Race and race relations have been aspects of American society since the colonial era. With the exception of a handful of countries, no other nation has dealt with the struggles of a multiracial society and has had to overcome the problems created in its nation’s past. As a result, race in America is a complex issue with many facets and race relations have become increasingly difficult to define.
Richard Thompson Ford, in examining the current race situation in America in his book The Race Card, defines the period as “post-racism.” Focusing on Ford’s ideas, as presented in his book, as well as an investigation into the Jena Six story, which is a contemporary example of racism, a more defined picture of current race relations in America can be uncovered.
Ford’s The Race Card provides a critique on the current race situation in America. In his book, while Ford presents the idea that America is “post-racism,” he asserts that post-racism is not defined in the traditional way one might assume. To Ford, post-racism is a “…late stage of racism in which its contradictions and excesses both cancel out and amplify its original function” (2008:25). To Ford, the era of post-racism allows people to have internal feelings of racism, as long as their overt actions and behaviors are not racist. Racial stereotypes may still exist, but no longer are those stereotypes defined by “White Only” establishments.
With the elimination of the stereotypical racism, racism may now be harder to eliminate because overt racists will remain unidentified. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, segregation laws and blatant bigotry provided easy markers to define racism and identify racists. Today there are laws preventing outward expressions of racism, making the process of defining the current state of race relations far more difficult.
According to Charles Hirschman, racism is the belief that people can be divided into categories based on certain features that define a particular look (2004). While characteristics that define a person as part of a particular race are biological, race is a socially constructed concept in which people place meaning on the biological features. The seeds of racism in America were planted out of the need for a cheap and renewable labor force.
When indentured servitude was no longer profitable to this country’s landowners, it prompted a needed change. Dark-skinned Africans, brought to this country as slaves, looked different from the white land owners. Based on that difference of appearance, along with the historical lack of a formal schooling, American society regarded them as inferior. This view by society eventually lead to the social construct of race, with whites seen as superior and blacks as inferior.
While slavery was abolished following the Civil War, the overt concept of racial inferiority continued until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s (Pinkney 1999). Up until the Civil Rights Act was passed, Jim Crow laws and other discrimination laws continued to segregate the races and reinforced the societal view of the inferiority of African Americans.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, overt racism no longer was socially acceptable. Racism is no longer is defined by superiority and inferiority, but rather is defined as an acknowledged difference between cultures, with one no better than the other (Miles and Brown 2003). Because of the years of segregation, there are inherent differences between the black and white cultures. While segregation and discrimination no longer are a common practice, there still are differences between the groups and implicit discrimination remains.
The faces of racism have changed, but racism has yet to disappear from society. Today, those who are identified as racists, under the old definition, are labeled as bigots and outsiders by society. Although there still are those who are viewed as racists under the traditional definition, there is a new form of racism present and it is much harder to define.
As defined by Ford, the current state of racial affairs revolves around “playing the race card.” In playing the race card, people must presume that discrimination remains and it is based on one’s race. More often than not, today’s discrimination is a based on the many years of inferior treatment. In other words, people today claim racism because, at one point in history, it could be considered a result of racism (2008:31). There are four instances of playing the race card that are outlined in Ford’s book, including racism without racists, racism-by-analogy, unclear definitions of what is racism, and unclear goals for the current movement.
People use the racism without racists definition because it is the easiest conclusion to use when explaining the motivations of others. There may be extenuating circumstances as to why people act a certain way, but people cry “racism” because it is an easy answer; they fail to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.
In racism-by-analogy, other groups claim that their struggles and discrimination are equal to those fought for in the Civil Rights Movement, even though they are not the same. As an example, people that are overweight or “not pretty enough” may make the claim that their legal rights are being violated, even though “overweight” is not a protected class under the legislation.
Having unclear definitions of racism causes people to overuse the claim. There are many factors that motivate people’s actions, and it is not always based on race. With no clear-cut definition of present-day racism, the resulting lines are blurred as to what actually constitutes racism in today’s society.
Without an accepted definition of racism and no clear goals for the improvement of race relations, it is difficult to determine when playing the race card may be beneficial or detrimental to a movement. This unknown result causes internal conflict within the movement itself, preventing it from moving forward.
Overall, Ford’s argument is correct in its assertions. The face of racism today has changed and a new era of race relations has begun. No longer are there overt forms of racism and discrimination, but rather there are more subtle situations affecting race relations in today’s society.
However, Ford’s argument is not as simple as post-racism and the race card; there still are societal and structural boundaries and obstacles that African Americans cannot seem to overcome. While legally discrimination and segregation are no longer present, there are still examples of it today.
