Racism is a belief that humans can be distinctly categorized according to external characteristics and that the various races are fixed and inherently different from one another. It has been an essential feature in defining intercultural relations in North America since the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century and the ideological foundation of English and French dominance. With a few exceptions, early European settlers believed in their own superiority, which justified the forced labor or enslavement of Native Americans and Africans and the establishment of cultural norms to which immigrants were expected to conform. Though racism implies a foundation of biological determinism, there is not a clear line between it and ethnocentrism, which judges the value of other peoples and cultures according to the standard of one’s own culture (see Nativism). Racism operated in some form against most immigrant groups in North America, with the Irish, Jews, Italians, and Slavic peoples initially viewed as inherently different by members of the predominant English or French cultures and thus justifiably subject to menial service at low wages and expected to conform to the predominant cultural norms. In its most extreme form, racism led to institutionalized discrimination against African Americans. Following U.S. civil rights reforms of the 1960s and a general improvement in economic conditions for U.S. and Canadian immigrants, institutional and cultural racism declined. Varying degrees of racism are still common, however, having been most commonly exposed in high-profile law enforcement cases such as the 1997 beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Throughout the 1990s, heightened racial consciousness led to more frequent charges of racism in government, business, and the press.
Throughout the ancient and medieval world, humans were not identified by race. People naturally noticed external differences (phenotypes)—most notably skin color; hair color and type; shape of head, nose, and teeth; and general body build—that roughly corresponded to the later-defined “three races” of European/white/Caucasian; African/ black/Negroid; and Asian/yellow/Mongoloid. Recognition of these differences in phenotypes alone did not constitute racism, however, as Africans, Asians, Native Americans, and Europeans were all willing to enslave and otherwise take advantage of peoples who looked much as they did. Extreme prejudice most often centered instead on cultural traits associated with the peoples of particular geographic regions, as in the case of the Roman Cicero railing against British slaves because they were “so stupid and so utterly incapable of being taught.” The modern concept of races, the foundation of racism, began to emerge as Europeans from the 15th century onward began to explore and dominate remote regions of the world, encountering cultures vastly different in customs, belief systems, and levels of development.
This cartoon, published in California during the 1860s, suggests the racist assumptions of many Americans and Canadians in the 19th century. Note the distinctly simian (monkey- or apelike) features of the Irishman (left) and the characterization of the Chinese man (right). In 1883, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald informed the Canadian parliament that he was “sufficient of a physiologist” to understand that Chinese and European Canadians could not “combine and that no great middle race can arise from the mixture of the Mongolian and the Arian.” (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-22399])
Until the mid-17th century, however, European ethnocentrism still was not primarily motivated by race. The English military governor of Munster, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had no qualms about brutally exterminating white Irish men, women, and children in Ireland in 1569, cutting off their heads and lining the path to his tent with them as an example to others. Indentured servants (see indentured servitude) of every race, ethnicity, and nationality were harshly treated. Until the 1650s, it was still possible for Africans in English colonies to serve their indenture, become landowners, and even be masters to European servants. Slavery as a legal institution associated with race emerged only with the development of slave codes from 1661, which increasingly referred to racial distinctions in limiting the freedoms of Africans. At about the same time, the term race began to be used in a modern sense to designate peoples with common distinguishable physical characteristics. This sense of the term did not become widespread, however, until the 18th century when systematic classification of peoples seemed to give scientific credence to such divisions (see racial and ethnic categories).
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, put forward in On the Origin of Species (1859), ironically worked both to support and undermine racism. In the short term, it suggested that some races had not evolved as far as others and thus were intellectually or morally inferior. This pseudoscientific interpretation of Darwin was used to justify British and American imperial conquests, as well as continued discrimination against Native Americans and African Americans and the exploitation of non-European laborers such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indians. In the long term, however, natural selection’s focus on adaptation suggested why people living in similar geographic regions developed similar physical characteristics, despite living thousands of miles apart. Based on the science of genetics, which was not developed until the 20th century, it has become generally accepted that differences in the genetic structure of humans (genotypes) are far more meaningful than differences in external features (phenotypes) and that all human beings are biologically part of the same species, with few consequential differences. The traditional identification of race by skin color is no more meaningful than identification on the basis of blood type, dentition, or sickle-cell traits, all of which cut across traditional racial lines.