RACE Part I: Establishing the White, Black and Yellow; Scientific Racism


In this post, I will be focusing on the issues of race and culture through a Western European perspective. Specifically, I will be looking at the history of cultural discrimination in Europe, particularly in the pre- and post- Enlightenment eras; and the social construction of race and the evolution of it from a social and class concept back in the Victorian era, to something that signifies skin color now.


Before looking at how the modern day concept of race came about, it is important to understand the theory of the “state of nature”, proposed by famed Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume. Now before the Enlightenment period in Christian Europe, it was believed that life started in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve lived in paradise, without government and so on. The Enlightenment thinkers proposed a more secular (but really not very different) concept of the “state of nature”. The state of nature is a term used in political philosophy to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state’s foundation. Man is supposedly, according to European thought, said to have a “common, universal nature of human beings beneath their particular cultural identities” (Jahn 2000: xi). This is “a hypothetical state of nature which is considered to be ‘neutral’” (Jahn 2000: xv). This state of nature is pure and free of culture. Underlying this thought is the assumption that “nature will one day overcome culture” (Jahn 2000: xvi), that is, humans will reconcile with each other due to this supposed common, natural link they share. Culture is therefore seen as a problem, for nature to resolve.

The state of nature concept has gained plenty of following all over the world, and especially in Europe. Beate Jahn strongly disagrees with it since it “presupposes a common, universal nature of human beings beneath their particular cultural identities, thus enabling International Relations theory to make statements of general validity despite the cultural diversity of its subject matter” (Jahn 2000: xi). Since it is supposed to be common to all human beings, the concept does not take different cultural identities into account, which allows it to easily “resolve” conflicts “generated by cultural diversity” (Jahn 2000: xi). Culture is a very expected output of human nature – “human beings are for their interaction with each other, as well as with their natural environment, dependent on culture which organizes and directs and gives meaning to these activities in specific ways” (Jahn 2000: xvi). People will fare better to not believe in the concept of the state of nature; there should be an attempt to construct “a theory of International Relations on the assumption that there is not human nature without culture” (Jahn 2000: xvi) instead.


At the advent of the New World, many religious men flocked there to convert the Amerindian people to Catholicism. At the same time, the conquistadores also rushed to find gold, get free labor and conquer the land. The Amerindians were interpreted to be at a lower “developmental stage” (Jahn 2000: xiv) as compared to the Spaniards. Thus, the conquistadores established their bases using the encomienda system, which essentially allowed a Spaniard some natives as slaves, whom they could exploit. The massacres and brutalities committed by the Spanish settlers through the encomienda system led to a debate between the conquistadores and a number of religious men.

A potential solution came in the form of the Valladolid Controversy, organized by King Charles V of the Spanish Empire to determine whether the Native Americans were capable of self-governance. There were three main problems concerning the Amerindians. Due to no mention of the Amerindians in the bible, it was debated “whether the Spaniards had a right to establish their rule in America, whether they could lead just wars against the Amerindians, and whether they had the right to enslave the latter” (Jahn 2000: 34). Beata Jahn argues that in order to enable themselves to do all three of the aforementioned, the Spaniards needed to come up with legal, not biblical, reasons. This needed the use of secular “natural law” (Jahn 2000: 52), or universal law set by nature. Jahn shows throughout her book that this “natural law” was really twisted, and almost always strikingly in the Spaniards’ interests. Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, and Dominican Francisco de Vitoria all participated in the Valladolid debate.

“Aristotelian ideas opened up the possibility of an independent, secular political dimension of human life” (Jahn 2000: 43), since Aristotle said that humans were naturally political beings. Due to this, “political communities were natural communities, subject to natural law rather than divine law… political communities did not necessarily have to be Christian in order to be recognized” (Jahn 2000: 44). So natural law could be established in the New World. Moreover, Aristotle’s concept of natural slavery could be used to determine the nature of Amerindians before they were legally enslaved and conquered: “people without reason could not have dominium – that is power/property de facto or de jure – over their own bodies, their fellow beings, or the material world” (Jahn 2000: 53).


In 1550, the Valladolid Controversy was organized by King Charles V to answer whether the Native Americans were capable of self-governance. There were three very poignant thinkers debating this situation, all using the ideas of natural law to make their case, and all trying to establish whether or not Amerindians had enough “reason” to govern themselves. I would first like to examine Juan Ginés de Sepulveda, who argued the case of the conquistadores. He “argued that the Amerindians were natural slaves as defined by Aristotle and could therefore, be legally enslaved by the Spaniards” (Jahn 2000: 34). He went one step further and said that there are some “who by nature are masters and others who by nature are slaves. Those who surpass the rest in prudence and intelligence, although not in physical strength, are by nature the masters… those who are dim-witted… (yet strong) are by nature slaves” (Jahn 2000: 53). Indeed, fellow conquistador Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon claimed that they were morally inclined to subject the Amerindians to Spanish rule since “it was far better they should become slave men… than to remain free beasts” (Jahn 2000: 53).

Indeed, Sepulveda too believed, that the Amerindians were barbarians since he thought they ate “’human flesh’ and practice(d) human sacrifice” (Jahn 2000: 56). He also suggests that they are a failure as a population since they, according to him, “had not been able to make such successful use of the mechanical laws of nature” (Jahn 2000: 62).  The Amerindians were also not as exploitative as possible with their soil, they did not use iron and “did not put “value on gold and other precious things” (Jahn 2000: 58). They also did not practice social stratification in the way in which the Europeans did. The Europeans had a real problem with “matrilocal and matrilineal Amerindian societies in which the women played a considerable and independent role and had responsibility for the education” (Jahn 2000: 59). They, according to the Spaniards, did not follow the “natural” hierarchy.  In addition, the lack of private property showed that the community was more important for the Amerindians than individuals. They were thus not seen as properly organized societies. Sepulveda argued that “the fact that (everything is controlled by their lords)… is not the result of coercion but is voluntary and spontaneous is a certain sign of the servile and base spirit of these barbarians” (Jahn 2000: 61). To top it all off, the Spaniards were astonished by the supposed vulgarity of the Amerindians. Their nakedness, practice of sodomy, “incest, homosexuality and other ‘perversions’… demonstrated they did not observe the natural law” (Jahn 2000: 59).

Ultimately, Sepulveda just believed that the Spaniards were superior to the Amerindians: “the perfect should command and rule over the imperfect” (Jahn 2000: 66). In terms of rationality, he admitted that “they are not totally irrational” (Jahn 2000: 65), but “not rational enough to govern themselves” (Jahn 2000: 65). The best way to deal with the Amerindians was to use violence to prepare for missionary efforts since “the ‘culture’ of the Amerindians had become second nature” (Jahn 2000: 77).


Bartolomé de las Casas was Dominican friar, who argued that the Amerindians were free men and deserved the same treatment as others. He counter argued against Sepulveda, claiming that Spaniards themselves did not show much ‘civilization’, that the Amerindians had “properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and customs” (Jahn 2000: 61) and that they had obviously understood that the greatest sacrifice one could give to God was human life” (Jahn 2000: 57). He compared this to metaphorically eating Jesus Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood at mass every Sunday. Moreover, there was no question “that the Amerindians did not fulfill the conditions spelled out in just war theories of having inflicted harm on the Spaniards” (Jahn 2000: 49). It was questionable whether the Spaniards could lead a just war against or enslave the Amerindians. Las Casas also naively believed that “the Amerindians were men in the state of nature with the potential of reason but without the cultivation… they were born late” (Jahn 2000: 68). They were still in the Paradise of god, and had not fallen from grace.

Las Casas outlined four attributes of a barbarian. They either “behaved in a brutal and uncontrolled way” (Jahn 2000: 54), “did not know how to write or did not speak properly” (Jahn 2000: 54), “have nor care for law, right, nation, friendship, or the company of other men… since they cannot live socially’” (Jahn 2000: 54) or “who did not have the true Christian religion” (Jahn 2000: 54). He believed that the latter two were applicable to the Amerindians, since they did not write and were not Christian. Due to this, Las Casas finally concluded that they needed to be slaves to live an ordered social life.

