The social construction of ‘race’: Placing Trump’s white nationalism in context

Demonstrators in Philadelphia participate in a rally against white nationalism and other forms of racism and hate
Demonstrators in Philadelphia participate in a rally against white nationalism and other forms of racism and hate Photo: Shutterstock

Donald Trump has used racism, xenophobia, and white nationalism as the cornerstones of his relentless and divisive march to the White House. He has played off and extended people’s fears of the “other,” and along the way, has brought the United States to the point of existential crisis for his own benefit.

But Donald Trump did not invent the terms of the crisis. He has merely built upon the long, tragic, and deadly trajectory of demagogues, tyrants, oligarchs, and authoritarian “leaders” before him.

The societies and the times in which we live determine the extent to which we are accorded or denied privileges based on our socially constructed identities. Yes, socially constructed.

For example, a woman who lives her entire life in a small African village surrounded by a community of people like herself may never have given much thought about being “black” since her society does not construct identity in terms of her skin color. When she takes a trip to the U.S., for example, she discovers for the first time that she is a “black” African since this society constructs identity based on skin color and country of origin.

Looking over the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the fifteenth century of the Common Era (CE), and reaching its apex in the early twentieth century CE.

Related: Retired Methodist pastor commits suicide to protest racism, homophobia

Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is discursively constructed—an historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea—and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.

The Single Origin Hypothesis

The Single Origin Hypothesis posits that all human ancestors originated in Africa, and their descendants migrated throughout the world. Genetic evidence indicates that all human begins descended from humans who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. The earliest group of humans believed to find their present-day descendants were among the San people of southwestern Africa.

First Wave Migration

Leaving this region, the first migrants stayed near ocean shores, tracing a band along the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean including parts of Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and into South East Asia, down into what is now Indonesia, and eventually reaching Australia.

This left dark-skinned people along its path, including isolated groups of dark-skinned people in southeast Asia such as the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands off Thailand, the Semang of Malaysia, and the Aeta of the Philippines.

Second Wave Migration

The second group of migrants took a northerly course, splitting somewhere in the area of present-day Syria to sweep into interior Asia, where it split several more times in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan.

From Central Asia, a small group migrated towards the northeast, following the reindeer as a source of food. These were the Chukchi people, a few of whom still live a nomadic lifestyle today.

An even smaller group, estimated at no more than 20 Chukchis, crossed what is now the Bering Sea approximately 13,000 years ago during the last glacial period, and migrated into North America. They are the ancestors of Native Americans, and 800 years later, they reached as far as South America.

Human Physical Diversity

The African diaspora is believed to have begun approximately 50,000 years ago. This time span is long enough for many changes to have occurred in humans remaining in Africa. The genetic trends reported involve humans who left Africa, and their genetic histories.

The diversity found throughout the world are related to many factors, including geographic location: Those whose early ancestors remained closer to the Earth’s equator, maintained greater amounts of skin melanin, and thicker wavier hair for protection from skin and hair damage. And those whose early ancestors traveled further away from the Earth’s equator, developed less skin melanin and lighter and thinner hair strands to allow the skin to absorb appropriate amounts of Vitamin D from the sun.

On the Social Construction of “Race”

There exist two overarching schools of thought by earlier “researchers” on the origins of “race”: 1. The Monogenism Theory that all people descended from an “original pair” of humans (Adam and Eve). 2. The Polygenism Theory: The numerous human populations of the world have descended from different “original pairs” created in different places: different genetic strains, multiple human origins of “non-Adamical man.”

For this second group of theorists, for example, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent (1778-1846), the chief of the Scientific Commission in Algeria, in his 1925 book L’Homme (Homo: Essai Zoologique sur le Genre Humain) asserted that 15 human groups exist, each of which he regarded as a separate and distinct “species.” Saint-Vincent declared the “certainty” that “each Adam” had to have had his own particular locale or “cradle.”

And the French physiologist, Louis-Antoine Desmoulins (1796-1828), in his book, Histoire Naturelle des Races Humaines avowed 16 “species” and 25 human “races.” He rejected the possibility that environmental circumstances or climate could have produced any changes in the observed spectrum of human biological differences, and stated that human “species” and “races” preserve all the traits that they “indubitably had since the beginning” wherever they have remained “pure and without mixture.”

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), born Carl Linné, (whom we call today the “Father of Scientific Racism”), a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, developed a system of scientific hierarchical classification. Within this taxonomy under the label Homo sapiens, (“Man”), he enumerated five categories based initially on place of origin and later on skin color: Europeanus, Asiaticus, Americanus, Monstrosus, and Africanus.

Linnaeus asserted that each category was ruled by a different bodily fluid (Humors: “moistures”), represented by blood (optimistic), phlegm (sluggish), cholor (yellow bile: prone to anger), melancholy (black bile: prone to sadness).

