Racial Identity Research Paper

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The concept of ‘racial identity’ has generated many and different bodies of literature that bear directly upon its multiple deployments in the social and behavioral sciences. Given that every individual is universally and simultaneously also part of a larger group, from family to community to language group to (for most of the last three centuries) nation–state, the salient question for the social sciences is: under what conditions do individuals come to think of themselves as ‘racial’? The corollary, but by no means symmetrical question is: under what conditions do larger social units, from nation–states to communities, come to see, classify, and identify the individual as ‘racial’?

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1. Racial Identity And Individual Identity

There is a vast literature on the psychology of personal identity that provides a particular angle for approach to the topic. Identity formation as a developmental process through adolescence is one significant track, and a subset of this work is early-stage racial identity formation. This research can be traced back more than a half-century to the studies of the preferences of preschool children for white or black dolls (Clark and Clark 1947). A parallel track of scholarship emphasizes the power of ‘group identity’ to shape behavior through the imposition of cultural and national identities (Burman and Harrell Bond 1979, Shibutani and Kwan 1969). From political mobilization to choice of a marital partner, each of these renderings of racial identity has substantially penetrated the disciplines of sociology, political science, anthropology, and social psychology. In the USA, the courts became the site of the connection between the vastly different worlds of research on racial identity formation and social and political institutions. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on school desegregation was based partly upon research claiming that lowered self esteem of the subordinated group was ‘inherently a function of racial segregation’ (Brown vs. Board of Education), and explicitly referred to the doll studies noted above. This generated a research trajectory involving studies on individual responses to racial identification that would extend through the remainder of the twentieth century (Montalvo 1999).

While the concept of individual identity has no clearly locatable beginning, it has been traced, in the West, to ‘the discovery of the individual’ (Morris 1972, Doi 1985). Individuals typically identified with their families, then perhaps with the local village or community (Linton 1955). As communities grew and members became mobile, region, language group, religion, and the nation-state would each claim some measure of allegiance via identity. Multiplicity of identities for a single individual can also be understood in terms of the simultaneity of those identities. That is, a single individual can sense and affirm a complex set of identities, being simultaneously a grandfather and being Jewish, being French and being working-class, being an alcoholic and a chess player. No single identity need claim any essentialist primacy nor be privileged as ‘fundamental’ across time, space, and culture. The social context frames which identity will be called up and acted upon, or be the reference point of further action for the individual.

The mobilization of constituencies around a perceived collective interest is the essence of political and social movements, and in this sense all political mobilization is ‘identity politics.’ In a work that would set the frame for later research on racial identity and political consciousness, E. P. Thompson’s (1963) monumental social history of the ‘making of the English working class’ detailed how class identity is forged from a particular set of economic and social circumstances. In a different and parallel kind of scholarship, other researchers have sought to explain the emergence of a racial identity. For example, the US civil rights movement (1956–72) produced a number of scholarly analyses that demonstrated how different sets of circumstances explain the emergence and sustenance of racial identity (Hampton and Fayer 1990, Bloom 1987, Morris 1984). However, the most direct descendant of Thompson’s (1963) demonstration of the historical specificity of political mobilization around identity, relevant to race, is David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991). Roediger mines the archives of the US labor movement of the nineteenth century to provide rich historical material showing how the racial identity of whites in general, and the Irish in particular, were formed in relationship to the enslavement of blacks.

2. Politics And Identity Politics

Thus racial identity was generated by massive historical, economic, and political forces that far transcend the level of individual choice (Banton 1977, Miles 1989). Indeed, there is a substantial body of research indicating that in the nineteenth century European and US academics expended much energy trying to demonstrate the intellectual and moral superiority of whites (Gould 1981, Bernal 1987). The biological and medical sciences of the late nineteenth century assumed a Darwinian model of racial hierarchy of adaptation to civilization (Frazer 1900). Thus, in order to counter the assertion of white superiority, from Europe to South Africa to the North American continent to Australia, groups that wished to mobilize to change their position in a racial hierarchy often found that racial identity was a useful and powerful basis for achieving group solidarity (Kelley 1997, Fredrickson 1995, Crenshaw et al. 1995). Obviously, these groups would encounter competing group identities, such as tribal, regional, ethnic, linguistic, and class. This list would permit the white colonialists the advantage of playing one off against the other, and the strategic use of ethnic identity to trump ‘race’ could be deployed. For an elaboration of the distinction between race and ethnicity, see Fenton (1999).

If we take even a casual excursion through the last few centuries of racial classification, there is overwhelming evidence on the side of those who have argued that race is arbitrary, shifting, and often biologically and sociologically inconsistent and contradictory. A consortium of leading scientists across the disciplines from biology to physical anthropology issued a ‘Revised UNESCO Statement on Race’ in 1995—a definitive declaration that summarizes 11 central issues, and concludes that in terms of ‘scientific’ discourse, there is no such thing as a ‘race’ that has any scientific utility:’ … the same scientific groups that developed the biological concept over the last century have now concluded that its use for characterizing human populations is so flawed that it is no longer a scientifically valid concept. In fact, the statement makes clear that the biological concept of race as applied to humans has no legitimate place in biological science’ (Katz 1995, pp. 4, 5).

