The term race first originated as a system of ideas, identities, and materials that emerged slowly in the context of Western European imperialism and colonial expansion beginning in the 15th century (Goodman). This term that we have created has constituted a divide in the human race, in which we have used to separate and discriminate innocent peoples. America has attempted to amend our history of racism through Constitutional Amendments and other legal means, however, these attempts have fallen short in fulfilling their intended purposes; even today in 2017, despite equality on paper, social norms show that disparities still exist between minorities and white America.
As the Western World began its advancement towards a more developed and omnipotent society, a need for manual labor cultivated a power hierarchy, laying the foundation for racism. European settlers in colonial America were reluctant to do the labor necessary to achieve development, resulting in the beginning of labor trade. This act of importing indentured servants from England introduced the pattern of servitude and provided a model for slavery. Slavery in colonial America first emerged when African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to aid in the production of tobacco (Smedley). “The earliest rationale for racial slavery did not invoke differences in physical features, but rather identified Africans as uncivilized heathens” (Goodman). However, to justify their positioning in the social hierarchy, African salves needed some type of easily identifiable characteristic to differentiate themselves from those higher on the social ladder, including European servants. Because the most observable difference between the groups was skin color, this became the key characteristic of distinguishing social class, creating the concept of race in society. Through this, colony leaders consciously forced a social control mechanism to prevent the unification of the working poor while also setting up the dynamics of a racial social divide.
African slaves in colonial America throughout the 17th and 18th century, helped build the economic foundations of the new “free nation”. As the new nation moved toward industrialization, slavery became even more vital to the country’s growth, especially in the South. As slavery amplified, so did the racist ideology behind it. The enslavement of people became race-based, affecting any African Americans living in North America (Wood). Hereditary race slavery was also introduced, imprisoning future generations into inhumane servitude.
As slavery continued to grow, philosophers and other political figures began to speak out against slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade, focusing on the inhumanity and immorality of slavery—ideas that would be picked up by abolitionists in the last 1700s (Oldfield). Alongside these activists, resistance from African slaves cultivated, resulting in slave rebellions. The conflict and divide between the slave holders and abolishers grew until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Following the Southern defeat, the 13th Amendment was passed, supposable abolishing slavery in America. This amendment states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (2009).
Despite their apparent efforts in eradicating slavery, the 13th Amendment states that forced servitude, similar to the concept of slavery, is an acceptable punishment for people who have been convicted of crimes. Following this amendment, laws and social practices, such as convict leasing and vagrancy laws, were set in place to target African Americans, criminalizing them and placing them back into a similar state of servitude.
In addition to African American criminalization, segregation within society developed in the form of laws and social practices, perpetuating racism tendencies. The segregation and disenfranchisement laws knowns as “Jim Crow” mandated segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants (PBS). Along with this, “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs were constant reminders of racial hierarchy. This segregation implied that black people were so subhuman and inferior that they could not even use the sample public facilities as white people.
In 1866, the 14th Amendment was passed in order to resolve pre-Civil War questions of African American citizenship by stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside.” The amendment also clarified the privileges and rights of all citizens, and granted all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Legally, under this amendment, black citizens received “separate but equal” treatment, when in reality, public facilities for black people were always inferior and underfunded compared to white facilities. Despite the claim of “separate but equal”, black citizens were still denied the right to vote.
However, in 1870, the 15th Amendment, prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Nevertheless, African Americans attempting to vote were often told by election officials that they had gotten the date, time, or polling place wrong, that they possessed insufficient literacy skills, or that they had filled out an application incorrectly (2009). It wasn’t until after the Voting Rights Act that the United States legally prohibited racial discrimination in voting, but protests and other social practices still occurs.
Despite the legal efforts in eliminating a racial division, social tensions created cultural riffs. Societal discriminations such as restrictive covenants, block busting, racial steering, and redlining took place, further impeded racial equality. Restrictive covenants were contractual agreements that properties would not be sold, leased, or rented to “undesirable” groups. Realtors “steered” white and black clients towards homes or apartments primarily in neighborhoods with residents similar to the clients. Alternatively, some realtors used fear of minorities moving into neighbors to discourage people from buying homes in the area. This allowed realtors to buy homes cheaply and sell to minorities for a high profit (Tamura). These events contributed to the re-segregation of minorities.
Even today, in modern America, when legally on paper, all races are equal, we find segregation and discrimination. Institutional racism exists all around us, if you have gone to school, lived in a house, had a job, or been to the doctor, you’ve likely been hurt or helped by institutional racism at some point in your life. “Institutional racism is defined as the pattern of social and political systems discriminating against a group of people based on race” (Mercado). A new study on wrongful convictions shows how the justice system disproportionately affects black people. The study found that among three types of crimes (murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes) black people were consistently more likely to be wrongfully convicted (Vega). Other sources of discrimination can be seen through educational systems and unemployment. A study reported that 74% of black students attend schools that are more than half-minority populations (Vega), showing that segregation still exists in our society today, despite all of our past efforts to end it. It has been stated that many schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s and 1960s (Vega). Furthermore, in 2013, the unemployment rate for black college graduates was almost twice as high as the rate for graduates overall (Vega).
Despite these hindrances, people are stepping up and speaking out for minorities through protests and other social movements. One of the most popular and well known social movements currently taking place is the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement originated in 2013 by three radical Black organizers in response to the release of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman (2017). The purpose of this movement is to organize and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. This movement has grown exponentially, spreading world-wide, and gaining public attention across the nation. There is hope that from these activist, a change in societal beliefs will change for the better.
Despite all efforts to amend our history of racism, America has fallen short and is in need of a change in conversation. As Cornel West said, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people, but with the flaws of American society–flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.” There needs to be change our viewpoint on the situation at hand. We must learn to appreciate diversity and use it as a means to unify instead of divide.