Often, the ideas of race and ethnicity are painted out to be far simpler and base things than their realities. Ask the everyday person what race or ethnicity is, and one might get a couple sentences for each. Ask for their significance and reasons for existing as concepts, and many people won’t have an answer. In this paper I hope to move behind the base ideas of things to expose the many layers and complexities to the nature of race and ethnicity, as well as why they came into being: and once coming into being, how they’ve become part of hugely complex societal machine with countless moving parts to it.
Though many people might have easy answers and ideas for race, there are vastly different ways that people and groups can view and define it, which helps create the messy and confusing nature of it when viewed from a step back, but the sociological meaning is the truest and clearest one. Race then, relates to people who are grouped together because of seemingly related and connected biological and physical characteristics. Note the use of seeming, though, because in reality there is no real science behind those ideas, and no basis for the ideas of races being distinctively different than each other: that any two random people of any race from around the world are almost genetically identical to each other, and almost identical in physical structure as well (Adelman 2003). Racial groups then, are not based in real science, but are created by the belief that these distinctions are real and palpable, and that they can affect how a person is in terms of things like physical and mental abilities. (Berreman 1972 in Yetman 1999, p.3.) So race is not something real, but the idea of something real that people accept and believe in.
Ethnicity is very much akin to race in its creation of groups and distinctions between people, but instead of being created through biological and physical ideals, it is created upon perceptions of a shared culture, identity, and beliefs in a group. Note again perceptions, and not reality. While it’s true some peoples can share a bond of many elements, this idea of ethnicity often blurs the more complex picture and mixes everything together into one pot—that a puzzle of countless pieces is reduced down to a few. The troubled idea of ethnicity can be viewed in comparison to Christianity: there are many different branches of it with wildly different beliefs, practices, and identities, but ethnicity is often like pulling catholics, protestants, mormons, jesuits, etc., all together and calling them the same due to a perceived branch of sameness on their tree.
Race and ethnicity then are both ideas and devices not realities, liquid things constantly in motion, evolving and twisting shape to fit into the times they are in and what’s needed. Go back twenty-five years, fifty, seventy-five, one-hundred, and in each time period you’ll find a different idea and definition for race, easily pointing out their base is not solid at all, and simply changing to white whatever works best at the time. Race can be defined by blood, where even with distance ancestors who were put in as part of a racial group makes you a part of that group as well (Yetman 1999). Where these pseudo-science beliefs could flux between two places at the same, and like Gregory Howard Williams you could step between state lines and be classified as white one state, and black the next (Yetman 1999, p.5) That wasn’t a rare thing to happen in the world, for race is a game, the rules changing to whatever fits best for those playing it, whereas between one day and the next a group of 800 people can have all their races officially changed (Yetman 1999, p.6). It can all be so easily changed because it has no roots in anything scientific, but only in ideas, beliefs, and pseudo-science.
This is what confuses things with the masses as well, for there is the true nature of race, along with the one that’s bred and created on the large scale, mixed in together with the ideas of race created in a smaller scale between people-to-people and their communities. Ask a hundred different people what race is and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Anything based in truth and solid science wouldn’t have such incredibly varying results, and that, along with everything else mentioned, points to the real truth of race and ethnicity as mere social constructions. And if constructed, for what reasons are they made?
Social construction is when something is created and defined by a society and the people within in it, not born from any place of fact, but put together by the collective ideals of people, with almost always those ideals being constructed by those with the most power and control in the society. To grasp social construction clearer, it can be more easily seen in one of the forms it takes, that of propaganda. Though propaganda is usually a very short-lived idea of things compared to the long-living race idea, it’s a more blatant use of social construction to work off of. Through propaganda, beliefs, feelings, ideas, meanings, and etc. are created by the society towards a certain end. This is most clearly seen in war, where the enemy is turned into monsters and demons in the eyes of the people—this is done in the purpose of fueling the war machine. Then, shortly down the line, these people could be our allies, and another propaganda effort can be created to make them into angels. It is the creation of false meanings, feelings, and separation, and just how propaganda is a device often used to fuel war machines, the construction of race and ethnicity is something often used to fuel the perpetuation of power for those in ruling in the society.
