From Slavery to Reaganomics: A History of the Concept of Race

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

From Slavery to Reaganomics: A History of the Concept of Race

by Walda Katz Fishman & Irving Wainer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 14, No. 2, March-April 1982, p. 6-9 & 31-33

In the interest of accountability, we, the editorial and digitization collective, have excluded the images associated with the original article ‘A History of Race’ from the archive site and republication. The subjects of the photographs, Renty and Delia, father and daughter, were forced to strip naked for a series of photographs commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, a renowned biologist and geologist, used these photographs as part of his efforts to prove the inferiority of Black people and to justify their enslavement.

 Renty and Delia’s images, owned and copyrighted by Harvard University, perpetuate the exploitation of enslaved Africans and directly oppose our mission. A Massachusetts court recently dismissed a lawsuit brought forward by Tamara Lanier, a descendant of Renty and Dalia, asking Harvard to return the images to her family. Harvard has profited and will continue to profit from the immortalization of their suffering. Renty and Delia’s descendants, on the other hand, must live with their family members’ bodies continuing to be considered property long after abolition.

The author, Walda Katz-Fishman, unites with us in this decision to fight the exploitation of enslaved Africans.

-SftP Magazine

Walda Katz Fishman, Ph.D. is a sociologist at Howard University. She is a long-time member of Science for the People. She is concerned about women’s, minorities’ and workers’ rights. She is currently active in the peace movement. Irving Wainer, Ph.D is a research chemist at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC. He has a long history of activism in the civil rights and antiwar movements. He has been involved in Science for the People.

In the last 15 years there has been a resurgence of “scientific” theories and research suggesting the inherent biological inferiority of certain ”races” in particular of blacks in the United States. The most well known examples are the works of Jensen, Shockley and Herrnstein on “race” and IQ.

These “scientific” theories are not new products of recent research, but have a long history dating back to the 1830’s and the defense of slavery in the US. This history is an example of the interaction of science and society and the abuse of the former to meet the needs of certain classes in the latter. It is an example of the fact that scientific theories do not exist as detached and isolated “truths” in a social vacuum. Rather, they exist within the context of contemporary political, economic, and social forces and can only be understood when considered in this context. It is a history which must be exposed and understood so that the current outbreak of “scientific” theories of “racial inequality” is the last.

Early Scientific Theories of Race 

After “race” as a scientific term was first introduced by the French philosopher-scientist Georges L.L. de Buffon in 1749, the term was expanded into a system for the classification of the varieties of humankind by Johan Friedrich Blumenbach in his book On the Natural Variety of Mankind written in 1775. Both Buffon and Blumenbach recognized that all human beings belong to a single species and used race as a convenience to distinguish between certain geographically localized groups.

Buffon’s and Blumenbach’s use of the term race reflected the times in which they lived; an era where the American and French Revolutions were expounding the philosophies that “All men are created equal” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and a time when the African slave trade purported to save souls.

The Slave Period 

The concept of race remained a method of simple classification for almost 60 years until it was transformed into a component of a scientific theory defending slavery in the southern part of the US. This change was brought about by a number of related political, intellectual and economic developments.

By the early 1800’s, slavery was under attack. In England, manufacturing had reached the stage of development where it was more profitable to export the raw materials of West Africa than its people. At the same time, the slave trade was ceasing to be economically advantageous for the British West Indies sugar plantations.1 In 1804, the people of Haiti broke their bonds of slavery and established the first independent republic in Latin America—an event which sent shivers through slaveholders. As a consequence, in 1808, the British government responded to these developments by prohibiting the slave trade in British vessels, and in 1833 slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

The Abolitionists

The American abolitionist movement was one of the key political and intellectual developments that proved central to the history of racism. It grew from a religious revival known as the Great Awakening, which began in New England in the 1740’s. This movement attacked the religious justifications for slavery. The first Great Awakening did not produce an anti-slavery movement. This was accomplished by the Second Great Awakening which swept the country between 1825 and 1832, producing in 1833 the first national abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society.

