the colonizer with the duty of colonizing the world in the interest of bettering humanity and racial superiority. The British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) summed up the racial ideology that underpinned late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonialism in the poem ”The White Man’s Burden,” which he penned in 1899 in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898). Kipling’s poem served as racist propaganda to encourage Americans to establish colonial rule over the Philippines.


Racism and overtly racist regimes of political and colonial domination reached their height during the twentieth century. W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), the African-American civil rights leader and advocate for colonial peoples’ right to self-determination, accurately predicted in the opening to The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that ”The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” In the United States, and especially in the southern states, a whole series of racial segregation laws and restrictions on black voting reduced African Americans to lower-class status. Designed for economic exploitation and societal disenfranchisement, the goal of America’s Jim Crow segregation was the complete separation of the black and white races from all social interactions from birth to death. Racial domination was maintained and exercised through public lynchings and other forms of brutal and deadly intimidation, often with tacit, and sometimes official, encouragement by the state.

Nazi Germany carried the logic of racial-supremacy ideology to its most deadly conclusion with attempts to exterminate an entire ethnic group on the basis of race. The revulsion and shock expressed by people throughout the world to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II (1939-1945) served to undermine scientific studies of racial superiority that had been respected and admired in the United States, Europe, and many other parts of the globe before the end of the war.

In South Africa, the apartheid system included laws banning all marriage and sexual relations between people of different races, and establishing separate residential areas for whites, mixed races, and Africans. While other racial regimes emerged across the globe in colonial and national contexts during the twentieth century, South Africa, Nazi Germany, and the United States stand out in the degree of legal and political authority exercised by the state in enforcing racial regimes.

Perhaps the single greatest force contributing to the end of racist regimes in the colonized portions of the world was the movement for independence and the struggle over national sovereignty that spread throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The decolonization movement that ended up bringing political independence to dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean directly challenged and refuted the racial ideology that underpinned colonialism. The supporters of radical movements for national sovereignty and independence—such as India’s in 1947, the Cuban Revolution of1959, the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962, the independence of the Congo in 1960, the independence of British Caribbean countries in 1962, the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, and numerous other such movements—all called into question the colonial order by making claim to their own political future and right to self-determination.

In the United States, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s both inspired and took inspirations from the liberation of colonized countries, especially in Africa. The movement effectively ended legal segregation in the United States and provided African Americans with political rights. New countries quickly flexed their independence by confronting the economic, political, and racial hierarchies that structured relations between Europe and the United States and the developing world of people of color based in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. New nations had their representatives at the United Nations attack racism and promote decolonization for African and Asian countries in a display of solidarity born out of their common experience of colonialism and racial subordination.

By the end of the twentieth century, none of the European countries or the United States could openly justify their colonial and imperial policies on racist grounds. No longer could colonial subjects be described as childlike and incapable of running their own countries because of racial inferiority, as had been done less than a century earlier.

The cultural and scientific assumptions held by the West that endorsed and informed racial policies that guided colonialism for five hundred years no longer receive the full and explicit support of the state and the law. But racism does not require colonies or the endorsement of the state to thrive. The legacy of the relationship between Western colonialism and racism is that deeply entrenched notions of cultural differences tied to race continue to inform social interactions from personal relationships among individuals to state-to-state relations. The rise in hostility and discrimination against newcomers from the third world in several European countries and the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century has breathed new life into cultural criteria to explain racial differences that have their origins in past colonial encounters.

Historically, racist regimes have thrived in colonies because racism allows colonizers to treat the colonized in a way they would not treat themselves through such policies as enslavement and the denial of political and legal rights. In the twenty-first century, with millions of formerly colonized peoples and their descendents living in Europe and the United States, the racism that once structured relations between the imperial country and the colony is now often practiced in an altered form inside a single country, albeit without full and open endorsement by the state. Consequently, the ongoing relationship between racism and Western colonialism that began more than five hundred years ago has entered a new stage in Europe and the United States with the battle over what entitles an individual to the benefits of citizenship and political rights. Increasingly, those who are not considered representative of the ethnic and racial heritage that has historically defined the nation have unequal access to the protection of the law and are most vulnerable to economic exploitation.

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