Much has been written about race in the Americas since this article by Charles Wagley was first published in the 1950s. This article, though, was foundational for much of the writing on race by anthropologists since then, and with perhaps a few caveats it still functions quite well as an overview of the social organization of race in various parts of the Western Hemisphere. (The most important qualification is that Wagley’s terminology for reference to populations, “negroid,” “caucasoid,” “mongoloid,” is now anachronistic – though the terms were common parlance in social science writing of the day. The terms Wagley uses are often taken to have connotations of biological fixity of the racial groups that his own work did much to help undermine. If the terms are read as “African,” “European,” and “Native American,” that is as simply indicating geographic regions of origin, what Wagley says about the three groups and their interactions remains important.)
Wagley identifies several factors that are influential in shaping three broadly distinguished patterns of social race. Each of the patterns takes into consideration ancestry (i.e. degree of ancestral membership in any of the three areas of geographic origin), physical appearance (e.g. skin color, facial features, hair texture or other physical features that can be taken as signs of race), and cultural factors (e.g. language, dress, occupation). These factors of ancestry, physical appearance, and culture are differentially emphasized, though, generating one pattern with a strongly delineated binary distinction between European and African (i.e. black and white) with a focus on ancestry especially; a second pattern emphasizing a continuum of racial mixture between African and European, with physical appearance especially emphasized in categorization; and a third pattern emphasizing a continuum of racial mixture between Native American and European, with cultural factors particularly important in racial categorization.
Wagley points out how these three basic patterns are regionally associated, not so much with three specific regions, but with three types of regions in the Americas. These types of regions are defined by Wagley in broad ecological terms: the temperate zones of northern North America (specifically northeastern North America during the colonial period in which race patterns were first constituted) and southern South America associated with the first pattern; the tropical lowland areas of Brazil, the Caribbean, and coastal Spanish America (and to a lesser extent, the sub-tropical southeastern North America – at least for a time) associated with the second pattern; and tropical to temperate highland zones of Latin America (i.e. Mesoamerica and the Andes) associated with the third.
Equally important for Wagley are two other factors, both of which are intimately connected to the basic ecological characteristics of the different types of regions. First are the predominant economic activities of a region. For example, a critical difference between the first and second type regions is the pervasive presence of extremely labor intensive agricultural practices based for a long time in plantation slavery in tropical lowland areas in contrast to Euro-American farming practices in Northern North America and Southern South America that, while quite distinct in certain ways from one another, had in common the lack of utilization of large pools of intensive labor, i.e. the lack of plantation agriculture or slavery practiced on a large scale.
Alongside economic practices, another important consideration discussed by Wagley is population history. Although Wagley doesn’t quite put it this way, the population history of Native Americans is particularly important in playing a role in shaping the organization of race. Low population densities of Native Americans persisted at least into the 19th century in Northeastern North America and Southern South America, but without being particularly integrated with European society in the form of a laboring group. (The fur trade in North America and cattle ranching in South America certainly involved Native American labor, but with relatively small numbers of laborers involved and in ways and contexts where Europeans still thought of them as largely outside their own social universe.) High population densities of Native Americans in the tropical lowlands were largely wiped out early on, mainly by disease, and were replaced with slave labor imported from Africa on newly introduced plantation systems. Even higher population densities of Native Americas in the Latin American highlands were also decimated by disease, but large numbers of Native Americans remained even after the worst of the plague years of the 1500s and 1600s and were incorporated as labor into a variety of economic endeavors.
In this article and other writings (his work tended to focus on race in the Americas generally or on the ethnography of Brazil in particular), Wagley was an important influence on the shape of anthropological debate in the mid- to late 20th century. He especially influenced the development of ecological and economic anthropology in the 1950s through the 1970s. In most anthropologists’ conception of the history of the discipline, he is greatly overshadowed in this regard by figures such as Julian Steward, and probably rightfully so – Steward’s writings, such as Theory of Culture Change, are more widely read today and were so at the time as well. Wagley’s influence took more the form of teaching and mentorship. He taught at Columbia at a time when many scholars who were to become extremely important in ecological and economic anthropology were studying there as Ph.D. students, probably most prominently Eric Wolf (see Europe and the People without History), Sidney Mintz (see Sweetness and Power), and Marvin Harris (see Cultural Materialism and The Rise of Anthropological Theory). It is clear that Harris was especially influenced by Wagley: Harris’ early work on race in the Americas is essentially a direct development of Wagley’s work, and Harris’ cultural materialist theory builds upon Wagley’s broadly ecological approach (though obviously also drawing on many other sources of inspiration also).