Gregory W Streich. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Racial equality is the belief that individuals, regardless of their racial characteristics, are morally, politically, and legally equal and should be treated as such. Furthermore, it is the belief that different racial groups, as groups, are equal, with none being inherently superior or inferior in intelligence, virtue, or beauty. In the United States the term is commonly linked to the belief in equal treatment under the law as well as equal opportunity as a principle to ensure individuals, regardless of their race, an equal opportunity in education, employment, and politics.
In reality, the ideal of racial equality, however defined, has not always been practiced, nor has it been fully achieved anywhere in the world. This is because the belief in racial equality has historically had to counter both deeply rooted beliefs in racial inequality as well as the concrete political, legal, and customary practices of racial discrimination and oppression. Hence racial equality is expressed in antiracist philosophy and in antiracist political mobilization.
Racism as Ideology
The idea of racial equality has disputed long-standing beliefs in racial inequality that can be traced back several hundred years. Centuries ago, the colonization or enslavement of a people was often justified on grounds of cultural superiority (as in the case of British colonial control over India) and even on religious grounds (for example, slavery was rationalized as biblically ordained by Noah’s curse of Ham or as a process of bringing Christianity to heathens). In the 1700s, however, racial inequality was increasingly given a scientific justification.
Contemporary categories of race (“white,” “black,” etc.) were given a scientific status by Carolus Linnaeus and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Typical of the era, each explained race with reference to climate and geography. In 1758, Linnaeus classified humans as “Americanus” (currently Native American), whom he described as red, upright, choleric, and ruled by habit; “Europaeus” (currently European), whom he described as white, sanguine, muscular, and ruled by custom; “Asiaticus” (currently Asian), whom he described as pale yellow, melancholy, stiff, and ruled by belief; and “Africanus” (currently African), whom he described as black, phlegmatic, relaxed, and ruled by caprice. Later, in 1795, Blumenbach asserted the moral equality of races but still categorized and ranked them according to his conception of beauty: Caucasians were his ideal, with Malays and Ethiopians representing one line of “degeneration” and Americans and Mongolians representing a second line. These typologies had the inevitable result of not only reifying race as a scientific category, but also solidifying the alleged link between race, beauty, intelligence, and the capability of exercising self-government.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial inequality was justified by several different scientific approaches. First, polygenism attempted to explain that each race is genetically distinct, with Europeans seen as superior to blacks, Asians, and Native Americans. Indeed, in his Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau asserted that whites were superior to other races and advised great nations to preserve their racial purity, since racial mixture, he claimed, led to cultural degeneration and political decline. Then craniometry was used in an attempt to explain intelligence according to brain size. Similarly, criminal anthropology attempted to explain criminality with reference to facial features such as the slope of one’s forehead. Also, World War I-era intelligence quotient tests were originally used to link intelligence to heredity, ranking whites above European immigrants and African-Americans. By reducing race to biology, these approaches, as Ashley Montagu observed:
alleged that something called “race” is the prime determiner of all the important traits of body and soul, of character and personality, of human beings and nations. And it is further alleged that this something called “race” is a fixed and unchangeable part of the germ plasm, which, transmitted from generation to generation, unfolds in each people as a typical expression of personality and culture. (p. 14)
Because biological determinism alleges that race is fixed, unchangeable, and hierarchical, these approaches lend favor to discriminatory, reactionary, or do-nothing policy approaches (Gould, pp. 51-61).
These approaches, however, were flawed both because they were tainted by the prejudices of the researchers and because they lacked scientific rigor. For example, Montagu’s reanalysis of early intelligence quotient tests found that the average score for blacks from the North was higher than the average score for whites from the South. If these results reveal anything, it is not that intelligence is innately connected to race but that the quality of and funding levels for public education are strongly correlated with results (Gould, pp. 249-250). This lends support not to heredity and biology as inherently connected to intelligence but to an approach that stresses the social and educational environment in which a person grows up. Since racial inequality in practice provides some groups with access to good educational opportunities and denies them to others, it is no surprise if test scores differ across these groups. If racial inequality is affected by unequal social factors, this environmental approach suggests that improving those social factors will promote racial equality.