As mentioned before with Gregory Howard Williams, who could cross a border and alternate between black and white, race isn’t something harmlessly created: it may not be real, but the consequences and effects are more than real for a vast majority of humanity. Becoming “black,” he was forced into segregation, and locked off from much of what had been open to him when he was a “white” man (Yetman 1999, p.5). That is no accidental consequence of the creation of race and ethnicity—this divide in power and treatment of those deemed belong to certain groups—but the purpose of their reality.
By creating the idea of there being real and distinct differences between racial groups, this also justified the creation of distinctive treatment between them. If people were of equal nature, it’d be viewed as immoral and wrong to degrade and deny them equal treatment…but if they were to be believed to be of a naturally inferior nature, then worse, differential treatment can be justified. The same vein flows with ethnicity, whereas another culture can be deemed more base, unrefined, and lesser, so therefore different treatment is seen as fair.
The way race and ethnicity has been used as a tool can most clearly be seen in the foundations and construction of the United States. Racial and ethnic superiority is what fueled the idea of a right to steal the lands and slaughter the people of the Native American’s, creating the foundation of our nation atop their graves. Racial ideals of superiority were used to justify and perpetuate the slave trade in America. Then, as common morals and values might change, so the use of race as a weapon as a tool change as well. Like from slavery into segregation, from the destruction of Native Americans into a never-ending game of shifting reservation lands and broken promises. How destructive and apparent race’s use can change drastically, but the nature of race doesn’t alter: as a tool of control, and as a means for unequal treatment between groups of people.
It is a self-perpetuating machine, constantly reshaping and rebuilding itself to fit in with its surroundings—like a chameleon to a alternating background of colors—but its core remains the same. Its core is the same because the roots of the whole nation were born from it at its worst. Discrimination and unequal treatment of those within certain groups becomes so woven into the fabric of society, that it takes on an appearance of normalcy, and under such a guise goes unnoticed (Yetman 1999). Especially when paired with the chameleon of race, able to persist in-perpetuity because of its ability to alter itself to the time it lives in: if we lived in the age of slavery, such atrocity and evil would be blatant to the entire world. Yet, a kind of slavery still goes on all the same within the American prison system, but almost no one is aware of it: the nature of race relations having evolved from a more overt and forceful nature, to a more hidden, covert and subtle one. Where racism bleeds out from the systems and devices of the society that the masses have been lead their whole lives believing to be neutral agents. That society is forever running a propaganda machine in its modern age of a country free from racism, free from discrimination and prejudice, and of there being no inequality: no dominant and subordinate, but all equals (Yetman 1999). Looking into any of the facts, though, these fantasies quickly dissolve.
There is a clear divide and distinction between the dominant and subordinate groups: dominant/subordinate being a more concise term used by Ashley Doane (1992) to more accurately describe what is usually referred to as majority/minority groups. Unlike the more misleading mathematical-seeming nature of the other terms, dominant and subordinate makes it clear that numbers aren’t what matters to who’s in charge. The dominant group is the group within a society that has the most power and influence in the sway of its politics, economy, and social systems, and is afforded the largest share of freedoms, opportunities, and fair treatment. The minority group is any group that is not the dominant, and is not afforded the same equal treatment and opportunity, and with an unequal share of power and influence.
This dynamic of inequality is set into place for many reasons. It’s used as a means to retain control and influence within the dominant group, by restricting and constraining those within the subordinate group, blocking their ascension from being in a place similar to the dominant groups (Doane 1992). It’s used as a means of exploitation and manipulation, this inequality creating a greater ease in which to use the subordinate group as tools to fulfil the needs of the dominant. Thus a system of discrimination is created, which helps fuel and create discrimination and prejudice within the people living in the society.
Prejudice is holding strong negative and hostile ideals towards certain groups of people, based off of beliefs held to be true about the other group: this is all an internal state, and any surfacing of these beliefs are often unintentional (Yetman 1999, p.23). Discrimination, though, is the physical act of treating another group in a negative, hateful, or unfavorable way solely due to the fact of them belonging to a certain group of people. These ideas of prejudice and acts of discrimination are reinforced and fueled in people by the societal inequality and devices set in place, which is often overlooked for its real causes, and instead seen at face value. Those with prejudices can feel themselves justified when seeing the group their hate is directed against be far more impoverish and less educated to their group, feeling it intrinsic to the nature of the target of their prejudice, while ignoring the societal systems in place that are restricting that group from greater education and wealth. Those that discriminate against black people can feel empowered and justified in their beliefs in seeing the hugely disproportionate amount of black people who are arrested and sent to jail, without looking at the deep problem of the racism at work within the police and legal system (Yetman 1999).
