Background on Racial Discrimination


Race is a  significant social issue because people use racial differences as the basis for  discrimination. Much of today’s racism can be traced to the era of colonialism  that began in the 1400s. When Europeans began colonizing Africa and the Americas, the  white settlers adopted the idea that they were superior to the other races they  encountered and it was their job to “civilize the savages.” This false notion became known as “the white man’s burden,” and was used to  justify  the Europeans’ taking land  and enslaving people. In this way, naturally-occurring racial differences  became the basis for systems of exploitation and discrimination.

Racism is the systematic practice of denying people access to rights,  representation, or resources based on racial differences. Institutionalized racism  is a thorough system of discrimination  that involves social institutions and affects virtually every aspect of  society.

It’s important to remember  that racism is neither natural nor inevitable. Through history, people of  different racial groups have interacted and co-existed peacefully. During the  Middle Ages, for example, Europeans looked up to the people of Africa and China,  whose civilization and culture were considered to be more advanced. These ideas changed significantly during the colonial area.

Racism Against Native Americans

Millions of natives  occupied the area now called the United States prior to the colonial  era. In an effort to obtain much of the North America as territory of the  United States, a long series of wars, massacres, forced displacements (such as  the Trail of Tears), restriction of food rights, and the imposition of  treaties, land was taken and numerous hardships imposed. Ideologies justifying  the context included stereotypes of Native Americans as “merciless Indian  savages” and the quasi-religious doctrine of manifest destiny which  asserted divine blessing for U.S.  conquest of all lands west of the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific.

Once their territories  were incorporated into the United States,  many surviving Native Americans were relegated to reservations–constituting  just 4% of U.S.  territory–and the treaties signed with them violated. Tens of thousands of were  forced to attend a residential school system which sought to reeducate them in  white settler American values, culture and economy.

To this day, Native Americans are the most harshly affected by institutionalized racism. The  World Watch Institute notes that 317 reservations are threatened by  environmental hazards. While formal equality has been legally granted, American  Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders remain among  the most economically disadvantaged groups in the country, and suffer from high  levels of alcoholism and suicide.

Racism Against Blacks

Slavery in the United States began soon after English colonists  first settled Virginia  and lasted until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States  Constitution in 1865. By the 18th century, court rulings established the racial  basis of the American version of slavery to apply chiefly to Black Africans  and people of African descent, and occasionally to Native Americans. The 19th century saw a hardening of  institutionalized racism and legal discrimination against citizens of African  descent in the United States.  Although technically able to vote, poll taxes, acts of terror (often  perpetuated by groups such as the KKK), and discriminatory laws kept black  Americans disenfranchised particularly in the South.

Racism in the United States was worse during this  time than at any period before or since. Segregation, racial discrimination,  and expressions of white supremacy all increased. So did anti-black violence,  including lynchings and race riots.

In addition, racism which had been viewed  primarily as a problem in the Southern states, burst onto the national  consciousness following the Great Migration, the relocation of millions of  African Americans from their roots in the Southern states to the industrial  centers of the North after World War I, particularly in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York (Harlem). In  northern cities, racial tensions exploded, most violently in Chicago, and lynchings – racially motivated mob-directed  hangings – increased dramatically in the 1920s.

Prominent  African American politicians, entertainers and activists pushed for civil  rights throughout the twentieth century, but the 1950s and 1960s saw the  peaking of the American Civil Rights Movement with the desegregation of schools  in 1954  and the organizing of widespread  protests across the nation under a younger generation of leaders. The pastor and activist Martin Luther King  was the catalyst for many nonviolent protests in the 1960s which led to the  passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act prohibited discrimination in  public facilities, in government, and in employment, invalidating the Jim Crow  laws (which mandated segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly  “separate but equal” status for black Americans and other  non-white racial groups) in the southern U.S. It became illegal to force   segregation of the races in schools, housing, or hiring. This signified a  change in the social acceptance of  racism that had been written into American law and a profound increase in the number of  opportunities available for people of color in the United States. While substantial  gains were made in the succeeding decades through middle class advancement and  public employment, black poverty and education inequalities have deepened in the post-Industrial era.

Discrimination Against Latin Americans

Americans of Latin American  ancestry (often categorized as “Hispanic” or “Latino”) come from a  wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds; yet, Latin Americans are  often been viewed as a monolithic group by other Americans. Latinos are often  portrayed as passionate, hypersexual, violent, lazy, or macho in literature,  films, television and music.

Recent increases in legal  (and illegal) Hispanic immigration have spurred anti-Latino sentiment, particularly in areas  of the United States that have previously seen few Hispanic immigrants. The  immigration debate has generated negative feelings of nativism and racist  claims that Latin Americans are taking over white Anglo-American society,  especially in the Southwestern United States,  home to most American Latinos.

Racism Against Middle Easterners and Muslims

Racism against Arab  Americans have risen along with tensions between the American government and the  Arab world. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States,  discrimination and racial violence has markedly increased against Arab  Americans and many other religious and cultural groups.

Iraqis in particular were  demonized which led to hatred towards Arabs and Iranians living in the United States  and elsewhere in the western world. There have been attacks against Arabs not  only on the basis of their religion (Islam), but also on the basis of their  ethnicity; numerous Christian Arabs have been attacked based on their  appearances. In addition, non-Arabs who are mistaken for Arabs because of  perceived “similarities in appearance” have been collateral victims  of anti-Arabism.

Hollywood is guilty of portraying Arabs as villains and terrorists, and depicting them stereotypically. According to Godfrey Cheshire, a critic on the New York  Press, “the only vicious racial stereotype that’s not only still permitted  but actively endorsed by Hollywood”  is that of Arabs as crazed terrorists.

Sources: Diversity Web Human Rights Watch HUD San Francisco Chronicle

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