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.