The social construction of “RACE” in the United States.
We are often made to believe that we are not living in a post-racial society with valuable historical links. We sometimes often stay away from the topic because we get very sensitive when it is brought up or even discussed. We often struggle how to distinguish European Americans from African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas and Latinos, Native Americans and other groups. Whenever race comes up, an interesting question appears not to be discussed, “how has race been socially constructed?”
Race always has matters in the United States as both social and individual. The social construction of race has been developed within various legal, economic, political, cultural and sociopolitical contexts, and may be the effect, more rather than the cause of the main race-related issues that our society faces today. We see these cases from the early 1700s and 1800s, up to the late 1900’s, who was Black or White was a matter of state laws. You could be black in one state, but when you crossed the state line, you are no longer black. Some states said if you look or even act Black, you’re Black. Some states said if you have one-quarter of Black blood running through your veins, you’re Black. Some states declared if you have one-drop of Black blood you are solely Black.
The social construction of “race” in the United States was constructed by the power to help create dichotomies between Whites and Blacks to show some form of inferiority and superiority. A social construct does not have a basis in the natural world but an artificial distinction created by human beings to show some dominance. To jump ahead, the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to Whites (European-Americans) only. The Jim Crow law between 1877 and the mid 60’s shows that Blacks and Whites were to be separated not equal. The construction of race in the United States has not been a Whites vs. Blacks issue, but a human cause. The Anti-Irish sentiment or Hibernophobia included racism, oppression, bigotry, persecution, and discrimination. Irish Americans along with Polish and Italians were not considered entirely White.
They were also discriminated and treated unfairly, just like everyone else. Race is socially constructed, but not individually created. Individuals have some impact on how they viewed themselves and how they see the world. But, individuals don’t get to define their racial identity. In the United States, race has been so important regarding constructing an identity that to be an American, early on, really meant to be (White) of Caucasian descent. While race is understood to be a social construct by many, most scholars would agree that race has real, material effects in housing discrimination, legal process, policing practices, in education, and many other domains of society.
One of the social factors and conditions led to the emergence of these construct were the theories of racial formations of the past that seems to exist in present-day America. Sociologists Omi and Winant’s theories of racial formation describe “race as a socially constructed identity that signifies the justification for ethnocentrism.” Their theories also clarified that racial composition guides our expectations. But how do this result in discrimination or marginalization? “When our racial expectations are violated, our reactions can betray our preconceived notions of a racialized social structure”(Omi and Winant.)
Stuart McPhail Hall was a Jamaican-born cultural theorist and sociologist. He was a Professor of Sociology at the Open University in London, England; until his death in February of 2014. His specialty in culture studies leads to the significant developments in the subjects of race, culture, and society. According to Stuart Hall, the concept of “Race -The Floating Signifier” is that race is a signifier which has significance in culture, but the meaning of the color of skin is not fixed. Race is a discursive construct meaning race work like a language. Race is a signifier which can be linked to another signifier in representation.
The significance and social viewpoint of skin color change in different time periods among various cultural group. Also, the meaning of skin color floats on the scale of interpretation held by members of individual society. According to Hall, there are three positions when looking at a human difference of race. The first position is the realist position; which proposed that genetic differences are the source for racial classification. The second is the linguistic area. The linguistic position suggests that there are no real differences between races; humans create all differences in culture and language.
The third position adopted by Hall was the discursive position. The discursive position proposed that there are many differences, when these differences are organized within language they gained meaning and become a feature in human culture. This position focuses on a unique and indisputable idea that differences exist in the world, but what really matters are the ways in which people make sense of these differences and how this gives them meaning within social construct.
Hall also discussed that power and knowledge creates race through representation and interpretation of reality; and classification and racial categorization system has a history. Our perception of race has a cognitive reality. The formation of racial individuality has made us see it. Since the Renaissance, race is a signifier of world centrism. On a critical note, individual differences, and classifications were historically first linked to religion (a religious discourse), then anthropology and modern science (a scientific discussion).
He suggested that these ‘knowledge’s’ of a human difference do not act as evidence or certainty, but they are ways to make people feel better, to comprehend where they belong into the social regularity in culture. Classification assures order within civilization; theology, anthropology, and science all endeavor to fix and defend human differences and guarantee revelation. He also gave an example by asserting that the physical attributes of race are equated to hair texture, and bone composition symbolizes race in the world as an evident diversity; the hereditary code strives to adjust this disparity. He then went on to proposed that the subjects people can see are signifiers for things that can’t be such as aptitude, character, and uprightness.
He then illustrates that the concrete surface characteristics of individual differences are taken to be the primitive constituent; however, people then read these intervals to imply abnormalities in other ways that can’t be identified through language. Human cultures are made to lean on nature and operate metonymically; so that it is possible to read off the one against the other. Race becomes signifiers in the biology of science by making sense of genetics and phenetics differences. These two biological traits are the substantial differences of color, hair, and bone which is beyond human’s arguments. They appear in the field of vision where seeing is understanding.
In conclusion, Hall recommended that we should concentrate on “meanings.” Because the implications of human differences are what important and not how these variations can be measured. The meanings of human disparities are fabricated through persuasive dialogue and can be tentatively fixed when they are the prevailing feature in society; however they cannot be enduringly fixed because they are floating signifiers that can be shaped and change depending on history, circumstances, events, etc. This prospect of looking at individual peculiarities has meanings for the rethinking of science as it moves away from conventional approaches of containing the actual existence of social differences and centers on the implications that culture and society apply to these disparities that make the world what it is today.
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