ENGL 350: Race
raceThe OED defines race (n) as a group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a generation; a tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock; one of the great divisions of mankind, having certain physical peculiarities in common; natural or inherited disposition. Race as a means to justify the oppression of one group is called racism.
It can also be noted that race (n) The act of running; a run. Which may hold deeper connotations for the first definition of race when one examines the history of racial segregation, prejudice and studies.
Early American Conceptions of Race
In Franklin (73) the term is first used as a means of common existence, a link or bond of continued life. Later, it is used implying inferiority or superiority over another. Used as "human race" rather than to denote those of other races. This seems to be mainly because Franklin skims over racial issues or tensions, preferring to focus on his own ambitions and projects.
Early American usages of race made little distinction made between race, which includes physical characteristics such as the pigmentation of skin, eyes and hair and ethnicity, which includes relational characteristics such as culture and religion. In contemporary American usage, sometimes race is still used to refer to physical as well as social and cultural attributes.
Phyllis Wheatley, an educated writer and slave, refers to distinct African cultures in her book, "Poems", subverting the assumption that Africa is an ethnically and culturally homogeneous place, or even worse, a country. (15)
During the 19th century, racist science depicted non-White people as biologically distinct from White people, for the purpose of dehumanizing non-Whites. For example, in Query VI of his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson follows a discussion of wildlife with a pseudo-scientific analysis of the differences he has experienced between Native American and European peoples. In his discussion he seems to treat the two groups as if there were of different species, noting differences in anatomy and behavior. He refutes many points contended by the naturalist/biologist Buffon concerning the differences between races, many of which are quite racist. Jefferson follows a large segment of Buffon’s observations with his own, in which he contends, among other arguments, that differences between the races have more to do with the environmental conditions in which they live than with inherent biological differences. In his own words, “I do not mean to deny, that there are varieties in the race of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and mind. I believe there are, as I see to be the case in the races of other animals. I only mean to suggest a doubt, whether the bulk and faculties of animals depend on the side of the Atlantic on which their food happens to grow, or which furnishes the elements of which they are compounded. . . . I am induced to suspect, there has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory” (Jefferson, Notes, 63-4).
This is an essentialist view of race, which would become ingrained in American race ideology. Essentialism is the idea that one's "powers both of mind and body", moral character and relationships with others can be inferred by their race.
Skin color and pigment is of particular interest to Jefferson, who often refers to races by their color, calling Europeans “white,” Africans “black,” and Native Americans “Indians” (61).
On 108 Jefferson uses race in the context of existence and descendants saying, “and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.” With this in mind, we can say that our race has an identity or a common origin. Immediately before he discusses language as a means to this identity and common origin saying, “preserving their appellations of the most common objects in nature, of those which must be present to every nation barbarous or civilized…deposited in all public libraries.” Again he says, “for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin.” This seems to be a completely different notion and use of the word race. In this usage Jefferson does not differentiate based on color or class, but rather the “human race” implies a single unity of man.
But, if we are to continue on this same page, Jefferson seems to contradict himself from earlier. He states, “A greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia.”
In David Walker's Appeal we also see race as a distinction of color or physical differences. On 17 he says, "but they were of the race of whites." Again on 21 this distinction is further emphasized when he says, "that they are an inferior and distinct race of beings." Continuing he says, "fortune and misfortune," implying the whites and blacks as inheriting different paths from the creation of the world. Race as a distinction in class and dominion over each other is blatantly obvious Walker's appeal which leads us to discuss the concept of racism.
Walker is in direct conversation with Thomas Jefferson's use of the word. He refutes Jefferson's statements ("It is not their condition, then but their nature which has produced this distinction [of cultural/artistic accomplishment]") by citing oppression and lack of opportunity as hindrances to Black people, not their "nature". Walker therefore asserts a constructionist view of race.
