Changing Concepts of Race

Herbert A. Miller
Ohio State University


Changing concepts of race.—Nave definitions of race develop when two peoples come into contact with each other: a weak group may stand in awe of the other, and one with an old civilization despise its new acquaintance. Some popular conceptions developed during the aggressive explorations of whites persist. At the beginning of scientific classification biological theory seemed to offer the most fundamental explanation. Of the pre-evolutionary concepts a very persistent one was that progeny of a mixture of colors tended to be physically weaker and infertile. Spencer and others rather firmly established the idea of a parallelism in the evolution of mental and moral characteristics with biological differentiations. In the present century comparative racial psychometry has shown considerable overlapping of the distribution curves; psychoanalysis has been related to the emotional conditions contingent on the relation of an individual's group to other groups; the behavioristic approach has undermined the theory that prejudice is instinctive, and physiologists now claim that color differentiation is too recent for the development of any differential racial endowment. At present it s difficult to formulate any definition of race except in terms of visibility or culture. The ignoring of other visible differentiations than color would seem to emphasize the primacy of cultural distinctions. Anthropology and sociology now seem to have a clarified racial concept. Sociologically race is a type of cultural conflict, with visibility as a mere contributory factor. The multiplication of contacts has given rise to much popular study of race relations. The omission of considerations of racial status in the contacts of Soviet Russians with Chinese and n the racial inclusiveness of Mohammedanism promises new developments of racial concepts in terms of social organization rather than physical characteristics.

While the concepts with which we are concerned are essentially scientific, yet nave and popular notions so condition the scientific that they cannot be left out of account.

Naive ideas in regard to race are those which prevail when two peoples come into contact and formulate the very notion which is called race. If one group is weak it may look upon the other with fear, which sometimes takes the form of awe. If the civilization is old it despises the others. The first Chinese name for whites was "barbarian," and did not imply the race concept, but merely one of culture difference. Sir Francis Drake, when he visited China, gave a basis for the term "barbarian" because he simply took all

( 107) the precious things he could lay hold of, bringing them to Queen Elizabeth, who, seeing no Christian inconsistency, knighted him for his valor and loyalty.

Out of these first contacts which were made in the period when people with white skins were aggressive explorers, catching those with other colors off their guard, spontaneous traditions grew up which were transmitted as race concepts and are still widely accepted as such. Since these explorers, who were also exploiters, were without their own women, they transmitted their blood through native women without regard to color, and thus made a biological experiment whose results could hardly have been predicted, but which is an objective refutation of the idea that has at times prevailed-that the races Were of different blood.

When the beginning of scientific classification was made there was inevitable groping, both because of the lack of adequate data and because the other sciences were not able to contribute what was necessary to the interpretation of such facts as were known.

Biology seemed to be the most fundamental science to explain what were apparently all-pervasive physical differences. Psychology and sociology were not formulated as even tentative sciences until a great variety of political and social adjustments had been made on the basis of already accepted race definitions. It is important that there has been a contemporary parallelism between the recent rapid development through travel and political reorganization and the development of the handmaiden sciences whose aid is necessary for the progressive formulation of race concepts.

The first and most obvious fact out of which the notion of race has arisen comes from νisibility. This was so obvious and unescapable that it was the starting-point of both popular notions and science. And, until recently, it has been very difficult to get behind it. From the first it has been easy to make a rough correlation between color and cultural development, although the values of the cultures have been generally misunderstood and despised, as for example that of the Chinese, and there were many cases where the correlation has not been actual.

There is little significance to any scientific concepts which preceded the theory of evolution. There were, of course, a good many

( 108) anthropological theories of race, because already travel and commerce had begun to expand. Perhaps the most persistent was that color marked such distinct species that, though they might interbreed, their progeny tended to be physically weaker and infertile.

Spencer made the correlation of physical and cultural evolution so logical that it determined race concepts for a generation, and is at present the foundation of much of the popular attitude toward race. It was under the aegis of the theory of evolution that anthropology had its great development. Keane and Brinton may be mentioned as influential examples They also found a mass of anatomical material to support their theories, and they classified race anatomy in great detail.

Those of us who were introduced to the study of races in the nineties were given dogmatic conclusions which proved that race was not only a fact of wide physical variation, but also that mental and moral characteristics were parallel and equally distinctive. Much evidence was derived from the size and shape of skulls, which seemed to be correlated with Culture; and running through it all was an incontrovertible interpretation in the light of evolution.

Immediately after the beginning of the century psychological comparisons began to appear. In most studies a comparatively few individual cases were used, and conclusions drawn which were generally in harmony with the anthropological conclusions. In 1904 and 1905, with the inspiration and help of William James and Robert M. Yerkes, I made the first racial tests on what at that time were large numbers, including some six hundred Indians, two thousand Negroes in various parts of the South, and twelve hundred whites. While at that time we knew nothing about "mental age," I had both age and sex categories. There was an aggregate of over fifty thousand individual tests. I started out predisposed to find distinctive mental race groupings. I plotted many curves, but the only outstanding fact that appeared was that, whatever grouping I took, all curves oνerlaρρed so that most of the cases fell within the same area. Although Professor James commended my work, its only scientific contribution, so far as I know, was its effect upon my own attitudes. As a disillusioned pioneer I have always been

( 109) unable to escape a good deal of caution in accepting the results of intelligence tests as evidence of racial differences. As a matter of fact, in this particular field the value of the comparative tests, when properly judged, has been to show that instead of racial variations in intelligence there is practical identity.

The two other aspects of psychology which have some bearing are psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The first is important in dealing with emotional and intellectual conditions which result from the relation in which the group to which the individual belongs stands to other groups. Behaviorism, by explaining the conduct of individuals in new terms, has undermined most of the old explanation of racial characteristics. One of its most distinctive contributions has been to show that racial antipathy, which racial purists -- hoped was instinctive, is only capricious and cultural. In fact the whole range of prejudice which plays such an important part in race concepts has been reduced by the new psychological explanations to cultural accidents and tradition.

