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Historical and Contemporary Modes of Racialization

octobre 31, 2012

Michael Banton

In the nineteenth century it was generally believed that either God or nature had created races. In the twentieth century social scientists constructed a more complex account according to which humans have always been engaged in processes of group formation, maintenance and dissolution. Some large-scale groups, like nations inhabiting territory with natural boundaries, display a high degree of continuity. Smaller groups, like families, can be short-lived. Races came in between. When intellectuals declared that certain categories of persons constituted races (whether consciously or unconsciously), they racialized these groups or categories. When the designations race and racial were applied to them, this assisted processes of race-making. Racialization was a process in the realm of concepts; race-making and race-unmaking were processes in the realm of politics. The historical mode of racialization was an attempt to account for the unequal development of large human groups. The contemporary mode of racialization is a way of claiming that the relative privilege and disprivilege of such groups derives in part from earlier misrepresentations of their biological distinctiveness.

Before I summarise the main features of the historical mode as I have analysed it in earlier publications, the reader may like a personal explanation. I started research into black-white relations in London’s East End in 1950 and have continued ever since to study what were once called `race relations’. This experience has bred in me a profound conviction that there was a momentous mistake when, in the nineteenth century, what may be called `the language of race’ spread in the English tongue. I refer to the use of the word `race’ to identify population groups whose distinguishing characteristics are political and cultural, even if membership in them is signalled by physical features. Some uses of the word were unobjectionable, but others conveyed a seriously misleading conception of the nature of the groups and of the relations between them, and have contaminated the innocent uses. At no time has there been any consensus on a single correct use of the word. I have concluded that in general it is better not to use the words race and racial whenever there is an alternative; usually the alternative will be more accurate.

A common response to the difficulties created by the multiple meanings of race has been to maintain that there are separate concepts of biological and social race. I contend that it is better to distinguish two forms of language. One of them is the ordinary language of everyday life, which employs folk concepts and is fashioned to aid the solution of the practical problems of life in the society in question. The other is the language of science, which develops analytical concepts fashioned to help solve the problems of an international and transcultural field of study, be that zoology, genetics or social science. Its vocabulary is constantly growing and undergoing internal revision as more knowledge is accumulated. Ordinary language sometimes learns from, and comes into accord with, scientific language, but realignment may take a long time. I conclude that while social scientists may properly try to correct ordinary language usage, this should be a lower priority than improving their answers to the questions that define their fields of study.

 The historical mode

 Use of the word race has a history in West European languages going back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Originally it was used to denote lineage, a line of descent, as in `the race of Abraham’, but often it was used very loosely. Then both French and British historians deployed it when interpreting their countries’ histories as the outcome of relations between the indigenous peoples (Gauls in the case of France, and Saxons in Britain) and the invading peoples (Franks and Normans respectively). To call a group Gauls (or Saxons) was to use a collective proper name, one unique to the group so designated. This was an age in which most Europeans thought that the Bible offered a history of creation and of the peopling of the world. The Old Testament listed genealogies of groups as if this explained their distinctiveness. So, given the prevailing meaning of the word, it was not surprising that historians and others should have started to refer to Gauls and Saxons as races (Banton, 1977: 16-19). Yet, because the word was acquiring new meanings, the naming of Gauls, Franks, Saxons and Normans as races acquired an enhanced significance.

 At the end of the eighteenth century some writers started to use race to denote a class of creatures with common characteristics, making it synonymous with either species or subspecies in modern classifications. Acceptance of this innovation gave the word a new dimension of meaning, to denote a class in the present, whatever its genealogy might have been. In the 1850s, just before Darwin’s discovery of natural selection as the motor of evolution, some anthropologists in several Western countries advanced a theory of racial typology that represented human races as distinct species with different capacities and inherent antagonisms towards each other. Claiming that racial types were to all intents and purposes permanent, they offered a general explanation of the unequal development of the world’s peoples. Some maintained that each racial type was suited to a particular province of the globe and that attempts to colonise other provinces were doomed to fail; others that races could be listed in a hierarchy of talent that was independent of environment (Banton, 1998:79).

