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The Matrix of Race
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The Matrix of Race
Social Construction, Intersectionality, and Inequality
Rodney D. Coates
Miami University of Ohio
Abby L. Ferber
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
David L. Brunsma
Virginia Tech
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Brief Contents
1. Preface
2. Acknowledgments
3. About the Authors
4. â–  PART I Introduction to Race and the Social Matrix
1. Chapter 1. Race and the Social Construction of Difference
2. Chapter 2. The Shaping of a Nation: The Social Construction of Race in America
5. â–  PART II The Matrix Perspective on Social Institutions
1. Chapter 3. The Social Construction and Regulation of Families
2. Chapter 4. Work and Wealth Inequality
3. Chapter 5. Health, Medicine, and Health Care
4. Chapter 6. Education
5. Chapter 7. Crime, Law, and Deviance
6. Chapter 8. Power, Politics, and Identities
7. Chapter 9. Sports and the American Dream
8. Chapter 10. The Military, War, and Terrorism
9. Conclusion
6. Glossary
7. References
8. Index
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Detailed Contents
Preface
Acknowledgments
About the Authors
â–  PART I Introduction to Race and the Social Matrix
Chapter 1. Race and the Social Construction of Difference
The Social Construction of Race
Defining Race
Constructing Race around the World
Constructing Race in the United States
The Role of Ethnicity
Racial and Ethnic Compositions in the Future
The Social Matrix of Race
Race Is Inherently Social
Race Is a Narrative
Racial Identity Is Relational and Intersectional
Race Is Institutional and Structural
We Are Active Agents in the Matrix
The Operation of Racism
Prejudice and Discrimination
Racism
Understanding Privilege
Our Stories
Rodney
Abby
Dave
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 2. The Shaping of a Nation: The Social Construction of Race in America
Race Today: Adapting and Evolving
Changing Demographics
The Influence of a Changing World
Revising the Experience of Work, Gender, and Race
Sources of Change and Diversity
The Evolving Narrative of Popular Culture
The Impact of Social Media and Technology
Indigenous Peoples: The Americas before Columbus
The Earliest Americans
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A Rich History
Discovery and Encounters: The Shaping of Our Storied Past
Understanding Colonialism
Spanish Colonialism (1492)
French Colonialism (1534)
British Colonialism (1587)
Borderlands and Frontiers
The U.S. Matrix and Intersectionality—Where Do We Go from Here?
Investigating Institutions and Their Narratives
Examining Intersecting Identities
Analyzing Historical Roots and Geographic Differences
Appraising Difference, Resistance, and Transformation
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
â–  PART II The Matrix Perspective on Social Institutions
Chapter 3. The Social Construction and Regulation of Families
Historical Regulation of the Family
Early Families
Domesticity: The Emergence of the Ideology of Separate Spheres
The Legacy of Immigration
Changing Families, Changing Attitudes
Family Inequality Theories
Stock Stories and Assimilation
Concealed Stories: The Legacy of Slavery
Applying the Pathology Narrative to Latino/a Families
Family Inequality through the Matrix Lens
Women’s Concealed Stories
Invisible Fathers
Oppression and Privilege: Support for White Families
The Socialization of Children
Transforming the Ideal Family Narrative
When the Ideal Family Is Not Ideal
Transmigration
New Reproductive Technologies
Interracial Marriage
LGBT Families
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 4. Work and Wealth Inequality
Recent Trends in Work and Wealth
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Increasing Inequality
Economic Restructuring and Changing Occupations
A Disappearing Social Safety Net
Race, Recession, and Recovery
The Wage Gap and Occupational Segregation
Theories of Economic Inequality
Neoliberal Theory
Marxist Theories
Applying the Matrix to the History of Economic Inequality in the United States
The Shifting Organization of Work and Wealth
The Effects of Social Policy
Transforming the Story of Race and Economic Inequality
Workplace Discrimination
Immigration Stories
Many Stories Lead to Many Solutions
Transforming a History of Wealth Inequality
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 5. Health, Medicine, and Health Care
Patterns of Inequality in Health and Health Care
Traditional Healing
Modern Medicine and Discrimination
The Social Construction of “Fit” and “Unfit” Bodies
Theorizing Inequality in Health and Health Care
Historical Advances in Health and Life Expectancy
The Role of Objectivity in Medicine
Applying the Matrix to Health Inequity and Inequality
An Intersectional Approach to Health and Health Care
A Legacy of Mistrust
The Role of Place and Environmental Racism
The Human Genome Project
Resisting and Transforming Inequality in Health and Health Care
Urban American Indian Health Care
Race, Reproduction, and the Women’s Health Movement
A Path to the Future
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 6. Education
The Shaping of the Matrix of U.S. Education
Education Today
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A Short History
Theories of Education
Social-Functional Theory: Education as a Socialization Process
Human Capital Theory: Education as Skills Acquisition
Examining the Concealed Story of Race and Education through the Matrix
Education as a Conversion Tool
Education as a Site of Class Construction
Education as a Means of Creating Workers
Education as a Citizen Machine
Education, Race, and Intersectional Realities
Alternative Educational Movements and the Future of Education
Imagining New Educations
Education as a Human Right
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 7. Crime, Law, and Deviance
A History of Race, Crime, and Punishment
Building a Foundation of Whiteness
A Legacy of Racial Profiling
Sociological Stock Theories of Crime and Deviance
Biosocial Theories of Deviance
Ecological Perspectives on Crime
Applying the Matrix to Crime and Deviance
The Spaces and Places of Crime and Deviance
The Structure and Context of Crime and Deviance
Identifying Types of Crime
Transforming the Narrative of Race, Crime, and Deviance
Scientific Advances
Alternatives to Incarceration
Emphasizing Choice
Adjusting the Narrative of Race and Deviance
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 8. Power, Politics, and Identities
Contemporary Political Identities
Understanding the Electorate
Regional Differences
The Role of Race, Class, and Gender
Analyzing the 2016 Presidential Election
Critiquing Sociological Theories of Power, Politics, and Identity
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The Pluralist Approach
The Power Elite Model
The Class Approach
Applying the Matrix of Race to U.S. Political History
Building a Nation’s Identity
Civil War and Its Aftermath
The Rise of Coalitional Politics and Social Movements
Building Alternatives to the Matrix of Race and Politics
The Power of Political Activism
Creating Change
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 9. Sports and the American Dream
The State of Sport Today
The Sports Industry
Sports Media
Players and Coaches
Examining Stock Sociological Theories of Sport
The Nature Perspective
The Nurture Perspective
The Functions of Sport
Identity through Competition
Applying the Matrix to Sports in the United States
Analyzing Space and Place: Early American Sports Narratives
Institutionalizing Sport: Industrialization, Immigration, and Team Sports
Identities and Resistance
Creating a New Playing Field
The Role of Agency and Resistance
Closing the Athlete Graduation Gap
Creating Change
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Chapter 10. The Military, War, and Terrorism
Class, Gender, and Race in the U.S. Military
Socioeconomics and Recruiting
Gender and Enlistment
Racial Minority Representation
Military Sociology Stock Theories
Functionalism
Symbolic Interactionism
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Monopoly and Materialist Perspectives
Applying the Matrix Approach to U.S. Military History, War, and Terrorism
Revolutionary War
Wars and Native Americans
Civil War
World War II
Vietnam War
Wars on Terrorism
A More Inclusive Future
Strength through Diversity
World Security through Sustainable Economies
Key Terms
Chapter Summary
Conclusion
Glossary
References
Index
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Preface
Almost 16 years ago, the three of us (Rodney, Abby, and Dave) began a series of conversations that led
ultimately to the production of this volume, The Matrix of Race: Social Construction, Intersectionality, and
Inequality. Two events, separated by more than 7 years, served as stimuli for these conversations. These events,
not quite bookends, but rather landmarks, served to highlight the need for such conversations. The first of
these events was 9/11, with all of its associated terror; the second was the election, in November 2008, of the
first African American to the presidency of the United States. Collectively, these landmarks and the events
surrounding them challenged our notions of race, its relevance, and its continual transformation. Scholarship
on race and ethnicity exists to help humanity think through collective events such as these and how they move
us forward or further entrench us. As we considered contemporary and classic work on race and ethnic
relations along with the prominent textbooks on race and ethnicity, we began to question whether a better
approach was needed.
Our review of these works identified a significant group of texts that provide a plethora of theoretical
expositions of race in the United States. Most provide syntheses of theory, histories, and structures that
present cross-cultural analyses of race and ethnicity involving multiple groups—opting, often, for approaches
that offer voyeuristic walks through the “races” and “ethnicities,” as if readers were walking through a
museum. Some of these texts highlight a concern for hate crimes, racial conflict, structural and systemic
patterns of animosity, segregation, and inequality that duplicates racial and ethnic hierarchies across histories
and societies. We also note the prevailing logic that racism and ethnic discrimination are bad, and
multiculturalism, diversity, and integration are good. Since the terrorist attacks on New York City and the
Pentagon on September 11, 2001, there has also been increased attention given to the changing nature of
racism, particularly as many additional groups have now become racialized, such as Muslims and other Middle
Easterners. Similarly, increased attention has been paid post-9/11 to issues such as immigration, assimilation,
racial profiling, terrorism, domestic security, and globalization. The election of Barack Obama was heralded
by many as evidence that we, the United States, had made a significant step toward, if not actually arrived at, a
postracial society. Such reactions were not only naive but also harmful, as they served to marginalize and
minimize ongoing racial and ethnic problems that have developed over centuries, as seen in wealth gaps,
education gaps, entrenched poverty, and inequities in criminal sanctioning and policing. Once again, as we
were writing this textbook, we began witnessing protests and riots, charges of police brutality and political
indifference, and the killing of people of color. These events and realities, then and now, convinced us that
what we were witnessing was not limited to a simplistic concern for race and ethnicity—it was something far
deeper, more complex, and nuanced.
