Race Is A “Social Construct That
Race is a “social construct that artificially divides people into distinct groups based on characteristics”, such as appearance, ethnicity and the social, economic and political desires of a society within a certain period (Adams, 2000). Nobody is born with a racist attitude or outlook in life, it is via the course of social interaction in which a human obtains particular values, attitudes and principles that may play a part towards the development of racism.
Franz Fanon (2008) claims that society will overcome racism when it is recognised that race is not ‘real’, he maintains that in order for racism to diminish humans need to no longer look through a “lens” of racial prejudice. Although, it is argued that this is an imprudent concept to believe. Social constructs are reliant on communal approval and agreement. It is easy to presume that racial discrimination would disappear if people within society stopped accepting and continuously obtruding the concept of race, however it may not be possible to completely remove this social lens as harmful attitudes towards racial and ethnic minorities are so severely embedded into the minds of so many and into the structure of society itself (Mitchell, 2012).
Structural racial discrimination refers to the ways in which “history, public policies, cultural stereotypes and norms, and institutional practices” cooperate to preserve “racial hierarchies and inequitable racial group outcomes” (Kearney, 2003). The being of structural racial discrimination is connected to the tenacity of deeply seated racial prejudice and damaging stereotypes within a society (Freudenberg, Klitzman & Saegert, 2009). Through the use of stigmatisation, the media, public authorities and figures, politicians and religious superiors may contribute to and ultimately boost the level of societal racial discrimination that may already be present (Kamali, 2009).
It is possible that racial structural discrimination is a result of previous historical injustices that have taken place against individuals of a specific ethnic or racial group. For example, to justify the immorality and callousness of the slave trade that begun in the fifteenth century, racist “pseudo-scientific and theological theories” (Tanye, 2010) were created with the intention of dehumanising African people. Those in power around this time were eager to prove that they were inferior and uncivilised individuals, implying that they were ‘worth’ being subjected to slavery. In defence of the slave trade, propaganda in the form of books, caricatures and speeches were accumulated, in addition to the theories, to further reinforce the idea that the slave trade was ethical (Better, 2008) and was a necessary and rewarding process for society (Carey, 2006). The slave trade could not have persisted for as long as it did without this ideology to rationalise the process.
Up until the latter stages of the nineteenth century, racist ideologies were still being supported by false scientific findings. For example, it was purported that the shape of an individual’s skull represented the quality and character of a person, and so this anecdotal theory was employed when observing African skulls (Hamilton, 2008). Consequently, all African individuals were branded as subservient in comparison to white people mentally, socially and ethically (Hutchinson, 1997).
The vast expansion of racism in general is often attributed to the slave trade. Prior to this historical event, there is no evidence in practices of slavery of racial inferiority or partiality, to the same degree, that has been recorded (Falola, 2003). Even when observing earlier systems of slavery, for example in Ancient Rome, the levels of racism found were either non-existent or significantly lower than the rates observed in the period of the slave trade (Watson, 1989). Eric Williams endorses the belief that the slave trade impacted the development of racism momentously, stating that “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery” (D’Souza, 1996).
After the Slave trade ended, new forms of discrimination against black people in the US were developed. Throughout the justification of the slave trade, which lasted for such a long period of time, the idea that black people were inferior to white people had been severely entrenched into the minds of a large proportion of society. Not only were they regarded as substandard, but the propaganda and theories left white members of society with feelings of suspicion and fear towards black people (Buenker & Ratner, 1992). The barbaric ‘discoveries’ made by fallacious experiments and studies had been drilled into the members of society’s minds and were not just going to disappear.
Another significant example of racial discrimination to consider was segregation in the US. Jim Crow laws were introduced in numerous states to keep the ‘inferior’ black people and ‘superior’ white people separated (Fremon, 2000). The laws enforced strict segregation of the races while severely disciplining and preserving the substandard rank of black civilians. Although segregation ended in 1964, it is alleged that the effect of this law and the impact it created is still evident in US society today (Denton & Tolnay, 2002).
A study revealed that black people experience the process of residential assignment noticeably different in comparison to white people (Leonard, 1999). Black people were generally subjected to consistent unfavourable treatment in housing pursuits. They were presented with less information about the property they were observing, given fewer chances to explore houses, given a reduced amount of succour in relation to finance and were prone to be driven into the less prosperous neighbourhoods with a greater quantity of minority citizens (Sani, 2013).
As a consequence of being urged into living in the poorer communities, chances for minority groups of seeking employment, maintaining good health and achieving an education of a good standard are harmfully lower (Beech, 2004). Physical health is negatively affected as a result of living in economically and environmentally weaker vicinities. Low socioeconomic status has been linked with medical conditions such as asthma and high blood pressure (Acton, 2011). Studies have also revealed that the mental health of racial and ethnic minority residents within the underprivileged neighbourhoods is significantly worse. This is due to the worries and strain of living in areas that may subject family and children to psychosocial risks. Other contributing factors to the decline in stable mental health are the health risks that are posed when living in a deprived area, such as exposure to air pollution and waste chemicals (Kawachi & Berkman, 2003).
