Difficulty in convincing students of racism and racial inequality

An article about whiteness studies hints at a bigger issue: the difficulty of convincing today’s college students that racism and racial inequality are still problems.

But that progress [end of slavery and Jim Crow plus the election of President Obama] has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before…

“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…

He says he starts the conversation by pointing to research such as a Pew Research Center report published last fall that showed the typical white family has roughly 20 times the wealth of the median black or Latino family. Thanks to the recession, the report said the gap is the largest it has been in a quarter century.

But some believe the idea of racism is shifting entirely. A 2008 poll by USA Today/Gallup and  showed that 40% of adults in America think racism against white people is widespread in the United States. A study published last year said that bias against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

While some indicators have improved (such as recent measures of residential segregation), there are still plenty of differences between different races. On the whole, life chances are still significantly determined by race. In Divided By Faith, two sociologists describe this as living in a “racialized” society where one’s race and ethnicity has a large impact on even micro-level decisions.

Part of this might simply be the process of continually teaching a new generation of college students. As their context and culture changes, college students arrive in the classroom with different concerns, knowledge, and passions. It would be interesting to track how incoming freshmen classes rate the importance of the issue of race, particularly compared to other concerns (like being able to find a job, terrorism, etc.). Perhaps this is cyclical, dependent on noteworthy events or political debates.

Of course, the world continues to change and academia will continue to shift toward studying newer trends. While the American case has historically been mostly about black-white relations, Latinos are now the largest minority group and how Latinos view themselves is something worth watching. Perhaps the trajectory of “whiteness studies” will change but the issue of race is still salient and is going to be studied for a long time.

Quick review: The History of White People

Just finished reading The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter and released in March 2010. Some quick thoughts and pieces I took from the book:

1. The book is an overview of defining “white” from the 1700s to the 1960s in the United States. This requires tracking back to a number of European thinkers. The book provides historical background to “whiteness studies.”

2. There is a long-running link between being “Anglo-Saxon” and “white” in the US. Defining who exactly is Anglo-Saxon has been problematic; groups like the Irish and Scots were originally excluded (1700s-1800s) but came to be a part of the group when America experienced more immigration from Southern Europe/Eastern Europe. The Irish and Italians had to fight for decades to eventually be included in the white group.

3. There were a number of thinkers who tried to classify all humans into a small number of races. The most commonly known categories: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. But others developed more and different categories. Another common set of categories had “Nordic” people (Germans, others) as superior. These differences between categories, often based on geography but also based on the “scientific” study of head shape, were said to result in hereditary differences in intelligence and temperament, among other traits. Of course, these immutable categories could change based on circumstances. Once World War I started, the “Nordic” category lost much of its standing.

4.  Some “great Americans,” such as Henry David Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt, were quite steeped in white superiority ideology. Both Thoreau and Roosevelt were quite explicit about this in their writings though this is not widely known today.

5. There is a long history of American residents of the Northeast seeing Southern whites as inferior. In the 1800s, Southern whites and the Irish were seen as sitting at the bottom of the racial heap.

6. Intelligence tests, developed by scholars in the early 1900s, were used to “prove” the superiority or inferiority of certain races.

7. As a general background to the ideology of whiteness, this is a decent book. As for explaining how this ideology, particularly among great thinkers or politicians, translated into public policy and general sentiment among the American population, the book is lacking. What is clear is that defining who was white and establishing whites’ superiority over other races was an important area of thought.