white studies: connecting the pieces

Posted on February 20, 2008


In opposition to the work of racialist scientists of the 20th century, geneticists, biologists, historians, and anti-racialist social scientists among others revealed and scientifically established that there are no genetic markers for race, deconstructing the notion of “race” as biological hence predetermined, inevitable, unchanging, natural, and normal. The “statement on ‘race'” published by the American Anthropological Association in 1996 confirmed this consensus in the scientific community scientifically disproving the biological argument of the 20th century which claimed that people who aren’t white are biologically inferior. However, just because race isn’t biologically “real” doesn’t mean that racism and racial inequality aren’t socially real, and as evidenced by the vast field of sociology, our social world has very real consequences.

Research professor of sociology at Duke University Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses race and racism as a social structure/construction in his 2nd edition of his book “Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States”. Bonilla-Silva argues that race/racism still has very real social consequences (9). He contends that the subsequent 1960’s “culture of poverty” argument popularized by Oscar Lewis just shifted its focus justifying racism/racial inequality on the grounds of biological difference to cultural difference. Yet in both arguments, individuals are blamed for social, economic, and political disparities, despite overwhelming evidence that racial inequality is caused by racialized policies and practices instilled by whites to uphold white supremacy and privilege. In “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”, sociologist and professor James W. Loewen discusses how sociologists view the dynamic interplay between slavery (social structure) as a socioeconomic system and racism (superstructure) as an idea system which legitimizes the way that Blacks were treated and the institutional structures put in place during slavery to uphold and perpetuate white supremacy and privilege (143). Similar to Bonilla-Silva’s concept of “wages of whiteness”, the unearned privilege of whiteness in this system are manifold and multiplied. In this system, if you are white the position you hold in society doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Complex historical processes situated you in a social world where based on “race” you are either advantaged or disadvantaged. Loewen contends that “the superstructure of racism has long outlived the social structure of slavery that generated it” (144).

Hence, we are still living in the social, political, and economic systems that were created in pre-, during, and post-slavery, and they are still a very powerful determining factor in the lives of people of color. Furthermore, the way history is taught in high school classrooms across America without a causal historical analysis connecting slavery to racism makes “[…] it too easy to blame the victim and conclude that people of color are themselves responsible for being on the bottom. Without causal historical analysis, these racial disparities are impossible to explain” (Loewen 135-171).

Bonilla-Silva analysis further reveals that the forms racism/racial inequality have taken have just shifted yet racism still remains a major factor in shaping the life opportunities and chances for people of color in the United States. From the biological argument to the cultural, and now to the contemporary colorblind argument, the historically-rooted, structurally- and institutionally- located factors at play in our social world often remain invisible to so many Americans, even to academics, activists, scientists, and policymakers. Centuries of history are overlooked as the conditions upon which our present realities were shaped, as a profound disconnect between cause and effect and past and present in history is minimized, obscurred, ignored, often erased, as social, political and economic disparities in communities of color is once again naturalized, normalized, deemed inevitable and unchanging. Yet our analytic focus has often been in the wrong place. Participating (unknowingly perhaps) in “blame the victim” studies, white researchers, scholars, and policymakers continue to look outward towards communities of color as the root of the problem, perhaps as missionaries hoping to save or rescue the poor and afflicted, without an inward analysis of white privilege and complicity as the root of the problem.

“Blaming the victim” through the “culture of poverty” argument of the 1960’s served and continues to serve a purpose however. Bonilla-Silva believes that since we have put so much of our personal and societal focus and energy into blaming communities of color for their problems, we have forgotten to examine how our social structure has been created and by whom. Who decides? Who is at the decision-making table, and who is left out? In addition, we must look at our American history and within that, we must look at who has structured our society, for what purpose, and how our present day reality is shaped by our history (or what we know of it). Further, we must look at the history that has been omitted, fabricated, and distorted and why.

As a regular contributer to the History Channel’s History magazine and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont, in the historical revisionist tradition, James W. Loewen is working to re-construct American history out of many omitted sources which are needed to correct the mis-education of American students. In “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, he examines 18 history books used in high school curriculum across the U.S. to see what kids are being taught, and finds startling omissions, distortions, and fabrications, particularly of the histories of people of color, downplaying and minimizing their role and agency in American history. In his analysis, Loewen found that despite the startling size of American history books (the heaviest one weighing in at almost 11 pounds with 1358 pages), history is not only the least liked subject in American high schools, but generations of American high schoolers have been severely mis-educated. By this he means, we are taught a complex history from a single author who often updates only secondary sources without any recent research (Loewen 7). Further, we are taught through the rubric of nationalism “to indoctrinate blind patriotism”, without attention to the people of color whose bodies, hearts, minds, and souls, stories, who were silenced, excluded, slaughtered in order to make this American nation so “great” (Loewen 6) . There is a startling and problematic disconnect between past and present and cause and effect, and as sociologists know, the past is powerful because we are all born into a “social slot” which has a religion, community, nation, and culture (Loewen 2-9). We are “taught” to memorize and regurgitate instead of critically engaging and questioning the actions of historical actors (Loewen 5). The historical “optimist approach” which teaches history as “a morality play” works as “blaming the victim” where the omissions and distortions of the lives and central contributions of women, minorities, and communities of color serve to further alienate “students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group who has not achieved socioeconomic success” (Loewen 6).

