Two centuries ago, Washington and Dubois debated the concept of race, a social construct based on an imagined demarcation that separated one group of human beings from another. Even then, the nuanced paradox of falsehoods and importance were at play; what seemed like a clear difference between some skin colors and ethnic groups was muddied in others, and the socio-cultural ends met by nominal means were indisputable. As human beings trekked across the globe in developmental civilizations, biology created in them differences as intrinsic as those between the continents -- something entirely different, but inherently, exactly the same. Today, different schools of thought debate the "race problem," a matter still highly contentious in even the most academically urbane communities. Anthropologists shun the idea for its lack of concrete theoretical foundation; sociologists accept its recognized place as an ideological tool in society with unending repercussions. The centuries old debate can be traced from the birth of the nation and its seminal thinkers and founding fathers, through the development of the socio-political system, and into the conversations of Cosby and Erhenreich today. Despite its foundational chasm, race is real, even if its biology is not.
Through most of its youth, the United States witnessed a nation of three colors: the Native Americans and First Nations People who already occupied its soil, the white settlers who took control of it, and the black workers they imported to harvest it. Nuance evaded this world; its monochromatic societies were distinct and cemented. In other parts of the world, colors were not so black-and-white; there, different regions had already so melded that "one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limitations between them." (Marks, p. 54.) By the time of social unrest that gave way to the egalitarian battle criers that prompted the liberation movement at play in the Civil War, America was drifting away from its racially separated past of Northern European whites who stood apart from their African and Caribbean counterparts. The clarity of Twain's racial discourse dissipated in urban centers where new immigrants from Old World Europe and other continents spotted the superficial landscape with new hues of gold, peach, olive, and tan, colors incompatible with the old standards.
Today, the mixture is even more motley. According to the racial sociologist Parra, the racial guidelines to which people self-affiliate are even askew and not based in strict biological fact. Parra reports that most Americans who self-identify as African-American have some European ancestors; in New Orleans specifically, still a more racially segregated community that recent events have illuminated, most African-Americans had between seven and twenty-three percent European ancestry coursing through their bloodstream. (Parra, 27.) Nevertheless, they saw themselves as "black." Biological facts and social norms face a normative incongruity perpetuated by hundreds of years of history and skin/ethnic-based distinctions. Cultural and legal conventions like the "one drop rule" and the Grandfather Clause created a system in which complex identities were forced into simplified, nondescript categories. (Davis, 13.) From these distinctions came the discriminatory implications that make the scientifically useless term "race" socially necessary.
In response to its biological shunning and popular acceptance, sociologists have cornered the market on discussion of the central ideas of "race" as a social construct. Under the guise of ethnicity and other acquiescent terms, academics and politicians alike approach the concept that structures so much of public life as a function of color, but sociologist Eduward Bonilla-Silva argues that looking at race as a result of misinterpreted biology underestimates its significance. He says, "the central problem of various approaches to the study of racial phenomena is their lack of a structural theory of racism." (Bonilla-Silva, 465.) He says that most common treatments of race as a significant social force (despite its biological relativity) are at fault for a tendency to narrow the concept of racism. He says that it is not the psychological and irrational tool anthropologists and those who reject the concept of race employ, but instead a systemic and rational "free-floating" ideology grounded in historical legacy and evident in not just overt behavior, but the cover as well. (Bonilla-Silva, 469.) Instead, he supports the accepted sociological approach to "race" as instead a constructed "racialized social system."
Critics of this definition of race are caught in an imposing morass; they are confounded by the non-existent categories seen by citizens but undefined by their leaders, they reify "race" as a concept, and then purport a frequently unwarranted distinction between race and ethnicity. "These three flaws undermine the usefulness of [the] 'racialized social system' framework for improving our understanding of historical and contemporary meanings of race and consequences of racism." (Loveman, 891.) For many, the framework defining race is held captive by the social systems at play in the intellectual world, as well; calling the force publicly referred to as "race" is biologically incorrect, but it is not absent from real life. "Referring to 'race' as a category of practice," says Loveman, "does not imply in any way that 'race' is merely epiphonmenal, just as recognize that 'race' is a social construction does not imply in anyway that it is not real in its consequences." (Loveman, 893.)
The implications of race are not just entrenched in the past-life of the Civil War or the civil rights movement of the last century. Thirty decades later, the lessons are just as necessary, just as true. The 1990s brought a wave of violence to Los Angeles, long after the supposed end to segregation. While children in America were no longer being bussed, quotas protected admissions offices around the nation to open enrollment for "racial diversities," and every public school Kindergartner, regardless of skin color, could sing along to "We Shall Overcome," a very different story was manifesting itself inside the Californian hub. There, the Rodney King beatings quickly preceded the even more disputed O.J. Simpson murder trial, where the infamous "race card" played its due. It was more than evident that 'race' in its influential sense remained in a salient position in the American cultural landscape.
Its publicized importance in both of these events rippled along American news streams, through breakfast tables, and over coffee at the watercooler; the social hierarchies implied by skin color typified as the conceptual 'race' were again at the forefront of social concern. Their social construction is grounded in a multi-faceted sociohistorical character, where cultural mindset, process of identification, and social artifact play an important role. Gregory and Sanjek limn the construction of race in terms of the process of identify formation, ethnicity and gender, and the meaning of racial identity in the social setting. They further investigate the idea of race as one in which multicultural debates take place, where language operates to oppress, and where the production of racial identity is an important part of social generation, supporting its own self-construction.
Bill Cosby knows this well. When he received an award from the NAACP in 2004, his now infamous speech invoked the socially-constructed confines of racism that implied to New York Times Euroethnic Barbar Ehrenreich a case-specific deconstruction of a race as a visual member is defined in opposition to it: essentially, Bill Cosby underminded his own "blackness" by putting himself in marked contrast to the poor blacks to whom he was referring, damningly no less. The headliner of a spectacle, "Billionaire Bashes Poor Blacks," covered Cosby's attack on his own "race," particularly those included whose economic caliber failed to warrant them the multi-million dollar comfort in homes and luxuries Cosby enjoys on his summer home on the famed European Cote D'Azure. When not rubbing elbows in Eze, Cosby finds himself accepting awards for achievement for his race and welcoming them with unbid damnation of those who he deems beneath his achievement, the "giggling" youthful, sinful poor who "steal poundcake" and cannot even name their children "normal" names like "Bill." (Dyson, II.)
The irony was not lost on Ehrenreich, who understood that the name "William" takes its roots in Northern Europe royal legacy and is, in fact, "normal" only in its historical prevalence in the Anglo-Saxon majority. For many Americans, "Bill" is by no means a "normal" name. Cosby continued to lament the poor parenting, sagging academics, and sexual promiscuity of his race with unfounded support; going so far as to rail against the "knuckleheads" of the African-American community. Ehrenreich quickly took it upon herself to correct the confusion. After reminding the public of the facts Cosby so quickly neglected in speech, she continued her own rendition of social-commentary-cum-comedy in response to the comedian-cum-commentator:
"As for poor black youth, they were targeted in the 90's as a generation of 'superpredators,' gang-bangers and thugs. It's time to start picking on a more up-to-date pariah gropu for the 21st century, and I'd like to nominate the elderly whites." (Ehrenreich, 1.)
With the same black humor that Cosby used to rail against the status quo, Ehrenreich found herself in opposition to the famed father figure of American…