Race and Racism

Today’s topic is about Race and Racism

1. Please first read chapter 10 (Race and Ethnicity) in our online textbook, paying special attention to sections 10.2, 10.3, and 10.4    “Sociology” – Understanding and Changing the Social World: (Links to an external site.)

2. Please read the supplemental text by me below:

Supplemental Lecture: Race and Racism

Skin color is a simple variation in physical characteristics, just as hair color and texture, facial structures, etc. Variations in physical characteristics abound in nature such as what we see in the color of flowers, which, incidentally, make the world more beautiful and pamper our esthetic senses. Yet, we know that skin color has been a powerful factor in how we view and treat each other. After all, skin color had a huge role to play in the legitimation of slavery in the perception of the people.

When you throw a Black and a White child together, they play; it’s simply so natural. As we know, later in life, those two children may come to view each other with negative feelings. As many people have said, race is a social construct; it is created socially because we gradually come to attach meaning to it. As we grow up, we start hearing negative comments at home or other environments suggesting that the people of certain skin color are inferior or possess undesirable qualities and characteristics. We simply learn to think and feel that way. So far, this is the simplest explanation. But there is, of course, much more to it. We develop racist ideas not just because we are exposed to racist conversations about the people of a certain skin color but because we see how they are treated in everyday life, both in personal interactions and in the institutional treatment of them. For example, during the Jim Crow years, African Americans were required to sit in the back of a bus or drink from a separate drinking fountain. Arrest figures for African Americans are disproportionate, even today. Such treatments create “realities” for us about skin color. Legally defining undocumented people as “illegal immigrant” or pulling Latinos over and have them produce documents engages the same mental play whereby negative images, or “reality” is created. We don’t have to be in favor of or against illegal immigration to appreciate the importance of such actions in the way they help create “realities” in our minds. The creation of these little “realities” is a dynamic of imputing “meaning” to things—to skin color, to ethnicity, etc. It is the actual practice of racism, rather than feelings of it, that turns such “meanings” into “realities” and gets them entrenched in our culture and in our minds.

Perhaps the most powerful, yet unobvious, reason for the appeal of racism is our sense of worthlessness and powerlessness, which we may not be aware of at the conscious level. We don’t have too many opportunities to feel good about ourselves. Society does not value us for who we are, and we are powerless against the economic and other institutional forces. And we don’t have too many chances for self-validation. Feeling we are superior to the people of a certain skin color or ethnic origin gives us a cheap way of feeling good about ourselves and a cheap way of feeling important. This is a powerful dynamic.

We are capable of believing in messages of prejudice and hatred. Society is a miasmic scene of all kinds of messages of anger, resentment, hostility, and hatred, which are, by the way, dynamic in the sense that they can become more intense, or they can diminish in different time periods or in different political and sociocultural environments. Racially based messages of prejudice and hatred are an example. A major reason we so easily accept and own these messages is that they provide an ideological existence and thus fill the void in our sense of self. As we have discussed elsewhere in this book, we don’t have much of an opportunity in society to declare and validate our self, as we are not valued in society and as we are routinely objectified. And to be realistic, we are really not engaged in the making of society and our life environment. Consciously or not, we long for an opportunity to declare and experience who we are. Perhaps the continual quest for self-validation is a natural, yet existential meaning of life. Declaring our beliefs and our ideology is a dimension of the self, but we don’t have much of an opportunity in life to exist ideologically. The presence of degrading and hateful messages about certain populations, particularly when they are presented with justifications, presents us with an opportunity to embrace them. And once we own them, we have acquired a set of beliefs or ideologies that now fill the void in the ideological part of our self. We may be very susceptible to and accepting of such negative feelings because we are anyway generally outraged about injustice in society the manifestations of which are, among others, financial struggles and violence in society. Once we accept the prejudicial or hateful narratives about various populations in society (especially if they are advertised as the source of various kinds of injustice such as immigrants taking our jobs away, welfare recipients draining economic resources, racial minorities creating violence, Muslims posing existential threats, the LGBTQ+ persons degrading morality, etc.), those narratives become part of our belief system and our ideology. These beliefs, especially when engaged in discourse and action, create an ideological self; they fill the ideological void in the self. So tragically, the hatred of fellow humans gives us a sense of self! We can now declare ourselves ideologically! As a person’s ideology is part of the definition of that person, passionately believing in racially based ideas fills the gap in the wholeness of who we are as a person. This is a powerful dynamic that, in a self-deceiving manner, “heals” us. We must also realize that one reason we so easily believe in prejudicial and hateful narratives is that they provide very simple explanation about all kinds of social problems and all forms of social injustice. For example, most of us don’t quite understand the dynamics of how our economic system creates so much hardship for us. So, when we are presented with simple explanations, we might readily accept them, as they do make sense if we don’t know the real dynamics and mechanics involved in the creation of economic hardship and injustice.

