Constructing ‘Race’…Should we even use it?

The term ‘race’ was first used by Francois Bernier (1620-1688) who concluded that human beings do not make up the same ‘race’, but he never gave a concrete definition. The term ‘race’ did not have a fixed definition (you can see the term ‘race’ being constructed) until Carolus Linnaeus said there were four types of human beings with each corresponding to a particular geographic location. Linnaeus neglected to respect their differences according to Georges-Louis Buffon. Georges-Louis Buffon comes along in 1749 to “clear” things up. As you can probably guess the term ‘race’ still lacks a consistent definition (most likely because it is an ambiguous term). Wait, wait don’t worry finally someone gives ‘race’ a fixed definition, Philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant reacted very strongly to his predecessors. So, in 1777, Kant based his definition of  ‘race’ on an individuals skin color. This classification of ‘race’ is still used today in the 21st century. In the early 1900s Kant’s student (Herder) rejected the idea of race saying,

No one people is superior to another. Furthermore, no people is without culture and no culture is better than another. Cultures differ from one another, ‘but these differences are of degree, not of kind.’

‘Overall and in the end,’ writes Herder, ‘everything is only a shade of one and the same great portrait that extends across all the spaces and times of the earth. All peoples contribute to humankind and encourage the progression toward humanity, ‘not as straight, nor as uniform, but as stretching in all directions, will all manner of turns and twists.’ Moreover, as Herder writes, ‘Every nation has its center of happiness within itself, as every ball has its center of gravity!” In other words, Herder was interested in the internal and external influences on a culture and emphasized the individuality of a given culture.

Yes, the idea of ‘race’ exists, the experience of ‘race’ exists, a racialized world exists. But, ‘race’ itself does not; it is only an idea brought about during a time in world history when human difference was first realized on a global scale.

As you can, ‘race’ is a social construct. It is not a fixed identity, it is socially decided. For example Brazil has 40 different ‘races’ but your ‘race’ is dependent on money. Even in Brazil the more money you have the whiter you are. Harris (1964) writes:

Richer a dark man gets the lighter the racial category to will he will be assigned by friends, family, business, and so on. Similarly, light skinned individuals who rank extremely low in terms of education and occupation criteria are frequently regarded as actually being darker in color than they really are.

Racial categories and the meaning attached to ‘race’ makes sense only in their historical context and in light of specific relations. ‘Race’ can be seen as an ideology whose components were spelled out explicitly in social policy.  These components can be analytically derived from years of publications and racist behavior. Sociological and historical studies have decided on 6 widespread agreements from analyzing the publications.

1. Race-based societies perceive designated racial groups as biologically discrete and exclusive groups, and certain physical characteristics (e.g., skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and other facial features) become markers of race status.

2. They hold that races are naturally unequal and therefore must be ranked hierarchically (inequality is fundamental to all racial systems). In the United States and South Africa, Africans and their descendants occupy the lowest level of the hierarchy.

3. They assume that each race has distinctive cultural behaviors linked to their biology. The idea of inherited forms of behavior is fundamental to the concept of race and is one basis for the belief in the separation of races (as, e.g., Black music, Black theater, Black literature, Black dance, Black forms of dress, Black language, etc.).

4. They assume that both physical features and behavior are innate and inherited.

5. They assume that the differences among races are therefore profound and unalterable. This justifies segregation of the races in schools, neighborhoods, churches, recreational centers, health centers, and so forth, and proscriptions against intermarriage or inter-mating.

6. They have racial classifications stipulated in the legal and social system (racial identity by law). (This obtained until recently in the United States and South Africa.)

But, these components are not the sole reason, ‘race’ is culturally invented ideas and beliefs about these differences that constitute the meaning of race.

