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Antiracist Praxis

Race as a Social Construct by Joshua McConnell

Introduction: The Idea of Race

While race as a concept abounds with various meanings and associations, social constructivists agree on the rejection of race as an objective biological category independent of social classifications and taxonomies. Instead, they posit that racial formations are a product of discursive historical and contemporary social and political processes (Morning). It is generally understood that the ‘idea of race’ has historical origins in Europe as both an organizing principle in which social relations were based within and as a classificatory system of difference from without. With respect to the former, Medieval Latin terms such as gens and natio, etymologically suggests proto-conceptualizations of race based on common biological descent. Thus, frequently associated concepts such as blood, stock, and family connote the breeding and pedigree of gens (Bartlett, Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity). The beginning of the fourteenth century witnessed the proliferation of statues and decrees that imposed ethno-racial bars on town councils and guild memberships on the genealogical grounds of blood, stock, and family. The Deutschtumsparagraph, for example, was a provision in many German cities that required that guild members be of German descent. Such statues informed the Beeskow bakers guild to reject their Slavic neighbors from membership: “Whoever wishes to be a member must bring proof to the councillors and the guildsmen that he is born of legitimate, upright German folk…No one of Wendish stock may be in the guild.” Applicants had to produce genealogical documents of their family’s lineage that testified that they were of “good German stock or of German blood and tongue”. Similar statues existed throughout early Europe, including several Anglo-Irish cities such as Limerick that held that “no one of Irish blood or birth” could hold public office (Bartlett, The Making of Europe). Yet, even with these early internal developments, many of the components necessary for articulating modern discourses on biological differences of race outside of Europe had already existed.

Classical Antiquity

Since Classical Antiquity, Greco-Roman societies had been in contact with a multiplicity of people throughout the known world and usually attributed their differences to the marvelous and monstrous. Such accounts can be read in the works of Homer, Ctesias, Megasthenes, the conquest of Alexander the Great, and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Early medieval thinking on descent and difference appropriated these beliefs and incorporated them within the framework of Christian theological doctrines and biblical anthropology. Prominent Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Isidore of Seville, and Thomas Aquinas stand as salient examples. For instance, in Augustine’s City of God (De Civitate Dei), Book XVI, Chapter 8 is titled Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men are Derived from the Stock of Adam or Noah's Son. This chapter is an early intervention into monogenic and polygenic theories of human origins. As Augustine states:

It is not, of course, necessary to believe in all the kinds of men which are said to exist. But anyone who is born anywhere as a man (that is, as a rational and mortal animal), no matter how unusual he may be to our bodily senses in shape, colour, motion, sound, or in any natural power or part or quality, derives from the original and first-created man; and no believer will doubt this. It is, however, clear what constitutes the natural norm in the majority of cases and what, in itself, is a marvellous rarity. […]

Again, who could call to mind all the human infants who have been born very unlike those who were most certainly their parents? It cannot be denied, however, that these derive their origin from that one man, Adam; and the same is therefore true of all those races which, by reason of their bodily differences, are said to have deviated from the usual pattern of nature exhibited by most - indeed, by almost the whole - of mankind. If these races are included in the definition of 'human', that is, if they are rational and mortal animals, then it must be admitted that they trace their lineage from that same one man, the first father of all mankind: if, that is, what we are told of the diversity of those races, and their great difference from one another and from us, is true (Augustine).

As an early proponent of human monogenesis, Augustine cleared a space for discourses on the ontological definitions of the human (i.e., rational and mortal animals) and categories of humankind based on contesting polygenic accounts (see Paracelsus, Cesalpino, Giordano Bruno, Robert Boyle, and others). Any attempt to understand race as a social construct must map the discursive field in which human differences and racial assemblages were articulated and produced. Although such an ambitious attempt exceeds the scope of this entry, I wish to highlight the discursive formations of race in two particular epochs: The Late Middle Ages and the Enlightenment Period.