The scapegoat theory of prejudice or racism offers a convincing, and often true, explanation of racism. Many of us are frustrated and angry at our economic situation or workplace injustice, but we can’t direct our frustrations and anger toward the source of our frustrations, as we are powerless against them. We vent our frustrations on often disenfranchised and de-valued minorities. But we are also often not able to quite identify the source of our unhappiness and frustration. Moreover, we usually can’t identify the source of our feelings of hurt and injustice. It is easy, then, to find other identifiable, yet imagined sources of our troubles and vent our frustrations on them. A familiar scenario is the widespread feelings of hostility toward welfare recipients or certain minority groups. Such scapegoating dynamics weaken natural communal ties and bonds of solidarity, which, unbeknownst to us, make us even less powerful against the sources of our frustrations. Scapegoating spreads unkindness in society. Kindness is an easy, pleasurable, and gratifying cure, but we sometimes just let it pass us by without reaching for it and plucking it gently to pass it around.

Henri Tajfel’s Social identity theory is sometimes used to explain racism. Saul McLeod offers a very nice synopsis of the theory by explaining how social groups give us a sense of identity and a sense of who we are, as well as a sense of belonging to the social world. In order to enhance their self-image, people will enhance the status of the group to which they belong. And, in McLeod’s words, “The in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.” He adds, “The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image. Prejudiced views between cultures may result in racism.” But this type of stereotyping in social identity theory “Is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together.” (Emphasis added). We then tend to exaggerate differences between groups, which, by implication, may explain why we may embrace racism.

But here is where the theory errs immensely. The stereotyping and the whole notion of racially defined “In-group” and “out-group” has nothing to do with normal cognitive process. The theory makes us forget about socio-psychological dynamics of racism. Discriminating against other groups, especially when we consider the passionate nature or expression of it, is not due to normal cognitive processes. Racism is a social construction. The social identity theory is a way of apologizing for racism by making us responsible for it because we have been prompted by our normal cognitive processes (undoubtedly, this is not the intent of those who promote it or agree with it; it’s just an unintended consequence). In a sense, this theory finds a biological explanation for racism. The social identity theory, as it applies to an explanation of racism, is really an insult to humans, and it patently conflicts with humanview. It is against humanview in many ways. The theory does not allow for individuation; it paints the process as a universal, generic one. Anytime individuality is ignored in our attempts to understand or explain human life, it means we have not engaged humanview. The Social identity theory reduces our thoughts and beliefs and feelings regarding racism to biology instead of the myriad of social influences and individual life experiences. The rich variability that people display in how they think, analyze, and judge things shows we are not generic beings in terms of our cognitive dynamics. Incidentally, how would the social identity theory explain the fact that many people are genuinely against racism? This theory also apologizes for racism (again, not as an intent) because it suggests that racism is unavoidable because the tendency to discriminate against out-groups may be the result of natural cognitive processes.

