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The Story of Race in America

Take a journey with us as we trace the evolution of racial thought and learn about the three main philosophical frameworks for what race is.  

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 The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history. The U.S. has never been without it.                                           DAVID R. ROEDIGER 

Tracing America's Evolution with Race: 1776 - Modern Times

"I do not imagine that there will ever be a well-informed and democratic society in which the distinction of races will completely disappear. But I do believe that freedom alone can erase the social lines that nature has drawn between them."

Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)

1776: The Declaration of Independence and Racial Paradoxes In 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal," yet the new nation was fundamentally shaped by a racial paradox. This document, emblematic of America's ideals, coexisted with a reality that enslaved Black people, embedding racial distinctions into the national identity. For white colonists, racial identity became a marker of privilege and belonging, profoundly shaping their personal and collective identities.

 

1790: The Naturalization Act and Early American Identity The Naturalization Act of 1790 explicitly limited citizenship to "free white persons." This early legislation reflected and reinforced a racialized national identity, where being white was legally codified as a key component of American citizenship. This law not only shaped the country's demographic makeup but also entrenched a societal hierarchy that affected the self-esteem and self-worth of non-white individuals within the nation.

Naturalist Philosophy of Race The naturalist philosophy of race posits that distinct racial categories are biologically inherent and that these differences determine individual and group traits and capabilities. This perspective was particularly influential from the late 18th century through much of the 19th century, championed by figures like Immanuel Kant and later by scientists during the era of scientific racism who sought to classify human beings into hierarchical groups based on physical characteristics. Despite being largely discredited by the scientific community in the 20th century due to advances in genetics and anthropology, elements of this viewpoint persist in some circles today, continuing to influence debates around genetics and racial differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1861-1865: The Civil War and the Battle Over National Identity The Civil War was not just a battle over the future of slavery but also a profound struggle over America's national identity. It highlighted the deep divisions and the internal conflict regarding race and equality. This period forced a reckoning with the contradictions of a nation founded on liberty yet built on racial oppression. For many Black individuals, the war and subsequent emancipation were pivotal in reshaping personal identities and visions of what American citizenship should entail.

1865-1870: Reconstruction Amendments and Redefining Identity The Reconstruction Amendments sought to redefine American identity by formally abolishing slavery (13th Amendment) and granting citizenship and equal protection under the law to all persons (14th Amendment), and protecting voting rights regardless of race (15th Amendment). These changes were critical in starting to dismantle the legal foundations of racial inequality, offering Black Americans a new framework for redefining personal identity and self-worth.

1910-1940: The Great Migration and Shifting Identities The Great Migration marked a significant transformation in the personal and collective identities of African Americans. By relocating from the oppressive environments of the South to the cities of the North, Black individuals sought not just better economic opportunities but also a redefinition of their social status and identity, away from the overt racist structures of the Jim Crow South.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1954-1968: Civil Rights Movement and National Reckoning The Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal era that challenged and reshaped America’s racial and national identity. The dismantling of legalized segregation and the push for equal rights forced a national reckoning with racial inequalities that had been deeply embedded in American society. This era was transformative for the self-esteem, self-worth, and personal identity of Black Americans, affirming their rights and value in a society that had long devalued them.

 

Social Constructionist Philosophy of Race Emerging prominently in the mid-20th century, the social constructionist philosophy of race argues that race is not a biological reality but a social construct. This view holds that racial categories are products of human perception and social practices, not of nature. Pioneered by scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, this perspective gained substantial academic traction by the 1960s and 1970s with further endorsements from sociologists like Howard Winant and Michael Omi. According to this framework, race is understood as a tool used historically to justify social inequalities, and its meanings vary widely across different cultures and historical periods. Today, it forms the basis for much of the contemporary analysis in sociology and anthropology, focusing on how races are invented and maintained by societal norms and institutional practices.

 

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963

 

1970-2000: Emerging New Perspectives on impact of Race and Discrimination Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, America witnessed significant shifts in its discourse on race, largely influenced by conservative thinkers like Thomas Sowell. This period focused on questioning the effectiveness of race-based policies, suggesting that economic and cultural factors should take precedence in addressing disparities. Debates centered around affirmative action and welfare policies highlighted deep divisions on how race and equality should be approached in policy and practice. These discussions marked an era of reevaluation of racial identities, where the emphasis began shifting towards individual responsibility and a reduction in focus on systemic racism, impacting how both Black and white Americans viewed their roles within society.

 

 

2000-2015: The growth of Multiculturalism and idea of a Post-Racial America The early 2000s brought a renewed focus on multiculturalism and the increasing visibility of racial and ethnic diversity. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a watershed moment, often prematurely hailed as the start of a "post-racial" America. This period was characterized by a sense of progressive optimism about race relations; however, it also sparked new tensions and highlighted persistent racial disparities. The discourse expanded to include discussions on systemic issues affecting minorities, such as police brutality and immigration policies, shaping a more complex understanding of racial identity and equality in America.

 

2013-Present: Social Media and Hyper Racial America

Since 2012, the advent of social media and widespread use of mobile phones have dramatically transformed the landscape of racial discourse in America. The killings of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and countless others were not only pivotal in sparking nationwide protests but were also crucially documented and disseminated through these digital platforms. The ability to record and share real-time evidence of racial injustice has played a critical role in raising awareness and mobilizing activism. This era of digital activism has heightened public exposure to instances of police brutality and systemic racism, challenging the nation to confront these issues more directly than ever before.

Race Skepticism Philosophy Race skepticism is a relatively recent philosophical approach that questions the very existence of race as a valid concept. Advocates of this philosophy, such as Anthony Appiah in the late 20th century and Dr. Sheena Mason in the 21st century, argue that the concept of race only serves to perpetuate divisions among humans without any scientific basis for doing so. Race skeptics contend that by dismantling the idea of race itself, society can more effectively address and eradicate racism. They promote a ‘raceless’ approach, where discussions and policies focus on eliminating racial categorizations and instead address cultural, ethnic, and individual diversity in more meaningful ways. This philosophy encourages a shift towards seeing identity in terms of personal experiences and shared humanity rather than racial characteristics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The recent Supreme Court rulings have intensified the national dialogue on race relations and the implementation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs across the United States. These decisions, which critically assess the legality of affirmative action and other race-based policies, mark a crucial turning point for DEI initiatives. In response to these legal shifts, organizations and educational institutions are now challenged to rethink how they promote diversity and inclusivity without traditional reliance on racial categorizations. This situation demands innovative approaches to maintain the commitment to diversity, pushing the nation to develop new methods that adhere to legal standards while striving to achieve genuine inclusion and belonging. 

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