 In the United States prior to the end of the eighteenth century it was customary to refer to the three main groups as whites, Indians, and blacks or Negroes. Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia may have been the first to describe these three groups as distinct races (Jordan, 1968:489-90). This new vision of history was at first slow to catch on, primarily because the Bible was thought to declare all humans the descendants of Adam and Eve. For most white Southerners, the Bible contained a sufficient justification of slavery, while its description of creation discounted arguments from science. In opposition to the assumption that black-white differences stemmed from the less favourable character of the African environment, an intellectual minority held that blacks and whites were distinct types or species descended from different ancestors over a longer time period than was allowed for by the Bible. The theory of racial typology got a better hearing as the class of non-slave holding whites became more influential. After the civil war the naming of groups as races gained official sanction in the 1866 Civil Rights Act with its declaration of the rights of all `citizens of every race and color’.

 The spread of typological doctrines vested the word race with a deeper meaning. To say that Gauls and Franks, or blacks and whites, were different races, was to equate their differences with those between lions, tigers and leopards, different species within the genus Panthera, each with its peculiar capacities and behaviour patterns. These species maintain their distinctiveness of weight and body mass, not because the animals formulate and observe their own rules, but because nature keeps them distinctive through genetic inheritance. If the differences between Gauls and Franks, and blacks and whites, were permanent, political programmes needed to allow for them, either by compensatory measures or by acknowledging the limits to equality. For example, some deduced from such premisses that in Ireland the descendants of seventeenth-century Protestant settlers from Scotland could never live in harmony with the indigenous Irish as members of one political unit.

 As was apparent, when human groups came into contact they mated with one another, unlike lions, tigers and leopards. Any distinctiveness of human groups was attributable, firstly, to the factors explaining variability within species, between what Darwin called `geographical races, or subspecies’. Sub-Saharan Africans differed from North Africans because they were inter-breeding, geographically separated, groups. Secondly, the relevant differences between human groups were ones of their own creation. Differences of language, religion and political organisation were not caused by different genetic inheritance. When they come into contact geographical races can inter-breed so that their variation is continuous. In humans this is outwardly manifest in varying shades of skin colour, but it is also characteristic of the distribution of many genes, like those determining blood types.

 Darwin’s conception of subspecies has been endorsed by subsequent biological science. There is no scientific objection to the use of the word race in the sense of subspecies, though if it is a synonym the word is redundant in science and its use best avoided because of the confusion it causes outside science. Any use of the words race and racial to identify categories other than subspecies constitutes racialization; it is a misrepresentation of the nature of the categories in question. Since racialization has no biological justification, it is best to restrict application of the concept to settings in which explicit use is made of racial nomenclature. This is an important restriction.

The typologists presented their notion of a racial type as an analytical concept that explained the underlying determinants of human grouping. Though it failed to so, the usage reinforced the new meaning of the folk concept. Other writers, reasoning less rigorously, described ethnic groups as races without claiming that they resembled species. It is often impossible to be sure what late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers and speakers intended when they referred to race.

 The typological argument could be turned on its head. Insisting that language was the best marker of racial distinctiveness, a combative historian of Anglo-Saxon England, E. A. Freeman (1877:211, 225), contended that `races which, in a strictly physiological point of view have no existence at all [nevertheless] have a real existence from the more practical point of view of history and politics’ and that this had been shown in the rise of nationalism in the Balkans. Freeman maintained that the doctrine of race, which could work for good or for evil, was `an inference from facts which the mass of mankind could never have found out for themselves’ had they not been taught it, but, once learned, this doctrine could change the course of history. It asserted that popular allegiances to local communities were stretching outwards as people recognised linguistic and religious affinities; the sense of affinity was extending outwards from the nation `to the whole race’. The map of Europe was being changed. The doctrine implied that everyone would have eventually to be grouped with others of the same race and governed as part of a homogenous unit.

 Freeman did not use the word race in the sense of either species or subspecies. For him it was what sociologists belonging to a later generation would call a social construction. It was not a designation given to a group so much as one adopted by an elite within that group who used it to mobilise those whom they wanted as followers.

 Other European writers, some influenced by Hegel, were writing to similar effect. They were trying to come to terms with what would now be called globalisation. Thus in 1885 the Polish sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz interpreted the history of Europe as `a process by which tribes became peoples, peoples nations, nations grew into races and developed themselves’ as the outcome of `the perpetual struggle between races for dominance, the soul and spirit of all history’. These writers thought that it was racial consciousness that was making races and racializing the world. They may have had their equivalents in other continents. For example, in 1903 a Chinese writer was explaining `why races engender history’ (Dikötter, 2002:501). The history of racial doctrine in the civilisations of the East has not yet been studied in much detail.