The entire tendency to invoke biology in explaining social behavior paints us as captives of our biology. The enormous differences in the thinking style of the people in history and how different their understanding and explanations of social phenomena have been clearly show that biology has had little to do with it because, otherwise, ideas, beliefs, and ways of thinking wouldn’t change so dramatically had biology been the prevailing dynamic. The belief that biology determines our tendencies in our social behavior immediately makes us captives of our biology and, therefore, makes us objects controlled by our biology. Very seriously, any explanation of human social behavior based on biology veritably objectifies us. The belief that biology determines social behavior also shows how tainted with alienation our thinking and understanding is. Such a belief disrespects human beings. It fails to see humans as having a cognitive and emotional existence independent of biological dictates—cognitive and emotional existence that is different from person to person. Easily accepting explanations based on theories such as the social identity theory prevents us from making the effort to truly understand human social behavior.

Theories or explanations about social issues or problems generally focus on causes of those issues. Our deference for science, which is often thought of as the only true method for knowing or learning about a phenomenon, urges us toward a cause-and-effect approach with an emphasis on causal explanations. While causal explanations are obviously important and sometimes the true method of learning about something, when it comes to social sciences, explaining social issues by exploring their effects is as important if not more so. For example, in explaining homelessness, we may rightly discuss the causes of it such as unemployment, low wages, high housing costs, temporary or part-time jobs, military conflicts, natural disasters, domestic violence, mental illness, drug abuse, etc. But we can reach a deeper understanding of homelessness by exploring and learning about what homelessness does to a human being, how it creates immense suffering, how it devalues a person, how her emotional world is thrown into turmoil, how her self-esteem is mortally wounded, how a person’s dignity is squashed each time he needs to find a place to urinate or defecate, how feelings of worthlessness have a sweeping presence,  how fear shadows you around, how you often shiver at night or have to tolerate the sweltering heat in summer months. Homeless people suffer a deep sense of alienation, as they don’t have control of their lives and cannot be themselves. To understand homelessness, one needs to know or connect with the world of emotions and feelings of a homeless person. We must know about the sense of hurt and despair and fear with which they walk around on unfriendly earth. Understanding and advertising effects would naturally present themselves as substantially important and urgent if we view homelessness, or any other social issue for that matter, with humanview. If we truly value people and consider them as the ultimate purpose in life, we would naturally want to explore and discuss the effects of a social issue just as much as we explore and discuss the causes of those issues. We may want to consider attention to effects as a defining dimension of humanview.

We can’t be satisfied with academic/scientific explanations of homelessness that are essentially causal in nature. As important as they are, we need to understand the lived experience of homelessness. To understand homelessness, one needs to see the issue from the prism of what is human or inhuman. One needs to view it with humanview. With racism, too, one needs to understand the lived experience of those who are the victims of it or those who treat others in racist ways. It is not enough, though essential, to explain racism in terms of the dynamics that cause or perpetuate it. We must understand the lived experience of racial interactions and victimization. The shameful history of slavery, marked by untold suffering and violence, was rationalized by racist arguments. Racism after slavery was abolished was marked by violence and widespread discrimination. There was widespread prejudice towards Blacks that devalued them and manifested itself in so many hateful and hurtful ways. Fear was a reality Black people lived with. To understand racism, one needs to know the story of racism as it existed then and as it exists now. In fact, storytelling is one of the tenets of Critical Race Theory. Storytelling must be viewed expansively. For one thing, those who are the targets of racism can tell the lived experience of it better than others. They can tell what racism does to the emotional world of a person. They can tell others about the assault on one’s sense of safety and dignity. To feel rejected and hated is an everyday hurtful experience. Being rejected and hated is, by the way, the story of a dynamic of devaluation, objectification, and alienation. Those who live the experience of racism can tell others about how one feels hurt. They can tell the world about the injustice of racism.

