Racism is not xenophobia – fear, distrust, or disdain of people from other groups. Xenophobia is too common and too inchoate. Even people who share a background with other people may be seen as outside the social group within which trust is exchanged. The development of community, and the extension of community to larger and larger social structures (as in a whole country) makes xenophobia recede, but it never quite goes away. Probably Stone Age people, when they saw a person they didn’t know, first worried about possible stranger danger rather than seeing a potential friend.
Racism is a system of thought that sees race as a critical, determining element in society. It attempts to explain how society operates by examining the races within the society, and it attempts to justify its beliefs about the relative merit of people from various races within the society. But what is a “race?” The first task for anyone attempting to explain and justify things by appealing to race is to construct the races. For race is not a scientific construct, but a social one.
Constructing the Races
The first step in constructing the races is name them and describe them. Descriptions of the various races perceived to be present in a society appeal to both appearance and behavior. “Oh, you know them. They have [certain facial characteristics, body build, skin color]. They smell funny. They lie. They’re lazy. They have loose sexual mores [examples]. They all help each other and shut other people out.” And so on. When I was a boy, I heard such things about various groups different from my own White Midwestern group. Imagine how shocked I was to hear an African friend (broadly, of Hutu ethnicity) describing another African group (Tutsis) in just those terms. Of course, one’s own group may be described in positive terms. Positive and negative beliefs about various groups are a form of valuing. They convey approval or disapproval. While racists are at pains to justify their beliefs, often by religious doctrine or pseudo-scientific hokum, these are value judgments.
Having constructed and evaluated the races, the next step is assigning people to them. When Trayvon Martin (a Black person) was killed in an altercation with George Zimmerman (who, despite his German last name, identified as Hispanic – his mother was from Peru), the media created the category “White Hispanic” to describe Zimmerman. People of mixed ancestry like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, or Nikki Haley frequently pick their own identity out of their various backgrounds. Others refuse to do so. Sometimes, people pick a race that is not credibly theirs because the assumed persona provides certain advantages. People like Ward Churchill or Elizabeth Warren (who have claimed membership in Indian tribes with no provable Native American ancestry) or Rachel Dolezal (a White person who presents as Black) find it personally satisfying, and sometimes financially or politically rewarding, to claim membership in a group they would not normally be understood to belong to.
But, questions of fraud aside, assigning people to races includes policing the boundaries of those races. There was once a lot of discussion in American society of Black people “passing” as White, and there were people who would get upset by this. In South Africa, where there is a loosely-defined group called “Coloreds” between Black and White groups, there are people who will attempt to “pass” as a member of a more favored group, if their appearance allows them to. In places where there is legally established segregation of some sort, passing oneself off as a member of another race may be a crime.
All this is to say that constructing the races, assigning people to them, and policing racial boundaries, can be done informally – by consensus, by the media, by organized religion, or some other social institution -- or formally, by the passing of laws. For those who run afoul of their society’s views, there may not be much to choose between the penalties for social transgressions and criminal ones.
Whether done by social consensus or legislation, racism includes ordering mechanisms. First, members of the various races are assigned benefits and/or penalties due to their membership in the defined group. And these benefits and penalties must be enforced somehow. Racism that exists only in someone’s heart troubles no one. But when racist ideology results in real-world consequences, that should trouble everyone.
Being allowed to bypass certain onerous requirements is a benefit sometimes assigned to members of Race A, while members of Race B are constantly hassled with extra requirements – or more rigidly enforced requirements. Having certain places in a competitive environment reserved for members of Race C is a benefit; finding ways to keep down the numbers from Race D is a penalty. “Separate but equal” always results in somebody’s being less equal than somebody else.
Different Societies Construct the Races and Order Their Societies Differently
Both Latin America and the United States at one time were dominated by groups which were highly conscious of race. That said, the way they constructed the races and ordered their societies were very different. In Mexico (and Latin America more broadly), there was a continuum of race arranged hierarchically. At the top were the Peninsulares (Spanish or Portuguese from the Iberian homeland). These were deferred to by the Criollos (Spanish or Portuguese of pure Iberian ancestry, but who had been born in the Americas). Beneath the Criollos were various groups -- Mulattos, Quadroons, Negritos -- of mixed ancestry, all arranged hierarchically. At the (near) bottom were the Blacks (Negros); at the very bottom were the natives (Indios). In Nineteenth Century America, many of these terms were available for use (mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, etc.), and of course there were other racial groups besides White and Black, such as Asian, Native American, Mexican, Hawaiian, etc. But the various groups were not arranged hierarchically, but in a White/Other dichotomy. The “one drop” rule was the informal dividing line between White and Black. Peninsulares and Criollos might look down on other races, but they accepted miscegenation as a social fact; whereas White people in the USA were frequently appalled by the idea.
Slavery is often blamed for the racism that pervaded (and according to some, still pervades) the US. But slavery was part of almost every society for thousands of years. Sometimes race played very little part in it. The fact that race wound up playing a principal part in the slavery that was practiced in America – and especially in the United States – is due to the social goals of the Tidewater Cavaliers, who created the “peculiar institution” as it was practiced here. This is not to excuse the racism of other Whites back in the day, but the other major streams of British immigrants had other goals for themselves in which Blacks played only a peripheral role. American slavery was created by one particular group and it was what they made it. Likewise, it was the loss of this group’s political power – and their need to regain it – that created Jim Crow. Whites belonging to other groups may have participated in the community of ideas that came out of this, but not all did. In the end, it must be said that while almost all societies in history have seen slavery practiced, only the modern Western nations, led by Britain and America, took it upon themselves to abolish it.
Racism continues to exist, of course, and it is not the exclusive property of any particular group. Even as the old White racism that typified American society has been dying away, a new form of racial ideology – called, variously, Critical Race Theory or intersectionality (and other things) – is rising in influence. Let there be no mistake: CRT is racism, pure and simple. For what is the definition of racism? It is an attempt to explain and justify certain things on the basis of race. Toward that end, it constructs the races, assigns people to those races, and polices the boundaries thus created (which is why one Black person will criticize another Black for, e.g., studying to pass a course, by describing them as “acting White”). It attempts to order the society by assigning benefits and penalties to the various races and enforcing them. Every social ill can be explained by White Supremacy, even a Black person abusing an Asian person. If you say that is not so, you will be told you have White Fragility. And the penalty for saying the wrong thing can lead to online mobs howling for your head and you losing your job – even if what you said was completely defensible.
The latest form of racism in my neck of the woods is being promoted by my bishop for our Conference. He has set our goal as “dismantling racism,” but insofar as what he wants to do simply codifies values and requires actions based on race in a new way, it is just racism with different sauce. As Chief Justice Roberts said in the Supreme Court’s 2007 Parents Involved decision, “The way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”