 Globalization offers a context in which to appreciate the significance of the racializing and race-making processes. Humans were engaging in collective action to advance their shared interests in an expanding world. Conjecture about such matters must be unreliable, but, without any doctrine of race, blacks and whites would surely have lined up in opposition to one another on grounds of colour, Europeans and Asians on grounds of culture, and Christians, Muslims and others on grounds of religion. Globalisation brought into contact groups at differing levels of economic development, creating what members of dominant groups perceived as a `colour problem’ or a `race problem’. The former expression was the narrower: it could not be applied to relations between Gauls and Franks or Saxons and Normans. It singled out one variable only, one that identified categories but did not suggest what it was that made them distinctive.

 The designation of groups as races encompassed all the dimensions of difference and represented that distinctiveness as an achievement of nature. The belief that physical differences generated group boundaries was a stimulus to mobilisation, and to the maintenance of those boundaries. It had both functions and dysfunctions for the mobilisers. By providing a rationale for a kind of paternalism and by promoting white solidarity, it assisted relatively small groups of colonisers to dominate much larger groups of colonised people. Its prime dysfunction for the colonisers was that the colonised were bound, in reaction, eventually to develop their own forms of collective action that would be backed by superior numbers.

 People who thought of themselves and others as belonging in races were said to be racially conscious. The spread of racial consciousness may have been related to the contemporary decline in the importance of inherited rank or status. Thus in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Britain, a time when individual social mobility was increasing, white attitudes towards blacks apparently became more negative. In the United States at the same time opportunities were increasing for low-status people to invoke beliefs about racial difference to argue that members of other races should not be allowed to compete with them on equal terms. Democratic government is sensitive to short-term rivalries. The belief that inherited differences determined human capacities enabled democrats to close their eyes to the way that racial boundaries assigned benefits and costs to group members without taking account of their individual merits and demerits.

 A high point of this first mode of racialization came in 1902 in a lecture entitled The Relation of the Advanced and Backward Races of Mankind by James Bryce, the brilliant professor of law who from 1907 to 1913 was a very successful British ambassador to the United States. Bryce concluded `for the future of mankind nothing is more vital than that some races should be maintained at the highest level of efficiency… It may therefore be doubted whether any further mixture of Advanced and Backward races is to be desired’. The identification of certain kinds of group as races was thought to be a key that opened the way to an explanation of their unequal development. Some attempted racializations failed, such as the attempts on the fringes of British politics to present the Irish as a different, and inferior, race. A study of English representations of the Irish suggests that a few activists of extreme views could publish periodicals propagating such doctrines at times when English resentment of Irish nationalism was heightened (Douglas, 2002: 54-58).

 Nor was racial nomenclature adopted in official documents in Britain. When, in 1925, there was an addition to the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act, it was entitled the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order. The idiom of colour was for many decades preferred to that of race. A study of `the transformation in the thinking of British policy-makers on the race question’ during World War II (Wolton, 2000: x) indicates that the Colonial Office personnel who minuted the files and wrote such reports as have been archived only rarely used the word race, and then with reference to a presumed biological category rather than to a social construction. Their concern was with `colour discrimination’ and the problems that would arise if appointments were no longer restricted by a regulation that `candidates must be of European descent’. For example, in 1938 the colonial secretary of one of the Malay states warned that `if we at this end sent out a man who showed a trace of colour to a post normally filled by pure Europeans, i.e., a post for which no local man of colour would be recruited, there might be considerable discontent among people of the latter class…’ Officials identified groups by collective proper names rather than as races. From examination of what they wrote it is not possible to uncover their `underlying assumptions about race’. To interpret their thought and actions in the terms of any later conception of race is to misrepresent them.

 After the fall of Singapore Britain worked hard to modify the desire of policy-makers in the USA who wanted a promise that after the war India and the colonies would become independent. Officials sought to oppose Nazi doctrine, react to the motivations that had led to colonial revolts, and devise a new political language suited to a post-war world in which Britain would need the support of the USA (Wolton, 2000:151). Imperialism was to be transformed into a partnership for promoting development and welfare, while the metropolitan power was to protect the minorities that might suffer were sovereignty too quickly transferred to representatives of the largest ethnic group. International politics changed colonial policy and placed questions of discrimination in a new framework.

