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Who Started Racism? The Origins and Evolution of Racial Prejudice



Who Started Racism? The Origins and Evolution of Racial Prejudice

According to a recent report from the United Nations, one in six people worldwide has experienced some form of discrimination. Among both women and men, racism continues to be the most common ground for exclusion. 

Defined as seeking to dominate or exclude an individual or group based on ethnicity, skin color, or language, racism centers on differences that are both hereditary and permanent. From small-scale conflicts to global crises, it has serious and long-lasting consequences. 

While it’s still running rampant today, it’s important to take a look back and understand where this type of treatment began. Today, we’re sharing an in-depth history of racism, tracing its roots and noting how it’s shifted over time. 

Establishing the Concept of Race

Before we dive into the background of racial prejudice, we must first understand the meaning of race. While this is a common categorization today, it might surprise you to find that for thousands of years, this wasn’t the case. Humans were simply humans, although there were notable characteristics that defined certain groups. 

What changed? We can look back and see two pivotal moments in global history. 

13th Century: Jewish Exclusion

We can trace the earliest form of racism back to the 13th and 14th centuries. This was the first time that a particular group, the Jews, began to be publically associated with something particularly negative.

Throughout Europe, prejudiced parties began to proclaim that the Jews were engaged in devil worship and witchcraft, causing major controversy, hurt, and confusion among the affected individuals. Naysayers claimed that Jews were antagonistic, placing the blame on their shoulders any time a natural disaster or tragedy would strike. These stereotypes were strengthened by popular culture during the time, which depicted Jews with devil-like features in writings and artwork.

This connotation continued into the 16th century when Jews who had converted to Christianity were continuously excluded and discriminated against, especially in Spain. To this day, antisemitism is still a powerful force, with related attacks up by 400% since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

Read Also: Texas Tech Suspends Basketball Coach Mark Adams Amidst Racism Controversy

16th Century: Slave Trade

While antisemitic claims unfairly categorized an entire religious group, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the concept of race began to truly take hold. Starting in 1526 and ending in 1867, the Transatlantic Slave Trade occurred. This was the mass capture and transfer of men, women, and children from Africa to the Americas.

In all, around 12.5 million individuals were affected by this centuries-long event, which historians recognize as the deadliest long-distance global migration to date. While slavery had existed before, this was the first time that others began to see the moral implications that the practice might have. 

Individuals both involved and separated from the Slave Trade began to wonder if it was permissible to enslave others. As the demand for this type of labor rose in the 17th century, slaveholders (specifically white individuals in Europe and North America) began to look for a way to justify their actions. As they sought an acceptable answer, the idea of “race” began to form.

Apart from religious differences, people wanted a way to explain why and how the enslaved people from Africa were different from the white individuals who inhabited the land. On one hand, they were looking to scientifically explain their physical attributes. At the same time, they also wanted a general answer that would explain why the Slave Trade was decent. 

This led them to define race. In general, this is the basic idea that humans are divided into distinct groups based on inherited differences that are both physical and behavioral in nature. 

Racial Hierarchy Begins

As a result of their studies, 17th-century philosophers and scientists created what’s now known as the earliest form of a racial hierarchy. Though their methods have since been proven to be anything but scientific, the model stuck. It’s through this representation that the meaning of racism first formed. 

While there were a few different levels, the most notable distinction was that Black people were at the bottom of the hierarchy, while white people were at the top. As a result, they claimed that certain racial groups were simply born to be enslaved to others. To assume otherwise would be to go against the natural order of things, which could lead to mass chaos.

Where did they get these insights? Let’s take a closer look.

Religious Justification

Starting during the Renaissance and Reformation periods, white individuals began passing judgment on people with darker skin pigmentations. At the time, they mostly formed their hierarchy based on their belief that enslaved Africans were heathens who must be controlled.

While much of this belief was based on personal prejudice, they also referenced a Biblical basis for their actions. When justifying slavery, they’d point to a passage in Genesis, where Ham sinned against his father, Noah. Using historical evidence that Noah and his family were likely Black, they cited the scripture wherein Ham’s descendants were condemned to be servants unto servants as a result of Ham’s actions. 

In slaveholders’ minds, this explained the concept of servitude and slavery. When states like Virginia decreed in the mid-1600s that slaves could be held in bondage, the reasoning was that even if they weren’t heathens themselves, their ancestors were. 

This marked the shift from classifying race based on religion alone to something more physical. In the late 17th century, more laws were passed that continued to classify Blacks as inferior. This included exclusions against marriages between whites and blacks and acts that discriminated against mixed-race offspring. 

Classification of Species

Toward the end of the 16th century, during the Enlightenment Period, there was less emphasis on the Bible as a justification for discrimination, especially as people began pointing out that the Bible supported the idea of human equality. 

