How did the racial characteristics develop

Right-wing extremism

Ulrich Kattmann

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Kattmann is a biologist and anthropologist and taught for many years at the University of Oldenburg. His research interests include racism and race construction.

At the beginning of racism is the division of mankind into "races". Although it has long been scientifically refuted that there is such a thing as "race" people, many still hold on to it. The concept has long since ceased to play a role genetically and biologically - but socially it does.

According to current knowledge, the division of people into "races" has no scientifically founded basis. Yet "human races" actually exist. Not as biological facts, but as - unconscious - thought structures and judgments in our heads. The idea that there are "races" each with different characteristics shapes - certainly individually different and depending on the degree of critical discussion - social structures, individual perception and individual behavior. So this notion is powerful in our thinking and social interactions. And this in three ways:

  • Human thinking tends to simplify. In order to quickly grasp the complexity of the world, categories are formed and perceptions and observations are assigned to these categories. By shaping our social environment, we adopt pre-structured categories: for example, people are divided into different groups and separated from one another. This leaves little room for transitions or ambiguity; clear boundaries based on contrasts are drawn. The distinctions we make and the categories we make are learned and not simply given.
  • With regard to ideas of "race", such typological thinking leads to the division of people into supposedly homogeneous groups such as "black", "white" and "yellow" based on external characteristics such as skin color. "Races" one then means to "see", although there are only people with darker or lighter skin color. The names are based on a type structure that differs greatly from reality: "White" are not white, "Black" are not black, "Yellow" are not yellow. Taking skin color as the basis for defining different groups is nonsensical and arbitrary, since like other genetically determined human characteristics it represents a continuum, i.e. is characterized by numerous transitions. In addition, the tint of the skin varies greatly within the groups.
Classifications into "races" were and are always connected with social and political interests. Therefore, external characteristics such as "skin color" are associated with supposed characteristics of the people. One is then convinced that "races" have different psychological, social and cultural abilities and that some people are superior or inferior to other people because of their "race" - for example, separation (segregation), exclusion and social disregard (discrimination) as well as oppression and violence legitimized as "natural".

The emergence of the "race" concept must be understood in its historical and social context. During the colonial era, major European powers conquered and subjugated large parts of the world by force. The notion of "races" served an important ideological function to justify European domination and expansion. The self-image of the Europeans (the "whites") as culturally and "civilizationally" superior and of the colonized people (the "colored" or "blacks") as inferior served to legitimize slavery, displacement and genocide. "Race" is thus - although the idea is not based on any scientifically justifiable basis - a social construct to be taken seriously.

Education about the biological and genetic diversity of people, as it should be done in this article, can therefore not simply eliminate racially motivated thinking and acting. However, it prevents them from relying on scientifically verifiable facts.

1. The genetic diversity of humans

The traditional biological concept of "race" is inadequate to adequately capture the obvious diversity of humanity. In biology, the term "race" in relation to humans is completely outdated today. When making this statement, it is often assumed that the departure from the "race" concept was justified solely by historical burdens and criminal abuse during National Socialism. However, there are essential biological-genetic facts that show the concept of race to be unsuitable. The division into "races" does not adequately describe the genetic diversity of people:
  • Many of the characteristics previously used to distinguish "races" vary independently of one another. For example, features of the face such as the shape of the nose and lips are not linked to the tone of the skin. Therefore there are theoretically innumerable possible "racial classifications", depending on which characteristics are used. In fact, there are almost as many "racial" divisions in the history of science in biology as there are scientists who have studied it. The division according to skin color became popular by distinguishing between five large races (white, black, yellow, red and brown) or the first three as so-called large races (Europeans, Africans and Asians), which the German anthropologist Egon von Eickstedt named " Europide "," Negride "and" Mongolide "and thus gave a scientific sound.
  • The average genetic differences between the groups defined as "races" are smaller than those between the individuals within the group defined as race. Already with this the division into races turns out to be arbitrary and senseless.
  • There are seamless transitions in the distribution of genetic characteristics between the "racially" differentiated populations. These transitions do not come about through a mixture of originally different "races", but are themselves to be regarded as original. There were never any sharp boundaries between the populations. This is why the traditional division into so-called "large races" is no longer applicable, since humanity has always been genetically linked across the borders of the continents.
From the beginning, racial traits were linked to cultural performance within biological racial science. "High cultural races" should then be the creators of the "high cultures". The biologist and geographer Jared Diamond has extensively proven that this thesis is incorrect. Cultural differences are not based on genetic or other biological characteristics of the population, but on the biogeographical conditions of the environment. The different cultural development in different geographical regions can be attributed to which wild plants of the respective region were suitable to be cultivated and which wild animals were suitable to be kept and bred. The development of written cultures was linked to the cultivation of useful plants and the breeding of domestic animals. These conditions were ideal in the "Fertile Crescent" of Asia Minor (today's Turkey, Syria and Iraq), as well as in China and India. These are the places where the oldest written cultures and states developed. If the populations of Australia and Europe had been exchanged around 10,000 years ago, Europeans and Euro-Americans would look different today, but cultural development and history would not have been significantly different. So it is not the genetic characteristics of humans that create culture: "It is not genes, but continents that make history." (Diamond)

