A Book Review People Can Use! Volume II
By: Michael Banton
In the second edition of Racial Theories, Michael Banton offers a historic analysis of theories of racial and ethnic relations, while also examining the contemporary struggles to supersede them. This meticulously revised and updated edition of Banton’s work reveals how modern notions of race stem from the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and attempts to explain how distinctions among humanity in terms of race as a “permanent type” eventually evolved into explanations based in social scientific conceptions of race as a “form of status”. While contemporary debates about racial and ethnic conflict persist, Banton offers a review of the history of social theories, their significance, and the position race occupies within the context of scientific history. The work culminates with Banton proposing a new form of social science specifically centered on racial and ethnic relations.
“Race” as a Designation
In the onset of the book Banton sets the stage for an analysis of race as a designation as it has been defined within the last two hundred years, and the remnants of this (mis)conception continue to find their place in contemporary society. The author assesses race as a designation beginning with the United States, focusing on how race has been used to denote designation as it became customary to use race to refer to human groups or sections of the population.
Over time, the English usage of race as a designation became a trend, and groups of humans became known to be distinguished by their outward appearance. Members of all three groups had been united in a new economic and political system in which each group occupied unequal positions in society. To identify people as “white”, “Negro”, or “Indian” employed a proper name, a name that was exclusive to the group so designated. As a result, it became commonplace to identify these groups on the aforementioned basis of race, which ultimately implied that biological differences were the key differences between humans.
"Race" as Lineage
In his section on race as lineage Banton discusses the early modern concepts of race with respect to British and German notions. Throughout the section Banton examines the relationship between biological conceptions of lineage in contemporary society, and religious conceptions of lineage, noting that the latter predates the former. The author identifies that theories of race as lineage are rooted in Europe, but thinkers were limited in their analysis and encountered difficulties identifying race in this manner. As Banton reveals, early scientists were charged with the responsibility of identifying a species, and more importantly with the task of defining exactly what a species was, which was challenging at the turn of the 19th century. Banton notes that this knowledge was usually exclusive to students of biology who usually were familiar with the classification system of Linnaeus.
This framework of thought was a product of Hegelian philosophy as Germans did not believe features such as skin pigmentation were good indicators for classifying human populations. For instance, Banton cites the work and philosophy of Carl Carus (1789–1869) who based his classification system on human senses, thusly identifying members of society as ‘eye people’, ‘ear people’, etc. Furthermore, Carus’ theory included the concept of cultural evolution identifying some people as “day people” (most developed), some people as “twilight people” (people of the Western and Eastern hemisphere), and “night people” (African and Australian people). Banton also recognizes the work of Gustav Klemm, the other great German racial theorist, who studied and offered a discourse about the stages on mankind, similar to the cultural evolution theory of Carus.
“Race” as a Type
In Banton’s section on race as type the author wittingly recognizes the contributions of Georges Curvier (1769 -1832), a historical figure in the history of biological science, who mistakenly confuses lineage and variety, yet produces a missing link that leads to the conception of race as type. Curvier’s work actually caused the biological picture to become absolutely unclear, since it distorted whether the differences he noted were at the level of species, genus, or variety.
Astonishingly, the fact that skull size and stature might be connected within a species was ignored. Accordingly, Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), a French writer, also known as the father of racism, was greatly influenced by Curvier’s work and follows the aforementioned version of racial classification. Banton asserts:
“Gobineau’s influence has often been exaggerated and his outlook misrepresented. He came to the topic of racial differences from a wide reading in German literature, so it should not be surprising to find in his work traces of a similar kind of romanticism.”
Gobineau argued that Aryans were the original race, and migrated to:
“create first the Hindu civilization, then the Egyptians, Assyrian, Greek, Chinese, Roman, German, Alleghenian, Mexican, and Peruvian civilizations”.
Additionally, Banton also mentions that the conception of race as type incorporates the tradition of race theory in which the original divisions of the races into Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid first appeared.
“Race” as a Subspecies
At the onset of the chapter on race as subspecies, Banton introduces Darwinian population thinking. Although Charles Darwin (1809–1882) maintained that race was a subspecies, and there were variations within species so that the subspecies could yield viable progenies, evolutionary differences remained. Above all, this section is unique because Banton examines the scientific process that Darwin used as he went from typological to population thinking. There was no longer a type that featured an “essence”, just different populations in different places in the world.
Banton notes that inevitably, the question of the place of natural selection in this process was introduced. Various subspecies were selected because there was an awareness that the evolutionary process was still going on, and some groups seemed better adapted than others — particularly if you considered society as that which you had to adapt to.
In the two decades preceding WWI (1893–1913), the acceptance of “white superiority” reached its zenith as people considered the size of the British Empire and presumed that natives of Britain must be better adjusted to the world stage than others. Banton explains that the racial and ethnic notions received academic support from an American by the name of William Graham Sumner (1840–1910). A Yale professor, Sumner is known as the first person to teach a course in the United States called “Sociology”. He published a book entitled Folkways in 1906, in which he outlined and described human customs. In his work Sumner argued that before the Civil War the South had been peaceful, therefore there was no purpose in attempting to address southern racial relations.