Thus, the original tenants of prejudice and discrimination which this country was built on gets woven into the structure of the society created, forming into an institutionalized discrimination within countless systems of the society: politics, housing, education, employment, healthcare, etc. (Yetman 1999). A nature of discrimination which then feeds back into the general populace, coming back again from them to further help construct discrimination into the society. It becomes a vicious circle of self-perpetuation, whereas if one piece exists, then it can give birth to again to the other ad-infinitum (Yetman 1999, p.34).
Institutionalized discrimination can be felt within any institution that is supposed to be neutral or equal, but instead has a bias in it against certain subordinate groups, like the following (All Yetman 1999):
- It can be seen in higher arrests, convictions, and harsher treatment for blacks in the legal system for offenses that whites in the same situation would be regarded far better.
- It’s felt in education, whereas the schools in the more impoverish subordinate group areas are far-less funded, and less able to provide a quality education.
- It’s felt in politics, especially within district map drawing, whereas states and counties are purposely divided in a way to make subordinate groups votes far less meaningful and useful than the dominant group’s.
- In jobs, where subordinate group members are far often less accepted than their dominant group counterparts, even with identical qualifications.
These systems of discrimination keep persisting and spreading even within an age where most people believe “equality” and “fairness” reign, precisely because of beliefs like that, whereas its mainly the dominant group members who believes in the ideal of things being equal, and since they control the systems as well, nothing ever changes. This is all helped pushed along by the hidden nature of dominant group identity: whereas the idea of being part of any ethnic group is swapped out with idea of a neutral normalness and being the default identity, with other groups as “other,” and “different” (Doane 1992). Dominant group members then get sucked into a bubble of their existence being the norm: because of their situation and treatment, they project this idea of fairness onto other groups, while oblivious to the advantages afforded them and disadvantages given to others. It’s a false logic bias of assumption based on misinterpreted knowledge, and one that leads to many of the seeds of prejudice and discrimination within individuals. Believing everything as fair, they’ll search for other reasons for such great divides among the groups, and they’ll use the subordinate group’s status as the “other” as the answer. That it’s the subordinate groups own fault as for things going wrong, instead of the systems put into place by the dominant group which has made life more difficult for them in the first place (Yetman 1999, p.28). So not only is it an ever-changing system that works in hiding, manipulation, and an array of alternating masks, but also is one that has instilled a deep belief within many that the responsibility and cause of its victims’ degraded circumstances are their own fault.
As it has be seen then throughout this paper, race, ethnicity, and the problems arising from them are not clean cut things at all with simple solutions. They are part of a great machine of countless parts all working in tandem with one another, a machine that has persisted in some shape or form throughout the history of the United States. That it’s not a one solution problem, but one where every aspect has to be fixed or else things will persist again. It’s like a starfish, whereas if you cut off one leg, it’ll just regrow itself. We cannot simply erase the idea and categorizations of race and ethnicity overnight, because it’s still imbedded into the social systems and people’s beliefs, and thus still lives on (Yetman 1999). If people’s beliefs were all changed at once, the system they live in is filled with prejudice and discrimination still, and it will rebuild that same prejudice and discrimination within the people of it once more. If the operations of the system itself are purged clean, but those in charge of the society are still prejudiced or discriminatory, then the system will be corrupted once more. As stated in the beginning, most people have simple ideas and solutions about the nature and problems of race/ethnicity, when the unfortunate but real state of things is that it’s a beyond complex and messy matter with roots deep within the very fabric of society, making it a problem with no easy, quick, or simple solution.
- Yetman, Norman R. 1999. Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life. Allyn and Bacon.
- Adelman, Larry. 2003. ‘The Difference Between Us’ Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS.
- Doane, Ashley W., Jr. 1992. “Class, Competition, and Capitalist Development: A Framework for Analyzing the Evolution of American Ethnic Identities.” Paper presented at the 1992 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Pittsburgh, PA