The Concept of Race Now and Then

Author: Renee Smith

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How did race shape and impact society before Jim Crow, during Jim Crow, and now, the 21st Century?

Before the Jim Crow laws there was slavery and before slavery there wasn’t a concept of race. “The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines,” Michelle Alexander says in The New Jim Crow. Only after imperialism, colonization, and slavery was race such an important factor. Before that it was as if people were colorblind, and people were going through life relaxed and working in conjunction with one another.

Before the American colonies enslaved and kidnapped people to work on plantations. They got rid of the Native Americans or American Indians to take over their land, and because they had different practices and were different in general they were considered uncivilized savages and a lesser race. During this time, the white Europeans were seen as the superior race enslaving and discriminating against any race that was not white. Even poor whites soon became higher on the racial hierarchy when the richer whites gave them more privileges than blacks because the slaves would be easier to control if they weren’t aligned with the poor whites. Alexander says, “The degraded status of Africans was justified on the ground that Negros, like the Indians, were an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking intelligence and laudable human qualities than the red-skinned natives,” and for a long time they weren’t considered human being, they were treated as property to be used as the white slaveholders wished.

By 1865, the 13th amendment was passed and slavery was abolished, but the idea of race didn’t leave with it. After the abolishment of slavery whites feared they would no longer be on the top of the racial hierarchy and can no longer control the African Americans. “It was unclear what institutions, laws, or customs would be necessary to maintain white control now that slavery was gone….Rumors of great insurrection terrified whites, and blacks increasingly came to be view as menacing and dangerous,” it states in The New Jim Crow.  Blacks were viewed as dangerous which made it easier for them to get convicted of a crime and with no way to pay off their debts from the court costs they were “sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South,” because the 13th amendment abolished slavery for everyone expect prisoners.

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The hatred against blacks continued as the whites did not want blacks to have the same opportunities they did, so the Jim Crow laws were created. Whites discriminated against black blacks in schools, jobs, homes, and any public place they could pass a law that separated whites from blacks. During this time the Civil Rights Movement grew stronger and people like Martin Luther King Jr. helped fight for black rights through sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. As a result court cases like Brown v Board of Education was passed. Allow whites and blacks to have equal education and go to school together.

Now, in  the 21st century, race is seen differently. White people are noticing their white privilege and people are learning to be woke, but white people are still seen as the “normal.” The prisons are filled with blacks and latinos, and the incarceration rates are getting higher. In the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Adichie writes about race from the lives of  Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu writes a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. In one of her blogs she writes about the four kinds of tribalism (one of which is race), because one day Dike, Ifemelu’s little cousin, goes to summer camp and his group leader, Haley, “gave sunscreen to everyone but she wouldn’t give me any. She said I didn’t need it,” Dike says.  From the look on his face Ifemelu knew that it upset him and tries to comfort him, but he response with, “I just want to be regular.” So in her blog she writes about the racial injustice and the stereotypical things that people say. There was a time when Ifemelu met this women named Kimberly. Kimberly called every black person beautiful and one day Ifemelu responded, “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.” At that point in the book the author was acknowledging that it is okay to say the the word black.

Over the the recent centuries the world has change. From slavery, to the Jim Crow laws, to discrimination, to now. Race has continued to be a problem, shaping and impacting society in so many way. When will it end?

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