Robin D.G. Kelley is chair of the history department at New York University. He is also author of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.
What's the big deal about classifying people into different racial categories?
Race was never just a matter of categories. It was a matter of creating hierarchies. Race was about a racist system of supremacy in which one group dominated the other. And I think that when we look at the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the key moment where race becomes congealed as a system is where we can see the creation of a color line.
Race, or the creation of racism, was really about the invention of a dominant group. In this case the dominant group were the slave owners - the dominant group were those who conquered the world - the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English. And here you get the emergence of this idea of a white race, you know a kind of pan-European white race. On the other side of that color line are all these different groups: indigenous peoples, Native Americans, Africans, Asians, who then get marked as something different and combined.