We began envisioning a different approach: one of increased breadth and scope; one that would more closely
reflect people’s personal and lived experiences; and one that would dispense with the static categories of race
and ethnicity, looking instead at the intersecting, multilayered identities of contemporary society. Not only are
racial and ethnic groups socially constructed, but they also intersect with other aspects of identity (including
gender and sexuality, age, and social class) that vary across both temporal and geographical spaces. We
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decided to use the core concept of the matrix to capture these complex intersections. Many texts concerned
with race and ethnic relations are written by academics who provide excellent scholarly treatments of the
subject, but all too often students perceive such treatments as removed from their own lives, or sterile. We
decided to also add a concern for the reader’s personal identity and its intersection with society. It is our view
that such an approach will not only stir emotion but also compel self-appraisal. We believe that this approach
will enable our discussion to be closer to the reader’s lived experiences. We have deliberately tied our text not
only to current research but also to a wide array of media and other supplements, making it more dynamic
than what is typically offered. In the process, we have discovered that our identities are not separate from the
various social settings and structures that occupy us from birth to death. These social settings and structures,
which govern our personal and lived experiences, are typically associated with the major institutions of our
society.
The Matrix of Race is a textbook that helps instructors navigate the diversity of students in their race/ethnic
relations courses—both members of minority groups who have experienced the impact of race in their own
lives and members of dominant groups who might believe that we now live in a “color-blind” society, in which
race and racism are relics of the past. Our goal is to make race and racial inequality “visible” in new ways to all
students, regardless of their backgrounds.
The “matrix” in the title refers to a way of thinking about race that can help readers get beyond the familiar
“us versus them” arguments that can lead to resistance and hostility. This framework incorporates a number of
important theories and perspectives from contemporary sociologists who study this subject: (a) Race is socially
constructed—it changes from one place to another and across time. (b) When talking about racial inequality,
it is more useful to focus on the structures of society (institutions) than to blame individuals. (c) Race is
intersectional—it is embedded in other socially constructed categories of difference (like gender, social class,
ethnicity, and sexuality). And (d) there are two sides to race: oppression and privilege. Both are harmful, and
both can be experienced simultaneously.
We are sure that as you work through this text while considering your own story, you will come to the same
conclusions that we have: We are all active agents in maintaining or challenging the matrix of race. How
successful have we been? Tell us your story.
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University; and Brittne Lunniss, University of Massachusetts, for developing the digital resources on this site.
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Acknowledgments
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Rodney’s Acknowledgments
I honor the ancestors of all races, ethnicities, genders, and periods who not only survived but also challenged,
transformed, and thrived in spite of the racial matrix. I stand on the shoulders of these giants. There are many
whose names, input, and insights go unmentioned here, but not forgotten. Throughout my life I have been
blessed to have a continual stream of teachers, mentors, colleagues, and heroes who refused to let me be
mediocre. So I must thank Clifford Harper, Judith Blau, William J. Wilson, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Darnell
Hawkins, Douglas Parker, Corey W. Dolgan, Joe Feagin, Al Long, and C. Lee Harrington for always being
there. Where would I be without the constant support, love, and companionship of my family? I could not,
nor would I want to, make it without you, Sherrill, Angela, Chris, and Avery. And to the hundreds of
students who read, studied, asked critical questions about, and reflected on multiple drafts of these chapters—
you have my thanks and sympathies. Some of those early drafts were truly murder. My coauthors, Abby and
David, what can I say, no words, no tributes can equal your devotion and faith in this project. Thanks, my
friends.
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Abby’s Acknowledgments
I was honored and humbled when Rodney Coates invited me to join this project. I have learned and grown,
both personally and professionally, working with Rodney and David. None of us expected that we would still
be writing this text in 2017, and it is due to Rodney’s persistence and brilliant leadership that we have
continued on this journey. I am incredibly grateful for the many colleagues and mentors who have touched my
life and strengthened and supported both my professional and personal growth. A few of the people I want to
especially acknowledge are Donald Cunnigen, Joe Feagin, Andrea Herrera, Elizabeth Higginbotham,
Michael Kimmel, Peggy McIntosh, Eddie Moore Jr., Wanda Rushing, and Diane Wysocki. Personally, I
dedicate this book to the late Joan Acker, Miriam Johnson, and Sandra Morgen. When I was a graduate
student at the University of Oregon, each of these faculty mentors changed the course of my life as a
scholar/teacher, along with Mary Romero, Rose Brewer, and John Lie. I am grateful for my teammates and
coconspirators at the Matrix Center (and especially the Knapsack Institute), who have contributed to building
the matrix model over the past 18 years; to the many folks I have had the honor of building relationships with
in my service to the White Privilege Conference and the Privilege Institute; and to the many people who have
invested their time and passion in creating, nurturing, and growing Sociologists for Women in Society. I do
not take for granted the gift of this wide community of social justice activists and academics, both those who
have preceded me and those I work and grow beside. Finally, and most important, I thank my husband, Joel,
and daughter, Sydney, for their patience, support and boundless love. I love you more than words can tell.
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David’s Acknowledgments
I would like to thank my longtime brother Rodney Coates for reaching out to me in the summer of 2011 to
ask if I wanted to join him in creating a unique, critical, and intersectional race textbook. Our early discussions
centered on changing the way we teach race and ethnicity to undergraduate students and inspired this
textbook. I was equally enthralled when Abby Ferber agreed to join us on this journey. The journey has been a
long one, with many twists and turns. Along the way several people have been there to lean on, to discuss
with, to commiserate with, and to bounce ideas off of. No list is ever complete, but I would like to
acknowledge my deeply supportive partner, Rachel, and my three wonderful children, Karina, Thomas, and
Henry—I love you all more than you will ever know. I also must acknowledge the following people for their
support along the way: David Embrick, Jennifer Wyse, James Michael Thomas, John Ryan, Sarah Ovink,
Jaber Gubrium, Ellington Graves, Minjeong Kim, Petra Rivera-Rideau, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Slade
Lellock, Nate Chapman, Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, Megan Nanney, Carson Byrd, and Anthony Peguero. All
of these people, and many, many graduate students and undergraduate students, have heard me discuss “the
textbook” that I am writing—well, here it is. I also want to thank my inspirations, among many: Gloria
Anzaldúa, Charles Mills, Patricia Hill Collins, Immortal Technique, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Lauryn Hill,
Michael Omi, Paulo Freire, Joey Sprague, J. R. R. Tolkien, and my grandfather, Wilbur Nachtigall.
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From All Three Authors
Jointly, we thank the SAGE crew—Jeff Lasser, Jessica Carlisle, and a host of others—thanks for being there,
pushing us, and walking with us down this path. We would also like to thank the reviewers who contributed
their many suggestions, critiques, and insights that helped us write The Matrix of Race:
Thea S. Alvarado, Pasadena City College
Steven L. Arxer, University of North Texas at Dallas
Celeste Atkins, Cochise College
Laura Barnes, Lenoir Community College
Joyce Bell, University of Pittsburgh
Michelle Bentz, Central Community College Nebraska, Columbus Campus
Jacqueline Bergdahl, Wright State University
Latrica Best, University of Louisville
Devonia Cage, University of Memphis
Elizabeth E. Chute, Carroll College
James A. Curiel, Norfolk State University
Melanie Deffendall, Delgado Community College
Sherry Edwards, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
David G. Embrick, Loyola University Chicago
Katherine Everhart, Northern Arizona University
Amy Foerster, Pace University
Joan Gettert Gilbreth, Nebraska Wesleyan University
Robert W. Greene, Marquette University
Denise A. Isom, California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo
Shanae Jefferies, University of North Texas
Shelly Jeffy, University of North Carolina Greensboro
Hortencia Jimenez, Hartnell College
Gary Jones, University of Winchester
Tony S. Jugé, Pasadena City College
Henry Kim, Wheaton College
Jeanne E. Kimpel, Hofstra University
Phil Lewis, Queens College
David Luke, University of Kentucky
Ying Ma, Austin Peay State University
Keith Mann, Cardinal Stritch University
Lynda Mercer, University of Louisville
Dan Monti, Saint Louis University
Sarah Morrison, Lindenwood University and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Kaitlyne A. Motl, University of Kentucky
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Zabedia Nazim, Wilfrid Laurier University
Mytoan Nguyen-Akbar, University of Washington
Godpower O. Okereke, Texas A&M University-Texarkana
Mary Kay Park, Biola University
Chavella T. Pittman, Dominican University
Jennifer Pizio, Mercy College
Janis Prince, Saint Leo University
Allan Rachlin, Franklin Pierce University
Heather Rodriguez, Central Connecticut State University
Penny J. Rosenthal, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Enrique Salmon, California State University East Bay
Allison Sinanan, Stockton University
Don Stewart, College of Southern Nevada,
Mary Frances Stuck, State University of New York Oswego
Paul Sturgis, William Woods University
Rita Takahashi, San Francisco State University
Michelle Tellez, Northern Arizona University
Santos Torres Jr., California State University, Sacramento
Kathryn Tillman, Florida State University
Gerald Titchener, De Moines Area Community College
Catherine Turcotte, Colby-Sawyer College
Curt Van Guison, St. Charles Community College
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About the Authors
Rodney D. Coates
is a professor in the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University (Ohio). He
specializes in the study of race and ethnic relations, inequality, critical race theory, and social justice. He
has served on the editorial boards of the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, and Race, Class and
Gender; on the executive boards of the Southern Sociological Society and Sociologists without Borders;
and as chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Race and Ethnic Minorities. Rodney
has published dozens of articles and several edited books, and he writes frequently on issues of race and
ethnicity, education and public policy, civil rights, and social justice. His 2004 edited book, Race and
Ethnicity: Across Time, Space, and Discipline, won the Choice Award from the American Library
Association. He is also a recipient of the Joseph Himes Career Award in Scholarship and Activism from
the Association of Black Sociologists.
