History impacts modern social landscape

Enlightenment philosophy created institutionalized racism


Derrick Jean-Baptiste

Our past still haunts us. Even after hundreds of years, we are still feeling the ramifications of historical events that occurred long ago. One such event was the development of institutionalized racism.

In “Modernity, Philosophy, and Race(ism),” Philosopher Charles Johnson gives a detailed account of how Enlightenment philosophers influenced the discussion on race and its effect on the oppression of people of color.

In his book, Johnson outlines a number of different philosophers who helped mold the institutatutional idea of race. During this time, scientific curiosity was aimed towards the topic of raciology, “the systematic study, characterization and classification of the varieties of man.”

Currently, it is significant to note that raciology was researched under the guise of scientific inquiry. Observations were made about the the “physical differences among the varieties of man,” and racial categories emerged on the basis of those differences.

Philosophers like Carl von Linneaus, Georges-Louis Lecleric, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and John Locke are all philosophers whose philosophies were built on each other to create a system of oppression.

According to Johnson, these philosophers created a classification system that was adopted by many people throughout the colonial era. These philosophers created a classification system that was adapted by many different people in the Enlightenment era.

These philosophers described various types of man, closing these forms of men with white Europeans on top of the physical and mental hierarchy. They built this idea that these classifications they created were ordained by God. Finally, they said that these classifications were a law of nature. David Hume at this time said, “Never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.”

People in the Enlightenment era absorbed these idea with a level of fervor not seen often. So how did these ideas become so accepted?

Accepting these ideas became a way of resolving the contradictions between a natural right to freedom that was expressed by many Enlightenment thinkers and the fact of slavery.

If Europeans were in their own category with innate differences backed by science, then that category could be deemed superior.

As a result, they could justify their own rights and freedoms while enslaving, excluding and otherwise mistreating people who had been placed in different racial categories. So the division of people into groups based on general geographical origins of their ancestors or descriptions of the way they look is the basis of a manmade strategy for making sense of treating some people better than others.

These ideas follow us to this day. It’s created this system that are still a part of the modern social landscape. These philosophers helped create this idea of race. While race isn’t a tangible thing, racism is.

Racism is experienced across a spectrum. It may occur in a passive way by excluding people socially or by being indifferent to their views and experiences. It may take the form of prejudice and stereotyping of different groups in our community; in name calling, taunting or insults; or in actively and directly excluding or discriminating against people from services on opportunities.

In its most serious manifestation, racism is demonstrated in behaviors and activities that embody hate, abuse and violence particularly experienced by groups who are visibly different as a result of their cultural or religious dress, their skin color or their physical appearance.

This is the continued impact from the time of the Enlightenment. What can we do to move past this? This structure was set in place before anyone here was born. Yet, we are all unwilling followers in this system. How do we remove ourselves from this system? By continuing to discuss racism, we can foster a level of understanding and begin to crumble this system that has so much power over our lives.


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