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Essay/Term paper: Issue in institutional racism

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Racism and Discrimination

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The history of the United States is one of duality. In the words of
the Declaration of Independence, our nation was founded on the
principles of equality in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet, long before the founders of the newly declared state met in
Philadelphia to espouse the virtues of self-determination and freedom
that would dubiously provide a basis for a secessionary war, those same
virtues were trampled upon and swept away with little regard. Beneath
the shining beacon of freedom that signaled the formation of the United
States of America was a shadow of deception and duplicity that was
essential in creating the state. The HSS 280 class lexicon defines
duality as "a social system that results from a worldview which accepts
inherent contradictions as reasonable because this is to the believer"s
benefit." The early years of what would become the United States was
characterized by a system of duality that subjugated and exterminated
peoples for the benefit of the oppressors. This pattern of duality,
interwoven into our culture, has created an dangerously racialized
society. From the first moment a colonist landed on these shores,
truths that were "self-evident" were contingent on subjective
"interpretation." This discretionary application of rights and freedoms
is the foundation upon which our racially stratified system operates
on.
English colonists, Africans, and Native Americans comprised the early
clash of three peoples. Essentially economic interests, and namely
capitalism, provided the impetus for the relationships that developed
between the English colonists, the Africans, and the Native Americans.
The colonialization of North American by the British was essentially an
economic crusade. The emergence of capitalism and the rise of trade
throughout the 16th century provided the British with a blueprint to
expand its economic and political sphere. The Americas provided the
British with extensive natural resources, resources that the
agrarian-unfriendly British isles could not supply for its growing
empire.
When Britons arrived in North America, the indigenous population posed
an economic dilemma to the colonists. The Native Americans were settled
on the land that the British colonists needed to expand their economic
capacity. To provide a justificatory framework for the expulsion of
Native Americans off their land, the English colonists created a
ideology that suited their current needs.
The attitude of Anglos toward the Native Americans began as one of
ambivalence and reliance. When the English first arrived in North
America, they needed the Indians to survive the unfamiliar land and
harsh weather. Once the English became acclimated to their surroundings
and realized that the Indians were living on valuable land, it was only
a matter of time before guns and shackles replaced treaties and
handshakes.
In the name of Christianity and capitalism, the English colonists
quickly turned their backs on the short lived missionary zeal that
characterized the early colonial period. Now, the "savage Indians" were
viewed as unable to save themselves and extermination would be a worthy
enterprise in the sight of the Lord. The idea that one possesses a
God-given right to mistreat others runs through much of Western culture
and became especially acute in North America after the emergence of
capitalism.
For example, in New England many settlers rejoiced at the extraordinary
death brought upon the Native American population by the introduction of
epidemic diseases. It was viewed as a way of "thinning out" the
population. In the world of the New Jerusalem, where a city was to be
build upon a hill, such trite concerns were of little consequence for
those with divine providence.
Duality, and its means of placing the truth and its allied freedoms in
the hands of the powerful, furnishes the "chosen ones" with wide
latitude to create theoretical arguments that justify and perpetuate
systemic arrangements of inequality. John Winthrop outlined his
reasoning for the British right to North American land in terms of
natural rights versus civil rights. Natural rights were those that men
enjoyed in a state of nature (i.e. Native Americans). When some men
began to parcel land and use tilled farming, they acquired civil rights
(English colonists). Inevitably, civil rights took precedence over
natural rights. This method of thinking enabled privilege to the
English and provided a justification for the institutional and systemic
extermination of the indigenous people (Growth 83).
Before addressing the subjugation of African-Americans by the English,
I think it is important that I make an important theoretical point in my
argument. All political systems are rational, in the sense that there
is a logic and a thinking that guides those making the rules. White
supremacy and its associated beliefs (Christianity, patriarchalism, etc)
provided the rationale for the creation of a system of duality that
institutionalized racism. Robert Smith writes about the inherent
contradiction of espousing the self-evident equality of men and their
God-given right to liberty while at the same time sanctioning genocide
and slavery (Smith 8). The only way this incongruity could be remedied
was to deny the fundamental humanity of those being oppressed. That
negation of one group humanity by another is the crux of duality and a
principle tenet of all forms of oppression and subjugation. To
objectify a group of people provides an oppressor with a recourse for