 Such testimony strengthens the conclusion that the language of race was not developed on the colonial frontier and then brought back to the metropolitan country. The evidence of racialization prior to 1939 is to be found in the ways that some intellectuals (of both left-wing and right-wing persuasions) wrote about groups and in the manner that some members of the public took up their ideas. Race featured in the law of the USA chiefly as an obstacle to the enjoyment of constitutional rights. US law engaged in a little race-making in order to combat racial discrimination.

 Contemporary Race-making in the USA and Britain

 In most parts of the modern world humans do not categorise one another as belonging in races or treat one another differently on this account. In parts of Brazil, for example, people rank themselves and others according to skin colour, branco high up, negro low down, but they do not organise their social lives by reference to distinct categories. Almost half the world’s population is in Asia, and the notion of race is foreign to most of its people. The belief that humans belong in races was an invention of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant West that has been spread wherever it had influence. In this sense, Westerners have made races.

The nature of the process was shown at its starkest in the United States. Using phenotypical differences, notably those of skin colour, white Americans constructed the categories black and white. There was no biological justification for counting as black rather than white someone who was of only one-eighth African ancestry. This shows that the two categories are social constructions, just as gender is socially constructed on the basis of the biological distinction of sex. Black and white are colour categories that become racial categories only when they are parts of a racial classification, though contemporary English-language usage elides the distinction between colour and race. It is not fanciful to imagine a society composed of three colour classes, black, coloured, and white; indeed, some societies in the Caribbean at one stage approached such mode of organisation. Black, Hispanic and Asian can be collective proper names, like Nigerian or Muslim, denoting categories or groups. They too become racial names only when they are parts of a racial classification, and such a classification becomes important when it is a basis for unequal treatment. There should be no disagreement among sociologists that such ideas were used within the institutions that created the black, white and Native American races. These institutions included not only the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, business interests, trade unions, the mass media, etc., but also political movements within the minorities. Just as they can all be seen as contributing to race-making, so in some measure they have contributed to race unmaking. It is a complicated story.

 It is intellectuals who produce the ideas and classifications in the first place. Often they begin by exposing errors in the prevailing ideas and by attempting to develop concepts that better represent the nature of the phenomena in question. Finding better concepts is a process of discovery. Yet when they seek to persuade members of the wider public, intellectuals have to use a language the public understands and therefore they often employ, and thereby re-authorize, folk concepts, when they should be trying to supersede them. The notion that relations between blacks and whites were an example of race relations was developed in the United States in the nineteen-thirties and was taken up in Britain after 1945 when it was the more acceptable because, in the aftermath of the war, public opinion was shocked by the use the Nazis had made of racial ideology. This was an era in which antiracist movements formed, though the expression antiracism was little used before the 1970s.

 In Britain, perhaps because of its imperial associations, nomenclature has been more varied than in the USA. A prime division in the nineteen-fifties was that between white and coloured, though particular groups were referred as West Indians, Jamaicans, etc. Government files from 1948 were first titled `West Indian Migrant Workers in England’, then referred to `Coloured People’ or `Coloured Workers’ before settling upon `Colonial Immigrants’ as a designation. Subsequently members of the Caribbean and South Asian minorities were classified together as New Commonwealth Immigrants. The general public rarely used racial designations for the new groups, but there was a growing tendency, led by intellectuals, to prefer the language of race to that of colour. It is worth pausing over the comparison. It was better to describe a person by reference to his or her colour because colour is observable where race is not. To speak of colour differences is to recognise them as a form of continuous variation from individual to individual, but when designating groups or relations between groups it seemed better to follow US practice and refer to racial groups and racial relations. Oliver C. Cox (1948:318) presented `race relations’ as a subdivision of `ethnic relations’ and others spoke up for `ethnic groups’ as preferable to `races’, but antiracists regarded the idiom of ethnicity as euphemistic.

 The record suggests that black working-class people in Britain experienced much more discrimination before World War II than after it, and much more in the fifties than in the sixties or seventies. At the outset there was an assumption that the West Indian incomers were migrant workers, a source of labour that is usually complementary to the existing labour force rather than competitive with it. The West Indians were also colonials (unlike the South Asians). Many members of the white public believed that Britain benefited from having an empire and that it was the duty of the mother-country to receive visits from colonials. Public opinion changed around 1958 when it became apparent both that the remaining colonies were set on the path to independence and that the colonials in Britain were more than visitors (Banton, 1983b). Unlike the entry of persons from the Old Commonwealth, the entry of persons from the New Commonwealth was resulting in settlement. The increased white support for tighter controls on immigration over the years 1951-68 was a reaction to the end of empire and to concerns about settlement.

