When discussions of racism come up, folks are quick to remind me that race is not a real thing – it’s just a social construct. I agree. Race isn’t “real” in the sense that it’s not based in biology and it sure isn’t based on geographic difference. I mean, just check out Asia. What do Japan and Iran have in common other than some idea about the “Orient” invented by Europeans, right?
But this idea of race as a social construct is pretty academic. And folks often preface “social construct” with the word “just,” as if the fact that race isn’t natural (as in, from nature) means we can simply educate it away.
So let’s try that idea another way. Yes, race is a made up idea. But, based on that idea, we’ve built real structures, a whole society in fact, and the inequity created by those structures won’t go away just because we change our minds about race.
In this way, the idea of race is like one’s dream of a house. The dream is just an idea, but if you move from dream to blueprint and then from blueprint to construction, you end up with a real structure – a house, made of bricks and mortar (or wood and nails if you like). And, just like you can change your idea about your dream house but still be stuck in the one you built with your old blueprint, certain attitudinal norms about race can change without changing the structure of white supremacy.
In order for your old house to match your new ideas, you have to remodel or rebuild. In terms of race, what we have on our hands in the 21st century is less a remodel than a renovation. Surfaces have changed, but the structures are, for the most part, the same.
Based on the idea of race, we have, for generations, created blueprints in the form of our Constitution, public policy, and social codes, often enforced with violence. Based on those blueprints, we’ve built real structures like suburbs, ghettos, corporations, whole industries.
The legacy of this history lives on in our politics and our economy. Practices such as convict leasing of Black prisoners and the wide array of racist codes and practices in the South and the North – codes like exclusionary covenants, Jim Crow laws, red lining, immigration quotas and exclusion, etc., – have accumulated through history to create a wealth gap between whites and people of color that persists to this day and cannot be resolved unless we revisit this history and address its legacy. Until that happens, the wealth gap will continue to be an indicator of structural inequities as solid and consequential as that wall you wish you could get rid of between the kitchen and the dining room in your house.
I’m not trying to minimize the importance of voting rights protection and changing social mores. These things make a difference. But, structural inequality still exists because the changes we’ve won renovate, even improve, an existing structure that has built in inequities. And these improvements convince the folks that are the least affected by the structural problems that it’s fine in here, making those of us who continue to complain of real injustice look like a bunch of whiners.
So we’ve gotta focus on the structure. Giving too much credence to the ways in which society has (or hasn’t) been renovated rather than remodeled around race is a distraction. It allows us to avoid seeing and dealing with the need for change.