The likelihood of achieving an education in the poorer districts, where minority groups are placed, is also reduced (Bischoff, 2008). Schools within the poverty-stricken areas are more likely to employ less experienced and qualified staff (Leonard, 1999). The schools have fewer supplies but nonetheless, must handle a broader range of requirements for pupils, resulting in lower quality of education and ultimately, placing these students at a significant disadvantage for future prospects of employment (Tighe & Mueller, 2013). Historical prejudices, like the slave trade, segregation and other forms of marginalisation, not only functioned to degrade racial or ethnic minorities, but also to create structural inequalities that are still present to this day.
The media is considered to be a significant social factor that greatly influences society’s views, including attitudes towards minority groups. A study revealed that a high percentage of media reports, concerning racial or ethnic minorities, either focused on violence, highlighted social dilemmas such as unemployment or consisted of negative characterisation relating to deviance (Dijk, 1987). As a consequence of the media’s tendency to associate minority groups with bad news, moral panics arise and unwarranted fear is generated within society which contributes to the construction of racist attitudes.
A study of a 1970s moral panic regarding the “black muggers” (Grant, 2002) demonstrated how much control and authority the media has in relation to the views and opinions of the public. The responsibility, for the muggings that took place, was primarily placed onto young black men as the media indicated that everybody that fit this description was a pitiless assailant and together, the group threatened the ‘moral’ social order (Marsh & Melville, 2009). As a consequence, this resulted in the marginalisation of racial minorities, as an ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide was encouraged (Kirby, 1997). A larger police presence was requested with the intention of tackling the “folk devils” (Cohen, 1972). This understandably increased levels of fear and hostility towards the minority group that had been deemed to be such a threat, as a need for advanced police security is considered to be an act only to be taken for serious and dangerous matters.
The misrepresentations and stereotypes of racial and ethnic minorities within the media continued to be produced, and are arguably still present in the news today with modern moral panics arising in relation to “evil” Muslim minorities (Poynting & Mason, 2006). Further moral panics linked to minority groups that followed on from the “black muggers” were on subjects such as rioting, gangsters and gun crime (Okoronkwo, 2008). It is maintained that racist attitudes in society cannot be ascribed to individual blame when the media, society’s main source of information, is distorting events and delivering biased news with the intention of instigating fear (Fleras, 2011).
Studies have implied that there are two substantial factors which are capable of establishing an individual’s attitude towards racial and ethnic minority groups, the first social factor is education (Yang, 2000). An educated person is expected to be more likely to hold an open-minded attitude. Because of this, a knowledgeable individual is less likely to racially discriminate against another person as they do not consider racial and ethnic minorities to be intimidating (Healey, 2003). It is believed that racism remains only among the “marginal and uneducated” (Hill, 2008) people as those who are educated hold a broader understanding of society making it more probable that they will accept the modern norm to oppose racial discrimination. As a result, racist attitudes appear to stem from deprivation within the societal structure. Those who grow up living in poverty are likely to be illiterate (Srivastava, 2005) and socioeconomic factors such as lack of education can affect individuals’ understandings of minority groups, therefore provoking racist attitudes.
The second social factor is social class. People of a lower class are often competing for lower status occupations, these are jobs that ethnic minority immigrants usually desire if they are unable to communicate in English to a good degree (Bobo, 1983). As a result, lower class members within society may feel hostile towards those in ethnic minority groups as they are in competition for employment to improve their financial situation and significantly, their quality of life (Wellman, 1993).
Unsurprisingly the media, commonly considered to be “institutionally racist” (Fleras, 2011), does not strive to discourage this hostility that is targeted towards ethnic minority immigrants. Alternatively, news reports regularly encourage people to racially discriminate against those in minority groups through the dehumanisation of the “asylum cheats” (Harees, 2012). Ethnic minority immigrants have been labelled by the media as “scroungers”, likened to “parasites” and depicted as villains (Harees, 2012). As mentioned previously, the negative labelling in the media is likely to increase levels of superfluous racism amongst the public due to the gloom-ridden content that is relentlessly connected to ethnic and racial minority groups.
The inordinate rate of police dealings with individuals from ethnic or racial minority groups and the over-representation of black people in prisons both generate suspicion in regards to the existence of racial discrimination within the criminal justice system (Crowther, 2007). In comparison to white or Asian men, black men in England are “seven times more likely” to be imprisoned (Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System, 2007), the study also revealed that a black person is “six times more likely to be stopped and searched” by police in contrast to a white person (Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System, 2007). The results confirm that racial discrimination is present among the police force, uncovering a prevalent view that police often assume and expect members of a racial or ethnic minority to behave in a “less civilised” manner (Garner, 2007). Racial stereotypes are rooted into the customs of social institutions, influencing the way in which organisations are run and as a result, the way in which people think.
In conclusion, it would be naïve to consider the matter of racial discrimination to be a consequence of individual responsibility. Racialization and historical events such as the slave trade, segregation, apartheid that have taken place in society have moulded governance, economic institutions, ideas and understandings of equality. Instead of encouraging parity, society inculcates a subconscious white superiority complex while regularly portraying racial and ethnic minorities as inferior and subnormal. In order for structural racism to decease, the social structure that continues to allow prejudicial conduct and discriminatory behaviour needs to be subverted.