Lecture for Saratoga Springs on “The Unfinished Business of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Below are the comments I’ve prepared for my lecture on Monday, January 18.

I’d like to focus on a few questions today:

  1. What does it mean to say that race is a social construct?
  2. If race was created (or invented), why? When? By whom?
  3. How can understanding that help us today?

Let’s break that down.

Race is a social construct. What exactly does this mean? We are bombarded with messages from the media, our educational system, our legal system, our criminal justice system, and much more that tell us in one way or another that race is biological, that it’s innate, natural, and inherent. But that’s just simply not true. Most scholars (from all disciplines) who study race now recognize that there is no biological basis to race.

The idea that race is not biological but is in fact something that humans created usually comes as a surprise to my college students in my introductory course on race. They are shocked that they didn’t learn this before and upset that they’ve been deceived. And they should be upset; the idea that race is biological is one of the most powerful ideologies in this country, and it has been built into our culture for most of American history. Furthermore, I find it helpful to harness students’ feelings of being upset into an examination of the question why. If race was socially constructed, then that means it was invented. If it was invented, then when? Why? By whom? I believe that if the majority of Americans understood the answers to these questions then we would be much closer to developing tools to effectively dismantle systemic racism. This is part of King’s “unfinished business.”

Most of us just assume that the idea that humans are divided into races is a concept that has been with humans since the beginning of humanity. However, that’s actually not the case. As the textbook I use for my class states, race is a “recent human invention.” And by “recent,” we mean during colonial times.

One important site of the invention of race is colonial Virginia in the late 1600s. I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at this moment to see what was going on.

Before this time, race didn’t really exist as a way of categorizing people. People were identified by country of origin, religion, and class status (not as “white” or “black”). Furthermore, the line between “servant” and “slave” was not clearly defined. European and African laborers often worked together, lived together, married each other, had children together, and ran away together. Throughout the mid-1600s, there were several attempts to stop European and African laborers from running away together through legal penalties like fines and added time to servitude, but they still ran away together.

Another way to say this is to recognize that there was not the idea that European and African laborers were inherently, meaningfully different from each other. Instead, there was the idea that they had more in common with each other than either had with the wealthy landowners.

Then, several things changed. Throughout the 1600s, most laborers in colonial Virginia were European, but by the late 1600s, this population increasingly began to outlive their period of servitude and became free, a potential threat to wealthy landowners. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion occurred. African and European laborers united against wealthy landowners, an alliance that while it didn’t win, it did scare the wealthy landowners, who determined that indentured servitude was not a long-term solution to their labor needs.

The alliance, the coalition, that had been growing between European and African laborers became too dangerous, too threatening, and it had to be stopped. The only way to stop it was to divide and conquer, take two groups of people, of human beings, with a lot in common, separate them, and create a hierarchy where one was treated better than the other, where one was considered fully human and the other was not. That hierarchy became race, an ideology that people are inherently, biologically different, that skin color defines that difference, and that these racial groups are positioned on a hierarchy, with white at the top and black at the bottom.

Statutes in colonial Virginia start to limit rights of Africans as they become cheaper to import and European servants become more expensive to import. For example, in Virginia, in 1680 there was a new limitation on meetings of “Negro slaves,” a ban on them carrying weapons and travelling without permission. Also, it became legal to kill “negroe or slave” but illegal to “lift hand in opposition against Christian.” In 1691, freed slaves could not remain in Virginia after six months, interracial married couples could not remain in Virginia for more than three months after marriage, and white women who gave birth to biracial babies were punished.

All of this reveals the process of race being invented. Plantation owners shifted from European servitude to African slavery. Slavery became a permanent and inheritable condition, limiting rights Africans had previously. Africans became “black,” and “black” became associated with slavery. Poor Europeans gained limited rights and became “white,” and “white” became associated with freedom.

In other words, European and African laborers were divided and conquered.

Virginia’s 1705 Slave Codes solidified the invention of race. For example, the Slave Codes mandated “Negro, mulatto, Indian slaves . . . to be real estate.” Also, the Slave Codes stated that “All servants . . . not Christians in their native country (except Turks and Moors) shall be slaves.” The Codes banned interracial marriage. And, the Codes mandated that “Christian white servants” receive benefits, especially when their period of indenture is over.

Furthermore, another important part of the ideology of race is the shift in perception of Native Americans. In early European exploration of what became the colonies, Europeans tended to recognize different Native American tribes as distinct groups, with their own language, customs, etc. However, as time went on and European and later American demand for land grew, Native Americans were much less likely to be seen as distinct nations and much more likely to be categorized under the homogenous umbrella of “Indians.” Moreover, this ideology included a refusal to acknowledge indigenous land rights. If Native Americans were not fully human, then they didn’t “deserve” land ownership; meanwhile, land ownership was seen as much more appropriate for those in the racial category white.

