Racial Relations Research Paper

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The term racial relations denotes the relationships between groups socially defined as ‘races.’ In common usage this term is ambiguous and is taken by many popular analysts to mean that racial relations are not primarily matters of power and oppression, but rather mostly involve relationships between groups with relatively equal resources. However, in many cases racial relations are more accurately termed racist relations. For example, in areas of the globe where there was significant European colonization— eventually most areas of the globe—systems of racist oppression were created by European colonists who enriched themselves substantially at the expense of indigenous peoples’ land, resources, and labor. This often brutally executed enrichment became part of the economic foundation for Europe’s and North America’s long-term economic prosperity (Du Bois 1965 [1946]).

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1. The Idea Of ‘Race’

Prior to the late eighteenth century the word ‘race’ was used for descendants of a common ancestor, emphasizing kinship rather than skin color or other physical characteristics. By the late eighteenth century the word had evolved into its modern sense of a category of human beings with distinctive physical characteristics transmitted by descent. In the 1770s Immanuel Kant was the first prominent scholar to use the term ‘races of mankind’ (in German) in the sense of physically and biologically distinct categories. Soon thereafter, the German anatomist Johann Blumenbach aid out a ladder of races that became influential (Hannaford 1996, pp. 205–7). At the top were the ‘Caucasians,’ a term Blumenbach coined for Europeans. Groups lower on the ladder were, in order, the Mongolians (Asians), the Ethiopians (Africans), the Americans (Native Americans), and the Malays (Polynesians).

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Kant, Blumenbach, and other leading European intellectuals increasingly proclaimed the virtues and privileges of whiteness. Educated Europeans and European Americans crystallized the distinction between the superior ‘white race’ and ‘inferior races’ and disseminated these views to the general public. This social construction of races developed as Europeans expanded their colonial adventures overseas. Colonizers developed racist rationalizations for their destruction of indigenous societies, enslavement of Africans, and other colonial pursuits. This congealed in an ideological racism that legitimated oppression and exploitation, especially as the racist ideas became integrated into the general ideology dominant in Western societies (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991).

2. Racial And Ethnic Groups

Taking into account this history of racial relations and racial oppression, most social scientists define a racial group as a social group that people inside or outside that group have decided is important to single out as inferior or superior, typically on the basis of physical characteristics subjectively selected. For marking off racial groups certain characteristics like skin color are chosen, and others like hair color are rejected, solely for social reasons. Similarly, an ethnic group is a group that is set apart by insiders or outsiders primarily on the basis of cultural or national-origin characteristics subjectively selected (Feagin and Feagin 1999).

Racial and enthnic groups are not fixed groups or essences that endure forever but are temporary inventions shaped in sociopolitical struggles at historical times and places. They have significance only in group interaction. While the two types of groups can be distinguished on theoretical grounds, in the everyday operation of societies, racial and ethnic markers, identities, and oppressions often intertwine.

3. Conceptual Approaches To Racial Relations

Most conceptual approaches to intergroup relations, including racial relations, can be roughly classified as (a) order-assimilation theories or (b) power-conflict theories. Order-assimilation theories tend to accent the gradual incorporation of immigrant groups into a dominant culture and stability over time in intergroup relations. In contrast, power-conflict theories give central attention to the outcomes of racial contacts that result in oppression, labor exploitation, and genocide.

3.1 Assimilation Approaches

In Europe and the United States much theorizing about racial-ethnic relations has placed an emphasis on assimilation, on the more or less orderly adaptation of a migrating group such as Italian immigrants to the ways of an established host group, such as an Anglo-Protestant core culture in the United States. Related theories accent individual or group competition seen as resolving itself in the direction of eventual accommodation (see, for example, Banton 1983). In this order-assimilation theorizing little attention is paid to outcomes of intergroup contact taking the form of long-term oppression. One early theorist, Robert E. Park (1950), argued that intergroup relations move through stages of a race relations cycle—contacts. competition, accommodation, and eventual assimilation—that are more or less progressive and irreversible. Scholars in this tradition argue that there is a long-term trend toward orderly adaptation of immigrant groups in Western societies and that racial-ethnic conflict will diminish with the eventual assimilation of these incoming groups.

