What is Racism?

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Race is Constructed and not Based in Science

What is race? What are the genetic indicators that define different races?
When we talk about race, we aren’t referring to a biological category. Race is an artificial classification of people that is not based on any scientifically verifiable facts. In other words, the distinction we make between races, has nothing to do with inherent genetic characteristics. Race is socially constructed, created by how people are perceived and treated in the normal actions of everyday life. Race is a political construction, created by people to classify human beings with the purpose of giving power to white people and to legitimize the dominance of white people over non-white people.

The meaning of race is determined by the time and place it is being considered. In U.S. history, who is considered “white” has changed over time with groups like the Irish, Italians and Jews achieving “whiteness” when it was politically expedient for the dominant group. Other groups, especially those who are descended from African, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Asian descent, have found the path for group socioeconomic mobility far more difficult. The unequal boundaries of color affect the educational and economic opportunity, political representation, health, income, wealth and social mobility of people of color.

“People of color” is not a term that refers to a real biological or scientific distinction between people. People of color in the U.S. share the common experience of being targeted and oppressed by racism. Unfortunately, one of the ways racism operates is to keep people of color divided. Many people only think about their specific ethnic or racial group when discussing oppression or the need to build political power. The term people of color allows people to think more broadly and has movement-building potential.

What is Whiteness? Who is White?

The term white emerged as a classification of people during the 1700s in the British colonies of North America. Europeans were immigrating to “the New World” for many reasons, some seeking prosperity while many people were escaping persecution, particularly religious and ethnic conflict. As Europeans arrived in America, groups such as Germans, Dutch, English, French etc. were brought into close proximity, most of them for the first time. In the colonies, the European settlers in power were under considerable stress, attempting to maintain control of their African slaves and their white indentured servants, while trying to protect themselves from the perceived threat from Native Americans.

At this time, poor white indentured servants were building alliances and relationships with African slaves due to their similar state of oppression. The term white was defined as anyone without a drop on African or Indian blood. The category white was created as a political construct that was used as an organizing tool to unite Europeans in order to consolidate strength, increasing their ability to maintain control and dominance over the Native Americans and African slaves, who in many places outnumbered Europeans. Paul Kivel says, “Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”

But just because race and whiteness are constructed, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fundamentally affect our world in real ways.

What is Institutional or Structural Racism?

Structural racism is not bigotry, prejudice or isolated racist acts. Though the latter are real and should be addressed, the racism present in our food and other systems is a process that is built into the nation’s past and present, its social norms, language and institutional policies, its economic system and culture and its militarism against people of color both in the US and abroad. Multiple institutions (education, health care, transportation, housing, government and many others) make up our structural arrangements. These structures are NOT race, gender, class neutral and as they interact their impact is cumulative. They have created multi-generational exclusions from opportunities that continue to manifest today.

Institutional racism is The ways in which the structures, systems, policies,and procedures of institutions in the U.S. are founded upon and then promote, reproduce, and perpetuate advantages for white people and the oppression of people of color. The ways in which institutions legislate and structure reality to advantage white people and oppress people of color. The ways in which institutions — Housing, Government, Education, Media, Business, Health Care, Criminal Justice, Employment, Labor, Politics, Church – perpetuate racism. Examples: people of color under-represented and misrepresented on television, racially biased standardized tests used to determine who will be admitted to higher education programs and institutions, historic and ongoing breaking of treaties with indigenous Native American communities, reliance on low-paying illegal immigrant labor by farms and factories.