The Social Significance of Race
What is the social significance of race? Why does it continue to exist in our society even though scientific evidence invalidates most of the assumptions behind the idea? More than anything, race is about power. Race and ethnicity are means by which power is distributed unequally. This has been true throughout the history of the United States. By the year 1688, Colonial laws began to set whites apart from blacks.
This occurred shortly after an uprising known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy landowner in Virginia promised to grant all indentured servants and slaves freedom if they took part in the uprising. This revolt united small farmers, indentured servants, and slaves. By uniting poor whites and African slaves, this revolt threatened the power and wealth of colonial rulers who sought to pass laws to keep the races divided. Under the new laws that were passed in 1688, blacks became permanent slaves who were punished more harshly for crimes, and many of the rights they had been given previously were taken away. At the same time, whites were given moreprestige and rights, including the role of policing slaves. These laws became a model for many other colonies who sought to maintain power and wealth through the system of slavery.
As the United States government was being established, the concept of race was built into the Constitution which was used to justify slavery. Slaves were considered three-fifths of a person, states that owned slaves were taxed based on the three-fifths rule and Congress and states were given the authority to suppress slave uprisings and return fugitive slaves to their masters by all means possible. Although slavery had existed prior to this period in ancient societies, this was the first time that it was based on the idea of race. This was also the only form of slavery to deny rights to individuals, including parental rights and marriage. For this reason, slavery in America is considered one of the most brutal forms of slavery to ever have existed.
Race and ethnicity are still used as a means of dividing groups. Often, certain racial or ethnic groups are viewed asscapegoats who are the cause of social problems such as joblessness and high crime. In the November 2006 election, a political ad was used to scapegoat Hispanics as illegal aliens who take jobs from Americans, do not pay taxes, are convicted child molesters, and are a huge tax burden. While the politician running for office lost the election by a landslide, this same type of commercial had won the election for North Carolina senator Jesse Helms years before, only Helms’ ad featured African Americans as scapegoats who got the jobs white Americans wanted because of Affirmative Action.
WEBLINK: Watch the video: Political Ad
Race has continued to play a role in recent political races.
According to Marx and Engels, race and ethnicity are important means of dividing workers. Under the system of capitalism, racist ideologies are created and maintained to pit workers against one another and to make them feel as though they are competing for scarce resources. This competition between native born workers and foreigners keeps workers from uniting against the injustices of inequality found in the capitalist economic system. In other words, workers are taught to see themselves as divided among race and ethnicity rather than uniting as a social class. Throughout the history of the United States, we see this common pattern occur among newly arriving immigrants. Irish, Italian, and Polish Americans were considered lazy, uneducated criminals who drank too much and were a threat to American culture. Asian Americans also faced similar labels as are Latinos today.
According to Scapegoat Theory, those who are less fortunate in society take out their frustration on others who are disadvantaged as well. Members of the working class are more prone to this type of prejudice. They take out their frustration on people who are powerless rather than those who are powerful. An excellent example of this is when a person working in a factory complains about Hispanics coming to America to take their jobs. Minority groups are usually safe targets because they lack power to do anything. It also makes a person feel better about their own lack of success if they have someone else to look down on. The political ads mentioned above by Robinson and Helms pictured members of the working class who were frustrated that they lost jobs due to Affirmative Action and immigration. This is an excellent illustration of scapegoat theory.
Scapegoats are often a means of power for political leaders. Using the powerful tools of propaganda, Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic, social, and political turmoil. At the time that Hitler rose to power, Germans were vulnerable to believing the propaganda. Forced to pay war reparations after a failing economy and the Great Depression, Germany was in the midst of a major economic crisis. It was a time of fear and uncertainty. Thus, Hitler’s attacks on Jews provided many with a means of venting their frustration. There were an estimated 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.