In the twentieth century, scholars such as Franz Boas and Montagu have argued that attempts to reduce race to biology should be rejected because they prop up ideologies and practices of inequality. Going one step further, Montagu suggested, “[b]ased as it is on unexamined facts and unjustifiable generalizations, it were better that the term ‘race,’ being so weighed down with false meaning, be dropped altogether from the vocabulary” (p. 62). Many scientists continue to point out that race does not exist in any scientific sense. For example, human beings are genetically 99.988 percent identical, with more genetic variation existing within racial categories than between them. Despite this, social scientists have not dropped “race” from their vocabulary. Instead, while they agree that race is indeed a useless scientific category, it is nevertheless real because race has very real social consequences that affect an individual’s or group’s opportunities, rights, and resources, or lack thereof, in a particular society.
In this sense, race is socially and legally constructed, and its meaning varies across time and place. F. James Davis, for example, illustrates how different legal definitions of “black” were codified during slavery and segregation to maintain the racial hierarchy on which each was based. Furthermore, Howard Winant illustrates how race is defined differently according to historical, cultural, economic, and legal contexts when one compares the United States, South Africa, Brazil, and other countries. Scholarship such as this rejects the biological or scientific notion of race as a myth but accepts the notion that race is socially, politically, and economically “real” because of the ways in which people are privileged or disadvantaged by its meanings and practices.
The Politics of Racial Inequality
This discussion will now look at how racial inequality manifests itself in a variety of constitutional, legal, policy, and cultural practices.
In the United States, the Constitution accommodated the interests of the slaveholding states in three areas: first, the famous “3/5ths clause” that counted five enslaved blacks as three free persons for purposes of taxation and representation; second, the new Congress was prohibited from even considering abolishing the importation of slaves until 1809; and third, the Constitution (Article IV, section 2) required states to assist in returning any person escaped from bondage back to the state from which they had escaped. Indeed, citing the intent of the framers of the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that enslaved Africans and their descendants in the United States were never intended to be citizens. The Court ruled that black people “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”
Racial equality was constitutionally established through three amendments during the Reconstruction Era. The Thirteenth Amendment barred slavery or involuntary servitude, the Fourteenth Amendment established standards of due process and equal treatment under the law for all citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied due to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. However, by the end of the nineteenth century blacks were effectively disenfranchised as a result of violence, intimidation, and a range of tricks adopted by states (e.g., the Grandfather Clause, white primaries, poll taxes, and literacy tests) to avoid compliance with the Fifteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the Supreme Court issued decisions that limited the effectiveness of the civil rights acts passed by Congress during Reconstruction. Finally, in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations in public transportation were not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. This phrase, “separate but equal,” was then applied to all spheres of life and epitomized the era of “Jim Crow” segregation. Facilities were separate but they were anything but equal. For example, white schools in some states received ten times the financial support compared to black schools (Fairclough).
In Germany, the biological determinism of nineteenth-century writers such as Gobineau was influential in the emergence of nationalism, fascism, and Nazism. For instance, Jewish people were seen as a biologically inferior race that represented a cultural and political threat to the superiority and purity of the Aryan race idolized by Adolf Hitler. As a result, they were subjected to economic and political ghettoization, used as forced labor, and targeted for genocide. Also, in South Africa, a gradual process of racial separateness, or apartheid, began with the Native Land Act of 1913 that divided land to promote white ownership and domination as well as limited face-to-face interaction between blacks and whites. With the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948, apartheid was fully institutionalized as a complete set of policies whereby the white minority completely segregated and dominated the black majority (Frederickson, 1981, pp. 239-249).
Countries have also used immigration policy as a discriminatory device, often basing immigration law on notions that certain racial groups were inferior and represented cultural or economic threats. In the mid-1800s in the United States, Chinese laborers were relied on to help build the transcontinental railroad. However, a nativist movement emerged, with white working-class men viewing Chinese laborers as an economic threat. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigration as well as the naturalization of Chinese laborers already in the United States. By 1917, U.S. immigration law prohibited immigration of labor from all of Asia except for Japan, as well as placing a tax on Mexican employees. Also in the early twentieth century, Australia adopted immigration laws designed to limit the number of Indian, Pacific Islander, and Asian immigrants. Such laws were adopted on the biological-determinist argument that these immigrants were racially inferior and a cultural threat to the superior “white Australia” (Miles, pp. 90-98).