Theological Theories of Difference During the Late Middle Ages

Before its epistemic shift and secularization, the genesis of humanity and articulations of human variations had largely been grounded in Christian theology and biblical narratives. As noted above, Augustine defined humankind based on its rational capacity. According to early Christian thought, man was conceived of as a theomorphic being created in the imago Dei. Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas argued that man became closer to the image of God through reason of his intellectual faculties. What set man apart from not only animals and supernatural spiritual beings, but within the species itself, was his varying ability to rationalize the existence of God, and his endowment with a soul and will to know God. For Aquinas, it was the corporeality of man that individuated him and bounded him in time. By means of his embodiment, he acquired “knowledge discursively, through the temporal process of reasoning, rather than with the immediate intuition of angels” and the absence of a rational capacity presumed in animals (McFarland). Latent within Aquinas’ cosmological perspective was the reconfiguration of the Platonic Great Chain of Being that saw the hierarchical ordering of things, including humanity, and as a corollary, those within humanity (Ogunnaike).

While it was held since Aristotle that nature created an ontological hierarchical scale of life forms, with an infinite number of imperceptible intermediate links between species, Aquinas’ reconfiguration lies in the mind and body. For him, man existed at the apex of corporeal beings and “has in equal degree the characters of both classes, since it attains to the lowest member of the class above bodies, namely, the human soul, which is at the bottom of the series of intellectual beings - and is said, therefore, to be the horizon and boundary line of things corporeal and incorporeal” (Lovejoy). Conversely, man also shared characteristics with other primates and animals below him in the hierarchical chain. Therefore, just as some ‘men’ existed at the lowest boundary of higher incorporeal beings, other ‘men’ more closely bordered the primates below. It was said that these ‘monstrous’, ‘wild’, and ‘savage’ men possessed “animal minds capable of performing a limited number of human functions but [were] devoid of true reason, like the faun which was thought to have visited Saint Anthony the Hermit in the desert and…asked him to pray for it” (Pagen). This hierarchical model coupled with its emphasis on rationality and the will and soul dyad would become the epistemological and ontological grid in which racialized difference was conceptualized, articulated, and indeed constructed from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and throughout post-Enlightenment thought.

Race as a Social Construct: The Enlightenment

As noted from the outset, the production of racial formations and the development of racism was a discursive and complex enterprise. Other entries in this guide elucidate the ways in which the history of colonization, anti-blackness, and white supremacy operated in their distinctive and concurrent ways to produce contemporary notions of race and racism. My approach here is to adumbrate the philosophical and intellectual history of ideas that contributed to the production of racial categories and provided the justification for the abovementioned entries. Because this section modestly attempts to provide vignettes of formative theorists and their ideas, I encourage the reader to refer to the bibliography and suggested readings for further insight.

Perhaps nowhere during the Enlightenment do you get a clearer expression of the ontological problem and epistemological foundation of the Great Chain of Being than in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (Natural History, General and Particular), written by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in 1749. In his attempt to develop a “natural history” of the human species, he writes:

The first truth which issues from this sober examination of nature is a truth which is perhaps humbling to man. This truth is that he ought to range himself in the class [classe] of the animals, which he resembles in everything material. Even their instincts will perhaps appear to man even more certain than his own reason, and their industry more admirable than his arts. Then, examining successively and by order the various objects which compose the universe, and placing himself at the head of all created beings, he will see with astonishment that it is possible to descend by almost imperceptible degrees from the most perfect creature to the most formless matter, from the most perfectly organized animal to the most inert [brut] matter. He will recognize that these imperceptible gradations are the great work of Nature, and will find these gradations not only in the size and shape of things, but in the motion, generation, and successions of every species.

The enterprise of developing a comprehensive natural science of men involved ‘discovering’ the missing links in the chain that descended from man to animal. This intellectual endeavor for Buffon and both his predecessors and contemporaries can be understood in three key stages. As Phillip Solan delineates, the first stage involved the formation of classificatory systems in which humans, for the first time, composed a taxonomic group along with other organic matter. This method provided the rational basis for further classification of humans based on their perceived variations similar to other organisms. Secondly, the meaning of these classifications “ceased to be logical arrangements of forms and were assumed to display instead temporal and geographical relationships of human beings.” Lastly, the development of this new natural history was endowed with greater source material from the explorations and colonizing projects of Europeans to various regions throughout the world (Solan).