The rule that one drop of black blood makes one black is the easy mark along a full continuum of contradictory and incoherent taxonomies. ‘Passing’ and ‘miscegenation laws’ and slave-owner slave offspring do more than simply dot the landscape of this topic (Harris 1995, Haney-Lopez 1996). This continuum extends well into the present period where we find more and more people asserting a mixed-race identity. Since the classification of race is arbitrary and often whimsical (e.g., one drop of blood), accepting the idea that race is something identifiable with fixed borders that could be crossed and thus ‘mixed’ is just another indication of the power of social forces shaping racial identity. At the biochemical level of blood types and hematology, at the neurological level of neurotransmission patterns, at the level of cell function—at all these levels, we are all ‘mixed’ by any taxonomy or measure of allele frequencies in large population groups (Molnar 1992).

Yet a number of scholars of race have noted the increasing use of the category of ‘mixed race’ as the self-identity of a younger generation, mainly of relatively privileged and middle-class persons. Paul Spickard (1989) and Werner Sollers (1997) have each produced important studies of ‘mixed race’ identities that cross boundaries of Europe and the Americas. Maria Root (1996) has culled a collection of essays that deal with identity construction along ethnic and racial lines, and further explores these issues well beyond the black and white focus that has riveted much of this literature. The difference between ‘individual choice’ of a racial identity as opposed to having a racial identity ‘imposed’ by the state and/or the obdurate empirical reality of a group consensus (based primarily upon phenotype-stereotype) is profound, yet variable over time and place. There are concrete economic, political, social, and sometimes psychological benefits to choosing certain identities. That is why scores of thousands of light-skinned ‘blacks’ under slavery in Brazil, Jamaica, and the USA chose to ‘pass’ as white (Small 1994). For parallel reasons, thousands of persons in the USA have attempted to reclassify themselves as Native American or Latino or African American to benefit from affirmative action laws.

For an extensive theoretical treatment of the way in which racial taxonomies shift over time, see Omi and Winant (1986). In addition, for specific cases of this phenomenon, see Harris (1995), Haney-Lopez (1996) and Takaki (1998). From the other side, namely, individuals who come to collectively redefine their own situation, and thereby reveal how ‘race’ is sometimes in flux due as much to agency, interpretation, and circumstance, see Blumer (1958), Lal (1990), and Perry (1998). For an ‘interest-driven’ version of the collective will to create, sustain, or maintain a particular racial identity, see Lipsitz (1998) and Wellman (1993).

3. White Identity

In recent years, the concept of white racial identity has come under increasing focus as a basis for a research agenda. Blumer’s (1958) classic article reframed race as a structural relationship between competing group interests. This position was adopted and developed by an early entry into this field, David Wellman’s Portraits of White Racism (1993). Roediger (1991, 1994), Frankenberg (1993), Allen (1994), Jacobson (1998), Lipsitz (1998), and Perry (1998) have each examined the ways in which white privilege is embedded in a faceless and taken-for-granted normalness of white identity. Twine and Warren (2000) have assembled an anthology in which they bring to greater consciousness the ways in which researchers in racially stratified societies ignore at their peril the subject world of race as an integral feature of methodology, largely through the racial identity of subjects and researchers.

4. Which Identity Gets Triggered?

Given that there are multiple and simultaneous identities, the task for the social analyst is to try to understand the social circumstances in which a particular set of identities gets ‘triggered’ or brought to the fore. That is, rather than arguing for the primacy or ‘essentialist’ character of an identity, the analytic task is to understand why identity A, B, or C emerges as primary. War between nation-states is an especially propitious time for a ‘national identity’ to be forged, or come to the fore. Thus, it may be heuristically useful to think of a series of latent multiple identities that get turned on or off based upon social and political circumstances—and determine ‘which button gets pushed.’ In wartime, the national identity button gets pushed frequently, and lights up. In courtship, the gender button is pushed, and so forth. In these terms, the empirical question of when and why the ‘racial identity’ is triggered is no less compelling when posed as a theoretical question.

We can expect the next period to generate many more investigations of racial identities deployed as one among multiple identities—moving away from static conceptions of fixed boundaries of racial identity, with richer explorations of its contingent and sometimes fluid character. An example of this kind of work at the vanguard would be Gloria Anzaldua’s (1987) Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza and George Lipsitz’ (1991) Collecti e Memory and American Popular Culture. These authors identify ‘border identities,’ which are emergent identities crafted and recrafted continually by movements across different borders. As the new millennium witnesses the increasing thousands and even millions of border crossings (and recrossings) with the movement of capital and labor, studies of ‘borderland identities’ around issues of race and ethnicity will come to play a significant role in this field of inquiry.


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