Recently I’ve been noticing many debates, news stories and blogs on the topic of race and race relations. However many of these debates don’t really view racism as a principal organizing tenet of social inequality in the U.S. but instead consider racial inequality as something secondary to social class inequality or as an ideological phenomenon and thus lacking in significance. In my opinion, racism is by no means secondary or less significant than class but in fact takes on a life of its own as a source of social inequality both ideologically, economically or politically and socially in which the placement of actors in racial categories or races is no accident. There are many intersectionalities of different social positions in which racism becomes its own form of oppression with its own consequences that then configure the allocations of material goods and cultural capital along racial lines much like class and gender.
I think it is very important for the Muslim community to take on this debate and try to understand the reality of race and racism in today’s society in order to truly grasp what it is we are dealing with. When race is viewed as a peripheral or secondary issue to class is wrong as it does not present an adequate theoretical base for understanding racial phenomenon.
In the analysis of race it is important to note that it is a concept that is usually defined as having a largely ideological basis and fundamentally class reductionist. While deeming people as inferior is not new, the articulation of race and racism as institutional is. For the most part societies as well as scholars have moved past the early biologically based definitions of race. The current social construction and categorization of race is said to be based on supposed biological distinctions such as phenotypical differences, but also truly based on social, political and economic processes and interests. Since biological differences are perceived as permanent characteristics of people and since people respond differently when they believe others are biologically different, then this association is accompanied with perceptions of psychological, intellectual and behavioral inferiorities. The important matter at hand is whether race as a construct is considered to have its own structural foundation or simply a result of another construct (such as class).
In categorizing race as lacking its own structural foundation limits the understanding of racial phenomenon and stunts the ability of any activist to create real social change. For example when class struggle is considered the primary expounding variable of social life, racism or race-based struggles are not regarded as actually racial but generally considered a derivative of class regardless of whether it is viewed as fostered by the bourgeoisie, the product of intra-working class strife, or as the product of contingent historical processes. Hence, racial struggles are viewed as not having a real base. Furthermore, since racism is based on ideological and irrational terms most stop short of providing an in-depth theoretical analysis of racism and its structure. In turn, this poses the problem that if racism is not part of the society but instead the characteristic of racist individuals or an ideology that affects members of the working class, then social institutions cannot be racists and the study of racism should be a matter of surveying the people in a society who hold racist beliefs. As a result of racism not having an independent structural tenet, racism can be falsely interpreted as being in decline, only identifying overt racist behavior and missing the subtle and inconspicuous forms of racism that are evident in today’s society.
Others, to which I have to agree with, argue that racism is by no means secondary or less significant than class but in fact takes on a life of its own as a source of social inequality both ideologically and institutionally. When viewed from this position, an alternative framework is possible for the understanding of racial phenomena at the economic, political, social, and ideological levels. When done so it is evident that they are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races, aka white supremacy. Because there are intersectionalities, racism becomes its own form of oppression with its own consequences that then configure the allocations of material goods and cultural capital along racial lines. Therefore it has its own structural foundation for the reason that it guides organizational and institutional action. Hence the racial structure of a society consists of the racial hierarchy that is both variable and contingent and which produces access to better jobs, primary positions in the political system, and perceptions of higher social estimation to name a few.
Take today’s new racism which is a lot more sophisticated and subtle than Jim Crow racism and yet is as effective as the old maintaining the status quo. It is so sophisticated that the larger number of analysts and researches claim that racism has and is steeply declining in contemporary America. In fact to speak of racism as existing in today’s society is controversial. When the conceptualization of racism is done so in terms of a secondary manner, the idea that racism is declining is bound to be the result seeing that it is based off the notion that racism is fundamentally ideological. In addition, the “old racism” that blacks for example, experienced during the Jim Crow period was overt. What’s worse is that even after blacks successfully challenged Jim Crow laws, challenged their socioeconomic positions, and developed many political organizations and movements, blacks still had to deal with the challenges of new racism. This new racism has a new covert nature of racial discourse and racial practices like the avoidance of using racial terminology in racial conflicts by whites but that at the same time maintain a racial agenda over political matters.
What is of significance is that even among the so called “progressive minded” individuals and groups, the idea that class is of more importance to race or that race comes from the emergence of class conflict, is quite popular. The inability to view racism within its own social constructs in the long run, has serious social implications towards effective social change and contributes to the furthering of color blind racism. Then this color-blindness is deemed as less significant in U.S. society, in light of meritocracy in that whereas for whites racism is what they would consider as prejudice, for people of color racism is something that is systematic or institutionalized. For this reason, this society has moved into more subtle forms of racism called colorblind racism in which people who claim to not being racist say things like, “I do not see color all are equal to me.” Yet they can say this from atop their hill of privilege that ironically continues to perpetuate that same racism they are claiming does not exist and can do so by rationalizing minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, or their ascribed cultural limitations.
Seeing how racism, historically speaking, is a recent phenomenon born out of the usefulness to justify the conquest of people, everything we have come to know as normal including all the literature out there, is basically bias because of this early understanding and academic conceptualization of the topic. Also, one of the reasons why this new way of defining racism is controversial is because what it is essentially telling all those liberals, those so called “progressive” people is that even aside from all their token kindness and supposed fights for equality; in reality they aren’t doing anything. It is not and will not be easy to stand up and challenge this system because of the type of power relationships that exist, where white males, through manifest destiny, sought to conquer and dominate this land, have systematically killed, tortured, exploited, and exterminated people who did not reflect their power structure, who stood in their way of expansion and more power, and posed a threat to their power and way of life. Therefore since the state is used to enforce their system of power and to keep it intact by way of the police, the courts, the prison system, their government, government agencies, and even their school and ideologies, anybody that rises up or resists the power structure will be faced with repression. This is a very complex matter to discuss and to do so in one blog is difficult therefore I’ll try to elaborate on it more at a later time.