Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview

Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview

Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview

Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview


In a sweeping work that traces the idea of race through three centuries of North American history, Audrey Smedley shows race to be a cultural construct used variously & opportunistically throughout time, although the scientific record shows little common agreement on its meaning. The second edition expands its coverage of the nineteenth & twentieth centuries, particularly in matters of IQ testing & changing racial attitudes.


Many years ago I introduced a new course into the university curriculum entitled "The Concept of Race in Western Thought." From the beginning, both my students and I recognized a number of difficulties in dealing with the phenomenon of race. On the first day of each class, I raised the question of finding a definition of the term on which we could all agree. It came as no surprise that we never could define the concept with any degree of precision or consensus despite the fact that publications on the topic of race in English alone probably number in the tens of thousands.

There are, indeed, few topics in Western intellectual and social history that have been subjected to as much investigation, speculation, analysis, and theoretical scrutiny as the phenomenon of race. Whether one accepts race as a God-given denouement of the complexity of an imperfect world or as a misguided conception of group relationships, race is a pervasive element in the cognitive patterning of Western thought and experience. It has been so fundamental, so intrinsic to our perceptual and explanatory framework that we almost never question its meaning or its reality.

In nations like the United States and South Africa where race is the important calculus of social identity, our interactions with other individuals are influenced, whether we admit it or not, by a racial identity that we attribute to others and to ourselves. We perceive this identity as reflected in tangible and easily recognized biophysical characteristics. Indeed, the very existence of physical differences among populations is accepted as concrete evidence of race. And we have been conditioned to respond automatically to the presence of certain varying physical features as indicators of race and the differences it connotes.

More importantly, as I document in the chapters to follow, race is seen as a part of the natural order of things, and the existence of races is believed to have been confirmed as part of nature by science and scientists. Yet the scientific record has shown enormous ambiguity on the matter of race, much confusion, and little common agreement among the experts on its meaning. In fact, in recent scientific treatments of this topic, new developments reveal that there has been a significant, perhaps revolutionary, transformation in thinking about race and its meaning in science. This has been docu-

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