The Historical Construction of Race

In this session participants will explore the historical development of racial categories and its role in shaping American politics and society. Where did the idea of “race” come from, how did it gain so much traction, how has it changed over time, and why and how did it become such a powerful way that Americans think about their world? How have racial identities and categorizations interacted with socioeconomic exploitation in the American past, and how does this continue to shape society?


Through the reading, video, and discussion, participants will be able to:

  • Explain race as a historical and social construct;
  • Articulate relationships between race and class in American history;
  • Evaluate the relevance of the history of “race” in their own lives.

Discussion Materials:

Discussion Questions:

  • How and why did the concept of “race” develop historically?
  • How are race and class related in American history? In America today?
  • Considering this history, is race a “real” thing? Why or why not?

Some Additional Resources:

  • PBS Website Race: The Power of an Illusion
  • David Miguel Gray on “Racial Ontology”
  • Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010). You can see Painter speak about the book here.
  • Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, Third Edition (New York: Routledge Taylor, 2015).
  • David R. Roediger, Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
  • Paul Lawrence Farber, Mixing Races: From Scientific Racism to Modern Evolutionary Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
  • Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
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