When virtually the whole of a society, including supposedly thoughtful, educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason is not hallucination or delusion or even simple hypocrisy; rather, it is ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to analyse rationally who remains trapped on its terrain. That is why race still proves so hard for historians to deal with historically, rather than in terms of metaphysics, religion or socio- (that is, pseudo-) biology.
Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among otherwise sensible scholars that race "explains" historical phenomena; specifically, that it explains why people of African descent have been set apart for treatment different from that accorded to others. But *race* is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains than *judicial review* "explains" why the United States Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than *Civil War* "explains" why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865. Only if *race* is defined as innate and natural prejudice of colour does its invocation as a historical explanation do more than repeat the question by way of answer. And there an insurmountable problem arises: since race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise historically. The most sophisticated of those who invoke race as a historical explanation--for example George Fredrickson and Winthrop Jordan--recognize the difficulty. The preferred solution is to suppose that, having arisen historically, race then ceases to be a historical phenomenon and becomes instead an external motor of history; according to the fatuous but widely repeated formula, it "takes on a life of its own." In other words, once historically acquired, race becomes hereditary. The shopworn metaphor thus offers camouflage for a latter-day version of Lamarckism.
Race is not an element of human biology (like breathng oxygen or reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of *pi*) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons. The revolutionary bicentennials that Americans have celebrated with such unction--of independence in 1976 and of the Constitution in 1989--can as well serve as the bicentennial of racial ideology, since the birthdays are not far apart. During the revolutionary era, people who favoured slavery and people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial incapacity of Afro-Americans as the explanation for enslavement. American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth. Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race--that is, the American version of race--its proper history.
From "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," New Left Review, May/June 1990