Abby L. Ferber
is Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado
Springs, where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on privilege, race, gender, and
sexuality, all from an intersectional perspective. She is the author of White Man Falling: Race, Gender,
and White Supremacy (Rowman & Littlefield) and coauthor of Hate Crime in America: What Do We
Know? (American Sociological Association) and Making a Difference: University Students of Color Speak
Out (Rowman & Littlefield). She is the coeditor, with Michael Kimmel, of Privilege: A Reader
(Westview Press), and also coedited The Matrix Reader (McGraw-Hill) and Sex, Gender, and Sexuality:
The New Basics (Oxford University Press). Abby is the associate director of the university’s Matrix
Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion and has served as cofacilitator of the Matrix
Center’s Knapsack Institute: Transforming Teaching and Learning. She is also the founding coeditor of
the journal Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, a joint publication of the Matrix Center and The
Privilege Institute (TPI), the nonprofit organization that is the home of the annual White Privilege
Conference (WPC). She is a founding board member of TPI and on the national planning team for the
WPC.
David L. Brunsma
is professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, where he teaches and researches in the areas of race, racism,
multiracial identity, and human rights. He is the author of Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America
(Rowman & Littlefield), A Symbolic Crusade: The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us about
American Education (Rowman & Littlefield Education), and The Handbook of Sociology and Human
Rights (Routledge). His work has appeared in American Teacher Magazine, Principal Magazine, and the
Audio Journal of Education. David is the founding coeditor of the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
and executive officer of the Southern Sociological Society. He is also a recipient of the W. E. B. Du
Bois Award from Sociologists without Borders.
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Part I Introduction to Race and the Social Matrix
27
Chapter 1 Race and the Social Construction of Difference
The city of New Orleans’s decision to remove this statue of Robert E. Lee, and three others celebrating
Confederate figures, led to protests, with some celebrating the removal and others claiming the move was
disrespectful of the heritage of the South.
David Rae Morris / Polaris/Newscom
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Chapter Outline
The Social Construction of Race
Defining Race
Constructing Race around the World
Constructing Race in the United States
The Role of Ethnicity
Racial and Ethnic Compositions in the Future
The Social Matrix of Race
Race Is Inherently Social
Race Is a Narrative
Racial Identity Is Relational and Intersectional
Race Is Institutional and Structural
We Are Active Agents in the Matrix
The Operation of Racism
Prejudice and Discrimination
Racism
Understanding Privilege
Our Stories
Rodney
Abby
Dave
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Learning Objectives
LO 1.1
Explain how race and ethnicity are socially constructed.
LO 1.2
Evaluate the relationship between social contexts and race.
LO 1.3
Identify the concepts and operation of racism.
LO 1.4
Examine the link between our personal narratives and the broader “story” of race.
Our country has a history of memorializing wars and the people who fought them with medals, holidays, and
monuments. The Civil War (1861–65) between the North and the South was quite possibly the bloodiest and
subsequently the most commemorated four years in U.S. history. After the final shot was fired, some 1,500
memorials and monuments were created, including many commemorating the heroes of the Confederacy, the
seven slaveholding Southern states that formally seceded from the Union in 1861 (Graham 2016). Over the
past few years, protests around the appropriateness of these monuments have highlighted the racial fault lines
in America.
In 2016, New Orleans, Louisiana, became a racial seismic epicenter as protests rocked the city. At issue was
the city’s decision to remove four landmark Civil War–related monuments: a statue of Jefferson Davis,
president of the Confederacy; statues of Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee; and a
monument memorializing a White supremacist uprising during the Reconstruction era.
As the city pondered how and what to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, antiConfederate sentiment began to simmer. It reached a boiling point in June 2015 when nine Black churchgoers
in Charleston, South Carolina, were killed by a gunman waving a Confederate flag (Wootson 2017). To
many, these monuments represented not only the racially-based terrorism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan but
also a sanitized history that “whitewashed” the Confederacy cause and glorified slavery and White supremacy
(Landrieu 2017). After the monuments were successfully removed, under the cover of darkness and with
snipers stationed nearby to protect the workers, lawmakers in Louisiana and Alabama immediately responded
by passing laws to make it more difficult to remove Confederate monuments in the future (Park 2017).
Confederate monuments are a symptom of a much deeper set of issues that mark our nation’s troubled history
with race. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu (2017), remarked that we as a nation continue to
confuse the “difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” Our collective memories often
reflect this same distortion as we attempt to reconcile our democratic principles of freedom, justice, and
equality with the racial realities of prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination. Landrieu’s statement and the
controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments mirror concerns that are deeply rooted
within the social fabric of our country. They highlight the promises and the problems associated with race in
the United States. What is race, and how has it become so central to our experiences? Is race so ingrained in
our basic identities that it is now a permanent fixture of our social landscape? Alternatively, if race is a social
invention, with a set of origins, purposes, and realities, then is it within our ability to influence, change, or
eliminate it? The answers to these questions drive the purpose of this book.
30
31
The Social Construction of Race
Nothing better demonstrates the complexity and social dynamics of race than performing an Internet image
search using the term “biracial twins.” When most children are born, they are assumed to belong to particular
races because of the color of their skin. But race is not so simple. Even twins can have very different skin
colors, and this can raise some interesting questions. Some twins who have one Black parent and one White
parent are routinely asked to produce their birth certificates to prove that they are not only related but also
twins. So are they White, or are they Black? It depends. In some cases, the twins self-identify according to
their perceived racial identities (Perez 2015).
32
Defining Race
The term race refers to a social and cultural system by which we categorize people based on presumed
biological differences. An examination of genetic patterns across the major world population groups reveals
that while Africans have some genes unique to them as a group, all other groups share genetic patterns with
Africans. This leads to the conclusion, held by most geneticists, anthropologists, and sociologists, that all
humans are derived from Africans and that Africa is the cradle of humanity. Geneticists go further, declaring
that the differences we observe between various groups are the results of geographical and social isolation, and
that if such populations were to mix freely, then even these differences would disappear (Yudell, Roberts,
DeSalle, and Tishkoff 2016).
Lucy and Maria Aylmer are twins, born to a half-Jamaican mother and a white father. Lucy identifies as
white and Maria as black, despite their shared parentage.
AP Photo / Ken McKay
Since human genes have changed, or mutated, over time, we must question if race is either natural or static. If
race were indeed a fact of nature, it would be simple to identify who falls into which racial category, and we
would expect racial categories to remain static across history and societies. Differences in physical features,
such as skin color, hair color, eye color, and height, exist both within and between groups. And as we’ve seen,
physical features can vary even within families. However, these differences are not due to an underlying
biological basis of race. There is more biological variation within our so-called racial groups than there is
between them. Race must derive from human interventions. These interventions reflect the social construction
of race.
Racial classifications have persisted as a means of advancing specific hierarchies through attention to the
reputed differences in behaviors, skill sets, and inherent intelligence attributed to people according to their
classifications. As a consequence, what social scientists and geneticists alike have come to understand is that
race and racial categorizations are uniquely social creations that have been purposefully constructed. Specific
rewards, privileges, and sanctions have been used to support and legitimate race. The systematic distribution
of these rewards, privileges, and sanctions across populations through time has produced and reproduced
social hierarchies that reflect our racial categorizations. We collectively refer to these systematic processes as
the social construction of race.
33
34
Constructing Race around the World
If we examine the social construction of race across geographical spaces and historical periods, then an
interesting range of constructions is immediately apparent.
South Africa
Many countries have historically instituted laws that dictated where the members of different racial groups
could live and work, and how they must behave. Once such system, known as apartheid, existed in South
Africa until 1994. One of the measures of determining race in South Africa was the so-called pencil test. If a
pencil pushed through the hair stayed put, the person was deemed to have Afro-textured hair and might be
classified as Black or Colored (of mixed racial heritage). If the pencil fell to the floor, the person was classified
as White. A Colored classification allowed a person to have significantly more rights than those who were
considered Black, but still fewer rights and responsibilities than those considered White. Given the multiple
products and processes used to “straighten” Black hair, and the social benefits associated with enhanced social
status, is it any wonder that many Black South Africans sought to have their identify changed to Colored?
