Today sociologists and historians understand race as a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT, created by society, and how this illusion that defines physical characteristics in particular groups mean nothing unless there is public policy and private action that act upon the physical features of color, hair texture, and facial features. The variations that exist created an inferior group for all non-whites where those characterized as white benefit extensively from racial classifications and laws that were created affecting life chances and opportunities based upon physical differences.
This is evident in institutions throughout America, an experience ALL immigrants continue to receive upon entering this highly racialized nation, quite different from their mainly homogeneous societies. In the 21st century, we hear people refer to a post-racial and colorblind society but that thought pattern fails to recognize the intersection between class and race that affects opportunity. The notion of a colorblind society does nothing but perpetuate bias and it’s unreal. The first thing we see when looking at others are physical features and race / color is one of them.
Overview of Race Relations in the United States: Prior to encountering people from vastly different regions, people identified themselves by regions or languages spoken not color. In America, the land of immigrants, people were not identified by color until the need arose. “White” settlers were Italian, Irish, English, German and so on. Historically, lawmakers had to decide on classifications for newly arrived immigrants. In 1790, Congress passed an act that made only free whites naturalized citizens. Blacks became naturalized citizens after the Civil War but in reality those who could be classified as white were the only ones to enjoy the full rewards of citizenship.
Historians assess the reasons why, how and when immigrants came to America along with the differences in labor systems in their homelands as central issues when distinguishing the differences in immigrants’ history in the United States. Upon arriving in America, many immigrant groups were subjected to discrimination but those with white skin eventually were able to assimilate while the discrimination persisted for those of color. The European model of mobility, PULL YOURSELF up by your bootstraps excluded those classified as non-white.
For instance, some Jewish immigrants who migrated voluntarily although subjected to persecution historically were known to bring with them from Europe the necessary industrial skills which allowed many but not all to prosper economically in a newly industrialized nation. Africans who were transported involuntarily to a new land with an entirely different economic system than existed in Africa along with a much darker complexion did not encounter the same success. With this said, there is a DISTINCTION between voluntary and involuntary migration which impacts the immigrant experience in which people of color have overwhelmingly endured discriminatory acts in America.
For this reason, students on the Pacific Coast in the late 1960s created a movement proclaiming themselves as a “Third World Movement.” They rejected the negative connotation of minority and recognized that the origin of the American experience owed its existence to the Natives, Chicanos, Africans and Asians, an experience that has been repressed because “those aspects of [American] history … do not fit the collective self-image of democracy for all men (see Robert Blauner).” We see remnants of this social activism today with groups like Black Lives Matter, Human Rights Activists, and Women Empowering Women.
Whiteness vs. Blackness: Although it is recognized that those classified as white today DID indeed endure discrimination: they were later ABLE to assimilate. The Irish and Jews were subject to extreme torment upon arriving in American but they had the luxury of white skin. If the Jews were experiencing difficulty in New York, they could change their names or move to Chicago or the Irish could go search for gold on the Pacific Coast. Racism emerged over time with blackness and whiteness being formed together. Whiteness is created by the idea that whites are separate from the other where whites stigmatized the other as lazy or inferior.
Whites considered themselves to be hardworking and powerful, thus measuring themselves against the savage other. Whites used blackness to define the savage other, to create whiteness and to hide the conflicted emotions of the lower class and working class whites. Blackness is what kept the working classes together because blacks were always lower than whites regardless of the class association (see David Roediger).
For instance, indentured servants held status above slaves because they could become free and had white skin even though both groups had servitude in common.Whiteness became to mean pride, freedom, privilege, assimilation into mainstream society, ridicule of blacks, capitalism, dominance, and the possessive investment of race. Whites began to ridicule blacks because blackness came to symbolize what the capitalists had given up but still desired.
Words used by whites to describe themselves were changed into vocabulary to dehumanize blacks, such as the words coon and buck. Whites attacked holidays, contact with nature, saved time, and bridled sexuality among others. Previously, black led and African influenced entertainment such as Pinkster and Negro Election Day that included African dancing, crowning of a Black king and building arbors were events where whites marveled at the sight.
The idea of blacks mixing with the lower class whites who looked on provoked a response from the capitalists who disliked this mixing and therefore created statutes against lewd behavior, forbidding food, alcohol and allowing violence against blacks to prevail at such events by whites.
If the masses, whether white, black or brown did not notice their similar economic plight, power was maintained much easier. For example, the New York City’s African Grove Theatre founded in 1821, a popular place for the mixing of races, became subject to white riots, arrests and shouts at performers which caused the theatre to close. The expulsion of blacks had been the goal in at least ten other riots between 1829 and 1841. The ridiculing of blacks continued with the inventions of Jim Crow and Aunt Sally which included the terrorizing of blacks and the painting of white faces black, acts that largely went without punishment.
Violence by whites was not simply the motive of economics and joblessness rates in Northern areas because if this were the case there would not have been so many sideshows. Roediger maintains the blackface allowed whites to identify with the excellence of black culture but also allowed them to act the way whites did during pre-industrial times. A similar connection has continued throughout time although the overt violence has dwindled.