Institutionalized racial inequality is also intertwined with economic inequality. In the United States, enslaved blacks provided a labor source for the Southern agrarian economy. Even after slavery was abolished, Southern blacks were still treated as a source of tenant farmers and laborers. In the twentieth century, blacks have typically faced twice the unemployment rate of whites and have struggled against discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay. In 1942, due to labor shortages caused by World War II, the U.S. government established the Bracero program, under which Mexico sent to the United States workers who were given some legal status but exploited as cheap labor. Also during World War II, Japanese-Americans, but not Italian-or German-Americans, were subject to relocation and internment because of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, resulting in a gross violation of civil rights as well as a loss of property and businesses.
The Struggle for Racial Equality
To combat and dismantle racial inequality, a variety of groups and tactics emerged throughout the twentieth century in the United States and other countries. The predominant strategy has been nonviolent disobedience, the political mobilization of resources, and moral suasion to mobilize public opinion. However, some groups have advocated armed self-defense or violence as a strategy for revolutionary change.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, several strategies emerged to oppose Jim Crow and challenge the United States to live up to its professed ideals. Some reformers, such as Booker T. Washington, urged blacks to not push for civil and political rights but instead to work hard, acquire a trade, and eventually hope for white acceptance. Others, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, argued that black people had every right to mobilize for equal civil and political rights that were now constitutionally guaranteed and that to do anything less was to accept a permanent second-class status. Du Bois and other reformers formed what turned into the preeminent civil rights organization of the twentieth century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1909. The NAACP marched, protested, and, under the guidance of Charles Hamilton Houston, created a legal defense fund to pursue a strategy of social change through litigation.
This strategy came to fruition with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka decision of 1954, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy standard of “separate but equal” and declared that separate educational facilities are inherently unconstitutional. In the 1960s and 1970s, the litigation strategy and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund itself were used as models for other groups: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), formed in 1968; the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDF), formed in 1972; and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), formed in 1970.
The economics of racial inequality were also opposed and changed with a range of tactics. In the United States there have been several campaigns organized under the “don’t shop where you can’t work” strategy. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s, economic boycotts were used to withdraw financial support from businesses and public transportation systems that engaged in segregation. Many of these were successful, the most famous one being the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which made Rosa Parks a civil rights icon and helped Martin Luther King, Jr., become a national civil rights leader. In 1962, Cesar Chavez helped form the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA) to defend the rights of Mexican-American and Asian-American agricultural workers. The NFWA helped negotiate contracts with corporate growers and was supported by consumer boycotts of targeted products, such as grapes. Also, in the 1980s, a global antiapartheid movement used economic and cultural boycotts, as well as pressuring companies and governments to divest from South Africa, to force the National Party to negotiate the dismantling of apartheid.
Nonviolent marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides were tactics used both to pressure private companies to end segregation but also to pressure the federal government to enforce civil rights laws in Southern states. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 with King as its leader. The SCLC drew on the organizational support of black churches and ministers to organize marches and protests across the South as well as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Other groups and tactics also emerged. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was led by college-aged black youth and eventually included white college-aged members. SNCC was active in sitins to integrate segregated lunch counters in Greenville, North Carolina. Together with members of the interracial Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC members were active in “freedom rides” to desegregate bus terminals in the South, and members of both organizations were active in voter-registration efforts in Mississippi in 1963 and 1964 (Dittmer).
Such efforts finally pressured Congress and the president to act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal access and equal treatment under the law, banned segregated public accommodations, and prohibited discrimination in hiring on the basis of race, gender, or national origin. A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned all discriminatory voter-registration laws and gave the Justice Department power to ensure that voting and election laws were not discriminatory. Indeed, with this act the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment was finally fulfilled. Also in 1965, immigration policies were reformed finally to dismantle any legacies of racial preference and discrimination. In 1968, the final major civil rights act of the era banned discrimination in the sale or rental of property and housing.
