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The historical specificity and contemporary relevance of the concept of race

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The pre-enlightenment period.
  3. The beginning of the nineteenth century.
  4. The definition of race in post-enlightenment society.
  5. The process of building nationhood.
  6. Supporting political democracy and individual rights.
    1. Reconciling with the belief in social progress with the desire for social stability.
    2. The major scientific development.
  7. The concept of race today.
  8. The coming of imperialism and the impression to rule the world.
  9. Redressing the effects of discrimination in the United States.
  10. Conclusion.
  11. Sources.

According to Rousseau, there are ?two sorts of inequality': one is ?natural or physical'; the other is between social groups. In order to understand an historical specificity of the concept of race, we will study how the second type of inequality was reduced to the first. In other words, we are going to see how what were considered social inequalities started to be seen as natural inequalities. The concept of race is very complex. Most of the time, in today's world, it describes populations or groups of people distinguished by different sets of characteristics, and beliefs about common ancestry. These human racial characteristics are most widely based on visible traits like skin color or facial features, and self-identification. Whereas racism was first a belief in the inferiority of the lower orders at home, it became a belief in the inferiority of non-European peoples. We will see how racism evolved progressively, ceasing to be an elite ideology and becoming part of popular culture, establishing itself as a mass ideology and transforming the concept of race into an issue of colour dividing the world. In this paper, in order to explain the historical specificity and contemporary relevance of the concept of race, we will explain the making of a discourse of race from the eighteenth century to the age of democracy, having eventually a look at the contradictions of equality that emerged in modern society.

[...] In a conclusion, the historical specificity of the concept of race is due to the fact that first founded on social divisions, it was progressively reduced to physical differences. Moving away from the Universalist Enlightenment vision of mankind, the reintroduction of distinctions in society to maintain authority and to prevent from social change, the elites progressively reforged the idea of race and started soon to regard non-white races just as they had regarded their own labouring classes and considered them inferior. [...]


[...] By the end of the nineteenth century nationalism and racial thinking had ceased to be an elite ideology and became part of popular culture, transforming the concept of race into an issue of colour. The ?colour line' now divided the world. The meaning of race has been transformed. Whereas in the past belief in the inferiority of non-European peoples was an extension of the already-existing belief in the inferiority of the lower orders at home, now it became a central part of racial discourse. [...]


[...] This vision undermined the idea of human equality and unity because this focus on the specificity of societies or cultures is contrary to universal law. For Herder, difference was inevitable and universality contrary to nature. This particularistic outlook encouraged a racial outlook. These differences between peoples, motivated by particular sentiments, were rapidly seen as racial differences. The definition of race in post-Enlightenment society was quite imprecise, as the ideas of ?peoples', ?nations', ?classes' and ?races' all emerged together. Race often expressed a vague sense of difference, which was characterised by physical traits, languages, customs, or aptitudes for civilisation. [...]

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