Other ways in which Walker's Appeal reveals definitions of race in his time are in his use of "men"(which asserts the belief in "humankind" or a common bond, and calls back to the residual meaning of race used by Franklin) and "American" (which he uses as a raced term to refer to White people). His practice of speaking directly to "Americans", of warning them about the consequences of slavery, connects race and citizenship. He uses "American" as an (ethnonym) to distinguish between powerful Whites and disenfranchised Blacks.
Ethnonyms are labels for ethnicity and race. Who influences what ethnonyms are used and what they mean continues to change but relates directly to issues of oppression and liberation.
Walker also uses enthonyms like White, Black, "Indian", the pejorative term "Nigar"/Nigger (which he changes the spelling of hinting at a state of flux)and American (which he uses to speak of Whites exerting political power in the United States.
Race, Racism and Anti-Racism in America
Critical race theory defines race as socially constructed, rather than inherent, and is concerned with not only how people of color have experienced oppression, but with intersections of class, gender, nationality and sexual orientation.
Essentialism is a way of looking at race that focuses on basic differences in physical form, and why or why not certain people have certain traits. This is used as a justification for racists thoughts and ideals perpetuated in the 1800s. Exists as a form of pseudo science.
A constructionist view of race accounts for political difference in racial categorization. For example, historically Blackness in the United States has been determined by the "one drop rule", meaning a mixed person with African American heritage is most likely to be considered black. This relates to a historical moment when Black sharecroppers were important to the Southern economy, and maintaining a large Black population was advantageous to White people in power. Inversely, American Indian ethnicity has been closely tied to tribal membership and blood quantum laws made the numbers of American Indians (already greatly diminished due to colonization) drop with every generation. This was advantageous to to white settlers and the United States Government which were economically and politically invested in Western expansion and the displacement of Native peoples.
Race has traditionally, both inside US borders and outside, been deeply associated with a person's identity. Interestingly enough, religion has also traditionally been associated with personal and public identity. This brings up an interesting dichotomy between race and religion. Both have been historically used by dominant cultures (most notably white Christians) as a justification for discrimination, oppression, and the systematic eradication of foreign cultures.
Anti-racism is the process of eradicating racism from all levels of society, which includes the governmental, institutional, interpersonal and domestic levels.
As racism has adopted different forms throughout American history, anti-racism has also evolved. The fight for the survival of American Indian languages, the abolition of slavery, Black voter registration in the South and the struggle for civil rights for a myriad of people in the 1960s and 1970s are all expressions of anti-racism in the United States. Recent developments in the anti-racism movement concern White privilege.
Several Acts have been past to protect American citizens from racial discrimination, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which made discrimination of any sort whether it be based on race, sex or age illegal in the US) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which was meant to encourage people of color to vote and make discrimination at poles illegal). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is closely tied to Affirmative Action in the US.
In a unanimous landmark decision of the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned earlier rulings, state laws which established separate public schools for black and white students were declared to deny black children equal educational opportunities thus paving the way for racial integration and the civil rights movement
The United States is commonly called a "melting pot" of cultures, however histories of oppression continue to hamper basic benchmarks of racial equality such as distribution of wealth, political power and access to health care.
Contemporary race dynamics in the United States are the result of many histories- the transatlantic slave trade; White colonial attempts at American Indian genocide and the displacement of Native people; waves of European, Asian, Latino and Black migrant labor in the railroad, automotive, mining and housing industries; the Mexican-American war and contemporary immigration debates.
Modern Race in other Countries
In other countries with racially heterogeneous populations, race has been constructed in a different manner. For example, in Brazil race is determined based on physical appearance rather than lineage.
Apartheid in South African is a relatively recent example of extreme segregation and discrimination. The term "apartheid" (meaning "apartness" in Afrikaans) began being widely circulated and used in the 1930's. Apartheid was not made illegal until the new constitution of South African, written in 1994. While apartheid was practiced in South Africa, there were different classes of race (bantu, while, or colored). Each class had to be registered with the government and all citizens were expected to carry and identification card declaring their race.