Linnaeus connected each human category to a respective humor, thereby constructing the Linnaeus Taxonomy of humans in descending order:

  • Europeanus: sanguine (blood), pale, muscular, swift, clever, gentle, acute inventive, with abundant, long hair, blue eyes, covered with close vestments and regulated by laws”;
  • Asiaticus: melancholic, yellow, inflexible, severe, avaricious, dark-eyed, black hair, governed by opinions;
  • Americanus (indigenous peoples in the Americas): choleric, copper-colored, straightforward, eager, combative, governed by customs;
  • Monstrosus (dwarfs of the Alps, the Patagonian giant, the monorchid Hottentot): agile, fainthearted; and,
  • Africanus: phlegmatic, black, slow, relaxed, negligent, black frizzled hair, silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips, females without shame, mammary glands give milk abundantly, crafty, sly, careless, anoints himself with grease, governed by impulse.

Voltaire, the 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher was a polygenist. He asserted: “The Negro race is a species of men different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds.”

Johann Friedrich Blumenback (1752-1840), a German Professor of Medicine, coined the term “Caucasian” to refer to people of European origin. He was inspired by Sir John Chardin (1643-1713), a French Protestant traveler, who proclaimed that inhabitants of the Republic of Georgia, situated in the Caucasus Mountains, were the most beautiful people in the world.

Blumenback was a monogenist (all people descended from a single original human pair). He hypothesized that the nisus formativus, or vital force, caused by differences in climate, nutrition, or mode of life over many generations had led to changes in form from that present in the beginning, represented by Caucasians.

These Caucasians, to Blumenback, represented the closest approximation of God’s intent for the human form. The changes from the assumed original Caucasians he labeled “degenerations.” All other human populations were “degenerate” (degeneris in Latin meaning “removed from one’s origin”) to the extent that they departed from that original.

In 1853, the French writer Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) published his theories of a supposed “Aryan” race. He referred to “an original tribe” that resided in the Himalayas, which, he asserted, was the cradle of the Caucasian race.

The French writer, Ernest Renan (1823-1892), stated that the [Jewish or] “Semitic” mind is superficial, while that of the “Aryan” is natural and wise. Later these theories would be expanded representing Jews as subhuman species, and as a symptom of racial impurity and decay.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his book, On the Origin of Species (1859), posited an evolutionary theory of plant and animal development. He theorized that physical, mental, and moral characteristics of humans evolved over time from our ape-like ancestors.

He wrote about “Biological Determinism”: Essentialist or biological bases for human behavior.

“Social Darwinists”

Other “researchers” extended Darwin’s theories to assert that Jews, black Africans, homosexuals, are lower and degenerate earlier forms of human species. They are all distinct lower “racial” types with immutable biological characteristics.

For example, some posited that Jews are of a separate “race”: a “mixed” or “bastard race” that crossed “racial” barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora.

The British psychologist, Francis Galton (1822-1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin, was a founder of the “Eugenics” Movement. In fact, Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek word meaning “well born.”

Eugenicists attempted to improve qualities of a so-called “race” by controlling human breeding. It was based on the theory that genetic predisposition determined human behavior. Galton also profited greatly from the slave trade. He stated:

“I do not join in the belief that the African is our equal in brain or in heart; I do not think that the average negro cares for his liberty as much as an Englishman, or as a self-born Russian; and I believe that if we can in any fair way, possess ourselves of his services, we have an equal right to utilize them to our advantages.”

Regard the similarity in language with that of Jefferson Davis, President of the American Confederacy:

“[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”

Galton, in his books: Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (1869), and Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), centered on the notion that the purpose of eugenics was to promote “judicious mating in order to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”

He “assessed” the relative intellectual capabilities of the so-called “races,” including Africans, Australians, Chinese, Jews, and others. He stated that “degenerates” exhibited deterioration to a level below the acceptable standards that were implicit in the Great Chain of Being hierarchy of worth. Galton asserted that elites in the British Isles were the most intelligent.

“The average intellectual standard of the Negro race is some two grades below our own” [Anglo-Saxons]….The Australian type is at least one grade below the African Negro….The Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations.”

Eugenicists argued that Jews are easily identifiable by their “Jewish physiognomy,” which included large bulbous eyes; a pathological, searing, cunning, cold, and piercing gaze; a hooked, large, nose with curling nasal folds; prominent and thick lips; a receding forehead; receding chin; large ears; curly black hair; dark “swarthy” skin; stooping shoulders; weak flat feet; and a deflated rump.


Phrenology was a branch of Eugenics that studied the shape and size of the human skull. Researchers based this on the belief that the size and shape of the skull indicates human mental facilities and moral character.

They alleged that “African skulls” indicate they are inferior to white races intellectually, culturally, and morally. Phrenologists claimed Africans as unsuited to work other than that supervised by white people. This was a further justification for enslavement of Africans.

They also claimed that sections of the “Jewish skull and brain” are “abnormally developed” indicating that Jews are highly concerned with money and finances.

In his supposed case study, By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti, 1884, author G. A. Henty asserted that black people are “just like children. They are always either laughing or quarrelling. They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond….They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power.”

