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Posts Tagged ‘race’

In the debates over social policies, one often hears historical claims roughly along these lines: “Minorities these days want it easy. When my ancestors came they got no help and just did it on their own.” Arguments like this have been raised against programs designed to help African Americans. In his classic 1981 study, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880, Stanley Lieberson showed that, however hard many of the European immigrants had it a century or so ago, they faced nothing like the discrimination and repression American blacks did; the comparison is a false one.

Bread Line, Bowery, NY, c. 1910 (source)

Bread Line, Bowery, NY City, c. 1910 (source)

Today’s debates over immigrant policy evoke similar sorts of historical assertions: that unlike immigrants today, immigrants of the past were legal, learned English, and took no handouts on their route to the American Dream. In fact, however, many immigrants in earlier periods were allowed across the border with little regulation and many others were indeed illegal. (Arthur Miller’s classic play, A View from the Bridge, is about “undocumented” Italian immigrants to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s.) In an earlier post, I discussed how immigrants a century ago actually learned English more slowly than immigrants do today. As to “handouts,” Cybelle Fox in a recent article and in her well-received 2012 book, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, shows that we’ve misunderstood the welfare history, too. The Europeans got many a hand up.

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Guest Blog by Aliya Saperstein*

 A person’s race is as fixed as the color of his or her skin or the shape of his or her eyes – or so it seems. In fact, across American history, from the era of “octoroons” and “quadroons” and the days when the courts debated whether “Hindus” were white to recent arguments over what race or races Barack Obama should have checked on his census form, racial categories have not been so fixed. New research by our guest blogger (here, here, and hereshows that even a particular person’s race can shift from one time to another. What race we think someone is in part reflects the popular stereotypes we have about race and social difference.

Americans tend to think of race as a fixed characteristic defined by descent. During the early 20th century the “one-drop rule” crystallized legal segregation. Anyone with any known African ancestry was to be classified and treated simply as black. The rule applied even to people who appeared to be white, such as Walter White, a prominent early member of the NAACP.

The very fact that the United States tried so hard to impose such sharp distinctions suggests that race was not so much a biological or genetic characteristic but a socially constructed one. If racial differences were “natural,” how could the same person be considered blanca (white) in Brazil, or perhaps mestiza in Mexico, but black in the United States? How could the same person be described by the Census as “White” in 1910, “Hindu” in 1930, “Other” in 1960, and “Asian Indian” from 1980 on?

Nevertheless, most Americans still think a person’s race is fairly obvious and unchanging; we know it the minute we meet him or her. Similarly, most academic research also treats race as fixed and foreordained. A person’s race comes first and then his or her experiences, education, job, neighborhood, income, and well-being follow. My research with Andrew Penner on how survey respondents were classified by race over the course of their lives, calls into question this seemingly obvious “fact.”

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Obama’s Racial Penalty

Barack Obama has run his presidential races with an extra weight on his shoulders: being black. Sure, there are some pundits who claim that he benefits from his race – black loyalty, white guilt, and such – but serious scholars understand that his race has been, in net, a notable disadvantage. My rough sense from looking at some of the political science analyses of the 2008 campaign is that he may have gained about 1 percent in the final vote by garnering more black support than a white Democrat would have gotten, but that he lost about 5 percent of the vote by getting less white support than a white Democrat would have gotten – for a net minus of about four. Four points in a presidential race is a lot.

As an historical matter, it is striking that Obama’s racial penalty has not been higher. As a political matter, the question of whether the penalty will still be that high in 2012 may make all the difference in who wins the White House. Or maybe, one study suggests, the penalty might be even higher.

(The picture here, by the way, is from a 2009 study showing that the less favorable on-line respondents were to Obama, the more likely they were to pick the darkened picture of him as the accurate one.)

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Execution Songs

For millennia, executions were a major public event in the western world. Hanging or shooting or stoning or burning or disemboweling someone in the public square served to warn people against transgressing the law, denying the faith, or just ticking off the ruler. Public executions were also opportunities for moral instruction as presiding ministers extracted death-pyre confessions from the soon-to-be-deceased and chastised onlookers about their immoralities. But public executions also provided great entertainment. Crowds of spectators thrilled to the horror, gore, and ghoulishness, while they drank, partied, and cheered – and perhaps reflected on the World to Come.

By the mid-20th century most western nations had abolished the death penalty. Growing sensibility and sentimentality among the middle classes had led them to abhor the public spectacle and then the very idea of killing even killers. The United States has not, of course, abolished capital punishment, but by mid-century executions here had moved behind closed doors and become solemn ceremonies in front of small and select audiences.

In a recent Journal of Social History paper, Ithaca College historian Michael Trotti adds an important racial dimension to this story of the western “civilizing process.” In the U.S. South, moving executions indoors seemed to spur an increase in lynchings, as authorities tried to make executions less inspirational and more intimidating to blacks.

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Slavery’s Heavy Hand

In an earlier post, I mused about the notion of the “heavy hand of history,” the idea that long-past conditions pull us in certain directions even generations after the fateful events. One of the very earliest users of the phrase, in 1944, was an eminent psychologist who was trying to understand the situation of African Americans 80 years after Emancipation.

Slave Family 1862_LC-USZCN4-280

Now, a just-published study reinforces the point, showing that the deeper a southern county’s immersion in slavery in 1860, the greater the black-white inequality in that county in 2000.

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Was Slavery, Is Slavery

A recent story on plans across the South to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the secession that sparked the Civil War reported that its advocates dismissed the issue of slavery as irrelevant.

LC-B8184-10477

One planner said “our people were only fighting [the Civil War] to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.” Another, while “not defending slavery, which he called an abomination, [said] ‘But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery’ . . .”

Such efforts to deny that slavery brought on the Civil War come from the Right, but they eerily connect to similar denials from the Left. Both positions are wrong. It was slavery; it still is slavery.
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In the Part 1 of this post, I asked whether Americans were increasingly dividing along the “culture wars” battlefront – an impression one would certainly get from media coverage of politics over the last decade or two. The research shows that, while the political class has become more polarized in the last generation, average Americans have not. On the so-called values issues, with the possible exception of abortion, Americans cluster around the middle, not in two opposed camps, and that middle has moved a bit to the left.

Source: Pepperdine Univ.

If the “culture wars” description of a fragmenting America is not accurate, does that mean that there are no growing divisions? Not necessarily. Here, I consider three deeper cleavages among Americans: by immigration status, by race, and by class (especially, by education).

(I draw largely on this 2009 article and chapter 9 of Century of Difference.)

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Juneteenth: Race? Slavery?

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement of emancipation in Texas on June 19, 1865.

source: jessamyn's photostream

Its 145th anniversary prompts reflection on how race and slavery got entangled early in American history. In those days, being black and being a slave did not necessarily go together. That association developed and then tightened over several generations.

The almost accidental entanglement of African origin and slavery has shaped our understanding of race ever since. And now the two are being disentangled, which raises tricky questions such as: What explains the disadvantages of African Americans?; Who should benefit from affirmative action?; and Is Barack Obama is really “black”?
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