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Race and slavery

By Timothy James Lockley


The word "race" has become synonymous in modern parlance with skin color and is often associated with prejudice and violence: news bulletins, for instance, report "racially aggravated" attacks among Asians, whites and blacks, while the "racial" issues of the United States, South Africa, Zimbabwe, or any other nation for that matter, invariably focus on the different treatment and experiences of those with specific skin tones. A notable exception to this generality was the demarcation of Jews as a racial group by the Nazis. Yet, as biologists and geneticists have conclusively shown, there is only one human race with the degree of genetic difference among whites the same as between whites and blacks, or between any so-called "racial group." When scholars use "race" as a useful category of historical enquiry they are not suggesting that white people and black people, for instance, belong to different species. Instead they are concerned with the sociological meanings of race, whereby racial terms only have meaning because individuals or groups either attribute a significance to the differences between themselves and others, or impose such a significance on others. The bald fact that a person has designated "white," "black" or any other type of skin "color" is not what is important: it is the way that person was treated because of the perceived color of their skin, whether privileged or denigrated, and the mechanisms informing the social construction of color in a given historical context, that is significant. As Barbara Fields has shown us, the social interpretation of "race" has been of critical significance throughout American history because of the constant interaction among different types of people. "Race," and how Americans of various sorts understood it, particularly in relation to slavery, is the subject of this essay

Topics: E151, HT
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2010
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