Chapter 9 Outline The Myth of Race

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Race can be defined as a group of people who share a set of characteristics—usually physical ones—and are said to share a common bloodline. Racism is the belief that members of separate races possess different and unequal human traits. Race is a social construct that changes over time and across different contexts. To be white in America, for example, changed from being a somewhat inclusive category in the late eighteenth century to being much more narrowly defined in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and then shifted back to a broader definition in the mid-twentieth century. All these changes were in response to social realities.

The Concept of Race from the Ancients to Alleles

In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the idea of race did not exist as we know it today. People recognized broad physical differences between groups of people, but they did not discriminate based on those differences. As Europeans came into contact with different peoples and cultures during the Age of Exploration, racism was used to justify the conquest and colonization of foreign lands. In the nineteenth century there were a number of scientists and thinkers researching and attempting to ―explain‖ racial differences. Many of their efforts were biased due to ethnocentrism (the judgment of other groups by one’s own standards and values), so they

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were actually ―explaining‖ white superiority. Social Darwinism, another nineteenth-century theory, was the notion that some groups or races had evolved more than others and were better fit to survive and even rule other races. Backers of eugenics (the science of genetic lines and the inheritable traits they pass on from generation to generation) claimed that traits could be traced through bloodlines and bred into (for positive traits) or out of (for negative traits) populations. This thinking influenced immigration policy in the early twentieth century, when undesirable populations were kept out of the country so they wouldn’t pollute the ―native‖ (i.e., white) population.

The one-drop rule, which evolved from U.S. laws forbidding miscegenation, was the belief that ―one drop‖ of black blood makes a person black. Application of this rule kept the white population ―pure‖ and lumped anyone with black blood into one category. Today DNA testing is used to determine people’s racial makeup, and while this process may be more accurate, on some level, than nineteenth-century racial measures, it still supports the notion of biological racial differences.

Racial Realities

Racialization is the formation of a new racial identity in which new ideological boundaries of difference are drawn around a formerly unnoticed group of people. A recent example of racialization is the anti-Muslim backlash in America since 9/11. Being Muslim is linked in the mind of Americans to being Arab, so anyone who ―looks Arab‖ (for men it’s often linked to skin color and facial hair and perhaps clothing, and for women it’s often linked to the use of a head scarf) is thought to be Muslim and therefore anti-American.

Race versus Ethnicity

Race is imposed, usually based on physical differences—hierarchical, exclusive, and unequal; ethnicity is voluntary, self-defined, nonhierarchical, fluid, cultural, and not so closely linked with power differences. An ethnic identity becomes racialized when it is subsumed under a

forced label, racial marker, or ―otherness.‖ Symbolic ethnicity is ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social cost for the individual. Whites who explore and express an affinity for their European roots can be said to be adopting a symbolic ethnicity. It makes them feel good about their heritage and it’s something they can focus on and express when they choose to; it isn’t an identity that they must assume all the time.

Ethnic Groups in the United States

European colonizers decimated Native American populations through war and the introduction of new diseases as well as through the practice of forced assimilation, whereby Native American children were put in government-run schools and taught to reject their culture and embrace Anglo culture. Today Native Americans are on the bottom of the

socioeconomic ladder. The black community in America is marked by high rates of poverty, crime, unemployment, incarceration, and health problems. The community is also expanding as new immigrants from Africa and even ―old‖ immigrants from the Caribbean resist being lumped together with African

Americans. The Latino population in American is very diverse, though one common trait is that most Latino immigrants have come to the United States voluntarily in search of economic opportunity. Latinos have a somewhat ambiguous racial identity—sometimes they are grouped

with whites and sometimes not. The first wave of Asian immigrants to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was made up mostly of unskilled laborers. The current, second wave consists primarily of welleducated and highly skilled people from all over Asia. Asians are unique among U.S. minorities in that they generally achieve a high economic status.

The Importance of Being White

White people are not identified, first and foremost, by their attachment to a specific race, so they have more flexibility and power to choose how they want to be identified. Being the dominant race, they don’t have to think about race much at all. The development of whiteness studies is important because it shows that being white— something that has been held up as a standard of normality or neutrality—is as much a social construction as any other racial category.

Minority–Majority Group Relations

Robert Park’s 1920 straight-line assimilation model involved four stages—contact, competition, accommodation, and assimilation; in 1964, Milton Gordon offered up a variation on Park’s model, one that involved seven stages that immigrants could pass through or become stuck in. Gordon did not assume that full assimilation was always the outcome.

Ethnic identification can persist even after a group has become fairly well assimilated. One explanation for this phenomenon is primordialism (the ethnic ties are fixed in a deeply felt connection to one’s homeland culture); another is that it is in people’s interests to maintain a strong ethnic identification—it serves as a type of interest group to promote and protect its members.

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Pluralism, in the context of race and ethnicity, refers to the presence and engaged coexistence of numerous distinct groups in one society, with no one group in the majority. Segregation is the legal or social practice of separating people on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Segregation was official policy in the United States, particularly in the South, until the 1960s, but despite being illegal for over 40 years, there is still ample evidence of segregation in American society today, particularly in schools, housing, and prisons.

The most contentious form of minority–majority group relations is, of course, outright conflict. Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Group Responses to Domination

Four ways that groups respond to oppression are withdrawal, passing, acceptance, and resistance. Acceptance and resistance can be closely linked, as members of an oppressed group might appear to accept their subordinate position while internally they feel enormous resentment. Overt collective resistance can take the form of revolution, nonviolent protest, or riots.

Prejudice, Discrimination, and the New Racism

Prejudice is negative thoughts and feelings about an ethnic or racial group; discrimination is harmful or negative acts against people deemed inferior on the basis of their racial category.

While overt racism is, for the most part, considered unacceptable in America today, a new kind of racism is on the rise in America and elsewhere, which focuses on cultural and national differences rather than racial ones.

How Race Matters: The Case of Wealth

A wealth gap exists between whites and minority groups in America that has historical roots and cannot be overcome simply through income equality. Public policies formulated to address white–nonwhite disparities have not paid enough attention to this particular legacy of racism.

The Future of Race

The 2000 U.S. Census created separate categories for race and ethnicity and, for the first time, allowed people to check off more than one box for racial identity. These changes have given us a better idea of the diversity of the American population.

It is predicted that by 2050 whites will no longer be a majority in the United States. This change could bring about a narrowing of the definition of white, similar to what happened in the nineteenth century, as whites try to demarcate boundaries around their group in relation to the growing minorities.

Many of the court decisions that were instrumental in implementing desegregation in America have been struck down or restricted in the past few years, leading to significant levels of resegregation in public schools. This does not bode well for minority students as research has shown that they benefit from being in racially mixed schools.

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