Apartheid allowed a racial hierarchy to be reified into law—an illustration of how race was socially constructed
in South Africa. While technically illegal, these racial hierarchies are still a part of South African cultural
identity and heritage, and the legacies of apartheid still haunt South Africa more than 20 years after the
system officially ended.
South America
The Southern Cone of South America is a geographic region composed of the southernmost areas of the
continent, including the countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay (see Figure 1.1).
Among these Latin American countries, phenotypical traits—physical traits such as skin color, hair texture,
and facial features typically used to characterize people into racial groups—are linked to socioeconomic status.
At the top of the hierarchy are White Hispanics and others with light skin. Mixed indigenous and African
ancestry, often referred to as mulatto, is associated with less opportunity, higher levels of poverty, and lower
social status. Those individuals who claim both indigenous and Hispanic ancestry, called mestizos, occupy a
middle position and tend to have slightly more opportunities for social and economic advancement than do
mulattos.
There are also nation-specific racial categorizations. The Brazilian census identifies six racial categories:
Brancos (White), Pardos (Brown), Pretos (Black), Amarelos (East Asian), indigenous, and undeclared. Such
categories and their links to the social and economic hierarchies in Latin American countries exist to this day
in what scholars refer to as pigmentocracies—governments and other social structures that grant political
power based on a hierarchy defined by skin tone, regardless of race or social status (Telles and the Project on
Ethnicity and Race in Latin America 2014). But these are not exclusive categorizations. One study conducted
by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the governmental entity responsible for the census,
35
asked people what racial categories they would place themselves in, and the researchers received 134 different
answers (Fish 2011).
Figure 1.1 The Southern Cone of South America Has Unique Racial Categories
Source: Wikimedia Commons,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern_Cone_Ethnography.jpg.
Australia
Race was similarly constructed in Australia when Britain began to colonize and marginalize the indigenous
population in 1791. In the early phase of colonization, Britain declared much of Australia’s most valuable land
to be terra nullius, or “empty land.” Under this determination, all of the natives, or Aboriginals, saw their
rights to land revoked, as the Europeans declared the indigenous population’s 50,000 years of residency null.
Thus began an apartheid-like social structure, where Europeans were accorded all the rights, privileges, and
status, while Aborigines were reduced to living in poverty on settlements. This segregated racial structure has
been successfully challenged only in the last 20 years, as courts have begun to grant rights and privileges to
Australia’s Aborigines. The historical legacy of such a racialized structure has not been limited to Australia.
Of note, several European nations used the declaration of terra nullius as a means of justifying colonial
expansion and the subsequent racialization of indigenous peoples in many places, including, but not limited
36
to, New Zealand, Grenada, Singapore, South Rhodesia, Tobago, Trinidad, Guano Islands, Burkina Faso, and
Niger. In each case, a racial hierarchy favoring Europeans was socially constructed. Indigenous populations
were subject to subjugation, isolation, or genocide. The United States is another one of these cases.
37
Constructing Race in the United States
Whiteness came into being as a way for European colonists to explain and justify imperialism, genocide,
slavery, and exploitation. In Chapter 2, we will discuss the extent to which the construction of race in the
United States follows the pattern of European settler colonialism and imperialism. For now, we present a brief
explanation of how racial categorizations became significant within the United States.
The Significance of Where and When
The United States has its roots in three separate colonial settlements. These settlements, associated with the
Spanish, French, and English, developed different types of racial classification structures. While all of them
reserved the highest category for Europeans, they varied in how they accommodated other groups. This
variability accounts for the slight differences we can still often observe between the former Spanish and
French colonial regions (e.g., in California and Louisiana) and the former English colonial areas. These
differences are most reflected in the heightened status of Creoles (people of mixed race, European and
indigenous) in the former Spanish and French colonies and the more rigidly defined racial categories within
the English. The reasons for these differences, as we will discover, are associated with the differences in
settlement types. Here, it is important simply to note that these differences were real and that they further
demonstrate the processes of the social construction of race.
Constructing race in 1899. The caption that appeared with this image in an 1899 edition of Harper’s Weekly
reads: “The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread
themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in
sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with
the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of
savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been outcompeted in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior
races.”
Drawing by: H. Strickland Constable. 1899, Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View
38
The social construction of race also varies across time, as the sets of descriptors used to create racial categories
have varied in different historical periods. At an earlier time in U.S. history, for example, the Irish were
considered to be of African descent. The “Iberian hypothesis” purported that the “Black Irish” were
descendants of Africans and those from the Gaelic island. Although the Iberian hypothesis has since been
discredited (Radford 2015), in 1899 it was considered fact. Irish immigrants experienced a tremendous
amount of prejudice in the United States and were not considered to be among the country’s elite White
ethnics. In Chapter 2 we shall see that these biases underscored many of our attitudes toward race and how
Whiteness came into being.
In 1924, the Racial Integrity Act defined a “colored person” as anyone with any African or Native American
ancestry at all; this is often referred to as the one-drop rule. The rules for defining who falls into what racial
categories have long been inconsistent across the United States. Over time and in different states, the amount
of ancestry required to make someone Black has variously been defined as one drop (of Black blood) and by
fractions ranging from 1∕4 to 1∕8 to 1∕32. A person could “change” races by simply stepping over a state line. Why
did having 1∕32 Black ancestry make someone Black, yet having 31∕32 of White ancestry not make someone
White? And why have such clear-cut rules never been established for other racial groups? How many Asian
ancestors are required to define someone as Asian? These inconsistencies exist because racial classifications are
based not on biology but on social, political, and economic dynamics and power relationships. Under the onedrop rule, Native Americans of mixed ancestry were systematically classified as Negro (or Black) and denied
tribal rights, and those who crossed the color line were subject to criminal punishments.
Race in the Contemporary United States
So what does this racially constructed system look like in the contemporary United States? Try this exercise:
First, create a list of the racial groups in the United States. Then, write down your estimate of the percentage
of the U.S. population that is accounted for by each group.
When we ask our students to attempt this exercise, the answers we get are varied. Some list four races; some
list ten. Some include Hispanics/Latinos, and some do not. Some include Middle Easterners, while some do
not. Some include a category for multiracial identity. Race is something we assume we all know when we see
it, but we may in fact be “seeing” different things. Race cannot be reduced to physical features like skin color
—in fact, while skin tone is often the first item we “check off” on our racial checklist, we then move to other
social and visual clues.
The U.S. Constitution requires that a counting of the nation’s population be conducted every 10 years—a
national census (see Figure 1.2). The purposes and uses of the census have both changed and expanded across
the years. The census was originally necessary to determine voting representation, including the numbers of
representatives states could elect to Congress, the allocation of federal and state funds, and more. Over time,
the census categories of race and other cultural and language groups have changed to reflect the nation’s
evolving population as well as, importantly, the political interests and power relations of the time.
So what have we discovered? Race is a social construction that artificially divides people into distinct groups
39
based on characteristics such as physical appearance, ancestry, culture, ethnic classification, and the social,
economic, and political needs, desires, and relations of a society at a given historical moment (Adams, Bell,
and Griffin 1997; Ferrante and Brown 2001). The U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, currently recognizes five
racial categories, along with a “some other race” option (which was added in 2000 in response to public
pressure). The five categories are as follows:
1. American Indian or Alaska Native
2. Asian
3. Black or African American
4. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
5. White
Not only have our official designations for race and ethnic groups differed over time, but how people identify
themselves has also shown a great deal of variability. For example, from the 2000 census to that of 2010,
almost 10 million U.S. residents changed how they identified their race when asked by the Census Bureau
(Linshi 2014). This clearly demonstrates the fluidity of racial groups.
People often associate an elaborate array of behaviors, attitudes, and values with particular racial groups,
presuming that these reflect innate or culturally specific traits. As one observer has noted: “What is called
‘race’ today is chiefly an outcome of intergroup struggles, marking the boundaries, and thus the identities, of
‘us’ and ‘them’ along with attendant ideas of social worth or stigma. As such, ‘race’ is an ideological construct
that links supposedly innate traits of individuals to their place in the social order” (Rumbaut 2011).
We often assume that racial differences have existed throughout history, but race is a relatively new concept.
Human differences exist along a continuum, and racial classifications have been arbitrarily imposed on that
continuum, separating people into seemingly distinct groups, much as we separate the color spectrum into
distinct categories that we have selected to label red, orange, yellow, green, and so on—though there is only
one spectrum of color.
Recent genetic evidence presents a much more varied set of human identities. For example, most of us derive
from multiple ancestries. Genomes reveal that the average African American can identify not only with
African ancestry (about 73.2%) but also with European (24%) and Native American (0.8%). Latinos average
about 18% Native American ancestry, 65% European ancestry (mostly from the Iberian Peninsula), and 6.2%
African ancestry. And about 3.5% of European Americans carry African ancestry. These are more likely to be
in southern states, such as South Carolina and Louisiana (where 12% of European Americans have at least 1%
African ancestry). In Louisiana, about 8% of Europeans derive at least 1% of their ancestries from Native
Americans (Wade 2014).
Figure 1.2 Racial and Ethnic Categories Have Changed Over the Past 220 Years
40
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, “Measuring Race and Ethnicity across the Decades: 1790–2010,”
http://www.census.gov/population/race/data/MREAD_1790_2010.html.