the actions one takes. In the case of the United States, subjugated
groups are often reduced to a stereotype that is not based in fact:
Native Americans were wild savages; Africans were lascivious, lewd
beings that engaged in bestiality with apes; Asians were sneaky,
mysterious and not to be trusted. What is important is the stereotype
fit an institutional definition that allows the group to be oppressed
without self-reflection about one"s perverse actions. Professor Turner
mentioned in class the Sarte quote, "To be a stone, you must make all
around you stone." And to act as a savage, one must make those around
oneself savages.
To address the enslavement of Africans, it becomes necessary to once
again look at the economics that fueled the decision to bring slavery to
the United States. In capitalism, a driving force is to minimize costs
and, as a result, maximize profits. The labor intensive tobacco and
cotton fields presented the need for a low cost labor supply. Impelled
by white supremacy, the English began to move away from the system of
indentured servitude that characterized the early years of
colonialization and towards slavery.
By definition slavery must be sanctioned by the society in which it
exists and such approval is most easily expressed in written norms and
laws. From the moment Africans set foot in North America, they faced a
system that perpetuated and encouraged their enslavement.
Throughout the 17th century, laws and regulations regarding slaves were
becoming more explicit in their dehumanization. All questions of
whether these men and women would be seen as such were erased with a
number of legislations that sough to erase any ambiguities. By 1705 the
only real question remaining was what type of property the slave was to
his captor.. Ringer writes "by 1705, Virginia had rationalized,
codified, and judicially affirmed it exclusion of blacks from any basic
concept of human rights under the law" (Ringer 67).
Intrinsic to the subjugation of Africans was an ideology that reduced
Africans to lesser beings. Reasoning behind this idea has gone from
Christian beliefs to "scientific" evidence to current day beliefs in
African-American laziness (an idea whose roots are as old as white
supremacy) and the use of IQ tests as measures of innate intelligence.
What has stayed constant is a manipulation of the "truth" and a myopic
self-interest by those parties with an interest in keeping privilege.
White supremacy and it dualistic vision of society became
institutionalized in colonial North America, emanating from the base and
structure of society. The Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were
no more than words on paper, with short lived legislative muscle. From
the vision of Forty Acres and a Mule, the newly freed African-Americans
moved on to sharecropping, lynchings, and segregation.
The mid to late 19th century witnessed the beginning of Chinese
migration to the United States. Immediately, they were met by various
laws and ordinances designed to restrict their economic, political, and
social advancement. This was combined with racial commentaries that
echoed those levied against Native Americans and Africans. The Chinese
were heathen, morally inferior, savage, and childlike. The Chinese were
also viewed as lustful and sensual. Often Chinese immigrants were
depicted in cartoons with devil-like features and devious expressions.
Economics also played an important role in the discrimination Chinese
faced in the United States. Chinese exclusion, a policy initiated in
1882, banned U.S. entry to Chinese laborers. After the U.S. acquisition
of California in 1848, there arose a need for cheap labor, and Chinese
flocked there to work on the railroads. By 1867 they numbered 50,000;
their number increased after the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which
permitted Chinese immigration but not naturalization. Anti-Asian
prejudice and the competition with American workers led to anti-Chinese
riots in San Francisco in 1877, then to the Chinese Exclusion Act of
1882, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. Once again
inherent contradictions were seen as reasonable because it was to the
believer"s benefit. A scarcity of employment opportunities combines
with prejudices to create a atmosphere of hatred and political blame
directed toward the Chinese immigrants (The Heathen Chinese 230-240).
Another case of dualistic application of justice towards the
Asian-American community is the case of Japanese-American internment
during the Second World War. In 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt
rationalized the deportation of Japanese nationals and
Japanese-Americans with "A Jap is a Jap". When second-generation
Japanese-Americans in the nation"s ten concentration camps were drafted
for the war effort for cannon fodder, outraged Japanese-Americans formed
the Fair Play Committee to protest the conscription of those who were
not guaranteed the least bit of civil rights. In reply, the US
government jailed those who refused to serve, questioning their loyalty
and admonishing them for not embracing the opportunity to discharge the
duties of citizenship. Perverse logic such as this often guides racist
policies and the institutions they uphold in a dualistic society
(Okihiro 118-20).
Latino Americans have faced similar obstacles other disadvantaged
groups have endured within the United States system of duality. A prime
example was the relations between the United States government and the
island of Puerto Rico. When the Puerto Rican people joined the United
States in its war against Spain, they were promised the "blessings of
the liberal institutions of our government." What they received was the
Foraker Act, which made the island the first legally defined
