Race Essay

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The term race in its modern sense was first used in the 1700s by Europeans and European Americans to refer to what is now also called a “racial group.” Initially, race referred to biological differences believed to exist as distinctions between individuals or groups; however, racial groups can be understood as identity groupings as well as government-protected categories. Although race was once believed to signify significant biological differences, nearly all social scientists now refer to race as a social construct.

Race as a social construct can also signify differences or distinctions in an existing racial hierarchy. In a society, the process of racial “othering” or differentiation of “us” from “them” often causes significant changes in major societal institutions through embedded forms of racial discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping. Given a racial hierarchy—a system of stratification—substantial inequality among a society’s racially defined groups can persist for centuries. As a racial hierarchy can exist in various institutions, its effects continue as an outcome of inaccurate stereotyping and imaging. Although the initiation of racial stereotypes as a means of differentiating or categorizing individuals evolved centuries ago, they can still persist as a method of enforcement of a racial hierarchy.

As a concept, race is a societal problem in the area of social differentiation when manifested in racism, with its many types of discrimination. White-generated racism today takes various forms. Symbolic racism involves the beliefs held by many whites that blatant racial discrimination is no longer significant and people of color are now making illegitimate demands for social and racial change. A related view is color-blind racism. A consequence of symbolic or color-blind racism occurs through what some call “reverse discrimination.” Reverse discrimination is a recent term used to signify belief in the existence of unfair government remedial policies induced to benefit people of color at a direct cost to whites. Another term held by social scientists is systemic racism, which encompasses not only white prejudices and stereotypes but also white emotions, discriminatory practices, and discriminatory institutions that are integral to the long-term domination of African Americans and other Americans of color. The reality of systemic racism is visible in discriminatory practices in areas such as, but not limited to, housing, health care, education, labor markets, politics, and government.

In 1997, the Census Bureau revised its data collection methods of race to signify the self-selection of race by respondents. Now, the conception of race held by the Census Bureau reflects a social definition of race. The Census conception does not use biological or genetic criteria but refers to what an individual in question perceives his or her own race to be. Because of this change, the Census Bureau currently has racial categories of American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. In addition, a new category of “Other Race” now appears on the Census questionnaire, as well as an ethnic category of “Hispanic” to encompass people of Latin American origin, who can be of any race.

Racialized Institutions

Racism as experienced in various societal institutions can have severe consequences for various racial groups. For instance, the educational system is one primary area of U.S. society that continues to reveal the significance of racism in the form of extensive racial segregation. Through a large number of whites moving to the suburbs (“white flight”), school segregation is an ever-pressing issue that typically leaves children of color with substandard educational facilities, inexperienced teachers, and inadequate books and supplies. Not only is segregation an issue in elementary and secondary education, it exists in higher education as well. Given the increasing white accent on symbolic and color-blind racism, admissions policies and practices have changed and often exclude certain racial groups primarily because of scores on standardized tests and grade point averages. These policies often allow historically white institutions to remain predominantly white.

Race is also significant in the U.S. criminal justice system and in other U.S. government programs. In the early to mid-20th century, for example, U.S. social security programs were designed to ensure the economic security of older Americans, yet often excluded many African Americans and other people of color from receiving many of these benefits because their employers seldom made contributions to the system. U.S. governmental decisions dealing with welfare, work, and war during the 1930s and 1940s excluded or differentially treated African Americans—often playing a role in their becoming more disadvantaged vis-a-vis whites with the emergence of the modern middle class during and after World War II. After World War II, the government and private employers often excluded workers of color from many better-paying jobs. After decades of this exclusion, the rise of the 1960s civil rights movement (organized primarily to insist upon the rights of African Americans and other racial groups in society) and new government policies such as affirmative action helped to end openly discriminatory practices against individuals or groups based on race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. With the introduction of affirmative action and other remedial policies, race as a means of overt and blatant exclusion was generally no longer acceptable.

In the area of the U.S. criminal justice system, racial profiling continues to be a significant problem for society. Racial profiling can best be understood as a practice in which law enforcement agencies treat a person as a suspect because of race, ethnicity, or nationality. This system is problematic because of the targeting of certain racial and ethnic groups more than others, as revealed by the disproportionate number of people of color targeted, harassed, or arrested by the police.

As history informs us, the United States was built on economic oppression in the form of the institution of slavery. From its incarnation, slavery oppressed African Americans by or through the systematic dominance of their labor. Several early intellectuals, such as Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, often wrote about the racial hierarchy that innately existed in our new society; this hierarchy places whites at the top and all people of color at the bottom. Thomas Jefferson, one of our country’s founders and a slaveholder, often spoke of the superiority of “whiteness” through his early writings on race. When the institution of slavery ended with the Civil War, soon thereafter Jim Crow (legalized segregation) sought to keep African Americans separate from whites through the introduction of laws. These laws were designed and instituted to keep African Americans, and later other people of color, in inferior racial positions. Jim Crow segregation was in place until the civil rights movement, when civil rights laws benefiting all individuals in society were fought for and eventually instituted. Although the civil rights movement made significant societal progress, racism is still far from eliminated.

  1. E. B. Du Bois was the first U.S. social scientist to write about the social psychological aspects of race. He coined the term double consciousness, the two-ness felt by African Americans and other people of color. For Du Bois, this term represented the difficulty felt by black Americans in being defined as “black” (by whites) and yet trying to be themselves (as Americans) in a country that was not accepting of African Americans. Du Bois also pioneered in the early 1900s what can be understood as “whiteness studies.” Yet, it has only been in the past 2 decades that whiteness as a social construct has been significantly researched. Today, many social scientists view whiteness as a privileged category when understanding the significance of race and racism.


  1. Du Bois, William E. B. [1903] 1965. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Hearst.
  2. Du Bois, William E. B. 1920. Dark Water: Voices from within the Veil. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
  3. Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
  4. Feagin, Joe R. and Clairece Booher Feagin. 2003. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  5. Feagin, Joe R., Hernan Vera, and Nikitah Imani. 1996. The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities. New York: Routledge.
  6. Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Norton.
  7. McKinney, Karyn D. 2005. Being White: Stories of Race and Racism. New York: Routledge.
  8. S. Census Bureau. 2000. “Racial and Ethnic Classifications Used in Census 2000 and Beyond.” Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://www.pacificweb.org/DOCS/PopRaceAncestry/Race/Racial%20and%20Ethnic%20Classifications%202000.pdf).

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