 Everything changed towards the end of the nineteen-sixties. Whereas previously the adjective black had negative associations, the US Civil Rights movement redeemed it with its slogan of `black pride’. In both the USA and Britain, the alternative adjective, `coloured’, was made to appear illegitimate. The movement accepted the whites’ `one-drop’ rule because this helped it build a maximal constituency. If today there is any group whose members like to think of themselves as a race, it is African-Americans and those Afro-Caribbeans who favour the strategy that dominates the African-American political movement. African-Americans took the concept that nineteenth-century racial theorists had used to deny them equality, and, by turning it round, gave it positive connotations. They substantiated Freemen’s forecast in a way he could never have anticipated. Responding to changes in power relations, Talcott Parsons argued that the polarisation of black-white relations in the US was `more favourable to the resolution of the color problem’ than the Brazilian grading of individuals by shades of pigmentation. Accepting the folk concepts of the day, he asserted that in the USA race-making would lead to race-unmaking. The conditions under which it might do so were inadequately specified (Banton, 1983a:68-71).

 The Civil Rights movement expanded the meaning given to the concept of racism, both in the USA and in Britain, as a basis for the impeachment of the socially privileged. Many whites, academics included, felt guilty about the way blacks had been treated. It was in this atmosphere that John Rex (1970:12), seeking to distinguish `the field of race relations’, observed that the `conceptual content of social relations’ in some racially divided societies might `consist of nothing more than stereotypes, proverbs, symbols, folklore and so on’. He and others maintained that `functional substitutes’ for biological doctrines could be as important as explicit theories in institutionalising inequalities1. Robert Miles (1982:121) likewise concluded that `we must not restrict the application of the concept of racism to situations where people distinguish one another by reference to skin colour’. His claim that Irish as well as New Commonwealth immigrants had been racialized was supported by reference to the historical racialization of the Irish in nineteenth-century mentioned earlier in this essay2. This is straightforward, but his claim that hostility towards Irish migrant workers had been `articulated in terms of race’ as well as religion (1982:150) is not substantiated. There was evidence that the attacks had been motivated by resentment of economic competition and that many English workers articulated their hostility in terms of anti-Catholicism, but none to indicate any distinctively racial motivation. A few years later he drew attention to `a process of conceptual inflation’ whereby more and more phenomena had been accounted racist (Miles, 1989:41), but his own writing stimulated a comparable inflation in the use of the concept of racialization.

The period following the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 was interpreted by John Solomos (1989:45, 50, 63) as one in which `an increasingly racialised debate about immigration took place, focusing on the supposed problems of having too many black migrants’. Racialization was `done through coded language’ `but `race’ itself was not always mentioned as the central issue’3. The state and its institutions were said to have been heavily involved in defining the terms of a debate which continued apace in subsequent decades, the experience of urban riots being `an example of the power of immigration as a political symbol even though there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the two processes’. When sociologists detect what they consider `racial coding’ they are laying claim to a better understanding of the reasons underlying the speaker’s choice of words than the speaker’s own. Any such reinterpretation needs to be carefully substantiated. Claims about racialization should specify what was done and by whom. The manner in which the riots were reported could well have strengthened a sense of racial division, but this is an empirical issue and the lack of evidence in its support should surely recommend greater caution in interpretation.

 The main academic controversy concerning race-making in Britain has concerned the regulation of immigration, and, in particular, the reasons for the adoption of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. William Deedes, who was a minister at the time, acknowledged that its `real purpose was to restrict the influx of coloured immigrants’. Taking that as a datum, the controversy has centred upon the sources and motivations of the pressure for restriction. Did the white electorate oblige the government to introduce the legislation, or had the government earlier drawn a racial boundary to mark off the immigrants as people who did not belong in Britain? Were either the electors or the government motivated by a racial prejudice that defined the immigrants as people who could not form part of British society? Or was the government reforming antiquated legislation that entitled many millions of persons throughout the Commonwealth4 to seek work in Britain irrespective of any resulting problems of employment, housing and social services?

