When, how, and why did race become an object of knowledge? – Fellows’ seminar by Geoffrey Harpham

19 April 2022

“Race is everywhere,” Geoffrey Harpham said, “and yet there is no good concept of it. We don’t know what to think.”

Harpham, a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, has been compiling an archive of the documents that established the concept of race from 1750-1900 in an attempt to understand how it was initially understood, how it took root and developed, and why it was ultimately abandoned as an object of scientific research.

STIAS Fellow Geoffrey Harpham during his seminar on 12 April 2022

Taking advantage of the pandemic, Harpham undertook the demanding task of accumulating texts, many of them out of print or difficult to find, in the fields of zoology, geology, linguistics, anthropology, medicine, and natural history in which the race concept was developed. From an initial list of about 120, he culled 55, from which he then selected the relevant passages. The writers included, in addition to many people whose names are not now commonly known, such figures as David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Ernest Renan, Thomas Huxley and Frederick Douglass.

He then wrote headnotes of up to 2000 words for each entry, providing context, cross-references, and lists of further reading.

The result was a fundamentally different account of the past than the one that passes for consensus today. As he explained, today’s discourse on race is dominated by two phrases ‘social construction’ and ‘invention’, which are typically opposed to an older concept now widely seen as racist, of race as a biological category, a term comparable to species. The 2019 ‘Jena Declaration’ issued by the German Zoological Society says that “race was invented by racists”.  Harpham disagrees.

As he began by pointing out, the two alternatives more recently proposed are not versions of one concept: “‘Social construction’ suggests an anonymous process over which nobody has any control and for which nobody is accountable, while ‘invention’ suggests a deliberate act undertaken by someone.” Moreover, both these phrases have themselves been criticised as racist for denying that race, a compelling aspect of identity for many people, is merely an idea.

“What you see when you study the texts themselves,” he said, “is that for decades, nobody really knew what race was. It was a category with a very murky history, referring to some kind of affiliation, not always biological. The ‘race of Plantagenets’, the ‘race of soldiers’, or the ‘race of bloodhounds’ were equally accepted usages.  The term was, however, useful in a kind of project that began to emerge at the end of the 18th century, a natural history of the earth, including humanity.”

On the assumption, derived from Linnaeus, that nature was organised in categories, writers could employ the term race to describe human differences. There was, Harpham said, no consensus on the number of races, with arguments advanced for numbers between one (the human) to 63, some with many sub-races.

Nor was there confidence that race existed at all.  Hans Blumenbach, regarded as the most distinguished investigator of the subject at the end of the 18th century, did not use the term; and Johann Gottfried von Herder, an eminent philosopher, wrote, “I see no need for this appelation”.

The desire for greater scientific clarity on a difficult subject led to deeper study of skin, hair, climate, bones, and especially skulls of the peoples of the world. Over the course of the 19th century millions of people had their skulls measured, sometimes with over a 100 measurements on a single skull, on the presumption that the measurements contributed to the scientific effort to understand humanity.

This effort became one of the primary sources of racial ranking. If the essence of race lay in the formation of the skull, then an opportunity was opened up for people to explain racial differences as a consequence of different brains or brain capacity. While the vast majority of scientists denounced slavery and racial exploitation, a minority, and many others who were not scientists by any definition, appealed to racial science as a justification for exploitation or the deprivation of rights.

Apart from the corruption of what was, for the most part, a good-faith effort to determine the truth of race, the race concept, Harpham explained, served many other functions, some of them progressive even by the standards of today. The concept figured in debates about the Enlightenment, the status of the Bible, and national identity. And, by sponsoring numerous focused approaches, race actually accelerated the growth of specialised academic disciplines.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the race concept was beginning to fall into disrepute as scientists frustrated by the accumulation of statistics and the stubborn lack of certainty about whether race actually existed began to call for the abandoning of race as an object of science.

At just this time, however, the race concept was taken up by others with entirely different agendas than the pursuit of knowledge. In 1897 the young W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Conservation of Races in which he argued that race must not be abandoned as long as the Negro has not delivered “the full complete Negro message of the whole Negro race”.  Race, according to Du Bois, was a matter of “common blood, common history, traditions, and impulses”.  A racial group was marked not just by physical differences but by “spiritual, psychical differences”.

In a 1986 essay, Kwame Anthony Appiah disputed this characterisation of race, saying that it was incoherent, and that in fact, “the truth is that there are no races; there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask ‘race’ to do for us”.  His response was widely criticised, and in the Du Bois Lecture given at Harvard in 2014, Appiah essentially withdrew his objection to Du Bois.

As Harpham explained, this exchange actually suggests “the larger, paradoxical truth about race, one to which the writings in this volume bear witness. The persistent suspicions of the nullity of the race concept surely placed a limit on its effectiveness, but may also have contributed to its utility and especially to its durability. The thought of hard boundaries between categories of human beings may be clarifying and empowering in some contexts, but is mysterious and terrifying in others.  Considered as an intuitively obvious fact and also as an unconfirmed hypothesis, race enables us to have it both ways, to choose the sense in which we wish to take it, and thus to escape the bleakest implications of a concept in which we may wish to believe”.

Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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