Racial classification and ascriptive injury.

Author:Gowder, Paul
Position:III. The Causes of Hierarchical Classification B. The Historical Construction of Racial Categories through Conclusion: A New Color Blindness, with footnotes, p. 360-396
  1. The Historical Construction of Racial Categories

    There is substantial historical evidence that at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the socioeconomic elite in colonial Virginia created the category "white" in order to split a nascent political alliance between poor and bonded laborers of European descent and poor and bonded laborers of African descent. They did so by dividing the laborers into a hierarchically ordered pair of races. The goal was to "enlist [poor whites] actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborer with whom they had made common cause." (142)

    In the seventeenth century, European and African-descended bonded laborers in the Virginia colony were often allied--fleeing their masters together, marrying against their masters' wishes, and even rebelling together. (143) During that period, the social status of free colonists of African descent was substantially greater than that of later years: they owned land, litigated against free colonists of European descent as equals, and even owned bonded laborers, including bonded laborers of European descent. (144) The very term "white" does not appear in the first sixty years of Virginia colonial records. (145)

    After Bacon's Rebellion at the end of the seventeenth century, planter elites feared continued unrest from the alliance of European and African bonded laborers. (146) Accordingly, in the early eighteenth century, they worked to build an alliance with poorer colonists of European descent by creating a social hierarchy according to which the privileges of citizenship were granted to all "whites" and denied to all "negroes." (147) In pursuit of this strategy, the Virginia Assembly disenfranchised all "free negro, mulatto, or Indian" members of the community, and Governor William Gooch openly admitted that the purpose of this enactment was to lower the social status of members of these racial groups. (148) During the same period, numerous other laws were enacted to carve out an inferior social status for blacks. (149) Particularly, anti-miscegenation laws appeared first in Virginia in 1691, and then spread across the colonies. (150)

    At the same time, the planter elite enacted measures to increase the status of European-descended laborers. In particular, they wrote economic subsidies into law for the newly created category of "whites," including laws mandating that white laborers be employed in a specified proportion to the number of enslaved blacks on any given plantation. (151) The strategy worked: European servant rebellions stopped, and the elites no longer felt the need to fear lower-class, cross-"racial" alliance. (152)

    Thus, from the very beginning, race in the U.S. was created by the state for the purpose of imposing hierarchical subordination on nonwhites. (153) And this quickly became entrenched into our culture to the point that we became unable to remember a time when it had been otherwise. In 1806, Judge Tucker of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia could declare, in Hudgins v. Wrights, that "[f]rom the first settlement of the colony of Virginia to the year 1778, (Oct. Sess.) all negroes, Moors, and mulattoes, except Turks and Moors in amity with Great Britain, brought into this country by sea, or by land, were slaves," (154) and, by contrast, that "[a]ll white persons are and ever have been free in this country." (155) Barely a century after the crude legislative divide-and-conquer strategy of the elite brought it into being, the black-white racial and status distinction had become an eternal fact.

    Should the reader doubt the continuing relevance of our historical construction of race categories for current practices, current research in political science should help. According to recent work by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen, the geographical concentration of slavery exerts a continuing effect on racial attitudes even today: the concentration of slave ownership in 1860 predicts party identification, opposition to affirmative action, and resentment of blacks in a survey of white respondents in the South. (156) After excluding a number of potential mechanisms, the authors suggest, that this can be explained by the influence of parents on their children's racial attitudes (157) To the extent this is correct, there is compelling evidence for the notion that the political effect of racial politics, and the state action that drove it, can linger for hundreds of years and affect contemporary individual behavior. Accordingly, because it created these conditions in the first place, the state must bear some of the blame for the persistence of the psychological facts described in Part II.

  2. Segregation and Racialized Spaces

    This subpart describes the origin and persistence of residential segregation and the consequent creation of racialized spaces--spaces that are associated with racial groups (e.g., the black neighborhood or the white school). It also describes the consequences of the racialization of space. This includes both perceptual isolation that supports the stereotype formation described in the previous Part (158) and physical/social isolation that permits numerous types of concrete racial disadvantage. (159)

    At the start of the twentieth century, there was surprisingly little residential racial segregation. (160) However, in the early part of the century, segregated neighborhoods were created in the north as a response to industrialization and black migration to the northern cities. (161) Strategies used to create residential segregation included racially motivated violence by whites, coordinated economic action by whites to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods, zoning restrictions and other local government actions taken against black residents, racially restrictive covenants, "blockbusting"--real estate agents consciously taking advantage of white fear of black neighbors to concentrate blacks in ghettos--and, in the South, enforcement of de jure segregation laws. (162) After the World Wars, government investments in suburban transportation and homeownership programs for veterans facilitated white flight. (163) There was also copious private discrimination in the real estate industry in that period. (164) Government complicity in the discrimination included "redlining"--or endorsing lending discrimination--a practice that sometimes excluded entire cities from federal loan benefits. (165) It also included "slum redevelopment" that further displaced blacks and concentrated blacks in public housing projects. (166)

    After the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, existing patterns of racial segregation were maintained by private discrimination. Such discrimination included continuing systematic real estate industry discrimination, such as "steering" customers to racialized neighborhoods or failing to advertise mixed-race neighborhoods, (167) as well as the unwillingness of individual whites to move to mixed-race neighborhoods. (168) Lenders also discriminated against mixed-race neighborhoods. (169) "White flight" further contributes to continuing segregation: simply put, whites tend to leave neighborhoods with a substantial number of black people. (170) Moreover, the state remains complicit today in racial residential segregation by directing disparate police attention and intimidation against blacks and other people of color when they leave minority neighborhoods. (171)

    While residential segregation has declined over the last few decades, it remains significant. (172) Importantly, even though we intuitively would expect economic segregation, driven by factors like housing prices in the most desirable areas, to be more important than racial segregation, the most recent analyses show this to not be true: blacks and Latinos are both more segregated from whites than are the poor from the wealthy. (173) This residential racial segregation has had dramatic effects on black disadvantage. Massey and Denton have shown that racial segregation leads to concentrated poverty, which in turn worsens the condition even of non-poor blacks--because they are subjected to the social consequences of poverty despite their relative wealth--and improves the condition of whites. (174) The concentration of poverty leads to a tipping-point phenomenon whereby property owners have a reduced incentive to invest in their land, driving property values into a death spiral, leading to commercial flight, worsening crime, higher rates of reliance on public benefits, inferior schools, and all the familiar misfortunes of the black inner city. (175) This effect, we can conclude, is likely to be recursive: since concentrated poverty in black neighborhoods drives the economic condition of all people in the neighborhood down, this will lead to still more poverty in those neighborhoods and will cause whites to avoid them all the more assiduously. (176)

    The housing market continues to be racialized today. In recent years, two groups of researchers studied landlord responses to Internet housing inquiries. Both studies varied their e-mails only by signing some of them with stereotypically black names ("Tyrell Jackson," "Tyrone Johnson"). In both experiments, the e-mails with black names received significantly fewer responses than the e-mails with white names. (177)

    Racialized spaces, of course, directly reinforce hierarchical statuses. The impact of racial segregation on the phenomenon of illusory correlation is perhaps most obvious: to the extent whites are not exposed to blacks in their daily lives, such that many whites are only exposed to blacks in the form of crime-ridden TV news reports, they are likely to generate the stereotype that blacks are criminals. (178) And segregation, by subjecting blacks to more and concentrated disadvantage, reinforces the stereotype that blacks are associated with the social consequences of that disadvantage, such as welfare receipt and, again, crime. Perhaps most strikingly...

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