In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race in American Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • African Americans in American Political Thought
  • Alexis de Tocqueville’s Contributions
  • American Revolution
  • Asian Americans
  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Cultural Arguments about the Development of Racism
  • Ethics and Race Relations
  • Eugenics and Social Darwinism
  • Feminist Approaches
  • Immigration
  • Indigenous Americans
  • Latinos
  • Liberalism
  • Pragmatism
  • W. E. B. Du Bois’ Contributions
  • Whiteness

Political Science Race in American Political Thought
Alvin B. Tillery, Jr.
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0084


The race concept and race relations have been central themes in American political thought from the colonial period to the present. It is easy to understand why this has been the case. After all, deep commitments to white supremacy and the inferiority of both indigenous Americans and Africans fueled the early development of the colonies that would bind themselves together in rebellion against England in the 18th century. Moreover, the charter documents of the American republic enshrined racial categories and what the political scientist Rogers Smith calls “ascriptive hierarchies” into our constitutional order. In other words, for most of its history, America was a Herrenvolk democracy—where whites enjoyed full citizenship rights and people of color were relegated to various forms of subordinate status. The first writings to make the race concept and race relations themes in American political thought were produced by intellectuals and activists engaged in political projects that sought to either justify or tear down these hierarchies. Although the aims of these primary texts were often overtly political, many raised questions and generated insights that have remained central to the study of these issues in the academy. Ironically, scholars of American political thought largely ignored these primary texts in the first five decades of the 20th century despite the fact that American higher education was in the midst of a great transformation that ushered in the rise of the modern research university. This situation changed dramatically in the wake of the Second World War and the social movements for racial justice that transformed American society in the middle of the 20th century. Indeed, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the end of the formal end of the Herrenvolk phase in American history, political scientists, philosophers, and intellectual historians have formalized the study of race and race relations within their respective disciplines. The vast majority of this post-1965 scholarship has appeared in university press books and a few notable journal articles. The scholarly consensus that has formed over this period holds that there is no scientific basis for the race concept, that differences between racial and ethnic groups are socially constructed, and that building peaceful and just societies requires some recognition of these group differences.

Introductory Works

As stated above, most of the important debates about race and American political thought have occurred within university press books and a few notable peer-reviewed journal articles. As a result, researchers new to this field will find very few textbooks on the subject. Among the available choices, Van den Berghe 1967, Omi and Winant 1994, Goldberg 1997, and Taylor 2003 provide the best general overviews of the development of the race concept and the ethical debates over race and race relations in America. Gossett 1963, Hannaford 1996, and Smedley 2007 provide excellent general histories of the development of racialist and white supremacist thought in the United States. Gould 1996 is an indispensable resource for those seeking an introduction to the development of scientific racism in the United States.

  • Goldberg, David Theo. Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

    This work rejects the modern social scientific view that racism is rooted in the aberrant emotional responses to difference displayed by individuals. The book argues that racism is actually formed and reproduced at the macro level to structure social relations.

  • Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.

    This book offers a comprehensive treatment of the intellectual provenance white supremacist thought in the United States by examining early American print sources and patterns in literary culture.

  • Gould, Stephen J. Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

    This work presents a thorough history and refutation of the eugenics movement. It also draws parallels between the eugenics movement and the tiny cadre of social scientists in the late 20th century who continue to maintain that racial and ethnic differences on intelligence tests are a function of heredity.

  • Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

    This book dispels the idea that the race concept and racialist thinking were universal developments in Western political thought inherited from the classical societies of Greece and Rome. It argues that racialist thinking is rooted in the medieval pseudo-sciences that grew up to justify political projects that brought European societies into conflict with others.

  • Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    This book provides a trenchant assault on the view that racial identities are rooted in hereditable traits. It argues that racial categories have emerged and been transformed through human projects designed to achieve a number of economic, political, and social ends.

  • Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2007.

    The book argues that the race concept and notions of white superiority became deeply rooted in the popular cultures of European societies at the beginning of the 18th century. It also argues that these cultural conceptions were the main justifications used by colonizers as they conquered the Americas and built slave societies.

  • Taylor, Paul C. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Polity, 2003.

    This work blends insights from metaphysics, analytic philosophy, and moral philosophy to argue against racialism inspired by biologistic notions of race. It also develops an ethics for dealing with the realities of the lived experiences of marginalized racial groups in America.

  • Van den Berghe, Pierre L. Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective. New York: Wiley, 1967.

    This book provides a discussion of the development of racial categories in modern Western societies and how racialist government policies and cultural practices preserve them over time. The main argument presented in the book is that in societies where cultural practices lead to competitive race relations it will be more difficult to eliminate racism.

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