Whites have been known to tan their skin, braid their hair, get injections in their lips and buttocks and enjoy black music: Jazz, Hip-Hop, R & B, Rap, and the Blues while simultaneously ridiculing black culture, such as stereotypical speech of blacks or dark skin. Yet, many whites have been known to capitalize off blackness in pop culture. Artists such as Justin Timberlake today and Elvis Presley in the past were known to get their dance moves and lyrics from blacks.
Class vs. Race: Still yet, others maintained racism has not been the chief reason of discrimination rather class status and economics have (see William J. Wilson). Wilson, a sociologist, claimed that the plight of blacks in the modern industrial race era could not be solely caused by racial oppression. He cited the recent mobility of blacks in occupational placement shows class has been more of predetermining factor, but Wilson did not properly discuss the significance of laws created by whites to keep Blacks and Asians from owning property which did not allow them to compete in the nation on an equal playing field. Others (see Edna Bonacich) describe a theory that challenges the assumption of race or culture and assert economics as more of a predictive factor of ethnic antagonism.
Antagonism is a term used to encompass all levels of intergroup conflict such as laws of segregation and discrimination and states how ethnic antagonism came from a labor market split along ethnic lines because of the existence of two groups of workers with differing price of labor resulting in this antagonism. Ethnic antagonism is used to describe exclusion societies such as white Australia, caste like societies of South Africa with apartheid, and the United States showing evidence of both: a caste system in the south with exclusion of the Asians on the coasts, affecting the labor market in different ways.
It could be argued that the idea of antagonism between ethnic groups in the labor market has fueled the current debate aimed to curb immigration. Many critics of immigration have argued that immigrants work for far less than natives, thus reducing the supply of American jobs, while proponents contend that immigrants merely do the labor that Americans will not do and globalization and capitalism have taken American jobs. Nevertheless, a form of ethnic antagonism has appeared, but why?
Some people say the ethnicity of a person did not create this antagonism, rather the willingness of particular groups to work for less. Immigrants have always been subjected to low level paying jobs along with those already deemed inferior, such as Chinese, Africans, and Mexicans resulting in economic competition and ethnic antagonism. Race has been an important factor because it has been associated with fewer resources.
Since the labor market is split ethnically, class antagonism takes the form of ethnic antagonism. Cultural or racial conflicts emerge within particular groups which creates competition while the white owners and colonizers maintain power and money because the goal of capitalism is to increase profit; hire cheap workers. Even so, the former stance does not appreciate the significance of racial legislation that fuels the economic gap between people of color and whites.
Intersectionality of Class and Race: In America for instance, after WWII, when soldiers returned home, the Federal Housing Administration racialized housing and created a distinct gap in wealth between blacks and whites. From 1934-1962 the federal government spent 120 billion dollars on new housing with less than 2% given to non-whites. The FHA allowed for people to become homeowners with a down payment of only 10% or 20% as opposed to the 50% which was required prior to the war. The FHA then initiated redlining by warning if neighborhoods mixed it would negatively affect real estate prices. Whiteness became to mean living in suburbia; such an example would be Levittown in Long Island, NY, a utopian suburb that excluded blacks.
When President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the racialized language was removed from federal housing policy but blockbusting occurred where whites sold houses at less than market value. A neighborhood that was predominantly white would TURN black in a few years, which occurred in Roosevelt- Long Island, NY. Whites had an economic incentive to leave because other whites did the same, thus whites began to despise what happened economically when neighborhoods turned black.
Banks contributed to this decline by giving the majority of loans to white neighborhoods resulting in tax bases eroding, and school resources declining in non-white neighborhoods. In 1992, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a study that showed blacks and Latinos were 60% more likely to be turned down for a mortgage even when they shared similar financial backgrounds as their white counterparts .
This practice of redlining continues without explicit language because geography does the job of Jim Crow Laws where many schools and neighborhoods remain segregated. Although many would say that certain groups segregate themselves, there are many factors involved. Ethnic groups may face economic, language and culture barriers when attempting to assimilate into an all white neighborhood. Additionally, ethnic communities vary considerably from impoverished urban areas.
When assessing class, race, and access to resources it is important to note that 75% of poor blacks live amongst poor blacks, while only 25% of poor whites live with other poor whites. If one compares the same income of whites and blacks, whites still have more wealth than blacks because much of that difference in wealth is held in white owned homes.
ACCESS to property allows for wealth and opportunity for the next generation with the appreciation of real estate and the ability to pass it along to offspring. African Americans have a harder time doing this. Today, the median black family had 1/8 net worth of the median white family, while Hispanics had only 1/12, illustrating a legacy of racial inequality. African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans have not gained equity by paying rent, which stem from the hindrance of mortgages to people of color or the divestment of resources in minority neighborhoods.
Although many critical thinkers such as Wilson claim color doesn’t matter much anymore especially post civil rights era, they fail to recognize that the post civil right legislation did NOT address the underlying issues already in place that allowed for the accumulation of wealth disparity, such as houses and cars for the next generation. Others assert that the emphasis wasn’t on race but more on money and power, but this assertion does not appreciate the intersectionality of class and race.
What appear to be economic differences between the races has been the result of racial legislation and historical discrimination. Those who have privilege don’t notice it, but if society sincerely would like to adequately address the socioeconomic problems of the many marginalized groups, the equality of conditions should be addressed because a color blind society will not end inequalities; the inherent structure is unfair.