By Adam Barlow
I remember so vividly my history books in elementary school. The smell of the stiff glossed pages only added to the mystique of the over sized pictures of countless heroes and villains. Yet, thinking back on these moments, I never really perceived these monolithic figures as being white, male, or even American for that matter. This is most certainly because I myself am a white American male, who rests comfortably in certain positions of privilege. That position says that I am the dominant race, sex, and nationality. Therefore, my classifications are viewed as the “normal” condition, to be set as the standard of which all other classifications are to be measured. This is obvious when terms such as non-white are used as a descriptor. It’s no surprise then that I never looked upon those pages with any real curiosity as to why there were little to no women heroes. I never pondered the reasons as to why there seemed to be a resounding lack of African American contributions to our glorious Republic. Furthermore, I never assumed that the Native Americans had any legitimate claim over the lands that our rugged heroic fore fathers fought so valiantly to secure. This education seemed innocuous enough at the time. Yet now that I’m an adult and have researched the true history of this continent and our nation, it leaves me feeling ill. Once the tides of rhetoric and nationalism began to ebb, they cascaded away from me, leaving a void. Now I feel as though one of the most tragic tales of this countries past is the story of race; what it is, how and why it was created, and how is it stratified, perpetuated, and maintained.
To understand racial stratification, we must first have a definition of race. Dr. S. Rowan Wolf defines race as “a socially constructed artifact that categorizes people based on visual differences which are imputed to indicate invisible differences. These categorizations are amorphous and fluid over time which reflects their social rather than physical basis.”(Wolf) In other words, these categories are not biological, but in fact social manifestations, and are therefore not fixed, but changeable. For instance, in our culture today, we mostly only perceive a few races, such as black and white. Yet, at the turn of the 20th century, Americans classified themselves into anywhere from 36 to 75 different racial categories. Each of these were stratified within a social and economic hierarchy, with Anglo Saxons on top, then Slavs, Mediterranean’s, and so on, often leaving Africans on the bottom. (Conley, 493) One must wonder how all of these variances occurred. What made race a category at all and what makes one race more highly stratified than another? The root of this can be found in history, when European Empires needed justifications for their conquests (murder, rape, torture, theft, etc) and ultimately their colonizing. (Slavery, land and resource theft) The first interpretation of racial dominance was religious. European colonizers met scores of black or tan skinned indigenous peoples on every continent they explored. This led some of them to believe that they were the ancestors of the biblical Ham. Ham was the youngest son of Noah, who was cursed by his father for seeing him nude. Noah claimed that his sons and daughters would be darkened slaves for all time. Therefore slavery and racial dominance were viewed as religiously sanctioned acts. (Conley, 496)
Another factor was the fear held by white land owning elites in North America in the 17th century. They believed that their wealth and small numbers would make them vulnerable targets of poor black and white farmers, such as those who had joined together with Nathanial Bacon in 1676 to overthrow the Virginia governorship. To protect themselves from insurrection, they would benefit greatly if the poor stayed preoccupied, and therefore gave certain privileges to whites and denied them to blacks. Meanwhile, Native Americans were often portrayed as non-people, savages, or barbarians. This legitimized the outright slaughter of these groups and justified the theft of their lands and resources. Therefore every group had a perceived enemy, other than these wealthy land owners. This led to animosity and separation amongst the collective masses, and created invisible assumptions of personal worth out of visible traits such as skin color. Scientific exploration into biology made a contribution to racial divides as well. Once Darwin’s theory of evolution was generally accepted, it was quickly applied to individual human races, therefore legitimizing racial hierarchies. “Since it was Western Europeans who were coming up with this theory, their civilization and race were of course at the top of this human evolutionary schema. Other peoples were seen as “less than” in a variety of ways – less civilized, less intelligent, less capable, however, this “less than” status was not something that could be changed as it was physically tied to people’s physical inheritance (race).” (Wolf) This maintained the power of the whites, while relegating everyone else as permanently subordinate. This is known as ethnocentrism, or the belief that your group or culture is somehow superior to that of others.