Storytelling must be viewed as enlightening and educating people on racism. People can’t truly deeply understand racism unless that understanding is emotional, too. Getting into the world of others provides the kind of deep understanding that cannot be achieved through the familiar academic/scientific explanations or theories. Knowing and feeling how something touches human life is when true understanding is achieved. And this must be seen as a dimension of the concept of humanview. When the question of how an issue or phenomenon touches human life is made part of the narrative of a movement, we may view that as a dynamic of raising awareness and consciousness in society. As such, storytelling is a dynamic of weakening racism and creating social change in racial interactions, both on personal and institutional levels.

Storytelling can also be viewed as giving a voice to the victims of racism. Talking about injustice is a form of protest. It is a way of communicating with fellow humans regarding injustice in society. Storytelling is a way of defending yourself, connecting with others, protesting, and potentially a way of organizing against injustice. Having a voice is a way of demanding justice.

Storytelling and having a voice must be seen as the practice of democracy. The right and ability to express one’s beliefs is a fundamental human right that must be cherished. Storytelling allows a person to express their beliefs and voice their complaints and demands. Democracy allows a person to see her beliefs and ideals publicly expressed in ways that can impact individual and social life. This simultaneously means that experiencing and practicing democracy allow us to connect with who we are, which allows us to validate ourselves. Democracy allows us to be part of the making of society and, as such, it is a powerful countervailing force against alienation.

Perhaps the essential tenet of Critical Race Theory is that racism or racial tensions exist not because of prejudiced people or not because of the mistreatment of a target minority by individuals. Instead, it is the institutions and legal systems of society that create racial inequality, racial tensions, and racism. For example, insurance companies may have higher rates for areas deemed unsafe because of the presence of large numbers of minorities. So, here is an example where institutional practices create discrimination against minority populations. Discrimination in hiring based on race by employers also creates racism and racial tensions. Critical Race Theory contends that racism and racial tensions are produced also by the criminal justice system because of the unfair and discriminatory treatment of minority populations. Targeting minorities, longer sentences for them, and arrests for minor offenses are examples of institutional and legal practices that create racism and racial tensions. The Police treatment of minorities can heighten tensions and conflicts surrounding the issue of race. Such examples of the discriminatory treatment of minority populations must be viewed as the social construction of racial conflicts and tension.

The belief that racism exists because people are prejudiced, to some extent at least, reflects a blame the victim mentality. The rich and powerful have always tried to blame people themselves for the problems they are having. They have tried to convince us that our economic problems are because of overpopulation. When we accept such explanations, we will not point our fingers towards them for the economic hardship we are struggling with. They have successfully spread the narrative that the homeless are homeless because of their own fault. The idea that racism exists because of the prejudice of the people has likewise been popularized. This narrative finds people themselves as the cause of racism. To be fair, we need to acknowledge that prejudice at an individual level is indeed a dynamic of racism. But the Critical Race Theory correctly suggests that racism is substantially created and maintained by the practices of our institutions and the legal system. Believing that it is essentially the prejudice of people that creates and perpetuates racism encourages us to think of education as the best way to make progress in the fight against racism. While education is certainly important, efforts that substantially address and engage the true dynamics that create and maintain racism are much more effective. That said, if educational efforts are dynamic in the sense that they are activist and integrated into various movements working towards ending racism, then education is substantially important. Education cannot be primarily conducted in an academic fashion when people are essentially told that racism is wrong. When that message is integrated into school-based or community-based or nation-based activism and movements, then education can become a verb rather than a noun. If it is true that it is institutional behavior and treatment, rather than individual-level prejudice, that creates and enlivens racism in society, then creating and joining sustained anti-racism movements would be a more sensible and effective approach.

Earlier we mentioned how interaction was important in ending racism. So, every effort needs to be made to create interaction among the people of all races and ethnicities. These efforts can be initiated by all kinds of community based or national institutions. The government (federal, state, and local) can act on a sense of mandate to encourage and promote such inter-racial interaction through creative efforts and even through mandates.

