“The Illogic of American Racial Categories”

“The Illogic of American Racial Categories”

Jefferson’s Blood: Thomas Jefferson, his slave & mistress Sally Hemings, their descendants, and the mysterious power of race.
Public Broadcasting Service

Paul R. Spickard, Professor of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Excerpted from the chapter “The Illogic of American Racial Categories” in Racially Mixed People in America, Maria P. P. Root, ed., (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1992), 12-23.

In most people’s minds … race is a fundamental organizing principle of human affairs. Everyone has a race, and only one. The races are biologically and characterologically separate one from another, and they are at least potentially in conflict with one another. Race has something to do with blood (today we might say genes), and something to do with skin color, and something to do with the geographical origins of one’s ancestors. According to this way of thinking, people with more than one racial ancestry have a problem, one that can be resolved only by choosing a single racial identity.

It is my contention in this essay, however, that race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter. Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power. Not only is race something different from what many people have believed it to be, but people of mixed race are not what many people have assumed them to be…

Most systems of categorization divided humankind up into at least red, yellow, black, and white: Native Americans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans. Whether Australian aborigines, Bushmen, and various brown-skinned peoples—Polynesians and Malays, for example—constituted separate races depended on who was doing the categorizing…

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