This early moment of the invention of race, of the creation of an ideology of race and a racial hierarchy, became more and more powerful as time went on. It became adapted and readapted to suit each particular moment. Several decades later, when the Founding Father were defining the principles and structure of our new government, they built this new nation on the foundation of the ideology of race. After all, it’s much easier to reconcile democracy and slavery if there is an ideology that shows how those who are enslaved are less than human, and that’s the ideology that race is biological and that racial groups can be mapped along a hierarchy.

An ideology works because people take it for granted as the truth, as the only way of seeing the world. And the more it becomes built into a society, the stronger it becomes because it’s not seen as an ideology, just as the way things are.

This is why I strongly believe that if people recognize race as an ideology, as a social construct, rather than take it for granted as something real, then we can start to understand how and why race was created. If we can understand that race was created by humans, then we can also recognize that it didn’t always exist, that it’s not evitable, and we can work together to un-create it.

There’s a quote from the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion that I find powerful:

“Race is a human invention. We created it, we have used it in ways that have been in many, many respects quite negative and quite harmful. And we can think ourselves out of it. We made it, we can unmake it.”

I have found that while students and community members I work with take some time to understand what that means, they do find it both hopeful and empowering.

In the documentary this quote is from, there’s a follow up question that I also find critical: “How can we unmake race unless we first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality, and its emptiness as biology?”

If we are to “confront its enormity as a historical and social reality,” then we need to examine the systems that perpetuate that reality. Again, this work is part of King’s “unfinished business.” Here are just a few examples of these systems:

  • Housing and wealth
    • Recently the Pew Research Center announced that the racial wealth gap had reached a 24-year high, with white households on average having 13 times as much wealth as black households. There is ample evidence that rampant and sustained discrimination has occurred against people of color in housing. Ta-Nehisi Coates did a great job of explaining redlining and related racist housing policies in his Atlantic article “The Case for Repartions.”
  • The Criminal justice system
  • Media
    • People of color are not represented enough in popular culture, are not acknowledged with the work they do (as illustrated by the recent announcement of Oscar nominees), are often limited to roles of two-dimensional stereotypes, and are often demonized in the news media.

These myriad systems also include healthcare, voting, and many more that form a vicious cycle to maintain systemic racism and oppression. Understanding how these systems operate and how they perpetuate racism is an important first step in tackling race’s “enormity as a historical and social reality.”

Once we recognize that race is a social construct and understand how it perpetuates systemic racism, we can start to examine several key ideas:

  1. People were manipulated to believe race is real and that a racial hierarchy is somehow natural and biological, and that manipulation continues today.
  2. The vast majority of us are disempowered by a racial hierarchy.
  3. A racial ideology perpetuates stereotypes of blacks as criminals, of Latinos as “not real Americans,” of Muslims as terrorists, and of Asian Americans as the “good” or “model” minority, which is also a damaging stereotype because it further divides people and pits them against each other.
  4. White workers, whose wages have been stagnant for decades, are told to blame immigrants or refugees and not systems that perpetuate these inequities while rewarding executives at multi-billion dollar corporations.
  5. The rhetoric of colorblindness, the idea that we’re in a post-racial society, is just a distraction, a way of masking the perpetuation of systemic racism. Using such language perpetuates the manipulation and allows the racial ideology to continue, though conveniently, without being named.

Recognizing that race is a social construct allows us to examine its invention and if we pull the curtain back to see all of the moving parts of this invention, then we can see how it operates. And if we can see how it operates, we can develop tools to take it apart.

We have an opportunity now: every day we see examples of how the ideology of race is operating, starting with Donald Trump’s popularity, which should come as no surprise. He is following the divide and conquer playbook very effectively. It’s worked for over 300 years. Why wouldn’t it work today? We should be more surprised if he were unpopular. But this gives us an opportunity. Because there is a spotlight on his manipulative rhetoric, because there is a spotlight on police brutality, because there is a spotlight on mass incarceration, we have an opportunity to end it.

We have an opportunity to identify and resist the divide and conquer strategy that has pitted people against each other for more than 300 years. Humans created race and racism, and the time has come for us to dismantle them. That is King’s “unfinished business.”


(please also see the sources on this site, the tab at the top on “Recommended Resources” and “Resources on the New Jim Crow”)

One thought on “Lecture for Saratoga Springs on “The Unfinished Business of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Clear and on point. Thank you, Karen!


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