Robert T. Carter, Ph.D. “Why Race is Important”

Race is an elusive, perplexing, troubling, and enduring aspect of life in the U.S. Race has been one of the most critical factors in the social, political, and economic structure of our American society from the first pre-colonial early beginnings to our present day. See also this TEDx video in which Alex Kajitani talks about why race matters and how to talk about it:

Any examination of American social history points to the legacy of America’s fascination with skin color, caste, and social status. Race and ideas and beliefs about race always have played a crucial role and had its effects throughout our 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 United 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. For foreign students planning to study in America, it is crucial to understand this background.

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. On the other hand, in America, individuals can get from Homeless to Harvard as also happened to Dawn Loggins thanks to her perseverance.

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. For scholarships for minorities, click on the link to learn more.

In fact, Hispanics vary in terms of skin color and physical features (see also this post on grants for Hispanics) 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. So St. Edwards is a traditionally Hispanic school and quite a few students, after being successful in the corporate world, go on to earn their St. Edwards MBA degree. Speaking of success…

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. See also this post about scholarships and grants.

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 and receive the benefits of a top-notch college education. 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 socialization provides daily unstated rules and guidelines about how to interact with others in one’s own racial group and not in one’s racial group.

Via racial socialization, people are so imbued with various messages that are determining the (in)appropriateness of their role as specific 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. For minority students, it is even more important to do well in school and there are great study methods available to help them get ahead fast!

Race socialization is also influenced by the racial themes of one’s generation. The range and complexity 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.