Essay on the Social and Biological Construction of Race in the United States

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Harvey Mudd College
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Research paper
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The human genome is relatively constant across people of all colors (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). No gene or clusters of genes are common to whites alone or blacks alone for example. If the genes or clusters of genes are constant across boundaries, then race does not exist, at least in the genetic sense. Therefore, the race is not biological but rather a social construct (Omi & Winnant, 2014). In other words, if the genetic constitution were to be used as a yardstick for race generalization, a person considered black in South Africa might be regarded as black in Germany and vice versa. There are no real genetic variations between two racial groups. In fact, there are more biological differences between local groups than large global groups (Higginbotham, 1992).

According to Max Weber (1978), racial conflicts arise because of social and political reasons rather than biological differences. This reasoning asserts the social conception of race. Indeed, the present world is full of human conflicts, which are ethnically motivated between ethnic groups. One needs not look further than the Jewish Arab conflicts in the Middle East as well as the Indian Pakistani misunderstandings. It appears therefore that the race is defined by social contexts and history, which of course vary from time to time, and between different societies/ communities (Omi & Winnant, 2014). If a race is a sociocultural construct, the pertinent question of why are there differences among racially defined groups of biological phenomena need to be answered. No other area has exposed these differences than in the case of health inequalities in the United States (Palmie, 2007). In an article on how race becomes biology, Clarence Gravlee (2007) argues that the social reality of race has biological consequences for the ethnically defined groups. Besides, the epidemiological evidence for health inequalities among different races provides further proof of race as a social construct. In other words, social inequalities between racial groups shape the biology of those groups and perpetuate a racialized view of human biology.

In the United States, ethnic groups have been formed by centuries of conflict between white domination and resistance of people of color (Omi & Winnant, 2014). These relationships have informed the development of theories of race. According to Omi and Winant, the race theory only served the interests of the dominant groups such as slave owners and colonial masters. The need for the influential members of the society to advance race theory was to organize, structure, regulate, and explain the entire systems of governance such as labor and political regimes, etc. The issue of race has been used for centuries fundamentally as an organizing tenet of the social system (Omi and Winant). It also became a system of distinguishing and linking people to systems of control, exploitation, and resistance according to their physical characteristics.

As stated earlier, the concept of race has changed over time. Race and its meanings are transient and inconsistent (Lopez, 1994). Consequently, there are very many contradictions surrounding race and racial meanings (Hall, 1986). Of course, most overt forms of racism have been outlawed in the United States (Solorzano, 1998), but inequalities between racial groups still exist (Acker, 2006). For example, empirical evidence about education and health disparities between the white and non-white in the U.S are very well documented (Acker, 2006; Singh & Yu, 1995). The U.S Census uses the system of profiling the American population according to their ethnicities, yet many people cannot locate themselves within the racial groupings (Hickman, 1997). Omi and Winant (2014) suggest that an individuals sense of racial identity may vary from those perceptions held about him or her by other people. Some people conveniently resist categorizing in racial groups in different ways. For example, a Hispanic person may put own a Negro accent just so to escape the clutches of the imposed race group. In other words, a person may change his or her racial identity over the course of life into a new racial category. The growing American Indian population can best illustrate this activity since the 1960 census mostly attributed to the increased number of these individuals claiming their native identity (Omi and Winant, 2014).

In early North America, the necessity for the development of labor through various forms of human trafficking, and sometimes voluntary immigration led to the constitution of the North American population of different characteristics (Wiecek, 1995). Through the concept of division of labor, blacks and Indians were consigned to inferiority (Omi and Winant, 2014). The white population wondered whether these blacks and Indians were human and they could not offer them full human status. Since they did not fully comprehend whether Indians were humans, they deprived the Indians of the life and land as the white settlers expanded their conquest westwards. The efforts of the native Indians to resist the advancement and deprivation of the white settles, they could not repel them altogether. The racial discrimination in early America and the accumulation of Indian lands implies that race set a precedent as a central social division throughout the history of America (Omi and Winant, 2014).

During the colonial period, hundreds of thousands of the Irish who were categorized as non-whites were trafficked into the United States to partake in forceful labor (John & Walsh, 2008). In the 1840s, millions of the Irish arrived in the United States due to famine were subjected to extreme discrimination inflamed by nativism. The Irish were utilized in the Civil War, especially in the North (John & Walsh, 2008). However, it was their behavior against the blacks that finally led to the recognition of their whiteness (Jordan & Walsh, 2008; Omi and Winant, 2014). In other words, the American civil war made the Irish to become part of the American nation.

Regarding the Mexican race, the invasion of Mexico and the South West incorporation and the political events that took place in 1845 and 1848 (annexation of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo respectively), lead to the great conquest of the Mexican territory. The Mexican population in this vast region initially transferred their citizenship to the United States but progressively felt disfranchised and stripped of their resource (Alonso, 2008).

After the civil war, however, the rapid industrialization of the United States execrated the demand for labor and immigrants from Europe increased. Over the following decades, the influx of European immigrants continued. But several events that took place in the 1870s such as the end of the Reconstruction, the great railroad strike, and the economic uncertainties during that decade, as well as the rise of anti-Asian nativism, posed new challenges to the white settlers (John & Walsh, 2008; Omi and Winant, 2014). By this time, the black population had become citizens, and their labor, as well as that of Asians, threatened the white framework (the supremacy they had held through the colonial times) in the United States. Besides, the mobilized white labor and the bitter labor relations that occurred in the 1877 1894 period further threatened the whites. It became necessary for the whites to redraw the boundaries essential for the development of the American capitalism. To control the class conflicts that existed, the gradual whitening of the Europeans was deemed necessary (Saxton, 2003). History shows that the whites themselves without any form of legislation to divide the working class carried out the whitening exercise. Most of the European laborers were recent immigrants into the United States who elected to organize themselves into racial groups.

It is instructive that race shaped class in the United States in the 18th Century driven by the demand for territorial expansion and that race played a crucial role in preventing rebellion (Du Bois, 2007; Morgan, 2003). Authors such as Stoler (2002) and Schiebinger (2004) have claimed that just as race played a significant role in the development of the American state so was gender, which contributed immensely to the imperial rule. According to Stoler (2002), there existed sexual escapes between Europeans and Indians from the early American colonialism that led to widespread mixed-race families and children. The inter-racial interactions between individuals of different ethnicities gave rise to the problem of racial categories. These sexual interactions have continued up to the present. Structural racism remains intact through its history of violence, dispossession, slavery, and exclusion.

The historical events and history described above show that rather than biological factors, the social constructs take precedence for the perception of race in the United States. The history of the United States was a social crucible through which the quest for white supremacy and control or resources put all the people through lived experiences with which they identify themselves. In other words, race, as described in the United States context, is a social construct that has happened throughout the history of America.


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