Everyone knows that ‘race’ ideology had a major impact in United States history and still does to this day. But, Hamm (1998) breaks it down very elegantly in “The Laundering of White Crime”:

The First Wave: The White-Indian Conflict

  • 300 YEARS LONG
  • ENDED IN MASSACRE OF SOUIX BY U.S. TROOPS AT WOUNDED KNEE, SOUTH DAKOTA IN 1880
  • 3 DEVELOPMENTS SET STAGE FOR THE MASS KILLING OF AMERICAN INDIANS
    1. EARLY 17TH –MID 18TH CENTURY: A STRONG EUROPEAN FOOTHOLD WAS ESTABLISHED IN NE U.S. AND A STRONG ALLIANCE BETWEEN EUROPEANS AND VARIOUS TRIBES
    2. POPULATION GROWTH: INCREASED BIRTH RATE INCREASED WHITE ECONOMIC EXPANSIONS – LEAD TO BELIEF THAT THE EXTERMINATION OF LOCAL “SAVAGES’ WAS NECESSARY
    3. AMERICAN REVOLUTION: MILITARY INTERVENTION OF THE STATE BROUGHT ORGANIZATION TO CONFLICT

The Second Wave: The Indian Wars

  • BASED ON ONE THING: NEED OF WHITE AMERICANS TO ACQUIRE MORE LAND
  • SHERMAN (COMMANDER OF ARMY UNDER GRANT) CALLED FOR THE “UTTER EXTERMINATION” OF ALL INDIANS
  • VIGILANTE KILLING PROMOTED: 50,000 KILLED BETWEEN 1849-1852
  • “SCORCHED EARTH” POLICY: KIT CARSON (1863) AND THE NAVAJO IN NEW MEXICO/DESTROYED CORNFIELDS/SLAUGHTERED SHEEP/10,000 STARVED
  • PREWAR WESTERN INDIAN POPULATION: 3MILLION
  • 1880 WESTERN INDIAN POPULATION: LESS THAN 300,000
  • GOAL: UTTER EXTERMINATION OF THE TRIBES

The Third Wave: Slavery

  • BY LAW (SOUTH CAROLINA), AFRICANS WERE DEEMED “CHATTELS … IN THE HANDS OF THEIR OWNERS. THEY ARE, GENERALLY SPEAKING, NOT CONSIDERED A PERSON BUT AS THINGS”
  • 1825 2 MILLION SLAVES IN SOUTHERN U.S.
  • 1860 4 MILLION SLAVES IN SOUTHERN U.S.
  • SLAVERY PERMITTTED ONE GROUP TO EXERCISE TIGHT, LEGAL AND WHOLLY UNRESTRICTED PERSONAL DOMINATION OVER ANOTHER GROUP
  • SLAVERY WAS A DELIBERATE SYSTEMATIC AND WELL EXECUTED CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY
  • LYNCHING (CHARLES LYNCH) “THE PRACTICE OR CUSTOM BY WHICH PERSONS ARE PUNISHED FOR REAL OR ALLEGED CRIMES W/O DUE PROCESS”
  • LEGAL PERMISSION TO INFLICT ALL MANNER OF PHYSICAL CRUELTY ON SLAVES
  • EX: RANDAL: MAY 8, 1844 SOUTH CAROLINA