Note: According to the 2000 Census, as the 2010 Census did not ask questions about ancestry. Please
note that respondents may have selected more than one ancestry group.
41
The Role of Ethnicity
While race has been imposed on physical bodies, ethnicity encompasses cultural aspects of individuals’ lives,
including religion, tradition, language, ancestry, nation, geography, history, beliefs, and practice. Ethnic
groups often see themselves, and are seen by others, as having distinct cultural identities. Physical
characteristics are not usually tied to definitions of ethnicity. For example, Blacks in the United States come
from many different ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans whose ancestors arrived enslaved
generations ago and recent immigrants from Ethiopia, Jamaica, and other parts of the world. Often we
confuse ancestry with ethnicity and race. The term ancestry typically refers to point of origin, lineage, or
descent. For instance, Abby, one of the authors of this text, is racially White, ethnically Jewish, and of Eastern
European ancestry. Ancestry is often one characteristic in definitions of ethnicity or race (see Figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3 The Nine Largest Ancestry Groups in The United States
Source: Derived from data in Liz O’Connor, Gus Lubin, and Dina Spector, “The Largest Ancestry
Groups in the United States,” Business Insider, August 13, 2013,
http://www.businessinsider.com/largest-ethnic-groups-in-america-2013-8.
Often when we concentrate on large racial groups in the United States, we tend to ignore just how diverse we
are as a nation. Although the most recent census, in 2010, did not ask a question regarding ancestry, the
Census Bureau’s American Community Survey tracks most major ancestry groups on an ongoing basis. The
data collected by that survey reveal that Germans and Blacks make up the largest single ancestry groups within
the United States.
When we focus on racial groups as distinct groups whose members supposedly have much in common while
ignoring the ethnic and ancestral diversity within the socially constructed categories, we further exaggerate the
significance of racial designations. Furthermore, we erase the differences among the various and diverse ethnic
peoples grouped into these racial categories. The only thing that people grouped together under a racial
designation share is a history of oppression based on their racialization. Other than that, racial categories
themselves tell us very little about the people classified into them.
42
Native Americans
The original, indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, Native Americans (or American Indians) and Alaska
Natives, do not constitute one single race. As of the 2010 census, members of these groups made up 2% of the
total U.S. population. Of these, about 49% exclusively defined themselves as either American Indians or
Alaska Natives. The remaining 51% identified as some combination of American Indian or Alaska Native and
one or more other races (U.S. Census Bureau 2012). A total of 630 separate federally recognized American
Indian and Alaska Native reservations existed in 2012, excluding the Hawaiian Home Lands. There are 566
federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, with the five largest tribal groupings being the
Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Mexican American Indian, and Chippewa groupings (see Figure 1.4). At the
time of the 2010 census, the majority of Native Americans were living in 10 states: California, Oklahoma,
Arizona, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Washington, North Carolina, Florida, and Michigan (U.S. Census
Bureau 2012).
Asian Americans
All racial categories can be described as “panethnic.” Yen Le Espiritu coined the term panethnicity in 1992 in
reference to Asian Americans (see Espiritu 1994). It is generally applied to regional groups who are placed
into a large category. As Espiritu points out, many Asian groups—including Chinese, Hmong, Japanese,
Korean, Bangladeshi, Asian Indian, and Vietnamese—have been lumped together and viewed as an artificial
whole.
Asians make up 5.8% of the total U.S. population. While many Americans are aware of the increasing
presence of Hispanic-origin immigrants, Asians actually now make up an even larger share of immigrants to
the United States. In 2014, the Asian share of the U.S. foreign-born population increased to 30% of the
nation’s 42.4 million immigrants (Zong and Batalova 2014). In that year, most of the 4.2 million Asians
entering the United States came from Southeast Asia, followed by East Asia, South Central Asia, and
Western Asia. India and China accounted for the largest share of these immigrants (17% each), followed by
the Philippines (15%), Vietnam (10%), and Korea (9%). Asian immigrants also come from dozens of other
countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian continent (Zong and Batalova 2016).
Figure 1.4 American Indians and Alaskan Natives Identify Across Different Tribal Groupings
43
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, “25 Largest Tribal Groupings among American Indians and Alaska
Natives,” 2010, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/newsroom/facts-for-features/2014/cb14ff26_aian_graphic.jpg.
Black Americans
Historically, scholars have rarely discussed ethnicity among Blacks. This further highlights racial designations
while marginalizing the differences among various ethnic groups. Some Blacks in the United States can trace
their roots back to slavery, while others are recent immigrants from Africa. People defined as Black may have
African, Caribbean, Haitian, Filipino, and other diverse ancestries. In fact, racial designations based on
geography become meaningless as we attempt to apply them to North Africans, such as Egyptians,
Moroccans, and Algerians (groups frequently defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as White). According to the
U.S. Census Bureau (2015), in 2014 Blacks constituted an estimated 13% of the U.S. population.
As of 2015, 2.1 million African immigrants were living in the United States, accounting for 4.8% of the U.S.
population, compared to just 0.8% in 1970. While typically these immigrants are lumped into the racial
category of Black, Figure 1.5 shows that such racial homogenization hides much of the ethnic diversity among
them (Anderson 2017).
White Ethnic Groups
White ethnics, who have until recently provided the largest share of immigration to these shores, derive
mostly from European countries. Many of these today simply refer to themselves as “American.” In fact, major
streams of European immigration can be identified during the colonial era, the first portion of the 19th
century, and the period from the 1880s to 1920. European immigrants were granted increased access to the
44
United States as stipulated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This quota system was not effectively ended
until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. White ethnic groups include people of
British, Greek, Russian, German, and Norwegian ancestry, as well as many others. Figure 1.6 shows that
European immigration has been relatively stable over the past 20 years. In 2010, the top five countries of
origin for European immigrants were the United Kingdom (670,000, or 14%), Germany (605,000, or 13%),
Poland (476,000, or 10%), Russia (383,000, or 8%), and Italy (365,000, or 8%) (Russell and Batalova 2012).
Hispanics
If an individual identifies with an ethnic group that speaks Spanish, then the U.S. Census Bureau labels that
person as Hispanic. Hispanics may have families that came to the United States from Spain, Mexico,
Guatemala, Cuba, or one of many other Spanish-speaking countries (see Figure 1.7). They may be White,
Black, or some other race. Other than language, they may have nothing in common. Hispanic is a category
created by the government, and many people classified as Hispanic prefer to define themselves as Latino/a,
Chicano/a, or Mexican American, Cuban American, or the like. Some sociologists argue that Latino/as have
been historically racialized and defined as inferior by Whites and should be classified as a race rather than an
ethnic group. Much of the rich contemporary literature on racial inequality in the United States adopts this
definition of Hispanics/Latino/as as a racialized group (Feagin and Cobas 2013; Ortiz and Telles 2012). We
also generally treat them as a racial group in this book, and, indeed, many Hispanics have recently organized
to push for categorization as a racial group in the next census, in 2020. Throughout this text, we will
frequently use the terminology adopted by the research under discussion, thus referring at times to Hispanics
and at other times to Latino/as (also, at times we will refer to Blacks and at other times to African
Americans).
Figure 1.5 African Immigrants in the United States are Ethnically and Geographically Diverse
Source: Chart and Map: “Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt are top birthplaces for African immigrants in the
U.S.” From African immigrant population in U.S. steadily climbs by Monica Anderson, Pew Research
Center Fact Tank, February 14, 2017.
45
Figure 1.6 European Immigration to the United States Has Been Steady Over the Past Twenty Years
Source: Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “European Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy
Institute, December 1, 2015, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/european-immigrants-unitedstates. Data from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Surveys, 2006, 2010, and 2014; and
Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the
United States: 1850–2000,” Working Paper 81, U.S. Census Bureau, February 2006.
Although it is surprising to many, the U.S. Census Bureau does not currently list Hispanic as a race, instead
defining Hispanics as an ethnic group. The census includes a separate question specifically about Hispanic
origin, asking self-identified Hispanics to select Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other. The census form
then asks them to identify their race.
46
Racial and Ethnic Compositions in the Future
So what will our country look like in the next 50 years? Projections of population growth indicate that
minorities (including Hispanics, Blacks, Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders)
will make up slightly more than 50% of the U.S. population. The most significant changes will be seen in the
reduced numbers of Whites and the almost doubling of the numbers of Hispanics and other minorities. We
often read headlines predicting that Whites will become a minority. However, these are misleading. Whites
will still be the single largest group in the United States, constituting 49.4% of the population in 2060 (Figure
1.8). The United States will become a minority-majority nation, which means that the total of all minority
groups combined will make up the majority of the population. We may see little change in the dynamics of
power and race relations, however, as the proportion of Whites will still be nearly twice that of any individual
minority group.
Figure 1.7 The United States Census Labels Individuals From any Spanish Speaking Country as
Hispanic
Source: Figure 2, “U.S. Hispanic Origin Groups, by Population, 2013. In The Impact of Slowing
Immigration: Foreign-Born Share Falls Among 14 Largest U.S. Hispanic Origin Groups, by Gustavo
Lopez and Eileen Patten, Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends, September 15, 2015.
47
Figure 1.8 Population Growth Projections Over the Next Fifty Years Predict a Minority-Majority
Nation
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014–
2060,” Population Estimates and Projections, Current Population Reports, March 2015.
