I get all kinds of email about this blog, a good portion of it is what you might call “hate” mail. Basically, some people who come across this blog (I assume they don’t stay around as regular readers), find it objectionable that we write about race at all. We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.” I’ve been meaning to address this old argument here for awhile. Just recently, I was reminded of a scholarly article* that does just that and takes on this flawed logic. So, this post is for those haters in my inbox.
Race as Biology. When I first started teaching “race and ethnicity” at a large state university in the early 1990s, many of the textbooks in sociology defined “ethnicity” as cultural (e.g., language, religion, clothing, food, rituals) and “race” as, at least partially, “biological” (e.g., skin color, hair texture, “phenotype” – roughly face shape). Most scholars and textbooks within sociology have moved away from this crude definitional distinction, but the notion that race is a biological one has deep historical roots.
The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category emerged beginning in the 17th century (1600s) and solidified in the 19th century (1800s), often based on armchair-speculation about different cultures encountered through colonialism. These baseless claims were used as ideological justification for enslaving people to steal their labor so that white colonists could extract (illegal) profit from that labor. This is the part that people miss when they argue “there’s always been racism, and there always will be.” Racist ideology has a specific history, it started a a moment in time (for a discussion of what the world was like before that, see this book). This is important because if racist ideology was created it can also be dismantled.
The rise in the idea that race is a biological category very closely tied to the development of science, but that’s different than saying race is biological. The vast majority of those doing research in this area that race is a social construction. Certainly, biology matters. And, there are physical differences between people. But what’s significant about these when it comes to race is not the biology of those differences, but the social weight we attach to them. The fact is that race still matters because racism is a real social problem.
Racism as Social Problem. So, if race isn’t a meaningful biological category, shouldn’t we just stop talking about it? No, because the fact is that race as a social category remains a significant predictor of which groups get access to goods and resource and which groups face barriers. While the Civil Rights Act outlawed de jure forms of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education, the fact is that de facto discrimination persists. While overt individual discrimination is often easier to identify, it’s also part of that de jure discrimination that was outlawed. More pervasive today in many ways is institutional discrimination—the uneven access by group membership to resources, status, and power that stems from seemingly neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions.
There are lots of examples of this form of racism today. The educational system is failing, and its failing black and brown kids more than any other. This failure is what one scholar has called “the educational debt.” Unemployment among blacks in the U.S. is expected to reach a 25-year high this year, hovering between 17.2% and 20%, double the unemployment rate for whites, which is around 9.8% nationally. The criminal justice system is perhaps the leading example of institutional racism. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are African American. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell, while powerful corporations like CCA profit from this system.
These systems work together, as well. There’s an excellent – if chilling – example of this in the recent documentary, “The Lottery,” (a better film about educational inequality than the Gates-promoted “Waiting for Superman”). In the film, Susan Taylor former editor of Essence magazine and now a philanthropist, tells of a story of having a rich, white woman (unnamed) in her living room for a fund-raiser for her charity. The woman tells Taylor, “I want you to put my husband’s corporation out of business. They build prisons. To estimate the number of cells they’ll need they find the number of black boys failing fourth grade and project from the number of prison cells they’ll need based on that number.” Taylor says she’d heard that before but didn’t believe it until then. There’s also powerful research that explores the way the school-to-prison pipeline words for young, black boys. Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Pedro Noguero’s The Trouble with Black Boys (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) are just two examples of this growing research field.
One final aspect of this racism as a social problem is that within each of these areas – education, employment, and criminal justice – is that race as biology is often used as a justification by haters to explain the inequality caused by systemic discrimination.
So, once more, for all those haters in my inbox… race and racism are not the same thing, but I know that haters are gonna hate.
*This post draws on an article [pdf] by scholars Audrey Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Brian Smedley (Institute of Medicine) with the same title as this blog post (subtitle: “Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race”) in the January 2005 issue of American Psychologist.