Racism was taught to America through Christianity, history and the social sciences. We have been taught to be racist from Europe. Historical race concepts have varied across cultures and over time, and have been controversial for social, political and scientific reasons. Until the 19th century, race was thought by many to constitute an immutable and distinct type or species which shared particular racial characteristics, such as body constitution, temperament and mental capacities. One concept, that of Christian Western Europe, conceived of the races as constituting a hierarchical chain of life known as the Great Chain of Being, which was believed to have been created by God, in which the people thought the Christian European races were closest to God in perfection.

European medieval models of race generally mixed Classical ideas with the notion that humanity as a whole was descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three sons of Noah, producing distinct Semitic (Asiatic), Hamitic (African), and Japhetic (Indo-European) peoples. This theory dates back to the Judeo-Christian tradition, as described in the Babylonian Talmud, which states that “the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.”

In the 9th century, Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab Islamic philosopher attempted to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:[5]

In the 14th century, the Islamic sociologist Ibn Khaldun, a proponent dispelled the Judeo-Christian account of peoples and their characteristics as a myth. He wrote that black skin was due to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and not due to the descendants of Ham being cursed.[6] Such Arabic writings were generally not accessible to many Europeans at this time.

Later, during the European colonial era, Ibn Khaldun’s work was translated into French, especially for use in Algeria, but in the process, the work was transformed from local knowledge to colonial categories of knowledge.[7] The historian William Desborough Cooley’s The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained (1841) has excerpts of translations of Khaldun’s work that were not affected by French colonial ideas.[8] For example, Cooley quotes Khaldun’s describing the great African civilization of Ghana (in Cooley’s translation):

“When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghánah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King’s court was kept in the city of Ghánah, which, according to the author of the ‘Book of Roger’ (El Idrisi), and the author of the ‘Book of Roads and Realms’ (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world.

The people of Ghánah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Súsú; after which came another named Máli; and after that another known by the name of Kaǘkaǘ; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kághó. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrúr. The people of Ghánah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemún (or muffled people; that is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghánah, being invaded at a later period by the Súsú, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations.” [8]

Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the rise of the Almoravids and the decline of Ghana. But, historians have found virtually no evidence for an Almoravid conquest of Ghana.[9][10]



The word “race,” along with many of the ideas now associated with the term were products of European imperialism and colonization during the age of exploration. (Smedley 1999) As Europeans encountered people from different parts of the world, they speculated about the physical, social, and cultural differences among various human groups, which marked the early stages of the development of science. Scientists who were interested in natural history, including biological and geological scientists, were known as “naturalists”. They would collect, examine, describe, and arrange data from their explorations into categories according to certain criteria. People who were particularly skilled at organizing specific sets of data in a logically and comprehensive fashion were known as classifiers and systematists. This process was a new trend in science that served to help answer fundamental questions by collecting and organizing materials for systematic study, also known as taxonomy.[11]

As the study of natural history grew, so did society’s effort to classify human groups. Some zoologists and scientists wondered what made humans different than animals in the primate family. Furthermore, they contemplated whether homo sapiens should be classified as one species with multiple varieties or separate species.

In the 16th and 17th century, scientists attempted to classify Homo sapiens based on a geographic arrangement of human populations based on skin color, others simply on geographic location, shape, stature, food habits, and other distinguishing characteristics. Occasionally the term “race” was used but most of the early taxonomist used classificatory terms such as “peoples,” “nations,” “types,” “varieties,” and “species.”

[edit] Giordano Bruno and Jean Bodin

Italian scientist Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and Jean Bodin (1530–1596), French scientist, attempted a rudimentary geographic arrangement of known human populations based on skin color. Bodin’s color classifications were purely descriptive, including neutral terms such as “duskish colour, like roasted quinze,” “black,” “chestnut,” and “farish white.” [11]

[edit] Bernhard Varen and John Ray

German and English scientists, Bernhard Varen (1622–1650) and John Ray (1627–1705) classified human populations into categories according to stature, shape, food habits, and skin color, along with any other distinguishing characteristics.[11]

Ray was also the first person to produce a biological definition of species.


Leave a Reply