Instead, scientists and ethnologists looked for a more concrete, irrefutable way to support the racial hierarchy theory. As a result, they grouped humans into different races. These races, they claimed, were varieties of the “human” species. 

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, these beliefs held strong. At the beginning of the 19th century, the idea of subclassifications grew even more, as modern-day writers and philosophers described each race as its own, separate species. 

From our modern perspective, we can see that all of these attitudes and behaviors were faulty and unfair from the beginning. However, at the time, it was exactly what the masses needed to keep their conscience clean and allow them to continue their prejudiced practices. They also found religious reasons to condone their actions, but the racial hierarchy was the most prominent explanation and excuse. 

The Evolution of Racism in the Post-Slavery Era

If the Slave Trade catalyzed the formation of racism, you might assume that these categorizations would end in 1865, when the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery in the United States. However, we know this isn’t what happened.

While the last known slave ship arrived in the late 1850s, racism is still alive and powerful today. This is because, while slavery ended the physical practice of elevating one race over another, it created deeply rooted belief systems that weren’t as easy to eliminate.

While Blacks were technically out of slavery and Jews were no longer confined to the ghettos, these reformative movements didn’t have the immediately gratifying effect that many expected. In many ways, they strengthened racism, rather than denounced it. 

Even individuals who were praised for their abolitionist efforts didn’t always believe that Black people and white people should be equal. Many of them simply disagreed with the concept of slavery. The levels created in early racial hierarchy held strong as the decades passed. 

At the crest of the 20th century, it became clear it was only getting started. 

Racist Regimes of the 20th Century: American Segregation 

As early as 1865, the American South was heading toward a period of radical injustice toward Blacks. It was in this year that laws called “Black Codes” were passed across the region. These laws controlled the lives of Black individuals, dictating where they could live and work. 

In addition, Black Codes also ensured that local business owners could continue to secure Black workers for cheap labor, long after slavery had ended. Before long, segregation became public policy through the passing of the Jim Crow Laws. 

Through this one piece of legislation, lawmakers were able to segregate nearly every aspect of a community, making sure that Black and white people were kept separate (and had different rights) in areas such as: 

  • Schools
  • Neighborhoods
  • Workplaces
  • Public parks
  • Theaters
  • Transportation 
  • Pools
  • Asylums and jails
  • Waiting rooms
  • Voting booths

These laws reduced Black people to an even lower status in America and led to the rise of extremely racist media and propaganda. These actions would continue until the desegregation of the American South in the 1960s. 

Nazi Germany

While the South was focused on segregation, Germany was fighting its own war against what it perceived to be a “lesser” class: the Jews. Hitler and his group of Nazis took racist ideology to an entirely different level, attempting to extinguish an entire ethnic group through the Holocaust. 

While the movement had supporters, the global public was morally disturbed by these actions. Sympathizing scientists conducted studies that discredited the concept of racist genetics, which helped debunk the historic racial hierarchy theory that so many early academics had touted. 

The State of Racism Today

When Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended segregation in the U.S., many hoped that racism would radically end overnight. Yet, while the concept of biological racism might not be as popular anymore, it’s still an integral part of our culture. 

Now, racism runs through the very thread of society. As it continues to shape public perception, it informs everything from employment policies to housing regulations, immigration protocols, and more. However, it’s not always as easy to spot these forms of discrimination. 

While we aren’t engaging in slavery as a society anymore, many people still practice forms of racial inequality. To explain their behavior, they’ll point to the original hierarchy and explain that there are innate differences that divide us all.

However, we’ve shared that scientists have since debunked this theory, noting that race isn’t biological or based on DNA. Instead, these divisions are created based on political and social classifications, which have nothing to do with someone’s genetic makeup.

Forms of Modern Racism

Understanding how to take action against racism starts with knowing what it looks like. Now that it’s a social construct and not woven into our laws or everyday actions, it can be sneakier and harder to detect. Yet, it’s still here and the signs to look for include:

  • Individuals who refute the existence of racism or claim to be “colorblind”
  • Leaders who discriminate others based on their race (e.g. employers, housing authorities, educators, police, doctors, etc.)
  • Individuals who use racial slurs to describe others
  • Individuals who promote negative racial stereotypes (e.g. certain groups are predisposed to violence)
  • Individuals who conduct hate crimes against others based on their race

Once you understand what racism looks like, you can begin to take real action against it. Sometimes, it’s a blatant attack or insult against a historically marginalized group. Other times, it’s non-intentional but still impactful. 

To understand the implications of such prejudice, begin by learning as much as you can about it. From reading books to sitting down with current activists, there are many ways to educate yourself on the realities of racism. Then, you can advocate for change at both the personal and policy level. 

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