The physiologists have collected much new material about the process of evolution, and now claim that the time which has elapsed since the differentiation of the color groups is much too short for the development of any differentiated racial endowment.

At the present moment any definition of race is difficult except in terms of visibility or culture. So long as we are not blind there is a certain validity in the classification by color. The trouble is, however, that other visible characteristics have been ignored, such as size. It would have been just as possible to have called all persons over 5 feet 9 inches members of the giant race, and those below of the pigmy race, if we had started out that way. The reason this was not done was because the various colored groups had more or less distinctive cultures.

With the added material from the other sciences and the greatly improved technique in their own fields, anthropology and sociology seem, for the time at least, to have greatly clarified the racial concept. In any social science it is never possible to escape entirely from popular attitudes, because observation itself is dependent on contemporary interests. The rapid development of contact both by travel and communication, as well as the political involvement

( 110) which came both in the war and its succeeding period, has made a general consideration of racial facts unescapable. Not the least important has been the demonstration of self-consciousness in the non-white races. Their leaders have undertaken to maintain self-respect in the face of white dominance, which has accounted for a new self-assertiveness; and they have also been diligent students of the scientific developments in the discussion. Not only the Japanese, Chinese, and East Indians, but the Negro, both in Africa and America, have called the bluff on the rationalizations which established the non-white peoples in a disadvantageous scale of values.

The potential and actual conflicts between races have stimulated religious groups to try to find what part they should play, and while idealism may not be scientific, it does not succeed constructively in any new field unless it runs in harmony with science; so the progressive religious groups have been collecting data as well as studying what has been accepted as the latest scientific findings. In the last four years a considerable number of books for propaganda purposes among religious constituencies have been published, and all these books have undertaken to be objective and scientifically sound. On the other hand, the fundamentalists, who have no more fears of evolution now than scholars had fifty or sixty years ago, but who have just discovered its implications, strangely enough accept its earlier conclusions with regard to race while rejecting its general principles. The fundamentalists serve, however, as an added stimulus to the other religious groups and have greatly stimulated popular interest in the race question. The recent race survey on the Pacific coast, and various studies among the Negroes, owe their origin to the popular religious interest.

Sociology, in its analysis of social situations, has discovered that the classification according to the old color distinctions is net an adequate explanation of all that is involved. Color as a visible sign of social grouping must be recognized as a factor in social attitudes, but not as a measure of individual or social capacity. In other words, the present concept of race may be defined as a social, rather than a biological, one, in which visibility is merely a contributing factor. Keane, in his ethnology, calls "race" a definite term indicating kinship, but "group" he calls an indefinite term. It is

( 111) an interesting fact that the American Negro ordinarily speaks of "our group"; and the sociologist now looks upon race as one of the human groups which must be explained by other principles than those of kinship. Race is a type of conflict group.

Perhaps the most outstanding element that is involved in group relations is that of status. Each race in its isolation had developed a technique of life and a control over economic conditions which resulted in competition and conflict when they came into contact. Very quickly relationships of inequality in respect to status became apparent; and now most of what seem to be race issues are little else than questions of status. On account of color it is very difficult for an individual member of a race to escape the status of his group, and therefore race is a significant social fact until the question of status can be removed. Until the visible signs may become familiar to the point of indifference, this is as possible for skin color as for eye or hair color. There is also an element of self- consciousness and perhaps fear of the strange.

The sociological point of view has been greatly stimulated and supplemented by the later anthropologists, of whom Boas, Goldenweiser, Lowie, and Kroeber are outstanding.

I wish to transgress somewhat beyond the legitimate scope of this paper to suggest two new factors which are going to have an influence on the race question, which in the Western World has assumed an importance as a social problem that is staggering in its possibilities of conflict.

Once the Chinese Wall served as a protection against the people of the North, who then were not conspicuously white, but were people of a different culture; but now the length of Siberia is a potential meeting ground for the yellow and white peoples, both of whom in this area are undergoing revolutionary changes both in government and social organization; and the Soviet government is the white representative in this relationship. Whatever evolution may take place in the future, at this particular crisis the Russian philosophy has no place for human distinctions based on status, and the development of the new relationships will begin, at least, without the issue of status between the races. And further, the actual educational and political policy of Russia, which I have no

( 112) time to describe here, in its dealing with both races and nationalities, not only giving full cultural independence but also promoting it, has in it most far-reaching possibilities.

The other factor of paramount importance is the development of modernism in Islam. After: studying what was happening in Turkey I asked some eminent Moslems in Cairo about the possibilities of their religion being able to assimilate modern science. They said it was quite possible. and when a few minutes later they asked me how sociology dealt with psychoanalysis and behaviorism, I had no doubts. It happens that the area of the Mohammedan world is exactly the meeting place of the white, yellow, brown, and black peoples. All of these are found in this religion, and in it there is no recognition of race. While rich Egyptians may talk like Europeans, the great mass of Mohammedans are not conscious of a race problem, except as they hear of it in far countries. The Christians of the world, especially in Western civilization, only preach what Mohammedans practice.

In view of the fact that social theory always bears a relation to popular attitudes, we may anticipate that the concept of race is on the eve of still further modifications, and that they will be more and more formulated by sociologists in terms of social organization rather than of physical characteristics. The popular attitudes for some time will be influenced by pseudo-scientists of the Gobineau-Stoddard-Wiggam variety, and by the extreme eugenists, and it may be that the biologists will sometime find racial correlations that will be more valid than their early hypotheses; but at present race may be accepted as pre-eminently merely a culture concept.


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