In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Idea of Race

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Atlantic History The Idea of Race
Michael Guasco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0033


The history of race in the Atlantic world is a complicated topic made even more so by the difficulty in defining the basic terms of the debate. The idea of race at once encompasses scholarly consideration of race relations, racial ideology, racial discrimination, racial oppression, and other forms of domination. Historical inquiries into race also inevitably overlap with studies of gender, class, nationalism, warfare, imperialism, slavery, genocide, and more. Scholars do agree that race is both a socially and historically contingent category of analysis. Yet, largely as a result of the 19th- and 20th-century history of scientific racism and anti-Semitism, race has a specific resonance in contemporary society. But did race matter in the early modern Atlantic world? European, African, and American peoples rarely thought of themselves or others as members of biologically distinctive groups before the modern era. Before the end of the 18th century, most people believed that they possessed a common ethnic identity and were bound together in corporate groups by lineage, language, religion, and culture. Quite often, this sense of group solidarity translated into either a casual disregard or outright hostility toward other peoples who were stigmatized and sometimes persecuted as a result of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity. Anti-Semitism, famously, was prevalent in the early modern era. Beginning in the late 15th century, with the advent of transatlantic travels and new cross-cultural encounters, however, Europeans began to think anew about their distinctiveness. Face-to-face contact with African and American peoples forced Europeans to reconsider traditional anthropological and theological conceptions of the world. Slavery and colonialism led Europeans to invent new ways of thinking about non-Europeans in order to justify territorial aggrandizements and new, extractive economies dependent on bound laborers. Thus, although antiblack prejudice and derogatory attitudes toward Indians were certainly present in the early modern era, the emergence of scientific, biological racism in the 18th and 19th centuries was undoubtedly a devastating legacy of the birth of the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

It is necessary to divide overviews of the topic into historical sources, which discuss the development of the idea of race over time, or within certain historical contexts; and theoretical sources, which define and examine the concept of race itself.

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