2. Racism and Culturalism

The departure from the "race" concept has by no means solved the problem of racism. Such an assumption would be naive and dangerous, as it would minimize inhuman racist views and actions. Racial thinking persists even though the concept of "race" is scientifically discredited. It can express itself in all-encompassing, state-sponsored ideologies - as in recent history, for example, in South Africa during the apartheid regime - or in everyday, racist insults and also in statements that may appear positive, which nonetheless reproduce prejudices and stereotypes ("All black people are very good dance well "). In the first case one would speak of institutionalized racism, in the second case of everyday racism. The systematic disadvantage of people based on their assumed or real origin on the job market or when looking for accommodation is a form of institutional racism that is against the law in Germany, but is still widely practiced.

Racism is based on the conviction that people can or should be treated and assessed differently based on certain ascribed affiliations. In the "race" knowledge of biological anthropology, a distinction was made between "higher" and "lower" "races" from the outset, and race was linked to psychological characteristics and the ability to culturally. In the US, moreover, economic differences were widely made "racial" and poor people were designated as a separate "race" [1]. This shows the socio-cultural origin of the supposedly biologically based racism.

In the meantime it is seldom that racist statements or arguments are formulated purely biologically. Today, racist thinking is more likely to be expressed in categories of "culture". "Cultural differences" are presented as insurmountable opposites between people, individual cultures are assigned fixed characteristics and traits. These demarcations, evaluations and the assertion that different cultures are incompatible are a further development of biological-racist thinking. One example is the culture circle doctrine, which Samuel Huntington updated again in the 1990s with his theses of the allegedly inevitable "clash of civilizations". In the course of this thinking, religious affiliation is used as a kind of "racial-geographical" category (Christian Occident versus Islamic Orient) in order to delimit population groups from one another in a hostile manner. Recently there has been talk of "Christian-Jewish culture" in order to separate Europe from Islam. It fails to recognize that all three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are equally rooted in Asia Minor. Up to modern times, the flow of cultural information did not run from north-west Europe to the south-east, but vice versa. Without the Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages, people living in Europe today would not even know Aristotle and Plato.

However, the politicized and instrumentalized antagonism of the religions determines the debate about the identity of "Christian" Europe and the "Muslim" Middle East. In intellectual acrobatics, some German politicians even manage the trick of separating religion from people by saying that the Muslims living here belong to Germany, but not Islam.

3. Overcoming racist thinking and acting

According to socio-psychological studies, the self-image of a group (own positive characteristics) determines the external image (negative characteristics) of the group perceived as "racially" or culturally alien. Images of others say hardly anything about outgroups, but much more about the state of mind of the ingroup. In order to dismantle racist images of the enemy, one must therefore primarily start with one's own image. Without changing the assessment of one's own group situation or their real living conditions (regardless of the presence of those perceived as foreign), the rejection of the stranger and racism cannot be adequately countered.

If the need for hostile demarcation from strangers arises primarily from self-alienation and self-insecurity, the fundamental consequence of this is that the question of people's identity and belonging to a group cannot be completely dismissed as improper. Rather, it is important to develop a self-confident and self-assured understanding of one's own group, which, however, contains openness to the foreign and the foreign and thus counteracts hostile demarcation because it does not need one.