Francisco de Vitoria, was a Roman Catholic philosopher, who saw Amerindian history and culture as “evil, (and difficult to reverse) as (it was) a product of education, of history, of thousands of years of socialization” (Jahn 2000: 69). He was also convinced that they were barbarians. Vitoria was horrified by the Amerindians eating human flesh, saying it went against natural law, since it violated dietary laws and the “right of every human being to a decent burial” (Jahn 2000: 56). He claimed that “Christian rulers can lead a just war against the barbarians on the grounds that such practices ‘involve injustice… to other men’” (Jahn 2000: 70). For Vitoria, “if treated humanely, it would be better for them to be slaves among Christians than free in their own lands; in addition, it is the greatest good fortune to become Christians” (Jahn 2000: 46). Nevertheless, Vitoria said the Amerindians had reason since “god and nature never fail in the things necessary… and the chief attribute of man is reason” (Jahn 2000: 66). On the basis of Vitoria’s argument “Amerindians were eventually considered as human beings endowed with reason” (Jahn 2000: 66)


There were European thinkers and American Founding Fathers who also contemplated on this idea of natural law. The classical thought, was highly Eurocentric and “concentrated heavily upon the construction and maintenance of internal order… (and focused on) theory of state and not interstate theory” (Jahn 2000: 96). These classical thinkers included Rousseau, who “held that human beings in the state of nature have no need to cooperate and argued that as a consequence they lived a solitary life” (Jahn 2000: 16), Hobbes, who believed that the Amerindian people lived in a constantly warring state of nature, and Kant, who also believed in a state of war, but thought that “nature’s secret design” (Jahn 2000: 26) will lead to peace “through the ties of trade, cultural exchange, and political understanding that together both commit existing republics to peace and, by inference, give rise to individualistic demands in nonrepublics whose resolution requires the establishment of republican government” (Jahn 2000: 26).

John Locke believed in the labor theory of property, whereby property is derived through the utilization of labor and resources. Locke argued in support of individual property rights as “natural rights”. Furthermore the laborer must also hold a natural property right in the resource itself because – as Locke believes – exclusive ownership was immediately necessary for production. This concept clashes with Aristotle’s concept of natural slavery, since while on one hand the Amerindians are being told they have the right have property and on the other hand they are told they are slaves.

Howard Williams defends Locke’s theory which stresses the importance of individual property rights and exploitation of natural resources: “the commercial spirit which goes hand in hand with Locke’s political theory led to improved communications and undermined other, less equal social relations” (Jahn 2000: 104). In doing so, he of course does not fail to mention that this created “unimagined opportunities” (Jahn 2000: 104) for some stagnant or barbaric societies in the past. However, Jahn correctly points out that “for many of the colonized peoples (private property and exploitation of resources) did not open up any opportunities but ended them” (Jahn 2000: 105).

According the Locke, the Amerindians represented “the ‘Pattern of the first Ages in Asia and Europe’… the ‘Infancy’ of humankind” (Jahn 2000: 118). He means that the Europeans have left the state of nature, but Amerindians have not. As with Rousseau, the Amerindians are thought to be “held together natural compassion” (Jahn 2000: 120); nothing else could explain it, since they did not have European style governments. Assumed, as with many authors of his type, that as there was an increase in population, there was a scarcity in food and land which led to fights over the scarce resources. This ended natural law. The solution to this problem, according to Locke, was to have private property – “setting up a superior power over the community ensured peace between the members of the community… (and) put an end to the fight over common resources (and) provided the necessary conditions for intensive agriculture and thus, raised production” (Jahn 2000: 120). Moreover, Locke adds money “as a condition for state-building”  (Jahn 2000: 120) since it leads to an increase in production, according to him. Adam Smith agrees and argues that the Amerindians, due to insufficient production as a result of lack of private property, have to abandon their infants, elderly, and disabled members. He compares this to “civilized” societies where there is no insufficiency of food, even though “a great number of people do not labor at all” (Jahn 2000: 121).

Montesquieu and Locke were key figures for the “Founding Fathers” of the United States. Montesquieu maintained that; “in society (some) lost equality and only regained it through the laws… equality and law (thus) became one of the most crucial goals of the reformers” (Jahn 2000: 123). Locke’s right of liberty from state of nature was a principle the US could use to get independence from the British and his property rights definition was used against the Amerindians, who had to cede their agricultural rights to a “more advanced nation” (Jahn 2000: 136).


Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of America, believed it was important to study the science of government, and to trace its origins, which he believed could be found amongst the Amerindians. He also believed that the Amerindian people did not have governments: “governments were developed ‘when a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the backstairs in European courts, the world was completely under the government, then, can be put down to superstition and ignorance’” (Jahn 2000: 138). According to Paine, society came before government: “all the great laws of society are… rooted in the nature of man” (Jahn 2000: 138). Indeed, he believes that this natural nature of man is damaged by civil society which makes them “wretched” and “miserable”, to quote Paine. Nevertheless, he very reluctantly admits that the natural state or the Amerindian state apparently does not offer “agriculture, arts, science and manufacture” (Jahn 2000: 139). He calls the life of an Amerindian a ‘holiday’ compared to the poor in Europe but ‘abject’ compared to the rich. Just like Locke, he feels that the drawbacks to civilization can be taken care of with the introduction of private property, which will supposedly create more equality between the higher and lower strata of people.


The Enlightenment discourse was not racist, but for the first time there was “a concept of a human universality that could transcend perceived differences” (Malik 1996: 42). The modern concept of race, however, did emerge after the Enlightenment period. Indeed, in the medieval times, and individual’s social strata took much higher precedence over his or her skin color.

The period of Enlightenment helped the decline of the feudal system. The declaration of the Universal Rights of Man in the Enlightenment era was dangerous to the monarchy, since it would allow slaves, “local” and imported, to demand to be free: “the aspiring middle classes of Europe hopes… to use the monarchy to reform society… they desired… the removal of impediments to individual self-advancement” (Malik 1996: 56). The capitalists gained economically from this phenomenon. Indeed, “to create a workforce for their enterprises, the capitalists had to undermine the idea of social obligation inherent in the feudal system and declare all men to be ‘free’” (Malik 1996: 57). However, there was still significant inequality as “in destroying the old divisions of feudal society, capitalism… created divisions anew” (Malik 1996: 69).

The fact that these social divisions persisted, it almost seemed like they were natural divisions, not social ones. The concept of race was used as a way of explaining this social inequality: “racial theories accounted for social inequalities by ascribing them to nature” (Malik 1996: 70).  Social differences were starting to be seen as political and moral, as Rousseau put it. It can be seen clearly through this that inequality is what led to the race concept, and not vice versa. Rousseau stated that there were two types of inequalities amongst people – one in terms of biological differences, called moral or political inequality and the other was social inequality. Rousseau said that the former was controlled by man.

In the post-Enlightenment world… the group, the community and the nation… became important concepts” (Malik 1996: 77). The notion of “race” was still not very clear. People mixed up the ideas of people, nations, class and race. Malik claims that the “discourse of race arose out of perceived differences within European society and only later was it systematically applied to differences of color” (Malik 1996: 82). Count Arthur Gobineau was the first person to publish the social concept of racism as we know it today. He outlined three races – white, black and yellow. He stressed that “history results only from the mutual contact of white races” (Malik 1996: 84). Other races did not have history, unless and until they came into contact with white people. Indeed, a real man was white.

However, for Gobineau’s theory to become more valid, it had to be made scientific. The heterogeneity of mankind was specifically stressed, human nature was portrayed to be not very different form animals, and “mental abilities of humans were related to physical characteristics” (Malik 1996: 87). Nonsensical experiments such comparing the shape of human skulls to animals was done, intelligence and musical capabilities could be “determined” by the size of the forehead, and Darwin’s theory of evolution was misconstrued to determine how “evolved” a human being is. All this determined a person’s social class in society. It was finally a study by English psychologists W.E.D & C.D. Whetham that mentioned that “the upper classes and the country folk seem… to be fairer and taller than the industrial sections of the population” (Malik 1996: 96) which made “the (supposed) inferiority of the non-white races become part of mainstream scientific and social thinking” (Malik 1996: 96).

Scientific racism created a hierarchy, justifying the superiority of the higher strata and white people and the inferiority of the lower strata and black people. It was, after all, under the name of “science and progress” (Malik 1996: 100). This helped to sustain hierarchy in society, by making people belonging to lower strata believe the untruth that natural law was the reason for the hierarchy, and not members of the higher strata or bourgeoisie. This scientific racism also made white people belonging to a lower strata feel superior to non-white people in colonies in Americas, Africa and Asia.


It is very astonishing to learn how many years, how much effort and how many debates it has taken to design and implement these impositions upon society as a whole. Beate Jahn and Kenen Malik specifically show how the higher social strata, defined on the lines of capitalism can get to decide exactly what kinds of social pressures and difficulties the rest of the world will face every day. It is even more convoluted that society as a whole is made to think that these segregations in society are either natural or the best alternative. In my next blog post about race, I will be focusing on European racism in the colonial era.



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