The Concept of Race and How it Functions Within Discourses of Power and Knowledge


During the past two centuries, there have been important thinkers who have defended or challenged the idea of race. Some deny its existence, while others argue that racial identity is socially constructed. These philosophers focus on how race functions within particular discourses of power and knowledge.

The first important articulation of the concept of race came with the publication of “A New Division of the Earth” by French natural philosopher Francois Bernier in 1684. Bernier defined the term as “a distinction of human varieties arising from the action of an internal biological force”. This concept was not scientific, however.

Later race thinkers replaced polygenesis with sexual selection. These theories are now considered to be social constructs. The concept of race has also been challenged by scholars who argue that racial identity is essentialist. This conception requires that members of a race share certain bodily features, such as a thin face or thin beard.

However, this approach fails to account for the differences in skin color and shape. These differences can be attributed to geographical ancestry, but they can also be the result of genetic adaptations.

Genetic evolution can occur through a combination of genes or through the mutation of a single gene over generations. Many genetic changes result in imperceptible differences. However, the visible phenotypes associated with racial differences are often gross aggregates of genetic changes.

Biological theories that rely on geography to divide humanity into races have also been challenged by contemporary population genetics. Northeast Asians are linked to Europeans more closely than southeast Asians. In turn, northeast Asians are not racially linked to Black Africans.

In addition, folk theories have generated counterintuitive cross-classifications. For example, people ascribed as Black in the United States may be more likely to be apprehended without cause by police. Likewise, people ascribed as black in Brazil may be considered white in the United States.

In the early twentieth century, the biological concept of race reached apogee. This conception was popularized by writers such as Chamberlain and Grant. It was believed that biological races had developed through inbreeding. This created four distinct races, one based on east Asian ancestry, one based on European ancestry, one based on African ancestry, and one based on people of Siberia.

In addition, genetic isolation and reproductive isolation may have created a sense of genetic isolation. Some scholars argue that modern practices barring miscegenation result in genetic isolation.

Some important philosophers have questioned the scientific validity of race. For example, Louis Agassiz, who was born in Switzerland and studied in Germany, questioned whether African Americans share blood with Europeans.

However, many important scholars and thinkers continue to defend the concept of race. These include philosophers who argue that the concept of race is socially constructed, and some who argue that racial identity is not essentialist.

A third school of thought is racial population naturalism. This school of thought argues that discrete racial groups have physical and mental characteristics that can be traced to their geographic origins. This approach falsely attributes physical and cultural characteristics to racial groups, ignoring the fact that people are genetically and geographically different.