With these victories in the courts and in Congress, many Americans thought the nation’s principles of equality were finally matched by its practices. In one way, this is true. For example, black voter-registration rates in Mississippi went from about 6 percent of eligible voters in 1965 to about 63 percent in 1971 and 1972 (Lawson). On the other hand, while legislation and litigation helped establish the principles of equality under the law, voting rights, and equal access to public accommodations, there still exists a legacy of economic inequity and social injustice.
Occasionally, groups pursued a strategy of armed self-defense or violence as a means to combat entrenched racial inequality. Contrary to the nonviolent philosophy of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, individuals such as Robert F. Williams in North Carolina and groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana advocated civil and political rights but also reserved the right to self-defense when facing violent opposition (Tyson). In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was formed to resist apartheid and originally set out on a course of nonviolent disobedience. However, some within the ANC eventually adopted a strategy of limited armed resistance that used selective acts of force for purposes of economic sabotage (Fredrickson, 1995). For this, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned until 1990, when he was released as part of South Africa’s dismantling of apartheid.
The Continuing Struggle
Historically speaking, it is only recently that the belief in racial equality has refuted biological arguments that support racial hierarchies. In the early twenty-first century it has been commonplace for scholars to refer to race not as a biological concept but as a social construction. It is also only recently that the belief in racial equality has helped mobilize social change through a variety of tactics that resulted in the dismantling of legalized segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. Despite these gains, however, racial equality remains elusive. As King and others had already observed in the late 1960s, changes in the attitudes of whites as well as legal and legislative changes to promote equal treatment, voting rights, and equal opportunity are all necessary steps in the effort to establish racial equality. The next set of steps includes a strong enforcement of civil rights as well as a major restructuring of economic resources, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and political influence (King).
In the United States, several issues since the early 1970s serve as reminders that racial equality remains elusive. Fifty years after the Brown decision, there are increasing levels of segregation in the public schools of large, Northern cities, indicating that residential segregation also exists. College attendance rates for Latinos and blacks continue to lag behind those of whites and Asian-Americans. Indeed, gaps in educational achievement measured by standardized test scores have spurred the reemergence of biological explanations of race and intelligence (Gould). Incidents of police brutality and the harassment of black motorists (referred to as “racial profiling” or “driving while black”) are signs that civil rights enforcement is still needed. And despite an emerging black middle class, there is controversy surrounding “affirmative action,” a range of policies to ensure equal educational and employment opportunity.
On affirmative action and other issues, large differences of opinion between white and black Americans are emerging—so large that some scholars have labeled them “chasms” (Smith and Seltzer). Ironically, some invoke Dr. King’s notion that individuals should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, to oppose policies intended to promote racial equality. Some find the goal of “color blindness” laudable; others believe diversity should be respected through pursuance of a “multiracial” set of policies that are conscious of race and targeted at ameliorating racial inequalities as a better path toward racial equality in the United States.
In global terms, several issues continue to demand attention and controversy. The legacies of past injustices, such as the Holocaust, slavery, segregation, and apartheid, have led to debates surrounding apologies, compensation, and reparations. South Africa has established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the injustices of apartheid as well as to promote national reconciliation as it builds a multiracial democracy. The U.S. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which issued an apology and offered a small monetary compensation to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. However, calls for an apology or compensation to black Americans for the legacies of slavery and segregation remain controversial (Brooks).
Additionally, the rights of economic and political refugees and migrants continue to be a focal point of the struggle for racial equality in Europe and the United States. Indeed, migrants and refugees constitute a cheap and exploitable source of labor but also spark xenophobic and nationalist reaction. Right-wing movements and leaders have emerged in France, Germany, Austria, and the United States to oppose the immigration of people they see as culturally, linguistically, or racially inferior. These and other concerns were the focus of the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in August and September of 2001. However, due to concerns that the conference would take strong stands against Israeli treatment of Palestinians as well as potentially open the door to reparations for slavery, the United States did not participate.
It is clear from these and other issues that the goal of racial equality remains in a constant and ongoing struggle against racism, both its current manifestations and its legacies, within the United States and around the world.