Las Casas and the birth of race

History of Political Thought 33 (3):401-426 (2012)

One of the central problems of modernity has been the role race plays in politics. However, we are still not sure where the concept of race first emerges in the history of political thought. I argue that the first theorist to lay the grounds for a racial conception in politics is the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas. In his effort to defend the 'rights' of the Amerindians, Las Casas constructs racial categories through his rhetorical enterprise. Rather than being a historian, a proto- anthropologist, or a defender of the 'Indians', Las Casas was chiefly a rhetorician of empire. In this enterprise, his account of Amerindian identity, bodies, appearance and culture created a racialized understanding of the newly discovered peoples of the Americas. By examining the birth of race in the writings of Las Casas, we learn of his fundamentally rhetorical project, the centrality of race to modernity, and Las Casas' influence on the early-modern Latin American intellectual tradition
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