Such questions can be asked about the formulation of policy in other countries also, for the British debate about regulating immigration paralleled earlier discussions in the US legislature. Three authors (Carter, Green & Halpern, 1996) reviewed the arguments over the adoption of the 1882 Act – by which the US Congress suspended Chinese immigration – and the US Immigration Act of 1924, comparing them with the exchanges that led to British legislation between 1948 and 1971. They concluded that in both countries the discussions were used to elaborate exclusivist doctrines of national identity, and that the state played an important part in the construction of images of migrants, thereby constraining their positions in the labour market and giving an enhanced significance to group differences. These are not ambitious claims. It would be surprising were not state institutions to some degree involved in the development of the relations between migrants and the majority population.

By contrast, a statement like `immigration was essentially an issue of race’ (Solomos, 1989:72) asserts a wide-ranging and complex proposition that cannot rest on a subjective judgement. It is necessary to distinguish the intentions of those who drew up the legislation from the effect of the legislation upon immigrants and upon the white public. Some have argued that the legislation was racist in intent because some of those responsible wished to maintain the racial homogeneity of the existing population. Some have held that the effect of Act was to stigmatise New Commonwealth immigrants because, although its provisions applied to all Commonwealth citizens, its effects bore more harshly upon would-be settlers from the New Commonwealth. This leads on to the question of whether any changes in white attitudes can be traced to the influence of the Act. If, and only if, it could be shown to have had a race-making effect, would there be sense in the claim that `race is a product of racism’ (Bulmer and Solomos, 1998:823).

In considering the views of the officials who advised the ministers it is important to note the lack of agreement between different departments. Officials in the Colonial Office supported West Indian immigration and were critical of prevailing legislation because it permitted the entry of `unskilled and largely lazy Asians’. The possibility of increased immigration from Asian countries had a significant effect in changing calculations about the numbers involved even if this received little explicit mention at the time. One Home Office official thought that no controls would have been introduced but for the possibility of increased immigration from India and Pakistan (Hansen, 2000:85). If a claim that immigration was an issue of race implies that either politicians in general or the public in general thought that immigration control was needed to protect the biological character of the British people, more evidence is required than the passage in the 1949 report of the Royal Commission on Population which stated that immigration could be welcomed only if the immigrants were of `good stock’. A comprehensive examination of the archival evidence about the views of the various groups within, or consulted by, the government has concluded that academic support for the hypothesis that the Act was racially motivated has been based on a selective use of source material and a neglect of much contrary evidence (Hansen, 2000)5.

If there were race-making processes, they may have resulted less from racist attitudes within government than from official measures to combat racial prejudices and discrimination, such as anti-discrimination laws and the collection of statistics intended for use in the promotion of greater equality. In the USA the federal government had, by the end of the nineteen-sixties, recognised that the processing of individual complaints of discrimination would never be sufficient to remedy the systematic disadvantage suffered by African-Americans. Federal action led to a programme of affirmative action that, by relying upon the ascription of individuals to racial categories, strengthened race-making tendencies.

A further example of US race-making was the scheme of `racial/ethnic categories’ drawn up in 1975 to determine eligibility for benefits under affirmative action. It encouraged a variety of immigrant groups, such as those with origins in East and South Asian countries, and some Hispanic groups, to press for recognition as eligible although they were of above-average income and were not disadvantaged. When ordinary members of the public look for cues about the meaning given to the word race, they surely take leads from official classifications such as this, from legislation, and from the census. The US Census form of 2000 asked, firstly, `Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino? Mark the `No’ box if not Spanish/Hispanic/Latino’. Then, secondly, `What is this person’s race? Mark one or more races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be’. The first question distinguished four Hispanic categories (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Other) from the non-Hispanic population; the next question divided the latter, offering fifteen optional answers, starting with White, Black… then Chinese, Filipino, Japanese… and ending `Some other race – Print race’. The words italicised offered scope to those who wished to acknowledge multiple origins. The form did not describe the first set of categories as ethnic, nor the second set as racial, though that is the way they are usually regarded. The scheme as a whole was a compromise between logic and popular usage that did not conform to the usual US tendency to see ethnic categories as subdivisions of racial categories.

In Britain also, the enforcement of legislation against racial discrimination, particularly the 1976 Act, reinforced racial designations. It was also intended that the 1981 census in England and Wales should invite everyone to state the country of birth of his or her father and mother and then assign himself or herself to one of ten `racial or ethnic groups’ identified by national names like African/Indian/Pakistani, etc. Although it did not employ the then contentious expressions `white’ and `black’ as names for categories, its inclusion was nevertheless vetoed by the then prime minister. At one stage it was announced that the 2001 Census in England and Wales would ask persons to signify if they were `Mixed Race’, but in the end the census included instead a question asking `What is your ethnic group?’ and nowhere used the word race. References to children as being of `mixed race’ are to be found in cases concerning adoption before the Court of Appeal from 1976. The expression is objectionable since it implies the existence of pure races5. Many, but not all, persons of mixed ethnic origin in Britain want a label that will express what they believe to be their identity. Many of those of partly African (or Afro-Caribbean) origin choose to identify themselves as Black. Many favour `mixed-race’, but others believe this unsatisfactory and either find some alternative that is suited to their circumstances or refuse to be classified in this fashion (see Alibhai-Brown, 2001).

The number of children of mixed origin taken into care, placed in children’s homes, or made available for adoption, was disproportionately high because many were not born into stable unions. At the end of the nineteen-seventies this inspired a campaign in both the USA and Britain against what was called transracial adoption. It was an example of minority mobilisation that secured the support of the social work establishment. In Britain it appears to have been responsible for certain provisions in the Children Act 1989. Section 22(5)(c) of the Act declares that an authority in making any decision with respect to a child is to `give due consideration to his religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. By January of the following year the Social Services Inspectorate had second thoughts, and referred to `ethnic origin’ in place of `racial origin’. To treat colour categories, or cultural differences, as racial, or to talk of racial identities, is to play the game of the racialists, bundling together criteria that are best distinguished.

Any comparison of race-making and unmaking processes in the US and Britain has to examine the factors influencing the boundaries between groups in very many different spheres of life. In the USA in 1994 3 percent of blacks married someone of a different race or ethnicity. In Britain blacks were ten times more likely to marry or live with a white person, while such unions were contracted much more often by persons who considered themselves to be of partly black origin (Banton, 1997:142-44). In the one country the `one drop’ rule was being maintained, in the other it was almost forgotten. In both countries socio-economic status reflects average income differences as well as ethnicity or race, but there do not seem to be significant race-making tendencies in Britain in respect of housing, political organisation, sport or consumption. The strongest race-making institutions are in religious observance. In the USA it is possible to detect race-making as well as unmaking tendencies in all of these spheres of life.


The historical mode of racialization was an intellectual enterprise seeking to explain unequal development. Nations and other groups were represented as races as if this explained their character and achievements, but there is little evidence about the extent to which these representations were accepted by other people or whether they affected conduct and the course of events. In the contemporary period there is a process of racialization in a strict sense when words like race and racial are employed in policies to reduce discrimination. Some writers claim that racialization also occurs when groups are represented as having a racial character even though there may have been no explicit reference to race. By implication they reproach others for evoking misleading and dangerous associations. Those who write of racialization in this wider sense should specify more carefully who does the racializing and for what reasons. It remains unclear what standard of proof has to be met before a claim of racialization in this sense can be considered proven.

The source of all these difficulties lies in a mid-nineteenth century use of the word race which implied that the social characteristics of certain groups derived from their biological nature. The concept of racialization has been used to argue that those who called these groups races misrepresented the origins of their distinctiveness. This leads on to the question: if these groups are not to be called races, what should they be called? Any answer must first consider the purposes for which groups are to be named, recognising the different functions of nomenclature in everyday and in scientific language.

In everyday language, changes in the naming of groups spring from society itself. As social alignments change, so nomenclature changes. Some expressions within the language of race, like racial discrimination and incitement to racial hatred, have to be retained because they are essential to action against major social evils; other expressions are not essential and would be better discarded. That is not easily done. The report of a recent commission in Britain entitled The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (Parekh, 2000:xxiv) explicitly avoided using the words race and racial in any sense that might imply that the human species consists of separate races, yet it was generally described in the British press as a `race report’ or a `report on race’. There is no doubt that, in the short run at least, the mass media exert more influence than academics in deciding the names for groups to be used in everyday language.

In scientific language, changes in nomenclature spring from the discovery of theories that make possible better explanations of scientific problems. As social scientists improve their theories for explaining the formation, maintenance and dissolution of social groups, so they will work out what, for their purposes, are the best names for the various kinds of group. That should be their priority.


