Understanding Race and Racism

There aren’t too many Americans who claim to be racist, and most people would like to believe they are “colourblind” when it comes to race matters. But race and racism are integral and inevitable parts of our culture and social history. Race consciousness is vital in recognizing ourselves and the people around us (although we don’t always want to admit it). Think about how we describe people: “An Asian elderly woman, five foot two; a tall black man in her thirties, dressed in a leather jacket.” In these “identifying descriptions,” race and gender are essential, especially if you are not white.

Given the importance of race to our society, it is remarkable how difficult it is to speak and how complex the definitions of race and racism can be. The issues surrounding the definitions of race and racism are themselves a product of the long and troubled history of racism in our society. Any discussion of race and racism must begin with definitions of the concepts involved, especially since there tends to be confusion and overlap between many of the terms.

Definition of Concepts

Race: Race is a socially constructed artefact that ranks people based on visual differences, which indicate invisible differences. These categorizations are amorphous and fluid over time, reflecting their social rather than physical basis. Its importance stems from the meanings we assign to it and how we structure race in our societies. This structuring shapes what we call “institutional racism” (defined below).

The idea that race has a biological basis is an old idea that has not entirely disappeared and is still debated in academia. However, any discussion of the “biology of race” must be contextualized within the history of racism as an institution in this country and an awareness of how our interpretations of race are themselves reflections of our history and our ideologies.

Ethnicity: Ethnicity reflects cultural differences, and an ethnic group is a people who share a historical and cultural heritage (and often have a sense of group identity). It may overlap or may not coincide with the race. Anyway, nothing in the concept of a cultural group excludes that group from being multiracial. For example, members of American society share a cultural identity. That cultural identity is your ethnicity.

Racism: Racism can be defined simply as any policy, belief, attitude, action or inaction that subordinates individuals or groups based on their race. What this definition omits, however, is the specific historical formation of racism as an institution and ideology over the past hundreds of years. Taking into consideration the social and historical perspective, Paula Rothenberg offers this more precise and practical definition of racism:

“Racism involves the subordination of people of colour by white people. While individual persons of colour may well discriminate against a white person or another person of colour because of their race, this does not qualify as racism according to our definition because that person of colour cannot depend upon all the institutions of society to enforce or extend their dislike. Nor can they call upon the force of history to reflect and enforce that prejudice. History provides us with a long record of white people holding and using power and privilege over people of colour to subordinate them, not the reverse.” — Paula Rothenberg, defining Racism and Sexism

Institutionalized racism: Because racism is an ideology intertwined within the cultural ideology of this society, on some level, all who are cultural members share many aspects of the ideology of race. That belief system manifests itself in our daily interactions with each other, whether we are openly (or consciously) racist or not. The racial system creates unavoidable hostilities and conflicts that unfold in our lives.

Institutionalized racism is the structuring of benefits for the group with power. Institutionalized processes carry multiple generational effects and are sometimes referred to as “past in the present” discrimination.

Privilege: The structures of racism work in two ways: discriminate and subordinate people of colour and privilege whites. Privileges are unearned benefits from the structuring of inequality and are intimately linked to discrimination. Privileges (unearned benefits) are sometimes hard to see for those who receive them. This is particularly true in a social setting like the United States when we think we get things because we are good people or work for them. Molly Ivins once mentioned privilege with the baseball resemblance: A person is born on third base but thinks they hit a triple. An excellent introduction to privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and Allen Johnson’s book Privilege, Power, and Difference is more detailed and highly readable.

Examples and Illustrations

Institutionalized Racism: The Housing Market

An excellent example of how institutional racism works is the housing market. The creation of the suburbs in the United States was driven by public policy and taxpayer money. The GI Bill through the VHA opened the opportunity to buy a home for millions of veterans after World War II. Yet of all the home loans made in those boom years, less than 2% went to non-white people. Meanwhile, the federal government set credit standards and created a “red line.” The “red” districts had low insurability because people of colour lived in those areas. White communities were seen as “good risks.” Therefore, lenders did not offer mortgages in districts with red lines. These practices excluded non-white people from the homeownership market.

The implication of this set of policies has had (and still has) massive ramifications. For most people in the United States, their home is their most important form of wealth. The exclusion of black people from the housing market meant that only whites had access to this form of wealth. Acquiring and owning a home became a “privilege” of being white. Meanwhile, much of school funding is still funded through local property taxes. Since people of colour concentrated in areas where they could not own houses (or the houses they owned were devalued), there was less money for schools, degrading educational opportunities.

Meanwhile, for whites who had moved “from one place to another,” their schools had more funds and were seen as better schools. The quality of education is related to economic opportunity, and those who fell behind ran further behind. None of this has to do directly with individual prejudices. Instead, it is the consequence of a social policy in which whites have increased inequality levels between races, acting rationally in their interests.

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