Friday, December 20, 2013

What is Racism?

Below is a brief I wrote for an organization that is trying to make social science research more accessible to journalists.  My goals were to provide some fundamental insights on race and to move the conversation of racism beyond its focus on the individual and intentional.

 “A National Conversation on Racism: Beyond the Intentional Individual”

Tragic events such as the Trayvon Martin murder occasionally garner wider public attention and open up opportunities to have what people call a “national conversation” on race.  These conversations are typically grounded in a certain understanding of racism, one that sees racism as the result of individual attitude and intent. Yet, decades of research reveal that racism is much more.  What should a more thorough “national conversation” on race look like? What understandings of race and racism should be recognized and incorporated?
An informed national conversation on race would recognize several factors.  First and foremost, it would recognize that race is a social construction. There is no biological or cultural validity to the term.  Second, it would move beyond the common focus on individuals and intentions to recognize the variety of ways that racism is manifest in US society.

Any “national conversation” on race needs to begin with one very important and fundamental understanding, race is a social construction. There is no biological reality to race that fits some natural “types” of humans. Rather, people have taken subtle physical changes to the body that arose due to how we’ve adapted to our physical environments and placed them into categories and called them races.  Yet, this didn’t “just happen.” Rather, races were created in the context of European colonialism, as European countries sought to expand their control over distant lands. Now, since race is a social construction it cannot possibly be used as a causal factor in explaining trends in human behavior.  Something must come before it. That is, any trends that appear to fall along racial lines must ultimately be explained by something beside race.  The different impacts of these other forces are the real factors that explain trends in behavior, beliefs and attitudes that seem to relate to race.  People sometimes refer to these outcomes as the result of culture (e.g., a black culture) as culture has come to replace biology in popular thinking about race and difference. However, this is also flawed.  Culture is the result of shared historical experiences that foster certain adaptations related to those experiences.  Any culture that appears to be racialized is really an outgrowth of shared experiences that are themselves racialized first and foremost.  Further, culture cannot abide by racial lines because the categories and definitions of race are socially constructed. That is, there’s nothing real to which we might consistently define race and anchor culture. It’s like saying there is a culture of green-eyed people, or of tall people. Like biological viewpoints of old, cultural understandings ignore the socially constructed nature of race, and treat cultural adaptations (to the extent that these correlate with race) as inherent qualities determined by race.  These understandings are simple, misguided, and harmful.
               Since race is a social construction we cannot treat it as a causal factor or independent variable (i.e., people do things because they’re black or white).  Instead we must link any trends to more concrete forces that are themselves racialized.  These forces are important and necessary elements in any national conversation. They include racism’s cultural, psychological and institutional manifestations. Importantly, none of them focus on the individual nor require an intentional actor.

Cultural Aspects of Racism:
Cultural racism refers to the subtle, but persistent ways race is framed and discussed in broader popular culture (e.g., media and music).  Here, researchers have noted how stigmatizing and devalued social qualities are commonly inscribed into racialized cultural representations.  Absent consistent and meaningful face-to-face interactions these subtle but consistent discourses come to constitute much of what we know about racialized others.  They cultivate a “reality” that fosters assumptions, stereotypes and other superficial and ignorant understandings of racialized “others.” Unless you live on the moon, it’s hard to resist these cultural forces, even among the most bleeding of heart liberals.  Evidence from the psychological research reveals this.

Psychological Aspects of Racism:
On the psychological level, researchers have discovered a subconscious [and in many ways unintentional] level of racism.  This aspect of racism grows out of our cultural environment.  It’s commonly shared by all of us and needs to be recognized in any national conversation on race. This is based on the simple fact that our cultural environment trains us to think in terms of races and informs these thoughts with value judgments.  This affects our automatic cognition, or the brain’s ability to quickly and rapidly categorize the things we sense in our environment, so that certain cues (such as one’s race) register other “related” assumptions and associations (such as criminal, lazy, dependent, and other negative traits).  This affects us all, though we’re usually too afraid to admit. Even the most ardent advocate for racial equality likely harbors negative thoughts and feelings towards racialized others.  This is only to be expected given racism’s cultural aspects, and any serious “national conversation” on race needs to recognize it. 
               Yet, this does not mean there are not patterns in behavior, thinking and attitudes that relate to race.  However, our dominant view of race as cultural leads us to misrecognize the real forces at work.  Because race is a social construction, any patters can only be explained by larger forces.  This introduces our third level of racism. Its institutionalization.

Institutionalized Racism:
Society is composed of a number of institutions.  Typically these refer to education, family, religion, media, economy, polity, criminal justice, etc. Racism is institutionalized when these social institutions produce consistent neglect, isolation and harm for racially constructed others.  People’s reactions and adaptations to these institutionalized actions produce patterns in behavior and attitude that are often misrecognized and misinterpreted as “culture”.
Racism is found in every social institution and since these institutions are related and work together in a larger social system, racism is also systemic (think about how jobs, education, crime, and housing are all related).  Institutionalized racism essentially cements racist outcomes with implications not for an individual at a particular point in time, but for an entire group of people and over extended periods of time. It is a powerful and lasting form of racism that must be center stage in any serious national conversation about race.
This is what decades of research and scholarship on race has discovered.  Race was socially constructed in the context of European colonialism and for the purpose of justifying manifest destiny, the plundering of foreign lands and peoples, forced labor and a permanent social hierarchy.  There is no biological or cultural reality to race, and any trends in race must ultimately be explained by larger social forces that are themselves racist.  Racism’s institutionalization helps us explain these patterns by linking them to concrete social organizations and policies.  Racism’s cultural aspects reflect how these patters inform a broad cultural discourse typically packaged in degrading, stigmatizing meaning systems.  Racism’s psychological elements reflect how this discourse cultivates subtle but real cognition systems, assumptions and stereotypes, even among the most racially sensitive of us.  None of this requires intent, and all of it extends beyond the overly simply one-on-one, direct form of racism that typically informs our national conversations on race.  Any national conversation that wants to be taken seriously and wants to provide a real public service must acknowledge and incorporate these ideas. Complicity, inaction and neglect perpetuate these styles of racism.

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