48
Critical Thinking
1. History has shown that race and ethnicity are socially constructed. What do current trends suggest about how these social
constructions may change in the future?
2. How might these changes affect social institutions such as marriage and family, education, and the military?
3. In what ways might these changes affect how we, as Americans, view ourselves? How might this affect how individuals categorize
others and how they self-identify?
4. Can you trace your roots? What different racial and ethnic groups are in your family tree? What does this say about how we define
racial and ethnic groups?
49
The Social Matrix of Race
Our goal in this book is to provide you with historical perspectives, theoretical frameworks, and diverse views
of race and racial ideologies so that you can intelligently participate and contribute to such dialogues. We will
offer you a variety of ways in which you can understand your identity, your environments, the relationships
between those, and the ways you can change yourself and your society with dignity and self-determination.
We focus particularly on race and the way it shapes our identities, society and its institutions, and prospects
for change. But we also examine race within the context of gender, class, and other social identities that
interact with one another and reflect the way we live as social beings.
A number of scholars have embraced the image of racial identity as a matrix (Case 2013; Collins 2000; Ferber,
Jiménez, O’Reilly Herrera, and Samuels 2009). Generally, a matrix is the surrounding environment in which
something (e.g., values, cells, humans) originates, develops, and grows. The concept of a matrix captures the
basic sociological understanding that contexts—social, cultural, economic, historical, and otherwise—matter.
Figure 1.9 is our visual representation of the social matrix of race, depicting the intersecting worlds of identity,
social institutions, and cultural and historical contexts, connecting with one another on the micro and macro
levels.
If our primary focus were gender, we could center the gendered self in such a matrix. In this text we center the
concepts and experiences of race within the context of our many shifting social identities and systems of
inequality. Our social identities are the ways in which our group memberships, in such things as races, classes,
and genders, help define our sense of self. While we often assume a concrete or single group identity, the
reality is that identity is seldom so simple. For example, while many of us identify as being White, Black,
Hispanic, Asian, or Native American, few of us are racially or ethnically homogeneous. Consequently, how we
derive our racial identity is actually a result of both historical and contemporary social constructions. The same
can be said regarding our social status, class, gender, and other identities. We also recognize that these
identities interact in ways that produce extremely nuanced and complex, dynamic identities. The third ring of
the social matrix of race consists of the social institutions in which we live and interact. Social institutions are
patterned and structured sets of roles and behaviors centered on the performance of important social tasks
within any given society. These institutions help order and facilitate social interactions. That being so, many
of our activities happen within social institutions such as marriage and family, education, sports, the military,
and the economy. In Figure 1.9 we have included only the social institutions we examine in this text; this is
not an exhaustive list. Finally, all of these systems are shaped by place and time.
Figure 1.9 Race Intersects with Cultural and Historical Contexts, Social Institutions, and Other
Identities
50
Source: Copyright Rodney D. Coates, Abby L. Ferber, and David L. Brunsma.
To support an understanding of race within the context of a social matrix, in the following sections we
introduce the five key insights about race that we will develop throughout this text (see Table 1.1).
51
Race Is Inherently Social
We have already introduced the argument that race is a social construction. As race theorists Matthew
Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer (2010, 51) put it, “You do not come into this world African or European or
Asian; rather, this world comes into you.” If races are constructed, it makes sense then to ask: When does this
happen, and why? The creation of “races” occurred at a specific point in time to advance specific relations of
inequality. The classifications were invented by those they were created to serve, not by those who came to be
defined as “Others” by Whites. We will examine this history in Chapter 2.
Table 1.1 Five Key Insights about Race
Race is
inherently
Race has no biological basis, and it varies both cross-culturally and historically.
social.
Race is a
narrative.
We learn narrative story lines that we draw upon to interpret what we see and
experience, and these stories become embedded in our minds as truth, closing off
other ways of seeing and sense making.
Racial
Our racial identity is defined in our relationships to others, based on interactions with
identity is
them and our reactions to our experiences and socialization. Further, our racial
relational and
identity is shaped by, and experienced in the context of, our other social identities,
intersectional. such as gender, class, sexuality, ability, and age.
Race is
institutional
Independently and together, various institutional structures, including family, school,
and
community, and religion, influence our actions and beliefs about race.
structural.
We are active
We move among a variety of social institutions, and as we do, we contribute to their
agents in the
reproduction. We make choices every day, often unconsciously, that either maintain
matrix.
or subvert racial power dynamics and inequality.
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Race Is a Narrative
As we have established, race is not real; it is a fiction with very real consequences. Because it is fictional,
scholars across many disciplines have used the language of storytelling to discuss race. For example, perhaps
one of the most dominant stories we hear today is that race is a taboo topic. When children ask their parents
about racial differences, they are often hushed and told not to talk about such things in public. Perhaps the
most significant racial narrative is the story that races exist in nature. We have just shown that this is not true.
Yet until we are taught otherwise, most of us go through life assuming that biological racial differences exist.
This is the power of narrative in our lives as social beings.
Anthropologist Audrey Smedley (2007) has identified some of the key features of this narrative. In it, racial
classifications are constructed as follows:
1. They are exclusive, discrete classifications.
2. They involve visible physical differences that reflect inherent internal ones (such as intelligence,
disposition, morals).
3. They are inherited.
4. They are unchanging, determined by nature and/or God.
5. They are valued differently and ranked hierarchically (in terms of superiority, beauty, degree of
civilization, capacity for moral reasoning, and more).
This narrative makes clear that the ideology of race privileges some groups by dividing people into artificial,
hierarchical categories to justify inequitable access to resources.
The ideology of race is part of what Joe Feagin (2010) identifies as the “white racial frame.” In societies
characterized by racial hierarchies, racial frames are constructed from the ideological justifications, processes,
procedures, and institutions that define and structure society. They are the “comprehensive orienting structure
or tool kit by which dominant racial groups and others are understood,” and their actions are interpreted
within social settings (Feagin 2010, 13). According to Feagin (2010, 10–11), a racial frame consists of the
following:
1. racial stereotypes (a beliefs aspect);
2. racial narratives and interpretations (integrating cognitive aspects);
3. racial images (a visual aspect) and language accents (an auditory aspect);
4. racialized emotions (a “feelings” aspect); and
5. inclinations to discriminatory action.
The repetition of the White racial frame over generations, in fact since the founding of the United States, is
the key to its power. When the same messages are repeated over and over, they appear to be part of our social
being; they become “natural” to us.
In her popular book Storytelling for Social Justice (2010), educator and activist Lee Anne Bell provides a model
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for analyzing stories about race. She argues that there are essentially four different kinds of stories that we
encounter in our lives: stock stories, concealed stories, resistance stories, and transforming stories.
Stock stories: “Stock stories are the tales told by the dominant group,” but they are often embraced by
those whose oppression they reinforce (Bell 2010, 23). They inform and organize the practices of social
institutions and are encoded in law, public policy, public space, history, and culture. Stock stories are
shaped by the White racial frame.
Concealed stories: We can always find concealed stories if we look closely enough. These consist of the
data and voices that stock stories ignore and often convey a very different understanding of identity and
inequity. In the case of concealed stories, “we explore such questions as: What are the stories about race
and racism that we don’t hear? Why don’t we hear them? How are such stories lost/left out? How do we
recover these stories? What do these stories show us about racism that stock stories do not?” (24).
Resistance stories: Narratives that directly challenge stock stories are resistance stories. They speak of
defying domination and actively struggling for racial justice and social change. “Guiding questions for
discovering/uncovering resistance stories include: What stories exist (historical or contemporary) that
serve as examples of resistance? What role does resistance play in challenging the stock stories about
racism? What can we learn about antiracist action and perseverance against the odds by looking at these
stories?” (25).
Transforming stories: Once we examine concealed and resistance stories, we can use them to write
transforming stories that guide our actions as we work toward a more just society. “Guiding questions
include: What would it look like if we transformed the stock stories? What can we draw from resistance
stories to create new stories about what ought to be? What kinds of stories can support our ability to
speak out and act where instances of racism occur?” (26).
Many people claim color blindness in regard to race and ethnicity—that is, they assert that they do not see
race or ethnicity, only humans—and the idea of color blindness informs many of our most prevalent stock
stories today. According to this ideology, if we were all to embrace a color-blind attitude and just stop “seeing”
race, race and its issues would finally become relics of the past. This approach argues that we should treat
people simply as human beings, rather than as racialized beings (Plaut 2010). In fact, White people in the
United States generally believe that “we have achieved racial equality,” and about half believe that African
Americans are doing as well as, or even better than, Whites (Bush 2011, 4). But pretending race does not exist
is not the same as creating equality.
Just when the blatantly discriminatory policies and practices of Jim Crow racism, the laws and practices that
originated in the American South to enforce racial segregation, were finally crumbling under attack, the early
foundations of a “new racism” were taking form (Irons 2010). This new racism is much less overt, avoiding
the use of blatantly racist terminology. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2010) has labeled this ideology
color-blind racism. According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blind ideology has four components:
Abstract liberalism: Abstract concepts of equal opportunity, rationality, free choice, and individualism are
used to argue that discrimination is no longer a problem, and any individual who works hard can
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succeed.
