THE MYTH OF RACE
Race can be defined as a group of people who share a set of characteristicsusually
physical onesand are said to share a common bloodline.
Racism is the belief that members of separate races possess different and unequal
Race is a social construct that changes over time and across different contexts. To be
white in America, for example, changed from being a somewhat inclusive
category in the late eighteenth century to being much more narrowly defined in
the mid-to-late nineteenth century and then shifted back to a broader definition
in the mid-twentieth century. All these changes were in response to social
THE CONCEPT OF RACE FROM THE ANCIENTS TO ALLELES
In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the idea of race did not exist as we know it today.
People recognized broad physical differences between groups of people, but they
did not discriminate based on those differences.
As Europeans came into contact with different peoples and cultures during the Age of
Exploration, racism was used to justify the conquest and colonization of foreign
In the nineteenth century there were a number of scientists and thinkers researching
and attempting to explain racial differences. Many of their efforts were biased
due to ethnocentrism (the judgment of other groups by ones own standards and
values), so they were actually explaining white superiority.
Social Darwinism, another nineteenth-century theory, was the notion that some
groups or races had evolved more than others and were better fit to survive and
even rule other races.
Backers of eugenics (the science of genetic lines and the inheritable traits they pass on
from generation to generation) claimed that traits could be traced through
bloodlines and bred into (for positive traits) or out of (for negative traits)
populations. This thinking influenced immigration policy in the early twentieth
century, when undesirable populations were kept out of the country so they
wouldnt pollute the native (i.e., white) population.
The one-drop rule, which evolved from U.S. laws forbidding miscegenation, was the
belief that one drop of black blood makes a person black. Application of this
rule kept the white population pure and lumped anyone with black blood into
Today DNA testing is used to determine peoples racial makeup, and while this process
may be more accurate, on some level, than nineteenth-century racial measures,
it still supports the notion of biological racial differences. RACIAL REALITIES
Racialization is the formation of a new racial identity in which new ideological
boundaries of difference are drawn around a formerly unnoticed group of
people. A recent example of racialization is the anti-Muslim backlash in America
since 9/11. Being Muslim is linked in the mind of Americans to being Arab, so
anyone who looks Arab (for men its often linked to skin color and facial hair
and perhaps clothing, and for women its often linked to the use of a head scarf)
is thought to be Muslim and therefore anti-American.
RACE VERSUS ETHNICITY
Race is imposed, usually based on physical differenceshierarchical, exclusive, and
unequal; ethnicity is voluntary, self-defined, nonhierarchical, fluid, cultural, and
not so closely linked with power differences. An ethnic identity becomes
racialized when it is subsumed under a forced label, racial marker, or otherness.
Symbolic ethnicity is ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social
cost for the individual. Whites who explore and express an affinity for their
European roots can be said to be adopting a symbolic ethnicity. It makes them
feel good about their heritage and its something they can focus on and express
when they choose to; it isnt an identity that they must assume all the time.
ETHNIC GROUPS IN THE UNITED STATES
European colonizers decimated Native American populations through war and the
introduction of new diseases as well as through the practice of forced
assimilation, whereby Native American children were put in government-run
schools and taught to reject their culture and embrace Anglo culture. Today
Native Americans are on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
The black community in America is marked by high rates of poverty, crime,
unemployment, incarceration, and health problems. The community is also
expanding as new immigrants from Africa and even old immigrants from the
Caribbean resist being lumped together with African Americans.
The Latino population in American is very diverse, though one common trait is that
most Latino immigrants have come to the United States voluntarily in search of
economic opportunity. Latinos have a somewhat ambiguous racial identity
sometimes they are grouped with whites and sometimes not.
The first wave of Asian immigrants to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century
was made up mostly of unskilled laborers. The current, second wave consists
primarily of well-educated and highly skilled people from all over Asia. Asians are
unique among U.S. minorities in that they generally achieve a high economic
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING WHITE
White people are not identified, first and foremost, by their attachment to a specific
race, so they have more flexibility and power to choose how they want to be identified. Being the dominant race, they dont have to think about race much at
The development of whiteness studies is important because it shows that being
whitesomething that has been held up as a standard of normality or
neutralityis as much a social construction as any other racial category.
MINORITYMAJORITY GROUP RELATIONS
Robert Parks 1920 straight-line assimilation model involved four stagescontact,
competition, accommodation, and assimilation; in 1964, Milton Gordon offered
up a variation on Parks model, one that involved seven stages that immigrants
could pass through or become stuck in. Gordon did not assume that full
assimilation was always the outcome.
Ethnic identification can persist even after a group has become fairly well
assimilated. One explanation for this phenomenon is primordialism (the ethnic
ties are fixed in a deeply felt connection to ones homeland culture); another is
that it is in peoples interests to maintain a strong ethnic identificationit
serves as a type of interest group to promote and protect its members.
Pluralism, in the context of race and ethnicity, refers to the presence and engaged
coexistence of numerous distinct groups in one society, with no one group in
Segregation is the legal or social practice of separating people on the basis of their
race or ethnicity. Segregation was official policy in the United States,
particularly in the South, until the 1960s, but despite being illegal for over 40
years, there is still ample evidence of segregation in American society today,
particularly in schools, housing, and prisons.
The most contentious form of minoritymajority group relations is, of course,
outright conflict. Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a
national, racial, political, or cultural group.
GROUP RESPONSES TO DOMINATION
Four ways that groups respond to oppression are withdrawal, passing, acceptance,
and resistance. Acceptance and resistance can be closely linked, as members of
an oppressed group might appear to accept their subordinate position while
internally they feel enormous resentment. Overt collective resistance can take
the form of revolution, nonviolent protest, or riots.
PREJUDICE, DISCRIMINATION, AND THE NEW RACISM
Prejudice is negative thoughts and feelings about an ethnic or racial group;
discrimination is harmful or negative acts against people deemed inferior on
the basis of their racial category.
While overt racism is, for the most part, considered unacceptable in America today,
a new kind of racism is on the rise in America and elsewhere, which focuses on
cultural and national differences rather than racial ones.
HOW RACE MATTERS: THE CASE OF WEALTH A wealth gap exists between whites and minority groups in America that has
historical roots and cannot be overcome simply through income equality. Public
policies formulated to address whitenonwhite disparities have not paid
enough attention to this particular legacy of racism.
THE FUTURE OF RACE
The 2000 U.S. Census created separate categories for race and ethnicity and, for the
first time, allowed people to check off more than one box for racial identity.
These changes have given us a better idea of the diversity of the American
It is predicted that by 2050 whites will no longer be a majority in the United States.
This change could bring about a narrowing of the definition of white, similar to
what happened in the nineteenth century, as whites try to demarcate
boundaries around their group in relation to the growing minorities.
Many of the court decisions that were instrumental in implementing desegregation in
America have been struck down or restricted in the past few years, leading to
significant levels of resegregation in public schools. This does not bode well for
minority students as research has shown that they benefit from being in racially mixed