Home PoliticsAfrica News The Invention of the Black Race

The Invention of the Black Race

by Jeffrey Kass

How we went from the human race to races of humans

“The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history. The U.S. has never been without it.” — David Roediger

I’ve heard from enough friends and colleagues over the years their stated belief that there’s only one race. The human race. That they’re colorblind. That they only judge people on their character, not on their external features.

So where, then, did this notion of separate racial groups come from? The idea of not treating people differently based on skin color is a beautiful concept.

Unfortunately, the “there’s only the human race” idea is misplaced for about 500 years. Let me explain.

Prior to the 1500s, the term “race” was seldom used. Not the Black race and even Europeans didn’t refer to themselves as white back then. The Romans, Greeks, and early Christians for sure had a superiority complex based on their culture and beliefs, but nowhere in their literature was there any idea of global superiority based on skin color.

That’s because race, as we know it today, is a human-created term used to categorize people into various social groups based on characteristics like skin color. Race isn’t based on biology.

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The social construct of race was developed when Europeans began creating America. American society created race early in its formation to justify its new economic system, which then depended on the enslavement of Africans from the 1500s to the late 1800s. The early American colonies even changed English common law to include laws that distinguished between white and non-white.

While there were certainly other slaves dating back thousands of years, America’s system of slavery was the first in the world based almost exclusively on race. A system that categorized people based on skin color. The European colonists invented a hierarchy in which whites and Blacks would be separated and rendered unequal, and this approach followed Black people even after slavery.

Americans for years conducted studies aimed to prove some absurd biological difference to justify their systems. By the 1740s, there were over a dozen studies claiming Black skin color was from skin vapor. Others claimed it came from darkened sperm. Or that the skin was stained by heat and air in Africa. Some studies claimed that the tropical African climate caused brain damage, making Black people less than full healthy humans. Even well into the 20th century, we had sports announcers claiming Black people have extra muscles or bones.

In 1851, Samuel Cartwright identified two “diseases” exclusively suffered by Africans. The first was a mental illness he called drapetomania, which caused slaves to run away. The second was dysaesthesia aethiopica, a type of lethargy that infected Africans who were not enslaved or overseen by whites. And you wonder where the absurd “lazy” stereotype came from.

I even recall as late as 1994 the book The Bell Curve that promoted racial intelligence superiority.

These studies were all done to justify the racial hierarchy philosophy.

After all, how could the same people who professed that “all men are created equal” not practice that principle toward all men? How could a Christian religion based on the axiom of “love your fellow as you love yourself” support a philosophy that discriminated against full-fledged humans based on skin color?

Here’s how:

All men are created equal, but some classes of people are not fully men. Therefore, those less than human classes are not equal. They aren’t our fellows. That’s what all those studies were intended to prove. So like it or not today, it’s what the American system promoted and ingrained into us for over 500 years.

This philosophy was summed up in one profound European Enlightenment-era quote:

“It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.”— Philosopher Baron de Montesquieu

Enlightened my ass.

Celebrated German philosopher Emmanuel Kant even coined the term “Caucasian” in the 1700s because he believed the original unadulterated race came from the Caucus region and was more evolved than other races.

For hundreds of years, we’ve followed this racial construct, backed by slyer ways of creating unconscious attitudes.

It’s not that skin color was never perceived as good or bad by anyone before the European enslavement of Africans and the creation of America.

Indeed, Biblical and other traditions refer admirably and glowingly of a female ruler from the south of Israel, which by most measures, would have been Ethiopia. Today, most scholars believe she was the Queen of Sheba, with whom the Jewish King Solomon had a son.

Other ancient texts claim that the Biblical Noah’s son was cursed with burned skin because of his sexual sins.

But nothing in those ancient texts creates racial hierarchy or social constructs. Skin color, except as pertained to a few individuals, was never the focus. Indeed, Moses, who lived as the African Pharaoh’s grandson, seemed to fit in just fine. Skin color isn’t mentioned in the story of this redemption hero. Race wasn’t an issue.

There were always people who adored or disliked some skin colors. Studies show that even kids as young as two or three notice our differences in skin color. Not in a bad or good way, but more observationally, like someone would notice a green or red car. When my own son was a toddler, he sweetly asked me if brown people could be Jewish after a Black friend left a dinner at our house. Brown was what my four-year-old son called him. That was his observation since most Black people, especially American Black people, aren’t exactly the color black found in a Crayola box.

Race as a societal construct. As a categorization of entire groups of people. As an intellectual or human value class system. Those did not exist until Europeans created the false white vs. Black hierarchy in America.

It’s only after the system, on top of childrearing, images, books, classrooms, racial separation, and other systemic influences that we develop conscious and unconscious attitudes about race. About other races, and about our own racial designation.

As a result, we now live with that racial caste system today.

The reality remains, whether we like it or not, our society includes the different races we created. We sadly can’t just magically un-ring the racial construct bell imposed on us in the creation of the American system and replace it with nice quotes about just judging each other by character. We see the races we created, and denying them 500 years of systems later is intellectually dishonest.

As we fight hard for racial equity and justice, we must understand how we got here. Maybe then, someday after making necessary radical changes, we can get back to just having the human race. Maybe even return the word back to the oblivion it came from.

Until then, we’ve got work to do on dismantling racist systems.

Jeffrey Kass

Top Medium Writer — Racism and Diversity | Thought Leader On Race and Society| Award-Winning Author | Speaker | Latest Book: The Rona Diaries | Trainer | Lawyer

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