  1. Subsequent publications about allegedly new forms of racism and of multiple `racisms’ have not advanced beyond Rex’s argument in 1970 or tackled the main problem inherent in it, notably the claim to identify racism by the functions it supposedly serves. Any one stereotype, proverb or symbol, etc., is likely to serve many functions. To prove that its racially exclusionary function is more important than its other functions may be impossible. There is also the difficulty of specifying the unit within which the stereotype, proverb or symbol serves a function. The problems inherent in functional explanation cannot lightly be passed over.

  1. Miles (1982:168) states that the New Commonwealth migrants `met with an increasingly negative political and ideological reaction, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, which succeeded in applying the label of `race’ to [them]’. The first whites to apply the label of race to the situation were academics like Kenneth Little and myself. As we were the anti-racists of our day, the suggestion that we were participating in a political and ideological reaction seems far-fetched.

  1. Cf. Miles 1993: 145 where he asks whether the 1905 Aliens Act was racist? He notes that it made no reference to `race’ or to Jews, but `the Act legitimated this racist stereotype of Jews’. The Act presumably had many effects and this could have been one, but it difficult to be sure that it had this effect for a significant number of persons and, if it did, that this effect preponderated over any effect it may have had in mitigating hostility towards Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Trying to assess whether or not the Act was racist is an exercise of dubious value.

  1. Introducing the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, the Home Secretary stated that under the prevailing legislation `one quarter of the population of the globe’ was entitled to enter Britain (Hansen, 2000:111).

  1.  The interpretation of the lead-up to the 1962 Act to be found elsewhere (Banton, 1985:29-48) has been confirmed in its main points by this archival research. Its author concludes that the claims of the `racialization school’ are palpable nonsense (Hansen 2000:63).

  1. Between 1993 and 1996 I served on the Ethnic Minorities Advisory Committee of the Judicial Studies Board; since the Committee was advising courts and tribunals on the nomenclature it should employ in matters to do with ethnic minorities, I tried to persuade my colleagues that we should recommend that the use of `mixed race’ be discontinued, but without success. In January 1994 the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland adopted a motion in which it expressed concern `at the increased use in Britain of the expression `mixed race’ since this implies that there are pure races. The Council believes that the expression `mixed origin’, though not ideal, would be preferable’ (see Anthropology Today, 1994, 10(2):26).


Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin  2001 Mixed Feelings. The Complex Lives of Mixed-Race Britons. London: The Women’s Press.

Banton, Michael  1977 The Idea of Race. London: Tavistock.

– 1983a  Racial and Ethnic Competition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals.

– 1983b `The  Influence of Colonial Status upon Black-White  Relations in England, 1948-58′, Sociology, 17: 546-59.

– 1997 Ethnic and Racial Consciousness. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman.

– 1998  Racial Theories. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bryce, James (Viscount)  1902 The Relations of the Advanced and Backward Races of Mankind. Romanes lecture. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bulmer, Martin, and John Solomos, editors, 1998 `Introduction: Rethinking Ethnic and Racial Studies’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21:819-37.

Carter, Bob, Marci Green & Rick Halpern  1996 `Immigration policy and the racialization of migrant labour: the construction of national identities in the USA and Britain’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 19:135-57.

Cox, Oliver C. 1948 Caste, Class and Race. A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Dikötter, Frank 2002 `Race in China’, pp 495-510 in David Theo Goldberg & John Solomos, editors, A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies. Malden & Oxford: Blackwell.

Douglas, R. M. 2002 `Anglo-Saxons and Attacotti: the racialization of Irishness in Britain between the World Wars’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25:40-63.

Freeman, E. A. 1877 `Race and Language’, Contemporary Review, 29: 711-41, reprinted at pp 205-235 in Michael D. Biddiss, 1979  Images of Race: A Selection from Mid-Victorian Periodicals. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Hansen, Randall  2000 Citizenship and Immigration in Post-war Britain. The Institutional Origins of a Multicultural Nation. Oxford: University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop D. 1968 White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Miles, Robert  1982 Racism and Migrant Labour. London: Routledge.

-1989 Racism. London: Routledge.

-1993 Racism after `race relations’. London: Routledge.

Parekh, Bhikhu (Chair) 2000 The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. London: Profile Books.

Rex, John 1970 Race Relations in Sociological Theory. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Solomos, John  1989 Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Wolton, Suke  2000 Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War. The Loss of White Prestige. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Published in Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Karim Murji & John Solomos, Oxford University Press, 2005: 51-68.

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