Giving primary attention to immigrants to the United States, Milton Gordon (1964) views the typical trend of adaptation to be in the direction of immigrants giving up much of their heritage for the pre-existing Anglo-Protestant core culture. This adaptation takes place in seven different arenas of assimilation: cultural assimilation, structural (primary group) assimilation, marital assimilation, attitude-receptional assimilation (breakdown of prejudices), behavior-receptional assimilation (decline of discrimination), identificational assimilation, and civic assimilation. Classical assimilation theorists have had in mind as their main examples of racial-ethnic adaptation the European groups migrating more or less voluntarily to the United States or European nations. Until relatively recently, theorists who accent assimilation gave less attention to the adaptation and assimilation of non-European groups to the core culture. When they did, they often viewed non-Europeans as assimilating like other groups. One prominent European writer on US racial relations, Gunnar Myrdal (1964 [1944], Vol. 2, p. 929), argued that as a practical matter it is to the advantage of black Americans ‘as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.’ Even today, many assimilation analysts expect the importance of racial-ethnic stratification to decline as the powerful universalistic forces of industrialization and urbanization wipe out the vestiges of earlier particularistic value systems in various societies.

3.2 Power-Conflict Approaches

Generally speaking, assimilation theorists are most concerned with cultural (such as language) or primary- group network (such as intermarriage) features of the adaptation of migrating groups to a host society, while power-conflict theorists are most concerned with racial-ethnic oppression, exploitation, and subordination. An early US advocate of this latter perspective, Oliver C. Cox (1948), emphasized the role of the capitalist class in creating racial conflict by exploiting the labor of groups like African Americans and by propagating racist ideologies to divide the working class in Western societies. Racial (white-on-black) stratification grew out of the expansion of profit-oriented capitalism.

Some scholars have adopted the concept of internal colonialism to describe what happens to many non-European groups coming into Western societies. An emphasis on great power inequalities between whites and people of color is at the heart of this model. Thus, people of color, such as Native Americans and African Americans, were brought into the emerging political-economic system of North America by force. Subsequent adaptation was characterized by dominant group coercion and oppression, as well as by subordinate group resistance. Racial stratification has a material base, a firm underpinning rooted in a specific political-economic history. Internal-colonialism theorists are not primarily concerned with white immigrant groups but rather with the persistence of systemic oppression and the control processes that maintain white dominance (Blauner 1972).

Power-conflict analysts look at the immigration of non-European peoples as involving much more than assimilation. John Rex (1973) has analyzed the immigration of such groups from the former European colonies to the metropolitan cities of the colonizing countries. In the latter countries the colonial immigrants get the most inferior and marginal jobs and suffer the highest unemployment—thereby becoming structurally distinct from the native-born, white working class and, thus, an outcast group of alien workers.

The concept of institutional racism accents the importance of patterns of racism built into a society’s major institutions and patterns. Racism is much more than whites’ racist attitudes, for it encompasses a complex array of in-egalitarian relationships developed over generations and imbedded in all institutions. In racist systems most whites become stakeholders in a hierarchical structure of opportunities, wealth, and privileges linked to a long history of racial exploitation and oppression. Joe R. Feagin (2000) has shown that the concept of systemic racism encompasses not only the construction of racist ideologies but also the maintenance of white privilege, wealth, and power. People do not experience racial relations in the abstract but in concrete and recurring social situations. Individuals, whether they are the perpetrators or recipients of discrimination, are caught in a complex web of alienating racist-relations. A racist system categorizes and divides human beings from each other and severely impedes the development of a common consciousness. At the macrolevel, large-scale institutions routinely perpetuate racial subordination and inequalities. These institutions are created and recreated by the routine discriminatory practices of dominant group individuals at the microlevel of everyday interaction. Individual acts of discrimination regularly activate whites’ group power position and authority, a point underscored by the European scholar (Philomena Essed 1991).

