During the last five centuries, humanity has experienced the rise of a powerful idea used to distinguish and differentiate among the world's diverse human populations: "race." The idea of race suggests that observed differences in culture and social status are actually the product of biologically based differences among major ethnic groups. Out of that distinction among groups based on supposed natural, physical traits came the idea of racial superiority.
The observable biological differences commonly associated with race didn't appear as a cause of social antagonism until the 16th century. The large-scale exploration and colonization movements led by the European countries in American, Asian, and African territories produced in European society a profound change: Europeans' concept of humankind dramatically altered. The new ideas about humanity and its differences were thoroughly elaborated during the following four centuries. Scientific, moral, and social concepts powerfully influenced economic and political decisions based on the popularized ways of classifying human groups. Yet it was not until the late 18th and 19th centuries that the idea of racial superiority found a strong "scientific" discourse that justified, and moreover promoted, differentiation as a supposedly necessary and natural way to deal with new social structures. At that time, groups within a society were assigned diverse roles (basically those of domination and submission) determined by their so-called racial capacities.
The belief in white superiority had its roots in the European construction of nations, a process that generated the sense of a superior, ruling elite in contrast with the inferior masses, particularly rural groups. How did the concept of a superior-inferior division of society became so closely involved with issues of race?
Back to the beginning of the Christian period, and particularly during the Middle Ages, the concept of whiteness developed in contradistinction to darkness. The latter gradually acquired negative connotations, while white came to represent Christian purity and perfection. White contrasted with the new skin colors discovered by rapid colonial expansion, and those colors were immediately associated, because of their visible darkness, with negative values of inferiority. Soon, the statuses of the colonizers—originally determined and differentiated by their economic positions as tenants, merchants, or owners—were homogenized into a "white race."
The concept of race that developed from the late 17th century differed from any previous theories, particularly in its relation to the issue of power. The increasingly dominant presence of "white" Europeans in the farthest corners of the world seemed to justify the unfounded belief that the whites had inherited a superiority that would allow them to rule over inferior, uncivilized peoples who were in need of a master's hand to find the path of Christianity and capitalism. Thus, as it developed, white superiority was clearly not a biological question of differences but a social construction needed to maintain dominance.
From the Enlightenment to Social Darwinism
For 18th-century theorists, social inequalities were seen as a natural part of the social order. "Race" designated ancestral belonging to a family line. The characteristics and values of aristocratic elites were considered superior, and thus the elites were suited to rule. At the end of the Enlightenment period, however, race began to be considered as based on natural law, and so-called scientific reasoning was applied to the understanding of physical differences. Race was from then onward increasingly defined by such differences in physical traits, but it still included those of language, customs, behavior, and "aptitude for civilization."
At the same time, the colonial world ruled by the imperial powers of Spain and Portugal also began the process of inventing white superiority. They were urged by the presence of a wide range of peoples throughout their empires, including African slaves, indigenous groups, and Europeans from diverse backgrounds. Until the 18th century, the Spanish authorities did not have a clear policy on mixed marriage, although it was seen as a sinful and degrading act for whites. Beginning in mid-century, however, Spain instigated a series of reforms. Particularly directed at economic and commercial aspects, the reforms also included several new rules concerning social status, marriage policies, and the definition of pureza de sangre (blood purity). Those rules created a physical separation between the peninsulares (Spanish by birth) and all others, who were classified in a detailed list that considered all possible degrees of racial mixture and fixed the social rights of each classification. That social structure prevailed in Latin America long after independence was secured, and difference was aggravated by massive immigration beginning at the end of the 19th century.
During the first half of the 19th century, the increasing social instability of European countries created a climate of tension within which the development of new scientific movements became the way to legitimize a new social order. Liberal intellectuals of the Victorian Age weren't strong enough to overcome the already popularized views of racial superiority. While the abolitionist movement embraced liberal notions of universal equality among ethnic groups, a new scientific reasoning declared that there existed distinct and unequal racial groups. That science served to justify both imperialism and slavery, which by then had become an integral part of American economies.