The formative phase of this process is typified in Edward Tyson’s study Orang-outang, sive Homo sylvestris: Or the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared With That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man (1699). This work in comparative anatomy studied the anatomical features of a “pygmy” (which he lists by other associated names: Homo Sylvestris, The Wild Man; OrangOutang, or a Man of the Woods; Savage) which was brought back from Angola. For him, the “pygmy” (what we refer to today as the chimpanzee) was what linked the “lowest ranks of men, and the highest kinds of animals” and served as the “nexus of the animal and rational” (Tyson). While he reached his conclusion based on anatomical similitudes, the establishment of a systematic approach to the classification of man and animals was a product of the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788).

In the tenth edition of his System Naturae (1758), Linnaeus established zoological nomenclature, applying binomial names (generic-specific) to the entire animal kingdom, nearly 4,400 species. While deriving the term homo sapiens to include all of humanity, he further divided the species into four varieties based on geography, education, and physical and social characteristics: europaeus albus, americanus rubescens, asiaticus fuscus, and africanus niger. The logic of the great chain tacitly informed his classification of each of the four varieties of the human species. As a result, Europeans stood at the top of the hierarchy and were considered “gentle, acute, inventive…Governed by laws.” Conversely, Africans were “crafty, indolent, negligent…Governed by caprice.” The Linnaean system of classification still retained notions of the marvelous and monstrous that was so characteristic of classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. As European voyages and colonial missions expanded, so too did the genus homo in his classification. The fantastical reports of “what seemed to be outlandish humanoid creatures— Patagonian giants, Pygmies, Hottentots, intermixed with tales of feral men and women found among wild animals in Europe and wild ‘men of the woods’ from Sumatra— continued into the late century” (Solan). The exhaustive enumeration of the genus homo served as the ostensible links in the chain of being that connected man to animal.

Comte de Buffon, Linnaeus’ contemporary and most famous critic, objected to his taxonomic approach and offered an alternative method to the development of a natural history of men. Although the methodological and philosophical nature of their controversy is beyond my purposes, Buffon is salient here for positing geographic, climatic, and nutritional factors in explaining human variation within a single species. Buffon’s understanding of a species differed markedly from Linnaeus and other contemporaries. For Buffon, the constituting feature of a species resided in the continuous reproductive “faculty of producing its likeness”. Buffon maintained that a primordial geographically bound prototype existed and its imprint among members of the species increasingly degenerated the farther they deviated from their original origin. His degeneration thesis based on environmental determinism supplied the basis “for his physical interpretation of the concept of a race, a notion that seems to gain its first influential currency in his works” (Solan).

While these thinkers supplied the foundation for conceptualizing race, many scholars regard Immanuel Kant as the first modern theorist to “propose a rigorous scientific concept of race.” For instance, Robert Bernasconi has labeled Kant as the “inventor of the concept of race,” positing that he was “the one who gave the concept sufficient definition for subsequent users to believe that they were addressing something whose scientific status could at least be debated” (Bernasconi). Kant’s theorizing on race spans several essays and is situated in concert with Buffon’s discussions. In his essay Of the Different Races, Kant maintains ‘Buffon’s rule’ on monogenism, stating that “animals which generate between them fertile young (whatever the difference of bodily form they may possess) belong to one and the same physical genus” (Eze).

The codification of definitions of resemblances and dissimilarity by Kant was an effort to enshrine race as a scientific study worthy of systemization and empirical investigation. For him, an animal species (Gattung) with a common line of ancestral descent is referred to as a kind (Art). The heritable differences within a single animal species are termed deviations (Abartungen) (Vial). Races by his criterion are deviations within a single genus that have maintained their distinction over protracted generations despite their geographic location and climate, and which produced ‘hybrids’ or ‘mulattoes’ that exhibit the characteristic features of both divergent races when they interbreed. Therefore, according to Kant, races are not different species of humans but deviations from an original stem (similar to Buffon, the original stem or prototype was considered to be blond northern Europeans) such that when they breed among themselves, they “maintain the distinctiveness of their deviation and so preserve their resemblance” (Eze).