The history of race may be explained by created ideologies for the sake of power acquisition and preservation but how is it transmitted and maintained through the generations? Like any other social construct it is passed down through the socialization process. This could occur at the micro level such as the family unit, or institutional levels such as the state or media. One example of family socialization might be parents of a black child forbidding her to play in a white neighborhood. This rule may be rooted in personal prejudice, but could also be from of an ingrained fear or anxiety that this fraternization could be dangerous. An example of racism within the state, or institutionalized racism, can be found within our educational institutions. Minority children are still highly segregated in underfunded school districts and are overwhelmingly barred from entry into upper tiers of our educational system. These restrictions can take the form of tracking programs that might require tutors to assist, private schools that require wealthy parents or colleges that are extremely costly and biased by nepotism and favoritism. Even if an aspiring young black teenager is smart and ambitious enough to navigate through the perils of underprivileged life, they must still fight off powerful internal social stigmas generated by other members of the black community. They will be bombarded with images of sex, drugs, and violence, while their peers will attempt to convince them that aspiring to academic achievements is anathema to your race and heritage; that it makes you white, or a sell out. The effects of this can be detrimental, leading to a life of poverty, poor health, and social neglect. For instance, blacks are half as likely as whites to graduate college or hold professional careers, and are twice as likely to be unemployed or to die within their first year of birth. Yet their overall net wealth comparisons display the most striking disparity. The median net worth of the average black household in 2001 was 10,700, compared to that of white households of 106,400. (Conley, 531) Meanwhile, “the portrayal of minority groups in the media is often derogatory. (Criminals and drug addicts) A study by the advocacy group Children Now found that minorities are still shortchanged. In 2003-04, blacks made up 16% of the prime time characters, Latinos made up 6%, Asians 3%, and their were no Native Americans represented.” (Eitzen, 233) Are these the reflections of our demographics, or of a cultural forming and controlling institution, maintaining the lines of power and privilege?
Legal institutions have historically played a vital role in maintaining the structures of racial privilege and power as well. When slaves were granted their freedoms in the later half of the 19th century, fears raged through white communities of competition for jobs, resources, and even women. Clear definitions of what whiteness was and who qualified were called upon. This led to racially charged legislation such as the one drop law. This law made the assertion that if you had just one drop of black blood in your family’s heritage, you were considered black. This was a way to not only determine who was white, but a means of controlling the purity of whiteness. (Conley, 501) Another legal tactic used in race maintenance was that of anti-miscegenation laws. Miscegenation is defined as inter-racial marriages or unions and literally means “mixed race” “This anti-miscegenation legislation made intermarriage between whites and other races illegal. Anti-miscegenation laws were in effect from the mid 1600’s until the last was struck down as unconstitutional in 1967 (Loving v. State of Virginia). While the common perception is that anti-miscegenation laws applied solely to blacks, this is not the case.” (Wolf) Whites were also punished and stigmatized by the ideas of race mixing. Another important legal aspect used to prop up racial divides was that of granting or denying citizenship. Citizenship was and is still seen as an important social step for immigrants, due to the rewards that accompany it such as certain legal and voting rights.
With the influx of various nationalities of immigrants seeking economic or political freedoms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, new racial categories beyond black and white were needed in order to organize new hierarchical structures. Feelings of nativism, or superiority based upon ones national origin, became intensified. This is when ethnicity became the lynchpin in determining your social value, as many of these immigrants were technically white; some of them had to be categorized as non-whites. This would distinctly separate them from the privileges of white power and dominance, as there was only so much to go around. Though ethnicity and race are now often seen as interchangeable, they are in fact separate categorical entities. Ethnicity is defined as a reflection of cultural differences, with ethnic groups viewed as a collective people who share historical and cultural ties such as language and customs. (Wolf) Therefore physical attributes are relied on less than cultural and social aspects. The definition and classification of who was white often rested within the interpretation of the court system, as can be witnessed in the landmark Thind case of 1923. In it, Bhagat Thind, a veteran of World War I, was denied access to citizenship by the Supreme Court, whom stated that he was not viewed upon by the majority as being a true white individual, despite the fact that he was Asian Indian, whose grouping had been scientifically classified as Caucasian. This was highly significant because it displayed for the first time the lack of scientific bases of these biases, relying instead on the collective assumptions of the citizenry to determine who is white and who is not. Thenceforth it became clearly evident the true nature and purpose of these bigoted laws; for white natives of European descent to maintain their economic and political power over everyone else.
In conclusion, race may not be a biological reality, but it resonates deeply within our social world. Ethnocentrism and nativism have had dire consequences for minority groups in this country and around the world. The first step in breaking the cycles of racial separation is awareness and education towards these issues. Then perhaps we can finally see this phenomenon for what it truly is…a means to control and subordinate the masses by keeping them at odds with one another. By viewing ourselves as fundamentally different, we lack the ability to work together, retarding our society’s ability to enact real political, economic and structural change. These changes would not be profitable for those who are in power, yet may be a necessary component for reaching equality and sustainability.
Conley, Dalton 2008 You May Ask Yourself; an introduction to thinking like a sociologist. Norton &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp; Company Inc. New York, N.Y.
Eitzen, Stanley 2009 Social Problems 11th Ed. Pearson Education Boston, M.A.
Wolf, Rowan 2007 The Dialectic of Social Inequality: Understanding Race, Class and Sex in the United States.