A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in the United States

A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in the United States

Ancient societies did not divide people into racial categories, although other categories of organization (such as religious affiliation or class status) were common. When the United States was formed, freedom and equality—regardless of religion or class status—were radical new ideas. At the same time, the United States’ economy was based on the


enslavement of African peoples and the displacement and genocide of Indigenous North American peoples. There were enormous economic interests in justifying these practices. To reconcile the tension between the noble ideology of equality and the cruel reality of genocide and enslavement, Thomas Jefferson (who owned hundreds of enslaved Africans) and others turned to science. Jefferson suggested that there were natural differences between the races and set science on the path to find them (Jefferson, 1787/2002). These social and political interests shaped race science (for example, in the early to mid-1800s, skulls were measured in an attempt to prove the existence of a natural racial hierarchy). In less than a century these studies enabled Jefferson’s suggestion of racial difference to become commonly accepted scientific fact (Stepan, 1982).

But while race has no biological foundation, it has developed as a social idea with very real consequences. In the late 1600s the term White first appeared in colonial law. By 1790 people were asked to claim their race on the census, and by 1825 the degree of blood determined who would be classified as “Indian.” In the late 1800s through the early 20th century, as waves of immigrants entered the United States, the idea of Whiteness became more and more concrete (Gossett, 1997; Ignatiev, 1995; Jacobson, 1998).

While slavery was abolished overall in 1865, Whiteness remained profoundly important as legal racist exclusion and violence continued. To gain citizenship and other rights, one had to be legally classified as White. Individuals seeking these rights began to challenge their classifications and petitioned the courts to be reclassified as White. These legal challenges put the courts in the position to decide who was White and who was not. In fact, in 1923 the court stated that Whiteness was based on the common understanding of the White man. In other words, people already seen as White got to decide who was White (Tehranian, 2000).

While they may have initially been divided in terms of ethnic or class status, over time European immigrants were united in Whiteness. For example, early Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were not considered White, but they “became” White as they assimilated into the dominant culture (Brodkin, 1998; Ignatiev, 1995; Jacobson, 1998; Roediger, 1999). Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of Whiteness, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris (1993) coined the phrase “Whiteness as property.” This phrase captures the reality that being perceived as White carries more than a mere racial classification. It is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others.

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