The idea of colorblindness must also be briefly mentioned here. As defined by Monnica T. Williams in her article Colorblindness is a Form of Racism (2011), “Colorblindness is the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture or ethnicity.” This statement evokes positive thoughts, as it apparently argues that we would be observing or promoting equality when people are treated similarly. Many people say they don’t see color or race in the decisions that they make. As discussed in the chapter on equality, sameness does not mean equality. In fact, sameness often creates and maintains inequality. Applying the same standards or requirements or resources is to continue the existing disparities or inequality. True equality is achieved when people have meaningfully equal chances for achieving what they desire and need. True equality can be achieved when we do see race and when we apply different, not similar or same, standards and requirements. We must see the differences that exist so that remedial actions can be taken to correct racial disparities. In concrete terms, we need to allocate needed resources and efforts disproportionately so that genuine equality can be achieved. We must apply different standards and requirements so that disparities can be remedied.

But that aside, instead of being color-blind, we need to see color so that we will embrace diversity instead of trying to say that we should set aside the reality of color. True diversity means seeing, accepting, and welcoming differences. Instead of saying everybody is equal or the same, we need to say we are all different and we are all lovable! In fact, according to Stacey Giu, “A cause of racism is ‘not seeing color.” Not seeing color is so paramountly important that she views it as actually a cause of racism. Also, seeing color allows us to not forget the story of racism in our society.

Intersectionality is another idea that informs Critical Race Theory. Intersectionality suggests that the various perceived identities of a person or a group of persons (race, sex, disability, legal status, sexual preference, etc.) all contribute to how a person experiences disadvantage, both objectively and subjectively. A Black lesbian woman contends with overlapping negative anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-woman feelings and treatments in life (in terms of interactions and institutional treatment). Viewing racism through the prism of intersectionality brings us closer to the reality of it. This is important not only in understanding racism per se, but in engaging in anti-racism efforts. We can be more effective if we are aware of the confluence of these interactions/treatments as well as the cumulative and interplaying effects of them on a person. This confluence and interplay may be viewed as creating a new compounded reality. We must be aware of and understand the dynamics of this reality to be more effective in combatting racism and creating social change. And on a human level, the notion of intersectionality helps us to understand the lived experience and the emotional world of a person.

Judging people based on physical characteristics such as the color of skin may also be seen as a cultural phenomenon. Ways of seeing and judging things are indeed a cultural trait, too, but interestingly, we must also see them as something that defines us as individuals. A person’s way of seeing and judging things is part of who that person is. Learning to judge something based on physical characteristics tears us away from who we are, from the wonderful and loving person that we are. One might argue that it actually, to some extent, starts redefining our character, redefining who we are. So, in as much as this is the case, this learned habit of judging something based on physical characteristics creates anti-humanism in us. The people against whom negative evaluations or actual discriminatory treatments are directed are not the only victims. If I develop passionate, negative feelings toward certain races or ethnic groups and judge them negatively, I am a victim, too, because I am living an existence that may not reflect the real me, the real self. And this is, of course, a dynamic of alienation. Rejecting habits of judging things based on physical characteristics may give us self-healing opportunities—opportunities of reclaiming our self. Also, when I judge a person based on her physical characteristics, I don’t see, or I ignore, the person within. But that’s really who a person is—her invisible existence that I don’t see. Her thinking, values, beliefs, emotions, sense of ethics, and her capacity to love and care remain opaque to me. This is a different dimension of alienation—one that shows how we don’t connect with fellow humans, how we become disunited or alienated from fellow human beings. Society in general, or everybody in society, suffers tremendously because of the existence of racism, as an unbelievable amount of love and acts of kindness and mutual care and support is lost and never experienced. This non-realization of kindness in society, and the spread of racial hostility and hatred, is a huge loss to society, and this must also be viewed as an aspect of alienation.

