This is a sequel to an earlier post titled “The Ivory Coin”, focused on dissecting the dual perspectives of white and non-white residents of the United States. The post sought to outline certain elements of mainstream views, but discussed race as a lens through the presenting of opinion as fact. This post hopes to expand beyond that subjectivity to take a more constructivist approach.
Countries in the Western world have been brought together through a shared set of values and interests, which have been codified through organizations, institutions and norms. While many are regarded amongst democratic countries as bastions and protectors of enlightened views (ie. NATO, the OECD and the World Bank), each has an imbedded duality. NATO may serve to protect American interests in Europe, but some Eastern groups view it as an existential threat. The World Bank may provide a funding mechanism for indebted or developing countries, but it’s reformist and austerity terms are often prescriptive and can form an unwanted dependence. As a duality exists in it’s institutions, so too can it be found in it’s norms. Western cultures have traditionally been pro-democracy, on the leading edge of technological innovation and great creators of the arts. They have also been hell bent on assimilation, religiously monotheistic and since the spread of Europe throughout the world stage, predominantly white.
The role of race in history is as a construct wielded to divide, often with the aim of oppression. From the caricaturization of groups with certain skin colours to the enslavement and oppression of those same peoples, race (the classification of human beings based on physical traits, geography, familial relations or ancestry) has served a useful construct for those seeking to divide. This division gave rise to the development of a norm amongst Western societies, even as they grew more diverse in modern eras: being white was a symbol of status, a form of non-purchasable wealth and power. Although whiteness once overtly offered benefits simply by creating an avenue in which you were not persecuted for your racial identity, the introduction then subsequent success of civil rights and racial equality movements throughout the 20th century sought to eliminate the idea that one race was explicitly superior to another by introducing laws to treat all as equals.
The introduction of these laws across the Western world was a symbol of hope and progression for the freedom of all peoples. But upon their passage, some misconstrued their impact as having closed the issue. An example can be found in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. Although the 14th and 15th amendment of the American constitution guaranteed basic civil rights to African Americans, a grassroots struggle emerged to ensure federal and legal recognition of those rights in the eyes of the law. The civil rights movement served to break the pattern that emerged on the community level that continued to separate groups based upon race. In the push back that emerged against the civil rights movement, racism was certainly involved, but it was also a result of what was perceived as a shift in status. While feeling threatened due to a fear of loss of status is not in itself racist, race was a primary factor in dictating how status was assigned at an individual level. When another group appears to be raising their cultural status to match that of another, the latter group will naturally feel threatened.
That sense of loss of relative status can also be found today, in the opposition towards grassroots movements organized by groups that have been traditionally perceived as minorities. When polled by the Economist in 2017, conservative voters from a sampling in the American beltway failed to cite race as a major concern for voters, instead voicing their concerns on issues relating to a loss of status amongst their communities. The clan instinct of sympathising more with those in your community (geographic, racial or otherwise) has manifested in a focus upon dealing with issues plaguing primarily white communities, like the opioid crisis and a lack of created manufacturing jobs. While these issues plague other communities as well, a majority of those spoken to cited a feeling that life had become “unfair”, and viewed the election as an opportunity to greater tip the national focus towards their issues. While this can be dismissed as simple politics, a deeper trend can also be seen in the desire to preserve the status of white individuals relative to other groups, often by denigrating attempts to address institutional bias by emerging grassroots groups.
Race has long been a construct used to assign societal value, heavily skewing in the favour of the historically powerful. But race as a reflection of status shows a more individualistic underbelly, one where a loss of relative status (or privilege) is equated with a loss of absolute position. This is dangerous and a false characterization. It must be understood that the benefit of some is not always to the detriment of others – race relations cannot be summed neatly into game theory, nor can racism be ascribed with certainty as the primary reason why tension plagues non-racially diverse communities. A lack of economic opportunity or job prospects and health crises are universal issues, and addressing them will go a long way towards creating a greater benefit for all parties. But when we only look at how the actions of others affect us, we risk perceiving diversity as a weakness instead of a strength. Hardly a claim that can be made proudly in an enlightened world.