– RANDAL RIDING A MULE THROUGH A FRESHLY PLOWED FIELD

– OVERSEER SEABOURN RANDOLPH CHASED HIM ON HORSEBACK

– CAUGHT HIM/KNOCKED HIM TO THE GROUND/HIT HIM IN THE FACE/TIED HIM UP

–        500 LASHES WITH A COWSKIN WHIP TO BARE BACK

–         WASHED W/ SALT & WATER TO MAKE IT STING MORE

–        RANDAL DRANK SOME WATER, VOMITTED AND DIED

–        JUSTIFIABLE MURDER SINCE RANDAL WAS THE CRIMINAL UNDER THE LAW

The Fourth Wave: The KKK and Lynch Mobs

  • THREE DAYS AFTER THE FEDERAL ELECTIONS OF 1868 A MOB OF MEN DRESSED TO RESEMBLE GHOSTS (WHITE GOWNS/WHITE MASKS/WHITE COVERS OVER HORSES) ATTACKED THE HOME OF A BLACK FARMER NAMED PICKENS STEWART NEAR MOUNT WILLING, SOUTH CAROLINA
  • CAME TO PUNISH STEWART FOR BEING “TOO SMART, RUNNING TO TOWN TOO OFTEN TO SPEECHES” AND TRYING TO VOTE
  • SEIZED AT GUNPOINT, BLINDFOLDED, TIED TO A TREE STUMP AND BEAT UNTIL SENSELESS
  • KKK FORMALLY “DISBANDED” IN 1872
  • BY MID 1870S FORMER SLAVE OWNERS HAD RESUMED CONTROL OF THE STATE GOVERNMENTS THROUGHOUT THE SOUTH AND BLACKS THOUGH STILL LEGALLY FREE WERE EFFECTIVELY RESUBJUGATED
  • 1882-1903 APPROXIMATELY 1985 SOUTHERN BLACKS KILLED BY LYNCH MOBS
  • REBIRTH OF KKK IN 1915: NOW ANTI BLACK, ANTI SEMETIC, ANTI CATHOLIC AND ANTI ANYONE ELSE WHO WAS “IMMORAL”
  • 1915-1920 328 BLACKS KILLED BY LYNCH MOBS
  • NEWSPAPER: “This may be ‘southern brutality” as far as the Boston Negro can see, but in polite circles, we call it southern chivalry, a southern virtue that will never die”

The Fifth Wave: The Social Bandits

  • 1ST GENERATION: BILLY THE KID (HENRY ANTRIM/AKA BILLY BONNEY)/JESSE JAMES
  • 2ND GENERATION: CHARLES “PRETTY BOY” FLOYD/JOHN DILLINGER/GEORGE”MACHINE GUN” KELLY/CLYDE BARROE AND BONNIE PARKER
  • 3RD GENERATION; BENJAMIN “BUGSY” SEGEL/MYER LANSKY/CHARLES “LUCK” LUCIANO/”SCAREFACE” AL CAPONE

As you can see from these examples ‘race’ was used to justify the enslavement and mass killings of HUMAN BEINGS. This problem still exist in the US today. In ever faction of our society. It has been implicit until recently with the immigration law in Arizona which once again is using what someone looks like as reasonable suspicion to stop and arrest the person.

You may be wondering why I went into such depth about ‘race’ and how it has been socially constructed so those in power (the white) can reign. I read an op-ed in the Washington Post complaining about President Obama marking black as his ‘race’ when he is bi-racial. Which made me think about all the problems the category of ‘race’ has caused throughout history in all parts of the world. Remember Hitler wanted the perfect ‘race’. Elizabeth Chang writes:

I agree. I also wonder: Aren’t people supposed to fill out their census forms accurately? Why else are we doing it? If everyone put down on the form how they “identified,” I don’t know what kind of count we’d wind up with, but clearly it would not reflect the racial makeup of the United States. As many have argued, race is an almost useless construct, so that might not matter, except in one very important area: If every biracial person chose one race, as Obama did, or as people had to do before the forms were changed in 2000, the census would portray a society more divided than it actually is. I’m all for tossing the whole racial-classification bit now, but I also know that if we fill out our forms accurately, the numbers will someday do that for us by quantifying the ridiculousness of race. In the meantime, if we aren’t going to get rid of the racial category, we need to do it right.

I agree with her, why not just stop using ‘race’ ? The term has always been used in a negative connotation. Used to justify horrible actions throughout history. The invention of  ‘race’, in the 1600s and on, has created a society all throughout the world that uses ‘race’, to find meaning. I understand using it on the census so you know how mixed, culturally, are country is. But, why use it in crime data, where is it used to create the worst of stereotypes, a criminal, which is statistically untrue and moral wrong. Why use it when comparing school performance? Why not look at the socioeconomic situation where the school is or where crime is happening? I could go on and on. The only reason I could see for using someones skin color, or ‘race’, is for academic research to see where the discrimination is occurring in order to influence policy. At this point people are using the statistics to prolong negative stereotypes and discrimination of those who are not white. Time to re-think are motives.

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Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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