From its inception, the organized abolitionist movement propagandized against slavery. Millions of pieces of literature were produced attacking slavery on religious and moral grounds as well as pronouncing it contrary to the fundamental principles of the American way of life. This material was distributed in both the North and the South and was so effective that by 1835, President Andrew Jackson was forced to appear before Congress and call for the passage of ”a law as will prohibit under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern states through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slave to insurrection.”2

The abolitionist movement grew because it found a favorable environment in a changing North, where a growing transportation system nurtured a developing capitalism based on the production and sale of agricultural commodities and manufacturing. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened up the northern regions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and created large regional markets for agricultural commodities and industrial products rather than merely local ones. By 1827, for example, wheat from central New York was being sold at Savannah, Georgia more cheaply than wheat from central Georgia.3

By extending the domestic markets, advances in transportation hastened the industrialization of the North. This was especially felt in the industry producing cotton cloth. In the 1820’s there were only about 1000 people engaged in this industry. At the end of the next decade, this number had grown to 10,000,4 and by 1840, there were 1200 cotton factories in the US operating 250,000 spindles, two-thirds of them in New England.5

As the economic system of the North grew it intensified the economic and political conflicts between the North and South. The basis of this conflict was the struggle for domination between a system of capitalist production using free labor which was primarily concentrated in manufacturing and small farming (North), and capitalist production with slave labor which was primarily concentrated in the production of agricultural goods for the international market (South). By the mid1800’s, the two regions emerged as separate economic and political entities. The Civil War decided which was destined to dominate the other. One way to view the abolitionist movement is as the ideological reflection of this struggle in the North. The “scientific theory of race” was the South’s response.

In order to understand why a “scientific theory of race” developed, it is necessary to look at the South of the 1830’s. By 1830, the commitment of the South to capitalist agriculture—to the production of a stable crop for a world market—was the dominant fact of Southern life. Karl Marx described the effect of this development on the slave.

But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave labor, corvée-labor, etc., are drawn into the whirlpool of an international market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, the sale of their products for export becoming their principal interest, the civilized horrors of overwork are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc. Hence the negro labour in the Southern states of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the overworking of the negro and sometimes the using up of his life in seven years labour became a factor in a calculated and calculating system.6

The increase in the exploitation of black labor brought an increase in resistance. In 1831, Nat Turner led a rebellion in Southampton, Virginia. This was not the first slave rebellion, though. While earlier upheavals were met with a temporary increase in repression, this one resulted in major changes. “Black Codes” were made more restrictive throughout the South. “Laws were passed curbing the mobility of slaves through a system of patrols and passes, meetings of slaves were prohibited, educational possibilities were curtailed, and the possibility of manumission was reduced.”7 White Southerners also suffered from this wave of reaction. There were infringements of basic civil and personal rights, free speech, free press, free thought and constitutional liberty. 8

The Scientific Theory of Racial Inequality

Faced with external and internal attacks and no longer able to defend slavery in the old way, the Southern ruling class came to rely on a new, stronger defense of the slave system. As John C. Calhoun proclaimed:

It is not enough for the Southern people to believe that slavery has been entailed upon us by our forefathers. We must satisfy the consciences, we must allay the fears of our own people. We must satisfy them that slavery is of itself a right—that it is not a sin against God—that it is not an evil, moral or political …. In this way, and this way only, can we prepare our own people to defend their institutions. 9

Thomas R. Dew and William Harper responded to Calhoun’s call by uniting Buffon’s and Blumenbach’s system of classification with Aristotle’s defense of slavery: “He is then by nature formed a slave who is fitted to become the chattel of another person, and on that account is so.” Thus, the “scientific” theory of the natural inequality of different groups of humans was born as a justification of slavery on the basis of racial inequality.