"Race" as Status
In Banton’s chapter on race as status the author carries forward a discussion centering around race and its relation to the behavior of peoples and the social organization of society or a given number of people. Banton uses this section to examine varying examples of race as social status including: racial relations in the southern region of the United States in the early twentieth century, theories of discrimination and concepts of ethnicity, caste and class connections, Dollard’s Freudian concepts, and comparative studies from Brazil and Hawaii. Banton’s discussion reveals that conceptions of race as status have much to do with behavior and social organization. This implies that humans do not identify one race individually, and instead view the complete relationship between races, and what each has to gain or lose by its relative position on the social hierarchy
"Race" as Class
In his section on race as class, Banton examines Marxist theorist Oliver Cromwell Cox’s (1901–1974) assessment of the racial system constituted by social class. Put simply, Marx attempts to reduce all differences within racial relations to class difference. As Cox’s treatment of Marx’s framework is the primary focus of this section, Banton also introduces examples of class dynamics in South Africa that are based on racial theories. Moreover, Banton presents a critique of the folk concept of race within social society. With respect to other concepts of race, when examining the cultural, political, economic, and social institutions of a given society, race becomes another economic relation, whereas skin pigment becomes incidental. Banton states:
“Marxists see history as a progressive development in some respects comparable to organic evolution. They do not claim to predict the future of particular societies, but believe that they can identify the components of change so that their understanding of its character has improved in a manner comparable to the results of testing in other branches of social science”
Race as a Social Construction
The new edition of Racial Theories includes a final chapter on race as a social construction. Banton examines how race has become synonymous with a social category by examining the origins of other socially constructed categories such as gender, class, and national and ethnic origin. Banton declares that critiquing racial theories along this basis may yield results that will help differentiate theoretical and practical language, and ultimately determine problems relating to the name, definition, and criterion of race.
The concluding chapter features Banton’s presentation of an update on progress towards bottom-up theories that could potentially replace contemporary concepts of race. The author attempts to explain why outward distinctions among people and cultural characteristics associated and/or attributed with differences in national or ethnic origin seem to create social and political tension between members of society. Banton argues for a traditionally sensitive social scientific interpretation of racial and ethnic groups derived from a general theory of collective action that can replace racial explanations as effectively as they have been replaced in biological science.
Banton’s Racial Theories offers a critical analysis of the disparate notions of race. As he peruses the origins of each notion, Banton distinguishes racial theories derived from a combination of elements pertaining to social and biological sciences, a mixture that has ultimately led to misconceptions of the meaning, application, and implications of the notion of race. While advancements within the field of biological science has developed society’s understanding of human variation, developments within social science have created new ways of understanding the social consequences of physical differences among humans. Moreover, Banton identifies racial theories formulated in Europe and North America throughout the last two centuries as implicitly biased as they perpetuated misconceptions of race due to the fact that these theories were:
“embedded in the political and social life of the societies to which their authors and their readers have belonged”.
Banton asserts that the most significant question that interested the public during this time period was “why are they not like us?” The aforementioned question reveals the nature of the perception of an in-group and out-group within society as those who posed this question regarded a particular group as “they”, while having limited information about portions of the world’s population. This question inevitably caused those who asked it to regard themselves as a “superior group”, while calling for answers to explain irregular differences among those who belonged to the “inferior group”.
Based on Banton's analysis, the first concept of race was used to denote designation and to reference human groups or sections of the population. Three groups were established, “white”, “Negro”, and “Indian”, to divide the population, yet unite the member groups under a new economic and political system where each group occupied unequal relative positions in society. The second concept suggested lineage, yet this suggestion was limited because “it could not satisfactorily explain how environment affected the transmission of inherited characters”. The third concept offered explained that humanity featured differences among the population due to racial types, however this assertion did not account for evolution.
The fourth concept of race was spearheaded by the efforts of Darwin, and maintained that people were different because they were members of separate subspecies. The concept of race as a population was progressive, but also limited because it did not account for cultural differences. The fourth concept of race was stemmed in ecological theory as sociologists declared that differences existed due to variation of positions humans occupied, but “ecological factors alone could not account for the differences in wealth, power, and social position of racial groups which formed parts of the same society”. As a result, the fifth concept upheld the idea of race as status as racial minorities were told they had unequal social status. However, identifying members of society on the basis of social status created problems because this assessment varied from place, time, and social setting. Hence, the sixth concept of race was created — race as a notion of class — referencing political remedies rather than prescriptions based in social science methodology known as theory-testing. The seventh and final concept of race examined by Banton, race as a social construction, addresses the underlined fact about all concepts of race - that race is a product of pseudoscience and a socially created category similar to other socially constructed categories such as gender, class, and national and ethnic origin.
Banton acknowledges that there is much confusion around the way the word “race” is used in the English language, and offers insight into how western civilization can progressively settle the ongoing dispute around the word’s use, meaning, and application. Banton maintains:
“superseding ‘race’ in the theoretical language of social science will depend upon the development of a better theory of group formation and dissolution”.
Furthermore, he places the onus of this development on the quality of questions that are asked around the question of race. Whereas contemporary society has grown to be interconnected and interdependent due to twentieth century improvements to industry, communications, transportation, and technology, new global markets have blurred the lines of old racial boundaries as the populace has become more interested in questions of ethnic and racial identity. Banton expects these trends to continue and highlights theories that utilize a bottom-up approach and consider race as a socially constructed mechanism within broader theories that can eventually supersede outdated misconceptions of the notion of race.