The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity

The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity

The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity

The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity


'Add[s] a needed dimension to the study of race in political science that I hope scholars beyond the field of theory will take to heart.' - Perspectives on Politics "An indispensable book. The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race takes the study of whiteness to a new level both historically and theoretically. No previous study of the familiar racial category-'white'-has attained such global breadth and analytical depth. It remedies a significant gap in the social scientific study of race, providing an intellectual history of whiteness that is both erudite and accessible."- Howard Winant, author of The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice

"Clearly and stylishly written and argued... well-supported by wide-ranging research and striking knowledge.... The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race ranges across centuries and continents and moves from intellectual to political and social history gracefully."- David Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

"In racial discourse, the term 'Caucasian' has always had a scientific aura and a prestige elevated above that of the simpler colloquial 'white.' Bruce Baum's fascinating and extensively researched genealogy of the concept and its subsequent career provides an eye-opening history of the utter bogusness of these pretensions. As such, the book is not merely an invaluable addition to the recent 'whiteness' literature and a documentation of the myriad shifting possibilities of racialization, but a salutary reminder of the political economy that always underlies the category 'race.'"- Charles W. Mills, author of The Racial Contract "In charting the course of the 'Caucasian race' from a despised, barely European peoples to a scientific classification for white identity, Bruce Baum illuminates the socially constructed nature of race and the role of science in shaping it. His analysis of the changing fortunes of this curious concept demonstrates that even scientific inquiry is deeply influenced by the social and political assumptions of its time. By showing that the Caucasian race is a product of power rather than a racial group descended from the Caucasus region, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race makes an important contribution to the study of race and whiteness." - Joel Olson, author of The Abolition of White Democracy

The term "Caucasian" is a curious invention of the modern age. Originating in 1795, the word identifies both the peoples of the Caucasus Mountains region as well as those thought to be "Caucasian". Bruce Baum explores the history of the term and the category of the "Caucasian race" more broadly in the light of the changing politics of racial theory and notions of racial identity. With a comprehensive sweep that encompasses the understanding of "race" even before the use of the term "Caucasian," Baum traces the major trends in scientific and intellectual understandings of "race" from the Middle Ages to the present day. Baum's conclusions make an unprecedented attempt to separate modern science and politics from a long history of racial classification. He offers significant insights into our understanding of race and how the "Caucasian race" has been authoritatively invented, embraced, displaced, and recovered throughout our history.


One of the better answers I have heard regarding the question of “race” came from my uncle, David Widrow. Several years ago, as I began thinking about this study, I asked him if he thought there were different “human races.” He smiled and said, “Sure. There are running races, auto races, boat races.” I thought it was a great answer, but at other times my uncle, like most people in the United States, has accepted the current “common sense” view that there are also distinct human races in the biological sense.

Part of my argument is that this commonsense view is a historical artifact of the social and political history of the modern world. All ideas about “race,” like many other beliefs and theories, need to be understood in relation to their historical contexts, including the view of “race” that I advance here. (Yet, as I will explain, this does not mean that all accounts of “race” are equally valid or invalid.) In the present case, my examination of the “Caucasian race” idea has been motivated by my time and place, as a U.S. citizen, born during the Civil Rights movement. (One of my early memories is of an assembly at my Stamford, Connecticut elementary school in 1968, right after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.)

This book joins many related efforts in the post–Civil Rights movement era to understand how much and in what way we—citizens of the United States and members of a would-be global community—need to take account of “race” to move beyond to nefarious legacy of racism. It is largely a history of the Caucasian-race idea written by a scholar of politics. It is also a political theorist's inquiry into the meaning of race, and therefore a few sections are theoretically dense.

I wish to thank several people who helped me complete this book. Sandy Schram read most of the manuscript, provided ongoing encouragement, and pointed me to New York University Press. David Roediger offered important feedback when I began the project. Charles Mills and Joel . . .

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