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Why Race is Important

  Race is an elusive, perplexing, troubling, and enduring aspect of life in the United States. Race has been a critical factor in the economic, social and political structure of American society from its pre-colonial beginnings to the present. Any examination of American social history points to the legacy of America’s fascination with skin color, caste, and social status. Race and beliefs about race have had crucial effects on the course of American history. For instance, European Americans used duplicitous means to obtain land held by American Indians. Throughout American history, Black Americans have been at the center of several controversies arising from fundamental constitutional questions: the debates over slavery during the framing of the Constitution and the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1906’s to end the denial of Blacks’ basic rights as citizens. The history of Asian Americans in the United States provides other examples of race’s influence specifically the Exclusion Act of 1882 against Chinese immigration and the forced internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. These examples demonstrate the broad-based and fundamental significance of race in the Unites States.

I assume that race has been and is the variable that matters most in the United States. A view predicated on the belief that race is perhaps the most visible of all cultural differences and on America’s history of racial segregation and racism. In addition, race has been and continues to be the ultimate measure of social exclusion and inclusion, because it is a visible factor that historically and currently determines the rules and bounds of social and cultural interaction When race, in North America, is used as a social classification system, physical characteristics of different human groups are believed to reflect emotional, cognitive, psychological, intellectual, and moral qualities. The qualities, both external and internal, are presumed to be inheritable unlike ethnicity or culture which are fluid and flexible and subject to change.

Strongly infused with the notion of race is the conviction and unsupported belief that nature or God has made racial differences as fixed and unalterable. The differences between racial groups could never be bridged or transcended. So the idea goes.

Race is defined as a sociopolitical designation in which individuals are assigned to a particular racial group based on presumed biological or visible characteristics such as skin color, physical features, and in some cases, language. For example, Hispanic is a sociopolitical racial category assigned to a group of people who share a language and some common cultural and historical elements. In fact, Hispanics vary in terms of skin color and physical features, and therefore do not constitute a distinct racial group on the basis of visible characteristics alone. Nevertheless, White people are designated White non-Hispanic to separate the groups. For historically disenfranchised Americans, including Blacks, American Indians, Asia Americans, and people of Latin descent, racial classification is thought to reflect individual members’ and the group’s psychological social status. The reader would be careful not to confuse genetics or biology with race as noted by many scholars.

As one scholar writes “it [Race] was the cultural invention of arbitrary meaning applied to what appeared to be natural divisions within the human species. The meanings has social value but no intrinsic relationship to the biological diversity itself. Race has a reality created in the human mind, not a reflection of objective truths. It was fabricated as an existential reality out of a combination of recognizable physical differences and some incontrovertible social facts: the conquest of indigenous peoples, their domination and exploitation, and the importation of a vulnerable and controllable population from Africa to service the insatiable greed of some European entrepreneurs. The physical differences were a major tool by which the dominant whites constructed and maintained social barriers and economic inequalities: that is they consciously sought to create social stratification based on visible differences. (Smedley, 1993, p. 22)

Racial Socialization and racial identity

In this country, racial segregation has been the norm, and as communities and families serve as powerful socializing forces, race is an integral component of our socialization experiences. Who we see and do not see on a day-to-day basis, the roles we see people assume, and importantly, how people from particular racial groups appear and are treated in comparison to others communicates powerful and lasting messages about who we are and are not.
Racial socialization can inspire self-pride among racial group members and help equip them with strategies to cope with the forces hostile to their physical and mental well being. In the private lives of Americans, socio-racial forces have the potential to constrain individual self-expression for persons of certain racial groups and to falsely inflate feelings of self-worth in others. For all racial beings, racial socialization can lead to the experiencing of conflict as well as the outcomes that arise from having to reckon with a painful reality of racial oppression. Instructive to an awareness of self is an understanding of race's meaning in one’s life. Racial socializattion provides daily unstated rules and guidelins about how to interact with others in one’s own racial group and not in one’s racial group.

Through racial socialization, individuals are imbued with messages that determine the appropriateness of inappropriateness of their roles as racial beings. Racial socialization intersects with other socializing forces, such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. In addition, religiosity, maturational factors, skin color, and the quality of relationships one has with those of similar and different races contribute to differences in how people experience race and to their development of internalized views of who they are as racial beings. Race socialization is also influenced by the racial themes of one’s generation. The range and compexity of racial influences and forces make the experience of race deeply contextualized and not readily recognized or even acknowledged. Remarkably, emerging from these contextualized experiences in race is a pattern of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that form the basis of racial identity, that is, how people view themselves and the world through racialized lenses.

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