The Southern race theorists asserted, yet never proved, the factual validity of the existence of distinct types of human beings called races. They argued from the empirical observations that people with black skins under the conditions of slavery did not have the educational, intellectual and political attainment of their masters, to the “scientific” conclusion that this inequality was biological and hence inevitable. They tried to convert a social and economic fact into a biological one. The purpose and effect of such a theory was to give the Southern slave owners a powerful ideological weapon. Slavery was no longer a moral question. It was the best possible system given the biological reality of the inequality between the races. An inequality which was the result of God’s work and which had been brought to light by science.

The Civil War and Reconstruction 

The Civil War and Reconstruction temporarily pushed these theories aside. The enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments along with the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1870 established the legal position of equality between the races. However, in 1877, the Hayes-Tilden agreement ended Reconstruction and unleashed a wave of terror against the black and poor white people in the South. The concept of race and racial superiority once again flourished. It was now a justification of terror and oppression.

Numerous “scientific” articles supporting the segregation of the South were written during this period, 1890-1910. Many like the article written by Dr. Robert Bennett Bean entitled “Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain” were published in prestigious scientific journals. In this particular article which appeared in the September, 1906 issue of the American Journal of Anatomy, Dr. Bean defends segregation in education. He wrote:

Having demonstrated that the negro and the caucasian are widely different in characteristics, due to a deficiency of grey matter and connecting fibers in the negro brain, especially in the frontal lobes, a deficiency that is hereditary… we are forced to conclude that it is useless to try to elevate the negro by education or otherwise, except in the direction of his natural endowments.10

The Period of Imperialism Congressman

Thomas W. Hardwick of Georgia used the same logic when he addressed the US House of Representatives in 1904 demanding the disenfranchisement of the black people. He said in part:

And who is the negro that he should dispute this demand? A race that never yet founded a government or built a state that did not soon lapse into barbarism, a race that never yet made a single step towards civilization, except under the fostering care and guidance of the white man; a race into whose care was committed one of the three great continents, and who has made it, ever since the remotest times, a land of utter darkness, until today the nations of Europe, in the onward march of irresistible civilization are dividing his heritage, the greatest of the continents among themselves…11

Congressman Hardwick’s words are much more than an attack on voting rights. They represent a change that was taking place in the concept of race and its use. Race was no longer a justification just for the enslavement of a group of people, at this point it became a justification for the enslavement of whole nations.

In the late 1800’s the underdeveloped world began to change as the advanced industrial countries, primarily Great Britain, France, the US and Germany, began to divide these territories into private colonial empires. In the process they seized control over a number of what they termed “inferior races.” The “white man’s burden”—the theory that the domination of inferior races was a natural process which was raising the standards of human society and government—became part of the overt justification for colonialism. Thus, the colonial domination of a subject people becomes, like slavery had, an inevitable biological reality rather than a question of politics or economics.

Neocolonialism and Anti-Racist Theories 

After World War II, the colonial empires began to crumble as the peoples of Asia and Africa fought for independence. The fight against direct colonialism had to include a fight against one of its main ideological props—the theory of racial difference. This struggle was reflected in the United Nations which held a series of conferences on race from 1949-1967. These conferences gathered together anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and other scientists from around the world and resulted in these conclusions:

  1. (1949) For all practical purposes “race” is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.
  2. (1964) All men living together belong to a single species and are derived from common stock; pure races in the sense of genetically homogenous populations do not exist in the human species and there is no national, religious, geographic, linguistic, or cultural group which constitutes a race.
  3. (1967) “Race” in the biological sense, is totally irrelevant to racial attitudes and thinking.
  4. (1967) The division of the human species into “races” is purely arbitrary and conventional and should not imply any hierarchy whatsoever.12

The fight against racialism was reflected in the US where after World War II a number of prominent scientists came to the forefront. This was the era of Ashley Montagu, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Theodosius Dobshansky, Ethel Toback, and many others. Their books were promoted and their ideas popularized throughout the country. Even the UAW-CIO joined in producing and distributing an animated color film “Brotherhood of Man,” based on Benedict’s pamphlet Races of Man.