In much theorizing about contemporary racial conflict, there is an accent on class or on socioeconomic status. Some analysts argue that systemic racism is of declining importance in Western societies like the United States and is more or less consigned to the fringes, while class divisions are now increasing (Wilson 1978). Yet the evidence (see below) suggests that such a conclusion is premature. Critics (for example, Omi and Winant 1994) of this view of the declining significance of racism have shown that, for the United States at least, race cannot be reduced to class or socioeconomic status, but remains an autonomous field of intergroup conflict, political organization, and ideological meaning.

4. Continuing Racial Oppression: The US Case

Today, people of African descent are still the globe’s largest racially oppressed group; they are now resident in a number of countries as a result of the overseas slave trade carried out by Europeans. One of the largest groups in this African diaspora is in the United States, where there remains much evidence of continuing white-on-black oppression.

Recent field studies and opinion surveys show that among white Americans racist attitudes remain widespread. In one survey three-quarters of white respondents openly agreed with one of more of the eight anti-black stereotypes presented to them, while just over half agreed with two or more (Anti-Defamation League 1993). Discrimination against African Americans and other Americans of color also remains commonplace. One Los Angeles survey (Bobo and Suh 1995) found that within the past year six in ten black workers had encountered workplace discrimination; that proportion increased with workers’ education. This study also found that a majority of highly educated Asian and Latino American workers faced workplace discrimination. More generally, researchers in the United States have found that, after decades of affirmative action programs attempting to address discrimination in employment, at least 95 percent of the top positions in major economic, political, and educational organizations are still held by white men. In the United States housing patterns are still highly segregated, largely as a result of active discrimination by white landlords, homeowners, and real estate agents. In a national survey using 3,800 test audits in 25 metropolitan areas, black renters and homebuyers were found to face discrimination about half the time in seeking housing (Turner et al. 1991).

In the United States, as in other Western nations, whites also direct much racist hostility and discrimination at other groups of color. A number of research studies have shown that many Asian Americans are moving into the mainstream of the US economy and suburban neighborhoods, yet even as they do so they still encounter much racial discrimination. White-collar workers, including administrators and professionals in historically white institutions, report ingrained patterns of anti-Asian discrimination (Cheng 1997). Similarly, Latino Americans also report much continuing discrimination in employment and housing. Political discrimination also targets Latino and Asian Americans. During the 1990s California voters, especially white voters, supported several ballot propositions designed to abolish government services for Latino and Asian immigrants and eliminate affirmative action and bilingual programs. In addition, hostility to Spanish speaking Americans persists in widespread mocking of the Spanish language and Latino cultures.

5. Racism In Europe: The Case Of France

The United States is not the only Western nation pervaded by racist relations. The reality of racial oppression can be seen in the outbreak of hate crimes across the European continent since the 1980s, as well as in routine discrimination in housing and employment in many European countries. For example, in France immigrants from Algeria and other African countries often face racist practices much like those in the United States. France imposed colonial rule on Algeria in the nineteenth century; later, beginning in the 1960s, large numbers of Algerians migrated to France. Defining immigrant groups as undesirable, whites there publicly accented the lack of assimilation by African immigrants into French culture as the major issue, playing down or ignoring the way in which such realities as housing segregation result from institutionalized, race-linked discrimination against Africans. In France racist-right political parties have grown in influence in recent years, and the national government has responded periodically with repressive attacks on African immigrants (BaturVanderLippe 1999).

For numerous European countries, overseas colonialism involved the use of violence to exploit the resources of the colonies and oppress their peoples —practices generally legitimated with racist ideologies. More recently, the descendants of the formerly colonized face racist oppression in the colonizers’ home countries. In a number of European countries the legacy of colonialism can be seen graphically in the often violent expressions of racialized hatred for the identity and culture of African, Asian, and West Indian immigrants.

6. Racism In Former Empires: The South African Case

In many ways South Africa is the symbol of racist relations as they developed between European and non-European peoples in the ever spreading European empires. In the South African case, two colonizing powers, England and Holland, invaded the lands of indigenous African peoples, and their descendants became the economically and politically dominant group. In the first decade of the twentieth century a new country, called the Union of South Africa, was formed, combining residents of British and Dutch origin indigenais as the ruling group over a number of African groups. Black Africans were gradually forced into a system of segregation (apartheid) where the relations between the white and black groups, as well as between these groups and middle groups like the ‘Asians’ and the ‘coloreds’ (those of mixed racial backgrounds), were determined by an extensive system of segregation laws. Over time the system of apartheid came to encompass every aspect of the relations between whites and non-whites, including relations in the institutional areas of employment, education, and housing (Batur-Vander Lippe 1999, Feagin and Feagin 1999).

As in the case of African Americans, this intensive system of racial oppression generated resistance in the form of major organizations like the African National Congress (ANC). In the 1990s the black African majority finally took back political control. The ANC, working with other anti-apartheid groups, eventually forced an end to apartheid and brought new hope for the oppressed majority. Racial relations dramatically changed. A formerly total-racist society, the Union of South Africa moved from white to black political control and began to change the patterns of its social and economic apartheid with relatively little blood-shed. Still this change has so far marked only a beginning, for the political changes have not yet ended economic domination by whites, and racist practices are still found in housing and employment.

Late twentieth century events in South Africa have linked black peoples around the globe in a common struggle against the descendants of European colonists, who long maintained economic or political control in a number of nations where people of color are the numerical majority. Since the early 1900s black American efforts for liberation from racism (such as the recurring civil rights movements) have provided inspiration for the struggle in South Africa and other nations (for example, Brazil), and in a similar fashion the recent political successes by black Africans in South Africa have encouraged African Americans in their struggle against oppression in the United States. Black Americans have long drawn on the history, spirituality, and symbolism of Africa as part of their individual and group strategies for coping with the white-dominated society. This is yet another example of the way in which racial relations in one nation are set within a larger global context.

7. The Future Of The Global Racial Order

In many countries across the globe challenges to white domination and racism are arising from population and sociopolitical changes. Europeans and European Americans are a decreasing fifth of the world’s population and a decreasing proportion of US population. In the United States, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, whites are a statistical minority in many of the largest cities and in the states of New Mexico and Hawaii. By the early 2000s whites will be a minority in the states of California and Texas, with other major states to follow in the next few decades. Demographic projections indicate that shortly after the year 2050 white Americans will become a minority of the US population.

As whites become the minority in the United States and in many international organizations where they once dominated, the traditional patterns of racial relations will be under even greater pressure to change. For the US case, by the 2050s, the majority of the labor force will no longer be white, and the population and labor force will be older. This will likely give people of color ever more political and economic clout. Tensions will likely increase between a retired population that is mostly white and workers who are mostly not white. In several Western nations, white politicians opposed to legal immigration by non-Europeans and to remedial programs for racial discrimination will not likely be elected when the majority of their political constituencies become citizens of color. As constituencies change, juries and justice systems, educational systems, and government policies will also be likely to change.

Across the globe the relations of colonialism and racism are slowly but dramatically changing. The deep-lying contradictions of the global racial order were set into motion by the colonial adventures of numerous European nations. This colonialism generated sociopolitical structures that have long embedded the practices, ideologies, and institutions of racist subordination in numerous nations. Today, international relations, global markets, the global mass media, and multinational corporations are all racialized, with white European perspectives and executives often in control. Half a millennium of European-dominated national and international institutions is slowly coming to an end. As the twenty-first century develops, racial relations in Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world are likely to change. Many once oppressed groups and societies will move farther out from under the dominance of Europeans and European Americans. Over the last few decades strong antiracism movements have arisen in South Africa, Brazil, and the United States. The possibility of a global democratic order rid of the oppressive relations of racism remains only a dream, but the South African revolution shows that it is a powerful dream for many people.


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