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Historical and Contemporary Definitions of Race

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Free «Historical and Contemporary Definitions of Race» Essay Sample


Race is an important classification and it bases human beings into huge and differential groups (Malik 1996, p. 9). These groups are distinct in terms of culture, ethnicity, language spoken, religion, societal roles, anatomical aspects, genetics, their history, and geographical distribution (Aronson 200, p.5). There has been a growing contention, confusion, worry, and anxiety regarding the definition and significance of the term race. This is because we are entering a new world in the 21st century. Significant extensions of studies, researches, and literatures offer a deep and wide view of race and racism. Approaches and concepts are placed forward to give us a clear understanding of this critical matter. It is noted that race plays an important role, right from pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial and to this current new world system that we are experiencing. Race is an important classification and it distinguishes human beings into huge and differential groups (Malik 1996, p. 9). These groups are distinct in terms of culture, ethnicity, language spoken, religion, societal roles, anatomical aspects, genetics, their history, and geographical distribution (Aronson 2007, p. 5). It has become increasingly important to know the origin and importance of race in our world today. With race, different definitions of the word are available. Different stages of evolution define it differently as well as different interest groups.

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This paper will go through a systematic way in an attempt to try to analyze various definitions of race. The first step will be to look at the theories that surround the origin of races. I will be keen to highlight some of the major areas that point out to various theories that try to shed light on the issue and emergence of races. The next step would be to look at some of the definitions put forward to try to explain what race means. This will be from distinct fields such as biology and anthropology. After this segment, I will look into how racism has played an important role in how we view races. This aspect will include the definition of race, the types of races, and the impact of races. The issue of racism is important as it forms a good build up to the contemporary approach towards race. Lastly, I will look at the issue of a possibility of a new theory to come.

Theories of Race Origins

Emergence of many theories is available to try to explain the origin of races. There are several theories with each giving a distinct approach to what led to these races we have today. One of these theories and the one mostly talked about is the theory of increased melanin. This theory puts forward the possibility of increase in melanin in certain people to protect themselves against the effects of ultraviolet rays. However, this theory has a flaw. It does not consider the fact that protection against ultraviolet rays takes place after the active reproduction stage of humans. This reduces the probability of passing off these cancerous traits. Therefore, this theory does not hold water as far as evolution of race is concerned (Smaje 2000, p. 26). Another interesting theory is the theory that looks into the racial affiliations of people living in the Northern latitudes of the world. It states that these individuals have a lighter skin to ensure efficient production of D3 vitamin. This vitamin is essential due to the low levels of luminosity from the sun. However, this theory has a downside. There are Eskimos living in the Northern latitudes that have darker skin. This in effect implies that this theory does not cater for the whole explanation to the origin of this race (Wolpoff & Caspari 1997, p. 59). The next theory deals with an interesting angle that states that people were more inclined to breed with those who looked like them. This theory shows the extent of the growth of these races. This theory is highly favoured as it gives a deeper meaning and understanding than other theories. We currently experience a different race composition in the world. These are experiences through the changes in perceptions of both racism and beauty by different people.

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Other concepts of the origin of race emerge and include theories on the racial differentiation of modern systems in our world. One such theory concerns the Mediterranean slave trade. During this period, there were acquisitions and sale of slaves from around the world; under such instances, slaves ended up settling in land that was not theirs at first, but breeding increased their population and saw the eventual spread of certain races in particular areas. In addition, the emergence of race was historically associated with biological factors commonly referred to as phenotypes (Smedley 1993, p. 42). These features are the main origin and source of racial lines and features. One of the other theories put forward seeks to explain the geographical distribution of races and it looks at the splitting of the continents during the continental drift. It states that people who found themselves on the continents at the time evolved and adapted to the conditions there.

Another theory put forward to try to recognize the emergence of races was the one revolving around political economy. The rise of economic integration in the world brought with it conquests of various places and the rise of slave trade (Coon 1962, p.54). These key elements helped in the movement of people from one region to another while it ensured their concentration in certain parts of the world. Though the issue of slave trade did not give rise to races, it points out at the regional distribution of these races.

