The Social Construction of Race

“Not all experience is social but the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point, therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social group background – the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing ‘social construction of reality’.” (Saxton, 1990/2003, p. 18)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increasing consensus in the academic community that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, while the mechanisms of racialization have changed, race as a social category and inequalities along racial lines persist. For example, Gissis argues “that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on” (Gissis, 2008, p. 438). This persistence has prompted an expansion of the ways in which race is analyzed and the growth of the field of whiteness studies.

Jacobson was one of the first scholars to trace the changing social categories of race and whiteness through history. He argues that race is based “in the contingencies of politics and culture,” rather than based in biological or scientific notions (Jacobson, 2001, p. 86). This premise is significant because it makes possible an analysis of race as a changing phenomenon, rather than a natural or scientific fact. It is also important because it affirms that it is possible to affirm that race is both a socially constructed category and continues to have material and political consequences in people’s lives (Brubaker, 2002). These two perspectives are too often presented as mutually exclusive. It is said that either race is socially constructed (and so it cannot have an effect on people’s economic or political lives) or race has an effect on people’s lives (and therefore cannot be socially constructed).

Some argue that this debate is irrelevant, because there already exists a consensus about the social construction of race (Arnesen, 2001). However, while there may be a consensus in the academy about the social construction of race, it is certainly not the case in North American culture more broadly (Barrett, 2001). A quick look at almost any newspaper will show a number of references to race that are either based on a biological or scientific understanding of race or do not challenge such an understanding, implicitly allowing readers to believe that race has a biological basis [2]. A poignant example was a recent Canadian edition of Time Magazine during the 2008 American presidential campaign. It features Obama’s face, but half has been photocopied in black and white, making his skin appears white. Four of the headlines on the cover also refer specifically to race, including the feature article “Why the economy is trumping race” (October 20, 2008). The consensus on the social construction of race needs to be much more widely accepted before scholars abandon this area of research.

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