External image and self-image: Since the external images arise from the self-image, they are interchangeable. So there is no point in trying to educate people about a certain outgroup and exempt them from discrimination. If a group is no longer viewed as a stranger, a new outgroup is sought, onto which racist or other misanthropic prejudices are projected. This happens as long as the self-image remains intact. The exchange of the outgroup is not arbitrary, however: Since the need for enemy images is caused by one's own unacknowledged insecurity, those groups are usually chosen that appear to be the weakest: asylum seekers, socially discriminated migrants, people with disabilities. Minorities are always affected, even when, as in the case of anti-Semitism, they are said to have powerful connections and dangerous conspiracies. Instead of (only) working on breaking down discriminatory perceptions and behavior towards a certain group, the awareness of the oppressive or discriminatory group in relation to their self-image needs to be changed.

It is an excellent quality of human beings to be able to put oneself in the shoes of others. The near and the distant, the own and the alien are therefore interchangeable according to human ability - the alien and the distant can each become a part of the self-image. That this happens requires the change of consciousness described. This does not come about by itself, especially when racist prejudices are repeatedly instrumentalized politically. The coexistence of people of different origins therefore requires mutual learning; it contains both opportunities and risks. It can be mutually beneficial or it can result in destructive violence.

The view of the individual. While everyone considers themselves unique in a double sense, of course, other people are judged according to their group membership for the sake of simplicity. In racist ideas, the individual is easily disregarded and instead the gaze is directed to the illusory image of a supposed foreign group. The characteristics of the individual, however, could not be captured by group characteristics even if these apply to the average or in the mean. The following example is intended to illustrate how attributions to groups can be broken up educationally in favor of an individual view.

"This is Gordon"

A scene that happened some time ago in a kindergarten in Kiel: The supervisor brings a new child into the group. It has dark skin and frizzy hair. The children in the group react insecurely. A girl points to the shy boy and yells: "Look, a negro". The teacher reacts with a sure sense of the situation: "This is not a negro: this is Gordon!" Gordon is then immediately fully accepted as a member by the group.

Anyone who is bothered by the child's no longer politically correct speech should consider that political correctness does not prevent even adults from thinking in racist or prejudiced categories, even if they do not necessarily express this in words. The scene "This is Gordon" rather illustrates how the view of the individual dissolves the stereotyped thinking in pre-defined racial categories in favor of the uniqueness of Gordon as a person. If the little girl was still looking at a "negro", the appropriate reaction of the kindergarten teacher introduced Gordon as a person into the group. The name drew attention to the individual and thus established the personal, emotional relationship.

In social reality, on the other hand, the coexistence or opposition of the groups often obscures the perception of the individuals and thus makes them susceptible to racist thinking. One means of countering racist thinking and prejudice in one's own thinking is therefore to look at the individual. This corresponds to the insight that you are not only unique yourself, but of course also others, whom you (still) face as a stranger.

Culturally and "racially" certain prejudices and reservations are not given, but learned. It can therefore be learned and relearned against them. Since the self-image determines the external image, expressing and reflecting on one's own prejudices and reservations are important steps in preventing one's own thoughts and actions from being determined by them.

"Race doesn't get under your skin," writes geneticist Richard Lewontin. Racial prejudice does.

For further reading:

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. (1999). Genes, races, languages. Munich.
Diamond, J. (1999). Rich and poor. The fate of human societies. Munich.
Gould, S.J. (1988). The wrongly measured person. Suhrkamp paperback science. Berlin.
Kattmann, U. (Ed.). (2009). Diversity of people. Teaching biology (342).
Kattmann, U. (2013). Genes, race and culture. In M. Koegeler-Abdi & R.Parncutt (Eds.), Interculturality: Practice meets research. Newcastle upon Tyne.
Lewontin, R.C. et al. (1988). It's not the genes ... Weinheim: BeltzPVU.
Kaupen-Haas, H. & Saller, F. (1999). (Ed.), Scientific Racism. Frankfurt / M.
UNESCO Statement on Race, City of Schlaining 1995. (German and English text available at: