The exemplary case of Susie Guillory Phipps versus the state in a battle for her racial status to be declared white, the state won. According to the state laws, anyone with up to 1/32th of Negro blood was considered to be black. This brought to light on the issues surrounding the origin and workings of race in the modern world. The attorneys defended the need to classify people on the basis of race to facilitate the record keeping purposes pertaining the genetic disease control as well as prevention. The feeble attempts of Phipps’s lawyer to argue that the classification was inaccurate, were demolished.
This brought forth the need for defining race and putting up certain guidelines for it. The various approaches – scientific, religious, etc. – only created more controversy.
Racial Formation: What is a race?
When faced with people having a different skin color than themselves, the Europeans were more than baffled. They tried to trace this difference in the external features back to the origin and even considered the possibility of those with colored skin being a different subspecies than themselves. As disturbing as it is, theories that reconciled the Bible itself to explain this was put forth. The ideas of monogenesis were proposed – suggesting that God only made one species. Europeans considered themselves the children of God. These controversial views, later on, caused them to practice things like – slavery, inequal rights, and even extermination on the basis of race.
The classification of living organisms by Linnaeus inspired biologists to further explore the topic of race and establish their own theories as people were considering it a biological concept more than a social one. Race still didn’t have a clear outline of its constituency. Attempts were made to classify humans in various hierarchical positions attributed to cranial capacity, gene pool, etc.
Ultimately this dilemma was triumphed by a Greek theory called “ Great chain of being”. This theory classified inanimate objects as the lowest of the chain succeeded by low life forms, then a bit more sophisticated animals, then man and then God at the very top. It caused debates about which race is the closest to God to shoot throughout the world. This theory created notions of the various routines that could explain the differences in human beings.
Count Arthur de Gobineau presented his own theories in his four-volume work Essay on the Inequality of Races (1853-1855) which postulated his ideas that lived longer than he did. They stated that specific racial groups create superior cultures and interracial fraternizing was labeled as impure and degrading.
The attempts to assess the definition of the race using scientific approach are still being considered. Recently made development in the fields of psychology and genetics have given a nudge for us to explore the possibilities which is stirring the interests of biologists. The ideas of race to be explained in terms of congenital characteristics rather than social, political and economic terms. This approach only accounts for the most superficial of beliefs.
Race as a social concept
The beginning of the 19th century did wonders for the notions of attribution of a race to the points that account for it as a social concept and not a biological one. Max Weber discerned all of the arguments stating otherwise. The anthropologist Franz Boas refused to accept the interconnection between race and superiority of any culture and stated that it’s definition is of a varying nature.
Various societies and various historical references shape the meaning of race in multiple forms over time. In the US especially the racial distinction of white/back races is so strict that it is considered with utmost peculiarity. White race, also considered the “pure” race by white supremacists, is named as the superior one while even the tiniest speck of black blood anywhere in the lineage of an otherwise white person is enough to declare them nonwhite or impure. The principle of hypodescent states :
By what ingenious computation is the genetic tracery of a million years of evolution unraveled each man assigned his social box?
The hypo- descent doctrine says that if a person had even a single Negro ancestor, they must be classified as one too, so that inexactness in making the hierarchical structure can be avoided. This obviously is a ridiculous thought in light of relativity but it’s a famous one nonetheless. It helps to keep the fairy tales of a “higher race and it’s superiority over others” alive.
Unlike the US many societies like in Brazil, have intermediate racial groups. They recognize that even the members of the same family can represent totally contrasting racial groups. Such suggestions are indigestible for the US norms and the residents. The individuals that are “black” according to the theory of hypo-descent are often seen trying to pass as “white” under official inquiries. They, however, cannot pass as “black” either in many scenarios. The term “black” is used rather specifically in the US but is used to address all nonwhites in the UK. This designation is limited to this discourse. The current generation of Asian and Afro-Caribbean youth are identifying with this term self admittedly instead of taking offense and considering it a misconception.
The definitions of race through different perspectives aren’t only conflicting and contradicting but also contesting to claim dominance over each other. The varying degrees of the influences on the definition of race form, destroy and reform it. It acts as a center of gravity for all these swiveling theories pushed by the political, economic and social forces.
Racial ideology and racial identity
A race is one of the first physical features a person notices in the people they meet. It not only tracks who a person is and where they come from but also helps to determine how they became who they are. More often than not, a mixed-race child hints that the parents don’t believe in racial exclusivity, thus providing a liberal environment for the child as well. Without racial distinction however , the existence of a distinguished identity is questionable.
People often tend to possess preconceived notions of a particular race ranging from what they should look like to what they should act like. These stereotypes when challenged, confuse people of the racial affinity of a person and about how much of that particular race they are. These have more or less created a vicious cycle of presumption to action to presumption again.
Racial etiquette exists as a sort of guidebook on how a particular race should act, communicate, operate and interact with those out of it. These are often misconceptions that are forced by the sheer force of practice and cause the people belonging to a certain race to follow nonsensical mannerisms for the sake of blending in.
It has been tried to insinuate that race goes deeper than physical attributes of a person. It has been used as means to explain the ways that people choose to live and their preferences of lifestyle as well as their reaction to situations, their interests, and traits. All of these feats have been one or the other time been known to be exemplified as typical of a particular race for example – Asians are considered to be intellectually more gifted than other races.
We refuse to imagine the US culture independent of these extremely prejudiced stereotypes and myths about particular races. The racial ideology surrounding the entire framework of the modern culture is deep-rooted and forms many of the popular beliefs.
Media plays a crucial role in shaping our perception of what any given racial minority is like. Of how they talk, act, think – their entire identity. Best case scenario the print as well as electronic media portray them 50% like what they actually are. The worst possibility, however , which is often seen is that they’re shown with a set of misplaced beliefs and exaggerated certainties. Some works succeed to show these groups in their true unadulterated form but they’re a rarity. Most of the time media try to create things that the majority can identify with rather than correctly representing the minority.
These try to imply that race is something rigid rather than a varying concept that shifts with the tide of politics and economics and is ever growing. It is conceived as a monument rather than a work in progress even though historical evidence states otherwise.
Racialization: the historical development of race
Black was a term vaguely used in the history of America for a person who had dark skin. They weren’t accounted for where they came from or the specificity of their lineage. The idea of race-based slavery cemented this theory which further on laid down rigid outlines for classifying people based on color. This created a solid, non-negotiable identity for European settlers as well. Winthrop Jordan observed this as :
“From the initially common term Christian, at mid-century, there was a marked shift towards the words English and Free. After about 1680 , taking the colonies as a whole, a new term of self-identification appeared – white”
Racialization is an ideological process which had derived from the historical mistakes and rights to shape the modern understanding of relationships between race and society. It owes it’s ongoing approach to express the ideas of rigidity and fluidity at the same time to the historical experiences that have added to it.
The nineteenth century marked the internal struggles Europe faced along with a cloud of conflict looming over the term “white” as it became quite a task to distinguish the Natives from the Anglo Saxon immigrants and from the Irish/Jews/etc.
The practice of racialization of European immigrants as well as the abolishment of slavery after the Civil War marked a new era. One where after the Reconstruction in 1877 it was not acceptable to enslave someone based on their skin color. This killed the very spirit of the sense of superiority the white people or “the working class “ had been honing since the beginning of the racial classification. The backbone of the entire doctrine professed was broken down the middle. This, however, didn’t mean that the state passed any favoring decrees. They were still very loose and didn’t stop any sort of race-based offenses.
The fire of the need to establish racial supremacy was however still alight in the working class which led them to form unions and lead movements that protested against the decrees that basically said that their dominion is in shambles.
The majorly racial, not financial political issue after 1877 (Reconstruction) wasn’t just a ballot but a direct action of violence. The anti-Chinese agitation law was passed to ensure that the labor movement remains a conflict of classes and not races.
A sudden agricultural boom in the southern part of the country promoted the blacks from an agricultural, financially unstable group to an urban, financially more steady group. Similar effects were inflicted upon the group by the shift in the economy and multiple factors like unemployment and recession which ultimately shaped them to reach their present state of being. Many other groups of different races are seen to be undergoing such conditions too – like Asians and Latinos being affected by Third World impoverishment- which further warrants that a racial identity is ever changing.
Racial formation: the creation of racial meanings
The racial theory has so far presented race as a projection of nation, ethnicity, and class. Not as the continuously growing and changing phenomenon it is that adheres to the fact that politics and economics also chisel its course and destination. An argument also proclaims that race would cease to exist as “race thinking” is synonymous with obnoxious and obsolete and won’t survive in the world we’re progressing towards.
When in all honesty, racial meanings pervade US society, extending from the shaping of the individual racial identities to the structuring of collective political action on the terrain of the state.
A race is arguably one of the elements which should dictate the nature of social relationships.
At micro level: race is a factor in how we perceive ourselves and our Identity. It influences our choices and personal interests up to an extent.
At macro level: race is a factor in the formation of social structures of economic, political and cultural/ideological nature which are further explained as a collection of “sites”.
A site is defined as a region of social life with a coherent set of constitutive social relations.
The site or the rules of the game are often seen through the lens of a conflict – like in the racially based citizenship and naturalization laws which particularly show us that the rules aren’t set in concrete and vary from situation to situation. The racial order relies on the on the interworking as well as the social relationships constructed by these two levels. They’re not as clear in pragmatically approaching the situation but they’re very much distinguished and sometimes affect each other’s spheres of influence more than calculated. They create ripples in each dimension when presented with strong enough agendas.
The theory of racial formation is thus successful in manifesting the clockwork that holds the entire ideology of the races together by the cooperation of these two levels but the infamous process which shapes the reality of these postulates is deeper.
Contesting the social meaning of race
We have so far established that rave doesn’t exist as something solid which is built to last and that it is above the groundwork of any given social relationship. It isn’t a delusion either, it exists and cannot be attributed to anything that we call a malpractice or deem unnecessary.
It must be recognized as an unstable and “decentred” complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.
This must be done because :
1.Racial discrimination favoring the majority causes a lot of struggle and suffering on the part of the minorities and is seen worldwide.
2.The face of politics and it’s driving forces should be explicitly social in nature rather than racial.
These are the conditions that we have to achieve to steer the countries social and political scene which we won’t be frowning upon. The triumph of political contestation over racial meaning is what we can use as the winning stroke in the ongoing debate of race versus politics. The ultimate goal we need to focus on is to let the ideologies of race veer us forward and not pull us down as a nation and as a species. Cultural representation, along with actively restating that race isn’t something that needs to out people down, we can achieve the desired equilibrium. Racial ideologies have not only been shaping the political views of the governing bodies but also has been whispering into the ears of individuals making them wonder if they’re being discriminated against or of what they face at any given occasion can be blamed on their skin color. Such depressing, diabolical thoughts seem fictional but they aren’t. They constantly create the doubts in the mind of individuals making them wonder whether to reconcile with it or not. Wondering if they did the right thing. The racial classification has been stomping all over self-esteems for centuries. The only solution for this is to educate people on the matters of race and it’s ever-evolving form.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Chapters 4, pp. 57-69