Like the abolitionists, many of the modern fighters of racialism flourished in the US because they represented an important school of thought within the capitalist class. The end of direction colonialism—the open and total control of one country by another—came to be seen as necessary to promote US financial interests. The newly free ex-colonial territories were open to investments and loans and a consortium of US and other international banks poured billions of dollars into them. This soon led to a situation where a country was politically independent but economically controlled by outside financial interests—neocolonialism.

By the mid-1960’s, most of the anti-colonial struggles had come to an end with many countries gaining political and economic freedom while others had thrown off the chains of direct colonialism only to be fettered by loans and debts. The fight against the use of theories of race as a defense of colonialism was also essentially over, and except for a few places such as South Africa, racial inferiority is no longer used as an open justification for the control of one country or people by another.

The Civil Rights Movement 

However, like a chameleon, the concept of race evolved with the changing political and economic environment. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, racial theories began to be used in a way that tended to cloud issues, conceal problems and misdirect those looking for answers to questions raised by this movement for legal  and economic equality. But the US government’s active support of the anti-colonial movement presented a problem at home. How could the anti-colonial, anti-racist sentiments expressed in the international arena be reconciled with the existence of segregation and discrimination at home? This problem was solved by the coalescence of two interests—the struggle of the black masses against discrimination and oppression, and the desire of Capital to industrialize the South in order to utilize the relatively cheap non-union labor to be found there. The fusion of these interests resulted in the Civil Rights movement which began in the late 1950’s.

Industrializing the South meant putting both black and white workers into the same factory which made the workplace more efficient and therefore profitable. You only need one bathroom and one water fountain, for example, though these are fairly minor considerations. More importantly, you also have a workforce whose demands for higher wages, and better working conditions, can be met with attempts to try to divide the workers along color lines, thus weakening their collective power. Thus at this time, integration was explicitly favored by many capitalists and was perceived to be in their economic interests. This fact, along with the developing popular struggle for civil and economic rights, pushed the US government into supporting the Civil Rights movement. Government support, however, was contingent upon the movement remaining nonviolent, reformist, essentially non-economic, and focused on the South.

By the early 1960’s, the Civil Rights movement began to break out of its narrow boundaries and spread into the Northern ghettos—into the heartland of the American proletariat. As it spread, sensitive economic and political questions were raised and white workers were drawn into the struggle for economic and political equality. This situation was explosive and indeed it did lead to social turmoil. In 1966 Watts erupted, and in 1967, 8 cities, including Newark and Detroit, rose in rebellion. In most of these instances, black and white workers fought together against perceived common enemies—police brutality, and poverty.

The government responded to this crisis with a program designed to reduce social disruption—”The War on Poverty.” The strategy was to pump money into key urban areas to cool out the volatile situation. The ideological accompaniments to this basically economic program were “Black Nationalism” and “the fight against racism.” However, these ideologies had the effect of splitting the movement for economic and civil rights, again along racial lines. The importance of trying to contain the Civil Rights movement to be a “fight against racism”—that is, trying to make racism a moral question instead of a political or economic one—was put forth in the government’s master plan, The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—The Kerner Report. This report laid all the blame for the urban disorders on white racism.13

Futhermore, the importance of fostering “Black Nationalism” as a means of dividing the Civil Rights Movement along racial lines is exemplified by the assassination of Malcolm X, who more than anyone else of his era spoke for the black proletariat. As long as Malcolm X espoused a black separatist—Black Nationalist—perspective, he did not significantly threaten the political system, since his appeal to whites would clearly be limited. However, in 1964, upon returning to New York after a trip which included a pilgrimage to the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, Malcolm X responded to a question about his attitude towards whites by rejecting his earlier attitudes which had made it impossible for him to ally with whites.14

During the summer of 1963, in a number of major cities, black and white workers had overlooked whatever animosities existed between them and fought side-by-side for their common good. Now a major black leader was reflecting this unity. This unity represented a serious threat to key political forces within the US. Perhaps not coincidentally, within a year, Malcolm X was assassinated.