Several forced sterilization laws stemmed from the Eugenics movement. Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), Instructor of Zoology at Harvard University, in 1910, Director of the Cold Springs Laboratory, Long Island, New York, Founded the Eugenics Record Office.

In his books, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911) and Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), strongly argued against miscegenation: mixing of whites and blacks, which he argued resulted in cultural and biological “degradation.” He favored mandatory sterilization of “the unfit.” In 1918, he was elected chair of the Galton Society for the Study of the Origin and Evolution of Man.

Davenport hired Harry Hamilton Laughlin (1880-1943), U.S. Eugenicist, as superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office 1910-1939. Laughlin advocated with Davenport for mandatory sterilization of “the unfit.”

Laughlin crafted his “model sterilization law” for the “uprooting of inborn defectiveness.” His law included involuntary sterilization of “the feeble minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind persons, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons.” Most U.S. states passed sterilizations laws, and as late as 1992, 22 still had these on their books.

Germany passed an involuntary sterilization law in 1927, and in 1933, Hitler made it compulsory by passing the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Hitler loosely based his law on Laughlin’s model. The Nazis involuntarily sterilized over 350,000 persons. Germany awarded Laughlin an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work on behalf of the “science of racial cleansing.”

Hitler and his Nazis used “racial” arguments as the cornerstone for justification of persecution of Jews (as well as most people of color and people with disabilities). Jews and others, they claimed, were descendants from inferior “racial stands.”

The Nazi high command argued that Germany lost WWI because of its internal enemies: the Jews. Nazi campaigns of “moral, racial, and sexual purity” led to an intense and violent campaign against Jews and other groups ending in the murder of an estimated 6 million Jews: equal to two-thirds of European Jewry, and one-third of the entire world-wide Jewish population.

The Nazis asserted that Jews were polluting the Aryan “race.” They forced Jews to wear the Yellow Star of David patches, a sign of “race pollution.”

This supposed “racialization” of the Jews was codified in the U.S.-American Madison Grant’s (1916) influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races.

Sitting atop his racial hierarchy were the superior “Nordics” of northwestern Europe. Lower inferior races included the “Alpines” and the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe. On the bottom were the most inferior—the Jews.

Analogous to the notion in the United States that “one drop” of “black African” blood makes a person black, according to Grant: “the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

Grant’s work impacted the 1924 Immigration Act in the United States (the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act: a.k.a. “National Origins Quota Act,” or “National Quota Act”), which placed restrictive quotas on immigration from Eastern & Southern Europe—populations viewed as Europe’s lower “races”: Jews (“Hebrew race”), Poles, Italians, Greeks, Slaves. Further restricted were Asians stemming as far back as the Naturalization Act of 1790.

The 1924 legislation, however, increased the number of immigrants from Great Britain and Germany. The National Origins Act of 1924 established quota percentages based on the census population in 1890. The number of immigrants to be admitted annually was limited to 2% of the foreign-born individuals of each nationality living in the U.S. in 1890.

The law forwarded immigration rights almost exclusively to northwestern Europeans in order to “protect our values … [as] a Western Christian civilization.” It functioned to prevent Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestant groups from immigrating to the United States.

More recently, the modern-day Eugenicist, William Shockley (1910-1989), asserted that black Americans suffered from “dysgenesis,” or “retrogression evolution.”

“My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment.”

Shockley proposed eliminating the public welfare system to be replaced with a “voluntary sterilization bonus plan.”

“Racialization” of Nationality, Language, and Religion

As an aspect of the social construction of “race,” we can list how nationality, language, and religion have at times become “racialized” in various societies and timeframes. Take, for example, the following examples:

A married Jewish couple of German birth and descent flee Germany during the rise of the Nazis in 1933 and immigrate to Colombia in South America. Within 5 years after arriving, they produce and raise three children. Colombian society defines this family as European-heritage white.

One of the children comes to the United States to attend college. When she enters the U.S., she suddenly becomes “Latina” owing to her country of birth and her first language of Spanish. Not only does language through discursive regimes racialize, but also, in many instances, language itself is racialized.

A white woman of English, Irish, and Swedish heritage grows up in a home in Iowa following the tenets of the Christian Methodist faith. When she was 32 years old, she met, fell in love with, and married an Iranian professor from a nearby university who teaches Islamic Culture and Religion and is himself a Muslim.

Before their marriage, the woman studied and converted to Islam, and now she wears the traditional hijab, the veil customarily worn by some Muslim women covering the head and chest. Many people now consider this woman as no longer “white,” but, rather, as a person of color by converting to Islam and marrying a man of Iranian descent. This example underscores the racialization of religion.

Cultural Pluralism

Many members of immigrant groups oppose assimilation and embrace the concept of pluralism: the philosophy whereby one adheres to a prevailing monocultural norm in public while recognizing, retaining, and celebrating one’s distinctive and unique cultural traditions and practices in the private realm.

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic.

Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American dilemma.”

He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating peoples of color.

Today, the United States stands as one of the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

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