Race, Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History

By Graham Richards | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book offers a historical overview of how Psychology 1 has engaged the 'race' issue. This is a central aspect of the history of 'race' and racism for it has largely fallen within Psychology's province to address such matters as whether 'race differences' of a psychological kind exist, the nature of racial attitudes and 'race prejudice', and, more recently, the extent to which unacknowledged ethnocentrism distorts theory and practice in the human sciences.

Any authors venturing on these turbulent waters must begin by making their own position explicit, for it is this which determines the character of their work. In fact each of the terms in my title warrants some preliminary consideration in this respect. Without at this stage justifying them in any detail, my positions on these are as follows.


'RACE'

Races as objectively existing biological entities do not exist. The traditional concept of 'race' cannot be reconciled with current understanding of the genetic nature of human diversity. The concept emerged in Western thought in its modern sense around 1800 and has owed its popularity to a variety of, often ideological, cultural factors. By the late 1930s its scientific utility was already being contested by leading geneticists. While seemingly irremovably ensconced in popular usage, and the names of organisations such as the Campaign for Racial Equality, it now has no clear scientific meaning. At most it continues as a convenient short-hand term for something like 'large transiently stabilised and relatively isolated human gene pool'. The criteria commonly used to ascribe 'racial' identity are social and cultural rather than biological. If Africans rather than Europeans had colonised North America and Europeans rather than Africans been enslaved, then presumably anyone with an eighth or a sixteenth white ancestry would have been classified as 'white' in anti-mixed marriage laws designed to maintain the 'purity' of the black 'race'. (And demographers, instead of ascertaining the proportion of 'mulattos' in the 'Negro' population, would have counted them as a proportion of the 'white' population.) The term 'ethnic group' has been proposed as an alternative to 'race', this being understood to refer to cultural rather than

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