Race and racism are social constructs and have meanings attached to them, which may not be the same thing at all to different people. Unless these meanings have become so firmly entrenched in a person’s mind so as to have become part of that person’s definition or character, especially in terms of that person’s ideological self, they are also somewhat fickle and fluid. This gives us hope that these meanings can change, thus allowing social change. While these meanings may or may seem to have been entrenched in our cultural world and may have become part of our emotional or ideological self, they are also somewhat malleable and fickle. But before talking about this, let’s entertain an example, which shows the malleable nature of these meanings. Take a black person in American society. If that person happens to be on the national U.S. gymnastics team competing against a team from England, a white spectator in the stadium may find a closeness and connectedness with the black athlete; her wishes of good luck would go to the black athlete. But let’s assume that the same black athlete and a white British person from England’s gymnastics team were on the beach in their swimming trunks the next day. If our white spectator happened to be strolling on the beach, her feelings of closeness and connectedness, this time, may be more oriented toward the British person than the black American, assuming she has not tran­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­scended racially based feelings absorbed during life. In both situations—in the stadium and on the beach—the black person and the British person are still the same beings, with the same genes, the same chemistry, the same personality, the same values, the same everything. However, our spectator feels differently about those two persons depending on whether she sees them in the stadium or on the beach. The spectator’s estimation and valuation of the black athlete in the stadium are referenced through the concept of nationalism—a dynamic symbol—and, on the beach, through the concept of race. The legal citizenship of the athlete in the stadium, and the color of his skin on the beach become major reference points for how we value that person. These are, then, external references or images for judging a person; they are the symbols of that person. Race is a false image of a person, so is one’s nationality.

This example shows that, unless the socially constructed meanings have become too firmly established as to have become that person’s self or at least that person’s ideological self (as in the case of a KKK member), they can be deconstructed rather easily, and this gives us hope that racism and other kinds of negative estimation of people can be overcome in a rather short period of time. The belief that these things are so entrenched in our value system that they will take long periods of time to change may not be true. Culturally entrenched beliefs and values (such as racism) are powerful, yet, when there is love, those beliefs can be conquered. Taking this beyond the individual realm, we can see that if people of different races come to love each other (through more interaction for example), centuries-old negative feelings can be conquered. This can teach us that if we, as a society, create the conditions and situations that promote interactions, we can overcome negative feelings toward each other in terms of race or sexual orientation or nationalism or religion. Busing, for example, despite some valid criticisms of it, has this potential to promote interactions. When people of different races come together in interaction, particularly in pursuit of some common goal, forces of love are capable of countervailing forces or negativity. Public policy cannot wait until it catches up with changes in public opinion. In fact, the very essence and mandate of the government is to initiate changes through public policy to minimize or eliminate social injustice. If the government, on behalf of society, adopts remedial policies, legislatively or through the development of programs and special funding, problems of inequity and injustice can be ameliorated. Race is a social construct, and we have given it a “meaning” that is foreign to life. Just as flowers are more beautiful when they come in a profusion of colors, perhaps society would be more beautiful when we appreciate and embrace the multi-colored presence of skin.

3. And now please watch the following two interesting videos on Youtube:

The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes: (Links to an external site.)

The social implications of race I Tammy Hodo I TEDxJacksonville (Links to an external site.)

Instructions for your posts

1. What do sections 10.2, 10.3, and 10.4 say. Add your thoughts. Make sure you address the material about “Race as a Social Construction in 10.2. This is worth 3 points

2. There are many topics in the supplemental lecture material. Pick several of them and describe them (say what they say in your own words). Now add your thoughts and opinions on the selected topics. This section is worth 7 points (do not include Critical Race Theory. You’ll write about it separately (under 3 below)

3. What is Critical Race Theory? This is worth 2 points

4. Comment on one of the two videos (briefly say what it says, and offer your thoughts). This is worth 2 points

5. What do you think is the cause of racism? (your personal opinion) This is worth 2 points

Please arrange your responses under the above numbering system (e.g., when writing about the Critical Race Theory, first write number 3 and then start writing. This helps me a lot. Thank you.