unicoroporated territory without any promise of statehood or protection
of the Constitution. Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1790, all
previous conquered lands had been treated as colonist extensions of the
United States, with the promise of eventual statehood. But for
commercial and industrial interests, the island of Puerto Rico was
denied this right of self-governance. Combine those interests with good
old fashioned racism and you have a pretty damn punitive system.
Beliefs such as that Puerto Ricans were inherently incapable of
government for the people and by the people provided justification for
an authoritarian system. The inability to engage in effective
self-government was based on theories of racial purity and proximity to
the equator (Puerto Rico 947-1001).
A contemporary issue that illustrates the relationship between
individual attitudes about race and the consequences of institutional
racism is the debate over affirmative action in admissions to institutes
of higher education. The Regents of the University of California v.
Bakke was the last definitive statement the Supreme Court has made on
affirmative action in an educational setting. It allowed race to be a
factor in admissions to universities and colleges but forbid the use of
quotas. In response to those that argued that the Constitution should
be color-blind, Thurogood Marshall wrote in the Bakke decision, that
"for several hundred years Negroes have been discriminated against not
as individual, but rather solely because of the color of their skins."
While interpretation is widespread and diverse on what that decision
actually meant, it has generally been interpreted as accepting the
prevalence of institutional racism. Justice Blackmun stated in his
opinion that to overcome racism it may be necessary to take into account
race, not in order to subjugate a race but for the purpose of ending
subjugation (Smith 158).
So the question I would like to address is the furor over so-called
"reverse racism" brought on by affirmative actions programs. A
conservative argument against these programs states that any program
that addresses race is racist in nature. But the basic equation
Professor Turner outlined in dealing with racism was:
Power + Privilege + Prejudice = Racism.
Preconditions for racism include the ability to define the requirements
of participation and the power to subordinate a certain disadvantaged
group. In this academic framework, it is absurd to consider affirmative
actions that seek to increase participation of African-American and
other disadvantaged minorities in education racist because of the nature
of the power and of the privilege relationships involved in these
policies. Unfortunately, the individual view of racism, defined in
narrow personal terms, has come to dominate the public debate. No
longer are politicians and the courts willing to address the
institutional basis of racism. This brings me to the final point of the
paper: Should public policy be color blind in a race conscious society?
In The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson brought to the
forefront the crisis of the underclass. Robert Smith critiques Wilson
for his lack of recognition of racism as a factor in perpetuating an
underclass. Placing the blame for poverty and the underclass on
economic causes, Wilson supports universal policy initiatives. But this
does not address the fact that African-American poverty is more severe
than white poverty. And most importantly it does not address the
structure of racism and, consequently, of poverty. Institutional racism
is a problem that lies at the heart of the African-American underclass.
In the American Dilemma , Gunner Myrdal defined the cumulative nature of
discrimination, where discrimination in one area can result in
discrimination in another and then another, creating what is commonly
called the vicious cycle (Smith 160). Specific programs are needed to
try to break this cycle. A recent Cornell Review article, addressing
affirmative action in the California school system, stated that
African-American students were admitted to the universities with an
average SAT score of 300 points below what the average white, accepted
student achieved. While this article attacked affirmative action
policies as unfair to white applicants, I think as a society we need to
address the question of why there is a 300 point gap between the two
groups. In Myrdal"s framework, it makes perfect sense to attack a link
in the cycle, by providing an educational opportunity that will pay
dividends in the long run.
In a 1965 speech to Howard University, Lyndon Johnson provided this
argument for affirmative action programs to address institutional
racism: "We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal
equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory but
equality as a fact and as a result " (Smith 160). Institutional racism
is embedded in our society and will be most difficult to extricate
because it involves a forfeiture of privilege. But the stakes are high
and the consequences of inaction seem to be severe. Freedom is only the
first step towards the establishment of true equality.

Works Cited

Okhiro, Gary. "The Victimization of Asians In America." The World And
I. April 1993, pp. 397-413

Racism In The United States Course Packet. "Growth of the English
Ideology of Race In America," ; Ringer, John We The People And Others ;
"The Heathen Chinee," And American Technology"; "Puerto Rico As An
Unincorporated Territory: The Early Years And The Struggle Over
American Citizenship."

Smith, Robert. Racism In The Post Civil Rights Era. SUNY Press. Albany
1995.
 

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