Naturalization: Ongoing inequality is reframed as the result of natural processes rather than social
relations. Segregation is explained, for example, as the result of people’s natural inclination to live near
others of the same race.
Cultural racism: It is claimed that inherent cultural differences serve to separate racialized groups.
Minimization of racism: It is argued that we now have a fairly level playing field, everyone has equal
opportunities to succeed, and racism is no longer a real problem.
While many embrace color blindness as nonracist, by ignoring the extent to which race still shapes people’s
life chances and opportunities, this view actually reinforces and reproduces the subtle and institutional racial
inequality that shapes our lives. Throughout this text, we will examine the extent to which racial inequality is
still pervasive, as well as many stock stories in circulation today that make it difficult for us to see this reality.
We will challenge many stock stories by exploring concealed and resistance stories, and by considering the
possibilities for constructing transformative stories.
Color-blind ideology leads to the conclusion that we’ve done all we can in regard to racial inequality.
Many Whites invoke the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as confirmation of their
assumptions of a color-blind nation (Bonilla-Silva 2010; Cunnigen and Bruce 2010). The concealed
story revealed by sociology, however, is that racial inequality has been and remains entrenched in the
United States.
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
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Racial Identity Is Relational and Intersectional
As philosopher Elizabeth Spelman (1988) points out, we often think about our various identities—race,
gender, sexuality, class, ability—as though they are connected like the beads of a necklace. But unlike the
beads of the necklace, our separate identities can’t just be popped apart. They intersect and shape each other;
they are relational and intersectional (Crenshaw 1991).
The relational aspects of race are demonstrated by the fact that categories of race are often defined in
opposition to each other (for example, to be White means one is not Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Native
American) and according to where they fall along the continuum of hierarchy. Race is also relational in its
intersections with other social identities, such as gender and class.
Intersectional theories argue that race, gender, and other salient social identities are intertwined and
inseparable, and cannot be comprehended on their own. Sociologist Ivy Ken offers a useful metaphor. If we
think about race as sugar, gender as flour, and class as baking soda, what happens when we mix them and a
few other ingredients together? If we are lucky, we end up with cookies; we “produce something new—
something that would not exist if that mixing had not occurred” (Ken 2008, 156). When these ingredients are
combined, they are changed in the process.
David J. Connor (2006), a special education teacher in New York City, provides an example. He wondered
why his classes were filled overwhelmingly with African American and Latino males despite the fact that
learning disabilities occur in both males and females across class and race. Connor found that he needed an
intersectional perspective to understand: “I noticed that the label [learning disabled] signified different
outcomes for different people. What seemed to be a beneficial category of disability to middle-class, white
students, by triggering various supports and services—served to disadvantage black and/or Latino/a urban
youngsters, who were more likely to be placed in restrictive, segregated settings” (154). Here, race, class, and
gender intersect to produce different consequences for differently situated youth.
As this example demonstrates, sources of oppression are related, and interrelated, in varied ways. There is no
single formula for understanding how they work together. We are all shaped by all of these significant
constructs, whether they privilege us or contribute to our oppression; we all experience specific configurations
of race, class, and gender that affect our subjectivities, opportunities, and life chances.
Although its name is new, intersectional theory has a long history. Early theorists like Maria Stewart,
Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper struggled with the ways race
divided the women’s suffrage movement, and gender limited Black women’s participation in the antislavery
movement. Decades later, women of color waged battles for full inclusion within the civil rights and women’s
movements. African American sociologists like Belinda Robnett (1999) and Bernice McNair Barnett (1995)
have examined the ways in which the foundational leadership activities of Black women in many civil rights
organizations have been ignored or written out of history (becoming concealed stories). Vicki Ruiz (1999) has
examined similar dynamics in her research on the work of Chicanas in the Chicano movement. We can find
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many resistance stories in the lives of women of color who have refused to direct their energies toward just one
form of oppression, arguing that their lives are shaped by their race and their gender simultaneously.
An intersectional approach does not require that we always examine every form of inequality. Instead, we need
to recognize that intersectionality permeates every subject we study, and that even when we choose to focus on
a single system of inequality, such as race, we must bring an intersectional lens to the work or we will never
get a full picture of the experiences and dynamics of race.
Over the past few decades, research involving explicitly intersectional analysis has accelerated. Sociologists and
others have examined the ways our various social locations intersect and interact in shaping our lives and
society at every level. These represent interconnected axes of oppression and privilege that shape all of our
lived experiences (Collins 2000).
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Race Is Institutional and Structural
To say that race is institutional is to recognize that it operates alongside and in tandem with our dominant
social institutions. For instance, education is a social institution in which there are roles (e.g., teachers and
students) and expected behaviors (e.g., teaching and learning) that come together as a social structure to
educate. But schools also contribute to other important social tasks, including socialization and social control
(Spade and Ballantine 2011).
From the perspective of an individual in a human community, we might think about an institution by
completing the following statement: “In this society/community, there is a way to do [fill in the blank].” In a
society, like the United States, there is a way to do marriage, for example. When we mention the word
marriage we are invoking a cultural script as well as a social structure—certain bodies come to mind, certain
expectations, certain relationships, certain beginnings and outcomes. This is, perhaps, why gaining the right
to marry has been such an amazing uphill battle for same-sex couples—as “same-sex marriage” runs counter to
the prevailing sense of the institution of “marriage” (Baunach 2012). All of our dominant social institutions
organize our lives, and they do so in deeply powerful ways that are intimately tied to how race (as well as
gender, class, and sexuality) fundamentally structures and organizes our lives within society.
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We Are Active Agents in the Matrix
While constructs of race and ethnicity shape us, we also shape them. Stories are often simply internalized,
processed and made sense of by individuals and groups. Human beings, as active agents, have the potential to
question inherited stories. Throughout this text we will examine various kinds of stories so that each of us may
be better educated and informed in order to develop and support the stories by which we want to live our lives.
It is only in this way that we can contribute to the construction of transformative stories that might produce a
more equitable society.
Once we realize that race is socially constructed, it follows that we recognize our role as active agents in
reconstructing it—through our actions and through the stories we construct that inform our actions (Markus
and Moya 2010, 4). Emphasizing the concept of agency is also essential to creating social change. If race is
something we do, then we can begin to do it differently. Yet many people believe that race is biological, and so
they believe it is inevitable. If people believe that they can make changes, then they inherently understand the
complex factors that shape their own possibilities (Bush 2011). Such agency empowers people to resist and
transform the economic, political, and social realities associated with racial frames and other forms of
inequality.
It is because we, too, embrace the concept of agency that we have written this text. We hope to make visible
the stock stories that perpetuate racial inequality, and to examine the ways in which those narratives govern
the operations of organizations and institutions. All of us, as individuals, play a role in reproducing or
subverting the dominant narratives, whether we choose to or not. While we inherit stories about race that help
us to explain the world around us, we can also seek out alternative stories. All of us, as individuals, play a role
in the reproduction of institutional structures, from our workplaces to our places of worship to our schools and
our homes.
Each of the key insights that inform our framework, discussed above, is essential. Each provides just one piece
of the puzzle. Further, these elements interact and work together, constantly influencing one another from
moment to moment, so that it is often difficult to look at any one piece in isolation. Racial attitudes and
racialized social structures need to be examined in relationship to one another. For example, many scholars
have argued that economic insecurity and resource scarcity often fan the flames of race prejudice. Critical
knowledge is gained when we understand how dominant discourses and ideology preserve and perpetuate the
status quo. Understanding how these dominant discourses are framed and how they are buttressed by our
institutional practices, policies, and mechanisms allows us to see not only how these patterns are replicated
and reproduced but also how they can be replaced (Bush 2011, 37).
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Critical Thinking
1. If race is a social construction, how might different institutions affect how race is perceived? How might these perceptions vary
across time and place?
2. Using yourself as an example, how has your identity changed as you shifted from being a preteen to a teen to a college student? Do
these changes remain constant across different institutions? (Think about the various clubs, committees, and groups to which you
belong.)
3. What kinds of impacts can you have in the various groups to which you belong? In what ways do your possible impacts reflect
your various identities?
4. Are there some groups to which you have greater or lesser access? What does your degree of access suggest about your level of
agency?
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The Operation of Racism
In the first half of this chapter, we have examined what race is, how it is constructed, and how it is
reproduced. We now shift our focus to the concept and operation of racism.
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Prejudice and Discrimination
Anyone can be the victim of prejudice. Prejudice is a judgment of an individual or group, often based on race,
ethnicity, religion, gender, class, or other social identities. It is often shaped by, and also leads to, the
promotion of stereotypes, which are assumptions or generalizations applied to an entire group. Even
seemingly positive stereotypes put people in boxes, like the myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority,”
which includes the stereotype that all Asian Americans are gifted in math and science. How might this
stereotype affect Asian American students who are not doing well in school? How does it prevent us from
seeing the poverty that specific Asian American groups, such as the Hmong, Cambodians, and Thais, are
more likely to experience (Takei and Sakamoto 2011)?
Prejudices and stereotypes are beliefs that often provide foundations for action in the form of discrimination
—that is, the differential allocation of goods, resources, and services, and the limitation of access to full
participation in society, based on an individual’s membership in a particular social category (Adams et al.
