Issues on race and gender affect voting trends throughout the country, especially those for the current Democratic Primary. In this first of three commentaries on the impact of race on the Democratic Primary, I explore the meaning and operations behind the word race.
Believe it or not, race is a fairly debated and misunderstood word. In fact, many journalists, writers, and pundits shy away from critically discussing how race operates within our society. We use words all the time that escape critical meaning (e.g., religion, sex, politics); however, in respects to race, the lack of a critical examination actually empowers prejudices that follow from racial categories. For the purposes of this reflection, race describes a socio-historical process that exists in every society. The “socio” is important to note here, since race is not a biological or “scientific” means of describing people; rather, it is a way of justifying inequalities of power within a society.
Now, you may argue with me and quote all the necessary people as far back as Charles Darwin in order to explain that race is biologically constructed. You may state that African Americans quintessentially have biological differences from White European Americans and that certain proclivities for diseases and illnesses are attributed by race. I see no reason to argue against the assertion that specific groups have biological similarities. But we do not need the word race to distinguish these groups. We have a wonderful term already to describe social and biological differences: ethnicity. Ethnicity, for all its purposes, describes a group’s shared language, religious tradition, geography, or other communal attributes. Here I must concede that ethnicity is a constructed term as well. But we need to group people and things together in order to better understand life. This is natural. However, race does something different than just group people together.
Racial categories fluctuate with social trends. Take for instance in the late 1800s when Italians and Irish were considered “Black” according to the U.S census. They were outsiders and vilified because of this racial identity. As Irish and Italians became “White” in the twentieth century, we can clearly see how U.S conceptions of race as category is socially fabricated.
But who was doing the vilification in the first place? There is always an inside group in a society, a group that retains privileges (and with it, power). This group constructs a racial identity in and against those they see as different. Whiteness was born from White European Americans distinguishing themselves from other immigrants. Generally the group with the most power in a society becomes the normative and escapes critical identity descriptions.
One very mundane and operative example of this occurs around me all the time. When I meet people for the first time and their skin color is not “white,” my impulse is to find out where they are from– as if they are not from the United States. A person may have been born in Atlanta, Georgia, or may be a third generation U.S citizen from Chicago, Illinois, but their non-White skin color prompt questioning (whereas a friend of mine from Bosnia would not). It is this normativity of Whiteness that is a facade and works again to reinscribe legitimacy an power in Whiteness.
I can cite the power of racial inequalities in our legal system, business world, and sociological examinations until this commentary becomes an encyclopedia of examples. One need only look at the last twenty years and notice that African Americans are the sole group that has not experienced economic growth, to suggest that there is something structural at play here. Sometimes I get comments about the incredibly disproportionate amount of African Americans in our prison system, which in many ways is a modern way of enslavement (there is quite a lot of forced labor in those segregated camps). I would simply point to the statistics found in any society around the world: Where there is extreme poverty, there is also more crime. And poverty, the ugly and vicious cycle of economic inequality, is the handmaiden to race. The situation is of course much more complex than this, but there are larger more global factors we must first consider before getting into particularistic characteristics.
What makes race so powerful is that it we unconsciously apply it. When I sit down to watch a television show and all the actors are White, I do not think this is out of the ordinary. Why not? Whiteness is the norm. However, if we had a television show with all African Americans, or all Asian Americans actors, we would instantly see a racial homogeneity. Whiteness is invisible. White males are seen by prosecutors and defense attorneys as the unbiased observers in a jury selection (and are thus the least likely to be removed of any group of color).
Another more recent legal example of this comes from the famous Democratic grilling of Clarence Thomas during the review for his Supreme Court appointment. In Minnow’s ‘Stripped Down Like a Runner or Enriched by Experience: Bias and Impartiality of Judges andJurors’ (1992), Minnow discusses how White Congressmen demanded that Thomas explain how he could replace Thurgood Marshall’s position and be representative of the African American community) And then, in the next breath, they demanded to know how Thomas could remain impartial to White America. When Samuel Alito and John Roberts faced Congressional questioning a few years later, there was no questioning about their Whiteness, or more specifically, how they can represent the White community and still be impartial to the other people of color. The reason: There was the unspoken belief that Whiteness was normal, unbiased, and unproblematic.
It is not solely Whites who exhibit this internalized and invisible form of inequal treatment. African Americans and other people of color contribute as well (for a study of the neural signaling involved, see Patricia Devine’s work). The internal psychological workings of race has been studied by many scholars, the most current is the Project Implicit at Harvard University. Perhaps the most intense and destructive forms of racial identity are found in children. African American girls and boys see White attributes as irresistibly desirable– and this instills an internal level of self-denial and self-loathing for one’s “Blackness.” Take for instance the study done by Kiri Davis, a high school student, who wanted to see how things have changed since the 1960s. In the 1960s psychologist Stanley Milgram found that African American girls desired White dolls over Black dolls and disliked African American physical characteristics. In 2007, Davis attempted to find out if this had changed or not in over 40 years. Below is the results of her investigation.
I will continue to reflect on race and how it impacts presidential politics in Part II of “The Impact of Race on the Democratic Primary.”