Kant located resemblance and dissimilarity chiefly on the basis of the skin color between the four races he identified: Whites, ‘the Negro race’, ‘the Hunnic (Mongolian or Kalmuck) race’, and ‘the Hindu or Hindustanic race’. He argued that the causality of racial deviations and the permanence of racial categories are a product of climate and nature which has equipped each with germs [Keime] and natural dispositions [Anlagen]. The “foresight of Nature” has produced in her creation “hidden inner furnishings against all sorts of future circumstances in order that it be preserved and suited to the variety of climate or soil” (Eze). Kant’s teleological theory of nature leaves nothing to chance or mechanical explanations. This purposive understanding gives way to his development of human races:

Man was disposed for all climates and every constitution of ground; it follows that there must have lain in him many sorts of germs and natural dispositions, ready on occasion either to be developed or hold back, in order that he might be fitted to his place in the world, and that he might appear in the course of generations to have been born to that place and made for it. In accordance with these conceptions we shall review the entire human genus throughout the world and, wherever the natural causes are not perhaps discernible, we shall adduce suitable ones for its deviations; but wherever we cannot ascertain the purposes we shall adduce natural causes. Here I shall simply note that air and sun seem to be the causes which can penetrate most deeply into the generative force and can produce a lasting development of the germs and dispositions; i.e. that can found a race; while on the other hand special food is sure to produce a human strain but its distinctiveness soon disappears on transplantation. That which is to depend upon the generative force must affect not the maintenance of life but that of its source, i.e. it must affect the fundamental principles of its animal organization and movement. (Eze)

The construction of race postulated by Kant went through further revisions and formulations in his own writings, his interlocutors (e.g., Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and others), and his predecessors. It is without question that his theory was formative in establishing race as an ostensible natural phenomenon and scientific category worthy of ‘intellectual’ debate. As noted from the beginning, the development of race as a social construct must consider its discursive articulations and manifestations. Our own understanding of race, as erroneous as it may often appear, is implicitly connected with these earlier antecedents. If we are to understand its social construction and real-world implications, we must grapple with and dispel the fallacious reasoning of these canonical theorists that operate latently within our own thinking.

Suggested Reading

Buck-Morss, Susan. "Hegel and Haiti." Critical Inquiry (2000): 821-865.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Heng, Geraldine. "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages." Literature Compass (2011): 315–331.

—. "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race." Literature Compass (2011): 332–350.

Reich, David. Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Scott, David. "The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter." Small Axe (2000): 119-207.

Sloan, Phillip R. "The Buffon-Linnaeus Controversy." The History of Science Society 67.3 (1976): 356-375.

Smith, Justin E. H. Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.


Banton, Michael. The Idea of Race. Boulder: Westview Press, 1977.

Bartlett, Robert. "Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 39-56.

—. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Bernasconi, Robert. "Kant and the Invention of Race." Race. Ed. Robert Bernasconi and Tommy Lott. Malden: Blackwell, 2001. 11-36.

Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997.

Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Knoppers, Laura Lunger and Joan B. Landes. Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933.

McFarland, Ian A. In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Morning, Ann. ""Everyone Knows It's a Social Construct": Contemporary Science and the Nature of Race." Sociological Focus 40.4 (2007): 436-454.

Ogunnaike, Oludamini. "From Heathen to Sub-Human: A Genealogy of the Influence of the Decline of Religion on the Rise of Modern Racism." (2016).

Pagen, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Ramey, Lynn T. Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.

Sandford, Stella. "Kant, Race, and Natural History." Philosophy & Social Criticism 44.9 (2018): 950-977.

—. "Kant, Race, and Natural History." Philosophy and Social Criticism 44.9 (2018): 950-977.

Snowden, Jr., Frank M. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press;, 1991.

Solan, Phillip. "The Gaze of Natural History." Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains. Ed. Christopher Fox, Roy Porter and Robert Wokler . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

Tyson, Edward. Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. London: Printed for Thomas Bennet at the Half-Moon in St. Paul's Church-yard; and Daniel Brown at the Black Swan and Bible without Temple-Bar and are to be had of Mr. Hunt at the Repository in Gresham-College, 1699.

Vial, Theodore. "Modern Religion, Modern Race." Kant and Race. Oxford University Press, 2016. 21-53.