Cover image for Race in North America : origin and evolution of a worldview
Race in North America : origin and evolution of a worldview
Smedley, Audrey.
Personal Author:
Second edition.
Publication Information:
Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xvi, 376 pages ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1470 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN269 .S63 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Few topics in the Western intellectual tradition have been subjected to as much scrutiny and analysis as the topic of race. This book examines the evolution of the concept. It shows that late-eighteenth-century North Americans came to believe that their society was composed of biologically exclusive and permanently unequal human groups, each with distinctive behavioral, moral, spiritual, and intellectual characteristics, led people to see biophysical and behavioral features as innate and immutable. In the nineteenth century, differences between whites, American Indians, and blacks were magnified in the popular mind and in scholarly writings to the point that these groups were seen as separate species, justifying the preservation of "racial" slavery and the subsequent dehumanization of freed blacks. With the application in the late nineteenth century of the racial worldview to European peoples and the subsequent twentieth-century inhumanity and brutality of Nazi race ideology, the concept of race came under attack. Liberal ideology coupled with advances in science prompted criticism of "race" and efforts to eliminate the term from the lexicon of science.In a sweeping work that traces the idea of race through three centuries of North American history, Audrey Smedley shows race to be a cultural construct used variously and opportunistically throughout time, although the scientific record shows little common agreement on its meaning. Tracing the social and historical processes that helped shape the idea of race, Smedley argues that race was and is a folk worldview, fabricated as an existential reality out of elements of English cultural history and the conquest and enslavement of physically distinct populations. The schism between science and popular thought on race, which appeared in the mid-twentieth century, continues today. If progressive scientists no longer accept the biological idea of race, will society eventually also reject it?The second edition expands its coverage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in matters of IQ testing and changing racial attitudes, including the contemporary movement aimed at identifying a "mixed race" category in the U.S. census. Smedley further examines the economic, social, and political factors after World War II that directly or indirectly affected the public's thinking about race and discusses how the Civil Rights Movement and television during the 1950s and 1960s prompted greater attention to race and racism, causing many to rethink their beliefs and values. The first edition was named a 1994 Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America by the Gustavus Myers Center.

Author Notes

Audrey Smedley is professor emerita of anthropology and African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Smedley argues that the concept of race in the US has become a worldview. The book's historical passages provide insights into the consolidation of an ethos that ascribes different capabilities and capacities to African Americans. Smedley offers an important and necessary comparative analysis of the concept of race in North America, which includes Canada, Mexico, and other nations north of the equator. In this book, however, North America is a code name for the US, and "American culture" refers to culture in the US alone. Native Americans are usually referred to as "Indians." The historical passages are decontextualized, e.g., the "manufacturing industry" in the Greek city-state and in the modern nation-state is not adequately differentiated. Because neither language nor concepts are used in a clear, succinct or meaningful manner, the book is not recommended. H. M. Silvert; Yeshiva University

Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Editionp. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
Introductionp. 1
1 Some Theoretical Considerationsp. 13
2 The Etymology of the Term Race" in the English Language"p. 37
3 Antecedents of the Racial Worldviewp. 42
4 The Growth of the English Ideology About Human Differences in Americap. 72
5 The Arrival of Africans and Descent into Slaveryp. 90
6 Comparing Slave Systems: The Significance of Racial" Servitude"p. 114
7 The Rise of Science: Sixteenth- to Eighteenth-Century Classifications of Human Diversityp. 150
8 Late Eighteenth-Century Thought and the Crystallization of the Ideology of Racep. 169
9 Antislavery and the Entrenchment of a Racial Worldviewp. 201
10 A Different Order of Being: Nineteenth-Century Science and the Ideology of Racep. 226
11 Science and the Growth and Expansion of Race Ideologyp. 250
12 Twentieth-Century Developments in Race Ideologyp. 273
13 Dismantling the Scientific Construction of Race: New Perspectives on Human Variation in Sciencep. 292
14 Dismantling the Folk Idea of Race: Transformations of an Ideologyp. 319
Bibliographyp. 339
Indexp. 359