My colleague, Katharine Gerbner, a brilliant historian of the Carribean, wrote this for the Washington Post:
Although many today consider race to be an immutable characteristic, that wasn’t always the case. Before the 17th century, whiteness didn’t even exist as a racial category. It emerged for the worst of reasons: slave-owning politicians invented “whiteness” as part of a political strategy intended to restrict the voting rights of free black men. Lawmakers subsequently refined “whiteness” by developing a “one-drop rule” — the idea that one drop of African blood would make a person “black.” In other words, race isn’t just connected to voter suppression; black voter suppression created whiteness.
The modern invention of race (as opposed to medieval thinking about race, also complex and important and about forms of power), has always been about this kind of power.