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Biological Perspective

The issues of race rely on biology, which has been the topic for discussions for a long time. Questions raised show interest to the possibility of genes playing a role in determining one’s race. From a biologist’s perspective, he would seek to ascertain as to whether different races have inborn traits only peculiar to them. Scientists look into the genetic outfit of individuals of a particular racial group to answer these questions. Judge Tucker at one time defined race as divisions in terms of their hereditary, their natural and physical characteristics, and their morphology. These divisions and groups include White, Black, or Asian. Given this view, one’s ancestry or heredity points to the determination of an individual’s race. He further implied that a person’s race was also nature-related (King 1981, p.23). The belief refutes biological implications through a number of researches. From genetics, it is possible to note that there are no direct characteristics held by one race distinct from another race. For example, there are no specific biological traits held by only whites. The race of a person, after numerous researches done, cannot be due to a gene or a number of genes clustered together. Further study has shown that there is even a bigger variation of individuals within a specific race set than there is between races. Biologists and scientists alike have argued that the case of differentiation occurs in most cases due to geographic separation rather than influence of personal features. Therefore, the issue of race relates to individuals with a social connection in this case.

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Race and Ethnicity

Both race and ethnicity are key cogs in the study of sociology. Race usually looks at biological factors while ethnicity looks at social aspects. Race commonly refers to individual’s skin, hair, eye colour, and other physical features including the structure of the jawbone. On the other hand, ethnicity is distinct from race as it focuses on cultural factors. These include languages, nationality, ancestry, culture, beliefs among others (Healey 2003, p.29). Whereas ethnicity focuses on the external condition surrounding an individual, race looks at certain traits of the individual. It is important to distinguish this aspect from race as the two experience interchangeable uses. Historically, the terms race and ethnicity had similar meanings. As we look at other aspects that determine the definition of race, clearer distinctions become visible. To understand this difference better between the two, we look at the roles they play. Race plays an important role as it is concerned with our day-to-day interactions whereas ethnicity plays a role of creating the environment.

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Sociological Studies in Race

Classical Theorists

Sociology is an important aspect when it comes to comprehending the issue of races and ethics. It studies economical, social, and political areas that relate different races or ethnicities to each other. It combines with other sociology areas such as social psychology, social stratification, and postcolonial theories to draw an even better picture of race and racism. The first view is from the classical theorists. The Marxism era initiated by the economist Marx views society as two distinct social classes. The groups are a working class and the capitalist class. He hoped that the working class would outshine the capitalist class since the working class felt overexploited. However, this failed largely because racism divided the labourers into blacks and whites, thereby hindering production efficiencies (Bash 1979, p.24-25). On the other hand, Weber started forming micro-sociologies of ethnic groups. He argued that unless individuals shared certain characteristics from birth, the reason to group races and ethnicities in terms of biological traits was baseless. W.E.B Dubois became an influential member of the society. He educated himself on relations surrounding his African American race. He became a well-known activist. He shunned stereotypes that pointed to the blacks being lazy, crime-affiliated, and a lower race compared to the whites. He encouraged Black Americans to embrace education and actively urged them to gain freedom everywhere (Healey 2003, p.80). Booker T. Washington was also influential in terms of advocating for the education to reduce unemployment and levels of debt among them. He did this through education by the Tuskegee Institute. He advocated for racial discrimination from the Whites as long as they supported economic activities and education.

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In the United States of America

One of the early sociology aspects became apparent in the United States of America. It influenced various areas such as the streets, libraries, parking areas, and social gatherings. The discipline of sociology developed slowly in the 20th century. There was a rise of pragmatism and progressivism in the history of this country. In the early 20th century, race was viewed from a biological angle. This implied that races and natural similarities became essential in forming theories. As the years passed and racism became a growing issue, residents contended to justify race as natural. During and after the holocaust, various communities and races were absorbed within America. These included Mexicans, Asians, Spaniards, Brazilians, and other nationalities of people (Jacobs & Bowles 1988, p. 47). During radical shifts in the beginning of this century, labour demands grew and it became a complex issue and it was apparent that to take certain measures was necessary. This period saw the fall of biological theories surrounding races. Movements against colonialism were formed, especially in Asia and Europe, and growth of democratic rights and freedoms became apparent. Former peasants and freed slaves became activists and their voices were welcomed and affected the world over. This move saw the emergence of the scientific approach in defining race (Harding1993, p. 82). From the school of sociology in Chicago, there came the theory of pragmatism, which was championed by Dubois and preached democratization of all segregated races. This theory is widely used even today in the world.