The first so-called scientific study on racial classification appeared in 1795, and the numerous subsequent racial theories insisted on the same point: the innate superiority of whites. Theorists even adopted new terms for the white race: Caucasian, Aryan, or the Germanic Race (proposed by Arthur de Gobineau). Many classifications and theories—and much controversy—characterized the scientific scene from the beginning of the 19th century onward. Writers living in the colonies and anthropologists studying "savage peoples" contributed to the emphasis on the supposed importance of race and skin color in determining cultural differences.
Yet it was still not until the second half of the 19th century that racial theories shifted from a view of human beings as primarily social creatures, governed by social laws, to a view of human beings as primarily biological creatures, governed by the laws of nature. That shift was a consequence of the new scientific explanation of social group difference, marked by the general idea that the physical nature of races determined the relations among them.
After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, racial superiority theories metamorphosed once again. Darwin's work defied all previous arguments by showing that species were not permanent entities but were subject to evolution by adaptation and selection. His studies raised many questions and debates, and the ways in which his evolutionist theories were interpreted and applied in the study of society came to be called social Darwinism. Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer argued that evolution helped to eliminate "impure" specimens (i.e., nonwhites) and help to perpetuate the ideal type (i.e., whites). Whites were thus powerful and successful because they were racially superior.
By the end of the 19th century, racial superiority theories provided the grounds for scientifically based racism, which particularly served the interests of the European new imperialism in Africa and Asia and helped to perpetuate the appalling treatment of racial minorities in the United States.
White Imperialism, Holocaust, and the Redefinition of Race
White, Western superiority was seemingly confirmed by the fact that, by World War I, a handful of European states, headed by the United Kingdom and the British Empire, were ruling over more than one fourth of the world's land. The perceived success of imperialism supported the idea that whites' inherited superiority justified their moral obligation to govern and civilize other peoples. Yet within the political scene, emerging democratic movements were destined to bring to the surface the contradictions of the discourse of racial superiority.
So-called racial science boosted racist policies during the first half of the 20th century, however. Different "scientific" tests, increasingly psychological, purported to prove the inferiority complex of colored people and worked to measure each race's capacities, especially intelligence. The first ideas for racial planning saw the light: eugenics science, directed toward the improvement of the genetic potentiality of the human species, was conceived by Francis Galton and furthered by U.S. eugenicist Harry Laughlin. Such ideas, which eventually blossomed into a major American program of forced sterilization during the 1920s-1950s, unfortunately did not stop at the American borders. American eugenicists were in close dialogue with eugenic scientists around the world and, in particular, with German advocates of racial sterilization.
The beginning of the Nazi era in 1933 marked the cruelest practical use of racial science. The Nazi Party's pseudoscientific methods culminated in the final solution—the planned extermination of the Jewish race—and led to the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. German , however, drew upon the arguments of their American counterparts, using data the American eugenicists had collected to justify the case for distinguishing between "superior" and "inferior" racial types.
The post-World War II years witnessed the development of an international position condemning racial superiority theories and, particularly, their use to gain political objectives. For example, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which declared that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1951) declared genocide an international crime.
Moreover, in the 1960s, the scientific world turned its general opinion against the use of race as a tool to justify apartheid and unequal social arrangements. Social scientists called for a redefinition of the term "race" and emphasized the need to understand ethnic aspects of human groups as based on history and culture, not biology. At the same time, the United States experienced the rise of the its U.S. civil rights movement and black power, which began a public transformation of the image of black people.
Nonetheless, racial superiority continued to be used as an argument to justify privileges and social hierarchy. In South Africa, white politicians embraced the idea of racial superiority and implemented it with the system of apartheid. That total segregation of whites from nonwhites remained in place until 1989. In the contemporary era, despite the general debunking of the theory of racial superiority, racial differences still contribute to inequality and outbreaks of violence worldwide.
Banton, Michael, The Idea of Race, 1977; Franklin, John Hope, Race and History, 1989; Fredrickson, George M., White Supremacy, 1981; Van den Berghe, Pierre, The Ethnic Phenomenon, 1981.