Race continues to play a role in American culture and policy in the 21st century. Average incomes in the United States are demonstrably dissimilar, affirmative action policies allow campuses to use race as a determining factor when creating student bodies, and race continues to define media and culture to a significant degree. To some extent, these factors should escape our criticism, as it can't be considered desirable for all people from all races and cultural backgrounds to converge into a national monoculture. However, to the extent that people are excluded from opportunities as a result of race rather than merit, we have no choice but to find fault and look for solutions. As Richard Payne writes in Getting Beyond Race, "General racial classifications ignore the obvious biological reality that each individual within the human species, with the exception of identical twins, is genetically unique." (Payne, pg. 1)
The essentialist articulation of race is one that invokes universals that apply to the various races and define their natures. For instance, in the early 19th century it was said that Irishmen had a certain look to them that was widely caricatured in Britain. To the extent that some or most Irishmen did not share these characteristics, they were considered 'un-Irish.' This argument can be found in American racists, who for instance, might claim that blacks usually have a lower IQ, and cite The Bell Curve as an example of factual evidence; according to The Bell Curve, the average white IQ is 100 while the average black IQ is 85, and that both populations are normally distributed. To the extent that that black intellectuals exist, essentialists would argue that intellect is uncharacteristic of a black person, and perhaps that the black man got his intellect from a white ancestor (which most American blacks have.)
This articulation is dangerous in that it creates prejudice, leading people to assign negative characteristics to races. As a result, for example, blacks can be lead to self-identify as unintelligent and ostracize their own when they show intelligent characteristics. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin contends that the only way he was able to grow up without self-destructing in a black culture that was dominated by drugs and gangs was by becoming a minister despite having doubts as to the existence of God. Baldwin and others including W.E. DuBois, Richard Wright, and James Weldon Johnson at one point migrated to Europe in order to escape American discrimination.
The last of these, Johnson, was a mulatto who eventually decided to blend into the white culture, which he talks about in "Biography of an Ex-Coloured Man." Johnson was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties, and at the time, 'passing' from black into white culture was considered a taboo by both whites and blacks. Here we see essentialist notions at their worst; in requiring of people within races to maintain a certain disposition and set of attitudes, they preclude free will and negate one's identity as a human being. Although adopting 'white' cultural values is now acceptable in that these opinions are thought to be value-neutral rather than euro-centric tastes and standards, doing the reverse can result in public opprobrium, as one can readily see in the example of wiggers and white rappers like Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark.
The social construction of race is an old aspect of American society with a comprehensive history of deliberately deceitful pseudo-scientific rationales. The most obvious example of this since slavery is to be found in the Eugenics movement of the early 20th century, when many black and Puerto Rican women were involuntarily sterilized. Anti-misogyny laws were only repealed in the late 1950's, ensuring that races didn't intermarry, sometimes under pain of life imprisonment. This helps to explain why there is little or no 'gray zone' in between black and white cultures, whereas Asians in the United States regularly intermarry with white people in urban environments.
Whereas an unspoken prejudice exists that holds blacks and Hispanics to be racially inferior due to class and intelligence associations, whites, Asians and to some extent Middle Easterners are thought to be more successful, intelligent and harder working. This fails to take into account cultural and social disparities that exist within these categories that often play a much greater determining factor than race. This points to the existence of a demographic hegemony with old New England whites at the top, Jews, western Europeans and Americanized Asians near the top, followed by Eastern Europeans, Russians, Cubans and South Americans, Southern Europeans, non-Americanized Asians, Phillipinos and Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Caribbean Blacks, Southern Blacks, Urban Blacks, and finally the lowly drunken reservation-bound native American.
Some essentialist articulations of race pigeonhole races in a non-discriminatory way, which leads us to almost assume that these articulations are not racist. Usually they are based on common observations that result in the creation of stereotypes. Take 'Apu' from the Simpsons, for example, who when asked if he is an Indian, claims, "by the many hands of Vishnu, I swear it is a lie." The stereotype that Indians usually operate convenient stores or work as well-paid computer technicians, have moustaches and wear short-sleeved polyester shirts strikes us as amusing and non-confrontational, but this perfectly illustrates the essentialist articulation of race and is so prevalent that it can be found, without apology, on one of America's most popular television shows.
The instrumentalist articulation of race is one that holds that race is not a determining factor in a person's character, but people manipulate racial symbolism in order to achieve what they consider to be their ends. For instance, let us take a planter in the old south. Let us assume that the man is rational and has had enough experience with the children of his house slaves to understand intuitively that racial identity is a social construct rather than a characteristic upon which certain ennobling intellectual traits are predicated. However, it is in his interest to maintain the illusion that dark-skinned people are inferior, and that through ownership he is asserting a paternalistic relationship with them as one does with pets.
A more modern example of this is to be found in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush, who used the example of Willie Horton to demonize his opponent as being soft on crime. Horton, a black man who was imprisoned in Massachusetts for murder, raped a white woman in Maryland on a weekend when he was allowed out of prison under a Dukakis program. Many middle class black Americans complained that this advertisement played on racist notions. According to Payne, middle class blacks observe less of a decline in discrimination against blacks than their poorer counterparts.
In this example, the Bush campaign did not have an ideological belief in racism. However, they knew that they could exploit the racist concerns of their middle-class constituency in order to enhance the turnout of this group of people at the elections in November. This is a methodology that is regularly employed in Republican rhetoric, which often tends to demonize ostensibly black mothers on welfare that live in housing projects, despite the fact that this group receives a small percentage of total social spending. While these people may indeed be reprehensible, they are an extreme minority of the black population and many would argue that they are considered even more detestable by blacks. This is best illustrated in the comedy of Chris Rock, who claims that black people "don't care about welfare," and derides the most expensive government program, social security, by joking that "Social security doesn't pay until age sixty-five, meanwhile the average black man lives to be around forty-two."
Perhaps the worst example of the instrumentalist articulation of race was to be found in the federal policy of the 1940's and 1950's, when…
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