Racism is a tool of the rich
I am an anthropologist who studies educational systems and human learning. Those of us in this area of research know that human beings are not born racist. Rather, racism is learned, and racism is learned because it is given power by a status quo that values it.
There has been much commentary in these pages recently about people dealing with their individual racial biases and privileges. While it is important to develop cultural humility to consider how one moves through the world as an individual, such analysis and action should not stop there. Instead, I urge my fellow community members to consider changing the broader contexts and institutions that continue to reward racism. That work is much harder, for it challenges powerful and entrenched interests and is inherently political.
In her June 4 Guest Commentary here, Madeline Clark correctly stated that “in the eyes of biology, there is no such thing as race because it is a social construct.” She correctly explains how human genetic features vary greatly throughout the global human population and that, genetically speaking, humans are a homogeneous species. Students in my cultural anthropology courses at Paul Smith’s College learn this, too, when we study how that field thinks about race. The current state of anthropology supports Clark’s assertion that there are greater genetic variations within human groups than there are between them (Marks, 2001). She is correct to assert that race is a social construct. But what does this really mean, and what are the implications for American society in the current moment?
When anthropologists say something is a “social construct,” we mean that humans have created an idea that is then used to shape the world. Many of the things that you may take for granted as just the “normal” or “natural” order of things (e.g. capital markets, religions, genders, schools, etc.) do not occur in a pure state of nature and instead result from human social activities over time. As a social scientist, labeling something a social construct means that it exists as a real social phenomenon that structures people’s lives at individual, community, and societal levels. For example, the decisions made before, during and after the 2008 housing market crash have had a profound influence in how Americans live their lives. Race, too, is a social reality, and seeing it this way helps us understand how it impacts everyone’s lives. But why does race exist as a social reality, and why might it be useful to think about race this way? And why does race exist as a social tool that some in power use to shape American society? This answer is more complicated and has to do with the specific cultural and historical circumstances that inform our current moment.
In the United States, the racialization of the population into social categories happened first as a result of the European colonization of Indigenous peoples and their land. Early colonial leaders also needed laborers to make colonial economies work. To stifle labor unrest, powerful landowners began passing laws taking away the rights of poor freedmen and indentured servants, some of African descent who came from England (Smedley and Smedley, 2012). White land-owning elites gave poor whites land as a way of gaining their favor (Isenberg, 2016). This occurred prior to the formal slavery era and served to encourage divides within the multi-racial working class. The gradual dehumanization of Africans in the early colonies set the stage for justifying the future enslavement and forced labor of Africans under slavery. The Civil War was about Confederate states defending this racist economic order.
Racial categorization then, as now, is about maintaining social and economic power arrangements. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1978) once put it, race is “the modality in which class is lived … the medium in which class relations are experienced.” Shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. began working with labor unions toward a more equitable and just economic system. He was in Memphis to launch the Poor People’s Campaign in solidarity with sanitation workers who were striking for better wages and humane working conditions. While we now celebrate King’s legacy of racial justice, many fail to understand or acknowledge his deeper critique of American society: that racial justice could not happen until and unless it was also coupled with advances in economic justice. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement continues this legacy by seeking to remedy economic policies like housing discrimination, among others, that disproportionately impact poor blacks (Taylor, 2016). Improving access to affordable housing would have far-reaching effects, helping to reduce economic inequality for people of any race, an issue that we can relate to here in the Adirondacks, where housing inequality is a very real issue.
While Clark was correct that racial categories have no basis in biological reality, the social reality of race has biological implications, and the coronavirus pandemic is a good example of how race impacts human health. Public health data show that Black, Latinx and Native peoples are becoming sick and dying from coronavirus at two to three times higher rates than whites in the United States, and this is primarily due to the fact that many are becoming infected due to economic conditions like working front-line jobs that keep them from staying home or needing to take public transportation (New York Times, July 2020). Racial and economic inequalities impact life outcomes in a number of other ways, too, from decreased life expectancy, decreased access to quality health care and schooling, and increased exposure to environmental toxins like lead paint and toxic air emissions. The discrimination against some Americans based on socially constructed categories consigns our neighbors and fellow citizens to early deaths and immense suffering, and it is no wonder that so many are out in the streets demanding change.
Speaking in support of the striking Memphis sanitation workers two weeks prior to his assassination in 1968, King said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.” In the same way that race as a category is not “natural” and has no basis in biology, the economic system that furthers inequality by pitting working people of all races against one another is not inherent. We, as humans and citizens of this country, have the power to change it. We just need to decide to do it, together.
Joseph Henderson lives in Saranac Lake and is a faculty member in the Environment and Society Department at Paul Smith’s College, where he teaches classes in anthropology, sociology and environmental studies.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. (1978). “Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state and law and order.” Macmillan International Higher Education.
Isenberg, N. (2017). “White trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America.” Penguin.
Marks, J.M. (2001). “Human biodiversity: Genes, race, and history.” Transaction Publishers.
Oppel, R.A. et al. (2020, July 5). “The fullest look yet at the racial inequality of Coronavirus.” New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html
Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2012). “Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview.” Westview Press.
Taylor, K.Y. (2016). “From #BlackLivesMatter to black liberation.” Haymarket Books.