As author Shawn Utsey, et al., argues, there are three forms of racism that still exist today: individual, institutional and cultural racism (2000). Examples of individual racism include racial profiling and the lingering sentiments of the overt racism seen during the Civil Rights Movement. Residential segregation and other societal restrictions constitute institutional racism. Cultural racism refers to the lack of African American influence in mainstream American culture and history. These new forms of discrimination and segregation define the current race relations in contemporary American culture.
A contemporary example to which Ford’s ideas of post-racism and the race card can be applied is the Jena Six incident. There are many incidents which occurred in Jenna, Louisiana, between September to December 2006, which contributed to the belief that racism and discrimination were involved in the Jena events (Newman 2007).
The first incident occurred in September, involving nooses hung from a tree at the local high school. As is common at most high schools, certain social groups congregate in specific areas, though not necessarily based on race. At Jena High School, a racially diverse school, a specific tree commonly was known as the “white tree.” A black freshman asked the principal if he could sit under the tree and the principal assured him that he could sit wherever he wanted. The next day, two nooses were hung from the tree, though the motivations behind the hanging of the nooses were unclear. The students responsible for hanging the nooses were identified and suspended. When the suspensions were announced, the black community of Jena was enraged, insisting that the nooses were a symbol of a threat against the black students of the high school.
There were two altercations between white and black students, which some claimed were a result of the events that occurred in September. At a party, five black students attempted to enter a party, but were denied entrance because they did not receive an invitation. An altercation ensued, resulting in a white student being charged with battery. The next day, another altercation occurred outside a convenience store between a white male and three black males, one of which had been involved in the previous altercation at the party the night before. One of the black students was charged with disturbing the peace, second degree robbery and the theft of a firearm.
The final event, which ultimately is what led to the national publicity, was an altercation between six black students and one white student, Justin Barker. Barker was badly beaten, but was released from the hospital after three hours in the emergency room. Five of the six black students were charged with attempted second-degree murder, though the charges later were reduced to battery. Mychal Bell originally was charged with aggravated second-degree battery and tried as an adult, but his conviction later was overturned. The five who originally were charged later were convicted of simple battery (Associated Press 2007).
Due to the events leading up to the attack on Justin Barker, many consider this to be a result of racial tensions in the town. This was reinforced by the filing of the charge of attempted murder to the Jena Six at the beginning of the trail proceedings, a charge many considered to be racially driven and not fitting to the crime. Many also believe that the all-white jury, which delivered the original guilty verdict against Bell, levied an unfair sentence.
While on the surface these events seem to be motivated by racism, the events involving the Jena Six are more of a case of Ford’s racism without racists. Because the events which occurred in Jena involved both whites and blacks, people assume racism was a determining factor. However, most of the events leading up to the Barker incident were unrelated. Even when considered separately, racism is not the only motivation for the actions which occurred.
The tree that was claimed as the “white tree” by the student body has since been refuted by the faculty and staff at Jena High School. According to later testimonies, students of all races sat under the tree at one point or another. There also was a conflict over the number of nooses which were hung from the tree on the following day, and further investigations revealed that only two were hung, not three, which is believed to be a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. The nooses, it later was found, were a prank aimed at the rodeo team, not hung as racist symbols. As it later was learned, school administrators cut down the nooses before classes started because students were playing with them in inappropriate manners, not because of some underlying racial context.
Following the Jena incident, the United States Justice Department conducted an investigation to determine if the act was in fact a racially-motivated hate crime. It was determined that the hanging of the nooses was an isolated event without lasting racial tensions at the school. As such, there is no direct connection between the events occurring in September and the Barker attack. Each event was separate and unique, yet collectively were made to seem as a cause and effect relationship by the media.
Finally, the allegations accusing the all-white jury of delivering a racially-motivated verdict fails to take into account underlying causes. Due to the makeup of the town, there are only a small number of African Americans to select for jury duty. Of those summoned for jury duty, some were African American but failed to report on the day of the trial (Mangu-Ward 2007).
The events that occurred in Jena led to one of the largest race riots in recent history. Sensationalized by the media’s influence, the case seemed to be a series of events indicating the continued racial tensions of the South. When looking deeper into the facts, a different picture is seen. Instead, each event is isolated and unconnected. The coincidences surrounding the events seem to point to a plot against African Americans, yet the motivations had no racial underpinnings.
Throughout American history, racism has played a major role in race relations. Although overt racism has become a lesser focus, examples of racial discrimination and segregation still exist in today’s society. The era of post-racism has a new set of issues effecting society and the race relations within it. Until these issues are resolved, true racial equality cannot be attained.
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