A common assertion is that race is a social/cultural construct that is independent of inherent biological variations of individuals. It is a social ideology of human differences with no scientific basis. In the US, in the 17th century, a series of laws made by the rulers of each colony led to the establishment of racial slavery. In particular, the laws segregated the African laborers and their descendants and restricted their rights. This gave rise to the idea of race and racial identities.
The basis of Slavery in the US
In the 17th century, African laborers who arrived in European colonies such as Virginia and Maryland were not treated as slaves initially. They worked under varying contractual terms for the European settlers. After the expiry of the contract, the laborers were free to establish their own plantations, marry, or engage in commercial activities like the European settlers. Smedley (2007) notes that, at that time, no stigma was associated with interracial marriages as it are today (p. 32). However, by the mid 17th century, the settlers driven by the desire to make enormous profits had acquired most of the fertile land for tobacco plantation farming. As a result, the freed poor servants who included Africans, Europeans, and mulattoes could not acquire land for farming.
In 1676, the colony was in a crisis, as rebellions against the wealthy rulers became a threat to social stability of the colony. A famous rebellion in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon involved thousands of poor laborers against the wealthy rulers. However, the uprisings dissipated following Bacon’s death (Liggio, 1976, p. 34). To avoid future rebellions and enhance labor mobility to the plantation owners, the British royal commissioners passed a number of laws. The laws made by the rulers of the colony towards the end of the 17th century and the beginning of 18th century led to the establishment of racial slavery within the US (Liggio, 1976, p. 32).
In particular, a series of laws made separated out Africans and restricted their mobility and individual rights thus subjecting Africans and their descendants to permanent slavery. The colony rulers argued that, under the British law, Africans had no rights; therefore, they could be subjected to forced slavery. During this period, African laborers, unlike the earlier laborers, came directly from Africa. They were considered heathens, unfamiliar with British customs, language, and traditions. Moreover, unlike the Indians, Africans, being in unfamiliar territory, could not escape to other territories and thus were enslaved permanently.
Role of Tradition in Slavery
Solomon Northrup’s narrative shows how the European settlers perpetuated slavery by subjecting the slaves to forced labor with no rest and keeping them ignorant. At Solomon’s time, many people believed that slavery and servitude was a natural state of things. Thus, the tradition was that the slaves should not participate in civil society; instead, they should remain workers of the European settlers.
The rulers or “masters” employ various strategies to keep the workers enslaved permanently. One strategy is keeping the slaves ignorant of their rights or their natural sense of identity. Illiteracy of the slaves or that of their children robs them of their sense of capability and self-sufficiency. Consequently, they cannot challenge the master’s right to keep them as slaves. This perpetuates slavery. The relationship between the slave and the master involves the exercise of perpetual submission from the slaves and an exercise of tyranny from the master. The child observes the master’s actions, learns to imitate it, and exercises the same to smaller slaves. This creates a tradition with a high-status master on one hand and a low status slaves (Africans and Indians) on the other.
Racial Prejudice and Discrimination against African Americans
Racial prejudice and discrimination were openly practiced and legally enforceable in the pre-Civil Rights era. Segregation practices were founded on historical stereotypes of African Americans as being heathen and uncivilized. However, during the era of Civil Rights, most of the legalized discrimination against non-whites disappeared. Subtle forms of racial discrimination still exist in American society today. The discrimination against African Americans is maintained through cultural symbols that reflect the Whites as superior and the African-Americans as inferior (Smedley, 2007, p. 35). From the slavery era, the common assumption is that “Whiteness” confers privilege and power over other people of color.
Waters (1990, p. 213) posits that, the White privilege is i.e. entitlements and dominance over African Americans is cultural originating from the slavery era. As a result, the phenomenon of White privilege, which is present in most aspects of American life, perpetuates racial discrimination against the African-Americans.
Negative stereotyping and resistance to remove barriers to racial equality in American public life contribute to racial discrimination against African Americans. In addition, negative attitudes towards minorities elicit the feelings of hate, uneasiness and fear towards members of the group (McLemore, & Romo, 1998, p. 119). This anti-black attitude serves to maintain racial prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans. Pro-White attitudes, which are based on the belief that Whites are better than African-Americans are also contributing to racial discrimination against blacks.
In the late 18th century, slavery ended; however, it gave rise to racial identity that created the idea of separate and exclusive unequal groups. African Americans were considered the most inferior while the European Whites were considered the superior race. Racial discrimination against African-Americans then became institutionalized and engraved in many aspects of American public life. Segregation practices against the blacks in the American public school and transport systems were legal. However, the Civil Rights movement of the 19th century eradicated most of discrimination against African-Americans especially in public systems. Nevertheless, new and more subtle forms of racial prejudice and discrimination against African Americans exist today. In particular, negative stereotypes and attitudes against African Americans result to discriminatory practices in politics and employment.
Ways of Improving Contemporary African-American Relations
There are many approaches of reducing discrimination against African-Americans and improve racial relations. One way to combat racial stereotypes developed against African Americans is through education. These approaches should involve strategies to bring students of various backgrounds together. In this way, positive portrayals of the African Americans can be enhanced and used to serve in reducing discrimination. Additionally, the educational approaches will help dispel the negative stereotypes as people learn about the intergroup differences or similarities. According to McLemore and Romo (1998, p. 118), accurate information dispels prejudice and stereotypes in people. Thus, by understanding of interracial histories, Americans can learn to appreciate each other and create a culture of tolerance.
Open intergroup contacts through joint activities or decision making can also serve to improve the intergroup relations. These contacts allow cooperation and improve closeness among the racial groups. Leaders in public institutions can support interethnic programs that offer opportunities based on merit rather than on prejudice. Structural change in public institutions is another way of eliminating institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans. This will give equal opportunities to all people regardless of race or ethnic group. As a result, African-Americans will not feel disadvantaged; they will be part of a successful larger American society.
Liggio, L. (1976). English Origins of Early American Racism. Radical History Review, 3(1), 31-36. Web.
McLemore, D., & Romo, D. (1998). Racial and ethnic relations in America. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Web.
Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Web.
Waters, C. (1990). Ethnic options: Choosing identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. Web.