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Racial Anthropology

In the early 19th century, anthropologists looked into how race can be termed as a concept related to biology rather than relating it to a taxonomic concept. Some of these major anthropologists included Charles Pickering, James Pritchard, Georges Cuvier, and Louis Agassiz (Stocking 1968, p. 71). These anthropologists sought to link race to biology in three main ways: firstly, proving that  there was a relationship between human events and biological races; secondly, races were naturally segregated divisions of objective human beings; and lastly, race had distinguishing features such as colour of skin, eyes, and hair, facial profiles, intelligence, and issues of morality. They used the branch of science known as forensics to carry out their researches. They carefully analyzed human remains. The forensic anthropologists were convinced that races had a biological attachment to their existence. They came up with certain similarities when it came to analyzing both the remains and the relation to races (Kroeber 1948, p.34-35). However, one major shortcoming came about; this was the absence of some features of members of a particular race. These included skin colour, hair, and eye colour.

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Race and Human behaviour

The study of human behaviour comes under tough scrutiny especially because certain behaviours linked to genetic predisposition. In the United States for example, surveys, researches, and police reports point to the fact that more offenders are dark skinned than whites or other races. Looking at race from the point of view of human traits, it becomes apparent that there exists some relationship between the traits and race (Smadley 1993, p. 61). When it comes to sports, different races and groups are according to racial lines. For example, white have been known to be good in swimming and snowboarding whereas Negroids display their prowess in athletics. In addition, health concerns are present when it comes to races. For example, light-skinned races are more prone to suffer from cancer-causing ultra violet rays than the dark skinned races. The issue of intelligence comes up a number of times. Questions against the slow progress of Africa in comparison to other continents come into play. The possibility of it being a case of the issue of race rises up each time.

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Races in the World Today

There are four common categories of races in the world today and they include Caucasian race, which includes the Hamates, Aryans, and Semites. The Mongolian race consists of Micronesian, Tibetan, Malayan, American Indian, Korean, Japanese, Indo-Chinese, Chinese, Northern Mongolian, Eskimo, Maori, and Polynesian. Negroid includes Hottentots, Australian Aborigine, Sinhalese, Africans, and Dravidians. They all have different features. The Caucasians have high foreheads, supraobital skull development, and dolicephalic heads (long heads). Mongloids have short round heads slightly lower foreheads as compared to Caucasoid. Their cheekbones are short, wide, and, projecting, their incisors are shovel-shaped, and they have low and broad noses. Negroids have high foreheads; the bridge and the root of their noses are low and broad (Stocking 1968, p. 34-56).


Racism in definition is the hatred towards another person on beliefs that the other person is inferior. This was based on skin colour, customs, languages, moral, social traits, biological traits, among other characteristics. It separates one race from another along the lines of inferiority and superiority (Back & Solomos 2000, p.16). This type of segregation has brought about and influenced slavery, legal codes, wars, and formation of nations. Racial discriminations have gone further to point out that some traits of individuals dictate their racial affiliations. The United Nations defines racial discrimination as exclusions, distinctions, and restrictions based on descent, race, colour, and ethnic or national origin. These have effects of impairing the enjoyment, recognition, and exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms of human beings in their public life in terms of political, social, economical, or cultural affiliations. Socialists have come up with a version of racism as well whereby they define it as sanctioned cultural beliefs. Other race-related sanctions include xenophobia, which is an intense fear or dislike of strangers and/or expatriates from other countries. It is an irrational move by these people. Supremacy was widely used during the colonial imperialism of the Europeans in Africa, America, and Asia. This was an attitude held by the Europeans that they were a superior race (Green 1967, p.32). They considered other races as burdens to them. Racial segregation is a term that implies the division of human beings during their usual daily dealings into groups based on races. This includes places of social gatherings and in the utilization of public utilities. 

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