The situation remained grave for the government throughout much of the decade of the 1960’s, but by the end of 1968 the situation became manageable. The Civil Rights movement was well on the way to being broken up into segments representing Black Power, Brown Power, Red Power, Puerto Rican Power and others. Many whites had become alienated, and the movement that had threatened to unify the working class had been reduced to only fighting racism.

Since its introduction, the “fight against racism” theme has continued as the main ideological underpinning of the movement for equality. While this had fit in with ruling class strategies during the 1960’s, the economic realities of the 1970’s and 1980’s are stimulating the return of “scientific” racial theories that claim to prove the inequality of humankind. The work of Jensen and Shockley, and the Sociobiology of E.O. Wilson are harbingers of this revival. While Wilson has shied away from directly dealing with the question of race, his recent discussion of the genetic basis of cultural differences lays the groundwork for racist arguments.

Dangers of the 1980’s 

Now during the 1980’s the economic boom spurred by the industrialization of the neocolonies and the reindustrialization of Europe has come to an end. With the development of the multinational corporation, countries which were formerly importers of manufactured goods are now exporters of manufactured goods. For example, instead of importing clothing, Brazil, Taiwan, Korea and a number of other countries now produce clothing for sale in the highly competitive international market. By the mid-1970’s, the world markets started to become glutted with more goods than could be sold, and the capitalist world has slid fairly steadily into economic depression ever since.

During the post World War II period, US corporations had been able to steadily increase their profits in significant measure at the expense of the rest of the world. Some of these “super profits” have “trickled down” to the American workers in the form of a higher standard of living. However, the deepening depression of the 1980’s is reducing the profitability of the multinational corporation. In order to keep profits up, US corporations are turning on their workers by trying to take back many of the concessions and advances of the past 50 years, and preparing to try to force the standard of living down, perhaps to the level of the Latin American workers—our companions in the integrated hemispheric market.

Today at least some elements of the US capitalist class are in much the same position as the slave holders were in the 1830’s. Faced with growing opposition to their policies, they are beginning to call upon racist theories in the guise of science to justify increased repression. And, like the 1830’s, some scientists are rallying to their defense. There are also a large number of scientists actively opposing these developments on the basis of the fact that the “races” are equal, and that Shockley, et al., are racists. However, this is using the old Civil Rights type strategy to challenge these new racist strategies, and in the long run it will not work. It is time to take another course.

It is time to argue clearly to the people of this country that “races” do not exist in any relevant sense, and that superficial physical differences between people can not legitimately be used to justify social, political or economic inequality. People must come to understand that the division of humankind into “Races” was the by-product of a theory that arose firstly as a defense of slavery, and which later was expanded to help justify imperialism. Hopefully when people become aware of the economic and political uses to which racial theories were put, it will be easier to convince them that the concept of race itself is scientifically indefensible.


  1. A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England, International Publishers, NY, 1938, p. 483.
  2. Gerald Sorin, Abolitionism, A New Perspective, Praeger Publishers, NY, 1975, p. 131.
  3. Samuel Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford University Press, NY, 1965, p. 478.
  4. Anon., “Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970,” Part I, US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC, 1976, p. 179.
  5. Morrison, The Oxford History, p. 483.
  6. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, p. 226.
  7. Sorin, Abolitionism, p. 44.
  8. Sorin, Ibid., p. 123.
  9. Sorin, Ibid., pp. 122-123.
  10. I.A. Newby, The Development of Segregationist Thought, The Dorsey Press, Homewood, IL 1968, p. 53.
  11. Newby, Ibid., p. 104.
  12. Nelson Perry, The Negro National Colonial Question, Workers Press, Chicago, IL, 1975, pp. 166-167.
  13. Otto Kerner, Chairman, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, NY, 1968, p. 203.
  14. Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books, NY, 1978, p. 413.