- Racial classification today is commonplace; people routinely catalogue each other as members of this or that race, and seem to assume that everyone can be thus catalogued. They also seem to assume that human beings have always routinely classified each other as members of races. But on this issue there is scholarly disagreement. Some authorities, Thomas F. Gossett, for example claim to find the idea of race 5,000 years ago, in India, and among the early Chinese, Egyptians, and Jews. Others, however, and these now seem to be in the majority, contend that the idea of race is modern. According to Ivan Hannaford, for example, the idea of race was 'invented' or ‘fabricated’ only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after the 'French and American revolutions and the social upheavals which followed'. If he is right, the practice of racial classification that people take for granted today might have begun only 200 years ago.
- Many scholars also maintain that the races are modern inventions. 'Historians’, David Brion Davis observes, have increasingly recognized that the ‘races’ are the 'inventions' of Europe's 'imperial expansion'. Davis's claim should not be confused with Hannaford's. Davis's claim is that the races did not exist until Europe's imperial expansion. Hannaford's claim is that people did not think of each other in racial terms until the French and American revolutions. While Hannaford's claim is controversial, Davis's seems plainly false. It implies that the races came into existence only two or three centuries ago, but the common-sense and plausible view is that the races are ancient, even if the idea of race is modern. The common-sense view seems plausible because it assumes that the various groups of white-skinned, black-skinned and yellow- and brown-skinned peoples that we call the races are biological races. If these groups are biological races they are probably ancient, for the biological races are natural kinds and natural kinds are usually ancient. But Davis denies that the groups we call the races are biological races. His comment begins with the remark that 'responsible scientists have long discredited any biological or genetic definition of racial groups'. On his account the groups we call the races are 'social constructions'. Briefly and roughly social constructions are classes of individuals that exist only because of our ideas, beliefs, and practices. If Davis is right that the races are such classes of individuals, then he may also be right that they came into existence only after Europe's imperial expansion, if the ideas, beliefs, and practices necessary for their existence appeared only after or during that period.
- I develop these topics in the ensuing sections. In the first section I discuss the invention of the idea of the biological races. My approach is Rousseauian. That is, I begin with the assumption that human nature is originally good, and try to explain how and why racial prejudice and discrimination are nevertheless customary. Specifically, I argue that Europeans invented the idea of race for what appeared to them to be sound scientific reasons, and that the idea then helped to further corrupt them. In the next section I give a brief review of the uses made of the idea of the biological races. The following section takes up the claim that the races, as we know them, are not biological races, but social constructions. I argue that even in that case, and indeed even if there are no such things as biological races, the races as we know them would not exist were there no such thing as the idea of the biological races. That idea may be fatally flawed, it may refer to nothing, but it is among the ideas necessary for the existence of the social constructions that nowadays many philosophers, historians, and social scientists say the races are. Finally I consider the case for saying that the biological races do not exist. I believe that philosophers tend to overstate the case. The races as we know them may be social constructions rather than biological races, but it does not follow that the biological races do not exist.
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