1997). Prejudices and stereotypes exist in the realm of beliefs, and when these beliefs guide the ways in which
we treat each other, they produce discrimination. Anyone can be the victim of prejudice, stereotyping, or
discrimination, including White people, and for a wide variety of reasons, such as clothing, appearance,
accent, and membership in clubs or gangs. Put simply, discrimination is prejudice plus power.
Prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination are probably what first come to mind when we think about racism.
But the study of racism goes far beyond these. Like sexism, racism is a system of oppression. Oppression is
more than simply individual beliefs and actions—it involves the systematic devaluing, undermining,
marginalizing, and disadvantaging of certain social identity groups in contrast to a privileged norm (Ferber
and Samuels 2010). Oppression is based on membership in socially constructed identity categories; it is not
based on individual characteristics.
One sociologist describes racial oppression as a birdcage: an interlocking network of institutional barriers that
prevents escape (Frye 2007). Alternatively, others point out the systemic nature of racial oppression. This
view posits that core racist realities, values, and ideologies are manifested in all of the major institutions within
society (Feagin 2001, 6). Throughout this text we will demonstrate how race exists both historically and
contextually as an ongoing form of inequality that pervades every major social institution, including education,
employment, government, health care, family, criminal justice, sports, and leisure. Thinking about oppression
as a birdcage helps us to understand how it limits people’s lives. For example, the gendered wage gap is just
one wire in the birdcage that constrains women. If it were the only wire, women could fly around it and
escape. However, women face inequality in the home (in domestic labor, child care, elder care, and more), in
education, in health care, in the workplace, in the criminal justice system, and more. They are trapped by an
entire system of wires that form a cage.
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Racism
Racism is a system of oppression by which those groups with relatively more social power subordinate
members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power. This subordination is supported by
individual actions, cultural values, and norms embedded in stock stories, as well as in the institutional
structures and practices of society (National Education Association 2015). It is inscribed in codes of conduct,
legal sanctions, and organizational rules and practices. Specifically, racism is the subordination of people of
color by those who consider themselves White; by implication, the practice of racism defines Whites as
superior and all non-Whites as inferior.
The Sociology of Racism
Racism is systemic. It is not about isolated individual actions; individual actions take place within a broader,
systemic, cross-institutional context. People of color may themselves harbor prejudices and discriminate on
the basis of race; however, without the larger social and historical context of systemic, systematic differences in
power, these individual actions do not constitute racism. While this may seem counterintuitive, keep in mind
that we are looking at racism from a sociological perspective, focusing on the importance of social context,
research, and group experience, rather than on individual behavior. Individual experiences of race and racism
will vary. We find it less important to focus on “racists” than on the social matrix of racism in which we live.
Additionally, while White people do not experience racism, they may face oppression based on sexual
orientation, class, or other social identities.
Who Practices Racism?
Racism in the United States is directed primarily against Blacks, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and Native
Americans. Some argue that Muslims may also be considered targets of racism, as they are becoming a
racialized group. Racism is the basis of conflict and violence in societies throughout the world, and the forms
it takes are varied. Racism is practiced by Whites against Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians in South Africa; by
Islamic Arabs against Black Christians in the Sudan; by East Indians against Blacks in Guyana; by those of
Spanish descent against those of African and Indian descent in Brazil and Paraguay; by White “Aryans”
against Jews and the Romani (Gypsies) in Germany; by the Japanese against the Eta, or Burakumin, in Japan;
and by Whites against Africans, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in Great Britain. Racism can take many forms,
and it changes over time.
Types of Racism
Formal or overt racism occurs when discriminatory practices and behaviors are sanctioned by official rules,
codes, or laws of an organization, institution, or society. Many of the most obvious forms of racism are no
longer legally or openly accepted in U.S. society. Such racist practices as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Black
codes, the Indian Removal Act, the internment of Japanese residents during World War II, and the Chinese
Exclusion Act are now condemned (but also too conveniently forgotten). Debate is ongoing regarding
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whether or not other practices—such as immigration policy, the display of the Confederate flag, and the use
of American Indian sports mascots—are racist in intent or impact.
Informal or covert racism is subtle in its application, and often ignored or misdiagnosed. It acts informally in
that it is assumed to be part of the natural, legitimate, and normal workings of society and its institutions.
Thus, when we discuss student learning outcomes we may talk about poor motivation, inadequate schools, or
broken homes. We ignore that these characteristics are also typically associated with poor Black and Latino/a
neighborhoods (Coates 2011). Microaggressions are subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed
toward individuals of oppressed social groups, sometimes made unconsciously. Research on college campuses
finds that even when things look fine on the surface, inequality and discrimination still manifest themselves in
“subtle and hidden forms” that shape interactions and experiences in dorms, classrooms, dining halls, and
student health centers. Over time, these can affect students’ performance, and even their mental and physical
health (we discuss microaggressions in more depth in Chapter 5).
The subtle insults known as microaggressions are common in everyday interactions, like at the post
office, even when things seem fine on the surface.
Education Images / UIG via Getty Images
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Understanding Privilege
When we study racism, we most often study the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups. However,
everyone’s life is shaped by race. Privilege is the flip side of oppression—it involves the systemic favoring,
valuing, validating, and including of certain social identities over others. Whiteness is a privileged status.
The Privilege of Whiteness
To be White is to have greater access to rewards and valued resources simply because of group membership.
Because they exist in relationship to each other, oppression and privilege operate hand in hand; one cannot
exist without the other. Just like oppression, privilege is based on group memberships, not individual factors.
We do not choose to be the recipients of oppression or privilege, and we cannot opt out of either one. A
White person driving down the street cannot ask the police to pull her over because of her race. Experiences
of racism can affect some people and not others independent of their desires and behaviors.
Making Whiteness visible by acknowledging privilege allows us to examine the ways in which all White
people, not just those we identify as “racist,” benefit from their racial categorization. Accepting the fact that
we live in a society that is immersed in systems of oppression can be difficult, because it means that despite
our best intentions, we all participate in perpetuating inequality. In fact, privilege is usually invisible to the
people who experience it until it is pointed out. The reality is that White people do not need to think about
race very often. Their social location becomes both invisible and the assumed norm.
Research on White privilege has grown over the past three decades, along with the interdisciplinary subfield
of Whiteness studies. Works by literary theorists, legal scholars, anthropologists, historians, psychologists,
and sociologists alike have contributed to this burgeoning field (Brodkin 1998; Case 2013; Jacobson 1998;
Haney López 2006; Moore, Penick-Parks, and Michael 2015; Morrison 1992). However, people of color have
been writing about White privilege for a long time. Discussions of White privilege are found in the works of
writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells.
Whites are seen as the average, normal, universal human: the “mythical norm” (Lorde [1984] 2007).
Descriptions in newspapers and books assume that subjects are White unless other racial identities are
made clear. Some were outraged when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione Granger in Harry
Potter and the Cursed Child, despite the character’s race being neither relevant nor specified in the Harry
Potter series.
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David M. Bennett / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images
Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) classic article “White Privilege and Male Privilege” was one of the first attempts by a
White person to document the unearned advantages that Whites experience on a daily basis. For example,
White privilege means being able to assume that most of the people you or your children study with in school
will be of the same race; being able to go shopping without being followed around in the store; never being
called a credit to your race; and being able to find “flesh-colored” bandages to match your skin color.
McIntosh also identifies a second type of privilege that gives one group power over another. This conferred
dominance legitimates privileges that no one should have in a society that values social justice and equity, such
as the right to “own” another human being.
Most of us are the beneficiaries of at least one form of privilege, and often many more. Recognizing this often
leads people to feel guilt and shame. However, privilege is derived from group membership; it is not the result
of anything we have done as individuals. We are born into these systems of privilege and oppression; we did
not create them. Once we become aware of them, though, we must be accountable and work to create change.
We can choose whether to acknowledge privilege as it operates in our lives, and whether to use it as a means
of creating social change. As Shelly Tochluk (2008, 249–50) notes, this requires that we “begin with personal
investigation. . . . If we are going to take a stand, we need to feel prepared to deal with our own sense of
discomfort and potential resistance or rejection from others.”
The Impact of Stock Stories
The enduring stock story of the United States as a meritocracy makes it very difficult for us to see inequality as
institutionalized (McNamee and Miller 2014). An “oppression-blind” belief system ignores the reality of
inequality based on social group memberships and sees the United States as the land of equal opportunity,
where anyone who works hard can succeed (Ferber 2012).
It is no wonder that individuals, especially those who are most privileged, often resist acknowledging the
reality of ongoing inequality. We are immersed in a culture where the ideology of oppression blindness is
pervasive. The news and entertainment media bombard us with color-blind “depictions of race relations that
suggest that discriminatory racial barriers have been dismantled” (Gallagher 2009, 548). However, these
institutionalized barriers still exist. Individuals often experience some cognitive dissonance when confronted
with the concept of privilege. We often turn to our familiar stock stories to explain how we feel, countering
with responses like “The United States is a meritocracy!” or “Racism is a thing of the past!” Table 1.2 lists
some common responses, informed by our stock stories, to learning about privilege (Ferber and Samuels
2010). Do you share any of these feelings?
While our stock stories serve the interests of the dominant group, they are a part of our socialization and
social fabric and become perceived as natural, normal, and the way of the world. It is easy to forget that these
stories were created at specific moments to justify specific sets of interactions. Race, as part of our structured
social system, has become reali…
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