Loewen wanted to see why history is the least favorite subject of most high school students when throughout his career, he has found history to be so intriguing, complex, dramatic, and anything but dry and boring: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”- James Baldwin (Loewen 1). In fact, he found that five-sixths of all Americans never take a history course past high school (Loewen 8). From Loewen’s research, we can see why this is such an important task. If our youth are being mis-educated at this point, the chances that these beliefs that are being shaped at this point might never be corrected is very high.

One of the key elements of mis-education that Loewen found is the profound disconnect in historical causality (7): “Students are right: the books are boring. The stories that history books tell are predictable; every problem has been solved or is about to be solved. Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly on our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine”(Loewen 5). In addition, these historical lessons that teach us that it is natural for whites to be on top of the social hierarchy, that genocide was inevitable hence justified, and that it is okay for the central roles that people of color played in history to be historically disrespected through minimization and distortion in favor of the “heroification” of people like Christopher Columbus, Woodrow Wilson, and other “great American heroes” whose record wouldn’t be so “great” if the entire picture of their lives was revealed is very damaging to the esteem, hopes, and dreams of students of color, girls, working-class students, and those who aren’t given historical role models who are really “heroes”(Loewen 21-22, 24, 29, 31-32, 64, 69). In addition, Loewen’s research found that the textbooks “answers” (to be memorized and regurgitated as facts without critical analysis and engagement) to historical questions as if history wasn’t the interaction of complex processes, as if there was no cause and effect, leaves students “unable to think coherently about social life” (7)

Dangerously, this presentation of history has greatly impacted the average American. Have you ever heard the phrase, we must learn from our mistakes (history) in order to avoid making the same mistakes? If as Loewen states, “what our citizens ‘learn’ in high school forms much of what they know about our past” (8), it becomes clear why many Americans have a great deal of difficulty connecting the past with the present. In adddition, if we are mis-educated about our past, how we see the present and make policies for the future will be very distorted. “Not understanding their past renders many Americans incapable of thinking effectively about present and future” (Loewen 9).

This mis-education of our American youth is so important to recognize, for sociologists such as Loewen and Bonilla-Silva’s work is informed by the understanding of “the power of social structure and culture [in shaping] not only our path through the world but also our understanding of that path and that world” (Loewen 9). Further, “understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us. We need to know our history, and according to sociologist C. Wright Mills, we know we do” (Loewen 2).

Connecting our past to the present, Bonilla-Silva states that in the 1960’s not only did “culture of poverty” arguments become a popular way of rationalizing social, political, and economic inequality, but a new racism formed and its dangerously elusive rhetoric informs the contemporary debate on race politics today. He calls this “colorblind racism”. Colorblind racism is the way in which “it is possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant” (Bonilla-Silva 2). In addition, it is the way in which ideology is used to defend the contemporary racial order (Bonilla-Silva 25). Racial ideology is central to talking about race. Although race has been deconstructed as biology, most scientists agree that racial categories have a history, but the debate continues on if they socially real (Bonilla-Silva 8,9). Racial ideology is defined by Bonilla-Silva as “the racially based frameworks used by actors to explain or justify (dominant race) or challenge (subordinate race or races) the racial status quo (9). Further, the most important component to this is that “although all the races in a racialized social system have the capacity of developing these frameworks, the frameworks of the dominant race tend to become the master frameworks upon which all racial actors ground (for or against) their ideological positions (Bonilla-Silva 9). This means that according to Bonilla-Silva, “the ruling [racial] ideology expresses as common sense the interests of the dominant race” (10), by “misrepresent[ing] the world (hid[ing] the fact of dominance) (10, 26).

Despite overwhelming and extensive evidence which shows how central race is to achieving social, economic, and political equality, science has been used once against to rationalize and justify inequality. Interestingly, colorblind analyses of social life has been perpetuated by contemporary social scientists as well. This historical connection reveals how deeply influenced “objective” scientists are by the social environment for it was also social scientists who created and perpetuated racialized science or race as biology arguments of the 20th century and the 1960’s “culture of poverty”/”blaming the victim” arguments. Despite the overwhelming evidence that “blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life [poverty, net worth, education, housing, social hostility, commercial discrimination, racial profiling, criminalization, legal discrimination, etc.] (there are 83 footnotes for chapter 1 alone!), colorblind racism is the racial ideology that allows whites as the dominant racial group to “rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occuring phenomenon, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations” (Bonilla-Silva 2).

*Further analysis of Bonilla-Silva’s book “Racism Without Racists:Color-Blind Racism And the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States”, is in my next essay “Racism Without Racists- an analysis”…