Who Am I?
The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in American Society
There is no society; there are only individuals and their families.
—Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain
Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.
When I informed colleagues, students, friends, neighbors, relatives, and other interested people that I was writing a book on four issues that bear special weight in race relations and ethnic conflict (immigration, capital punishment, racial profiling, and affirmative action), this revelation resulted in the articulation of viewpoints ferociously strong and as diametrically opposed—contentious, if you will—as any opined on these topics anywhere in the United States. To the degree that there was consensus on anything, they agreed passionately on the failure of current social policies and practices—the status quo is a completely intolerable nightmare of a situation. Moreover, federal policies were sharply denounced as inconsistent, indecisive, and harmful to our democratic society as a whole.
These contentious social issues reflect an absurdity in the connection between today and the past. Technology has provided taller walls and buildings and wider expressways, but we have shorter fuses and narrower beliefs. We spend more but seem to have less. We consume uncontrollably, but are not happy. We have bigger or nicer residences, fewer friendships, smaller families, and more conveniences, but care too little and have less time to share with others. We have more credentials and certifications but less common sense; more knowledge, but less critical reasoning; more experts, yet more problems; more medicine, but less health.
We eat, drink, and smoke too much. We over-medicate and self-prescribe. We waste too much and waste too carelessly. We laugh too little, drive too fast, lose our tempers too easily, stay up too late, and awaken too exhausted to contribute gainfully to our undertakings. We read too little, watch too much television, listen to our personal stereos too much, and play video games too much. We pray too infrequently.
Our possessions have proliferated while our values have dwindled. We talk too much and listen too little. We love too seldom and too begrudgingly, while we are quick to blame and hate too often. We have worked to make a living, but have not endeavored to make a life. We have attached years to our lives but not life to our years. We have been to the moon—and vicariously, to Mars—and back, but refuse to leave our comfort zone. We fear crossing the street to meet a new neighbor—especially one who may look different from us. We have conquered outer space. So why have we not explored our inner space?
We have accomplished increasingly complicated and spectacular feats, but have we done better? We have purified the air, but defiled our souls. We have triumphed over the atom, but have succumbed to our fears and prejudices. We take in more information, but learn less. We prepare more, but achieve less. We have learned to rush, but not to be patient or to wait. We build computers with more megabytes and capacity for more information, yet we connect with others less and less.
This is the day of fast food and sluggish digestion, bigger-than-life people with little character, deep profits but shallow bonds. This is the day of dual-career incomes but more divorces and blended families, ostentatious houses but broken homes. This is the day of quick trips, disposable diapers, disposable principles, one-night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from stiffening our penises, to dulling or heightening our senses, to killing convicts. This is the day when banks go bust—there is much in the showroom window but nothing in the vault.
This project offers a vision of American race and ethnic relations based on social justice. It examines theoretical and political issues relevant to social inequality and the social construction of groupings of ethnicity, race, class, and nation. It aims to furnish a cohesive framework for the study of American ethnic and racial populations.
A social justice framework recognizes the need for a living wage, de-ghettoization and racial integration, and education as significant steps in the achievement of a fair and just society. A social justice model necessarily leads to the questioning and critiquing of some of the ideologies that are so hegemonic in the twenty-first century, most notably a pro–“growth at any cost” structure, a self-reliance ideology that does not recognize the power of economic downturns, and a belief in the supremacy of big business.
Let us start with the living wage movement.
The Living Wage Movement
”Living wage” refers to the lowest amount of earnings necessary for an individual to attain a particular standard of living. In developed countries such as the United States, Japan, and Germany, this norm is typically operationalized as the income resulting from a forty-hour work week—with no additional financial resources—that should allow an individual to attain a specific quality or quantity of housing, food, utilities, transportation, health care, and recreation.
This idea varies from “minimum wage” in that the latter is determined by law and traditionally has failed to meet the requirements of a living wage. It also varies to some extent from “basic needs” in that basic needs usually measures a minimum level of consumption, without regard to the income source.
The concept of a living wage has a long history (going back to at least the late nineteenth century) and is a faith-based initiative originating in the Catholic Social Teaching belief expressed in the foundational essay Rerum Novarum (1891), a papal encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII and intended to combat the excesses of both laissez-faire capitalism and communism. In this document he affirms the right to private property while insisting on the role of the state to require a living wage. Pope Leo XIII considered any means of production to be both private property requiring state protection and a dimension of the benefit of everyone necessitating state regulation.
Pope Leo described a living wage as a universal right. Rerum Novarum led to legislative reform movements across the international community, eliminating child labor, reducing the work week, and establishing minimum wages. Except for mentioning the “divine,” the following quote from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum bears a striking similarity to the gist of Marx and Engel’s (1848) Communist Manifesto:
Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.
As regards protection of this world’s good, the first task is to save the wretched workers from the brutality of those who make use of human beings as mere instruments for the unrestrained acquisition of wealth. (Rerum Novarum)
In the United States, the state of Maryland and several municipalities and local governments have passed laws that establish a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage. The objective is to require that all jobs meet the living wage standard for that region. San Francisco, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have notably passed very wide-reaching living wage ordinances. In 2006, the city of Chicago also passed a living wage law, only to subsequently have it vetoed by the mayor.
Living wage laws typically apply only to businesses that obtain state assistance or have contracts with the government. This effort began in 1994 when an alliance between a labor union and religious leaders in Baltimore started a successful campaign requiring city service contractors to pay a living wage. Later, community advocates have won similar ordinances in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and St. Louis. In 2007 there were at least 140 living wage ordinances in cities throughout the United States and more than 100 living wage campaigns underway in cities, counties, states, and college campuses.
In Australia in 1907, the Harvester Judgment ruled that an employer was obliged to pay his employees a wage that guaranteed them a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilised community," regardless of his capacity to pay. The judge in the case established a wage of 7 shillings per day, or 42 shillings per week, as a “fair and reasonable” minimum wage for unskilled workers. The judgment was later overturned but remains influential. In 1913, to compensate for the rising cost of living, the basic wage was increased to 8 shillings per day, the first increase since the minimum had been set. The basic wage system remained in place in Australia until 1967. It was also adopted by some state tribunals and was in use in some states in the 1980s.
Many labor unions and community action groups, both nationally and internationally, support living wage movements. To be sure, the cost of a living wage also varies within and between countries. Controversy over exactly how much a living wage should be in any particular place could be used as an excuse not to adhere to that wage. Appropriate financial penalties might help enforce compliance.
In the United Kingdom, some campaigning organizations have demanded that the national minimum wage be increased to a level more comparable to a living wage. The mayor of London's office hosts a “Living Wage Unit,” which monitors the level needed for a living wage in London (which has a considerably higher cost of living than the rest of the UK). The Living Wage Campaign, the Church Action on Poverty, and the Scottish Low Pay Unit are other nonprofit organizations with an interest in poverty and living wage issues. London Citizens, a charity organization, is campaigning for a living wage to be implemented across London.
Critics maintain that basic economic tenets suggest that a mandated minimum price for labor, a living wage, is detrimental to low-wage workers because it increases unemployment. Unnaturally setting a price for labor above the market price could result in a decrease in the demand for labor on the whole, leading to increased unemployment. Workers who lose their jobs, of course, would not receive the living wage. Moreover, such wage increases can bring about inflation, increasing the cost of living and decreasing the relative buying power of the living wage. This clearly leaves the minimum wage earner no better off than before receiving a living wage.
Laissez-faire economists and other critics of living wage ordinances assert that the government should not intervene in the marketplace because even well-intentioned interventions are typically harmful to the economy in general. Moreover, the social benefit of reducing poverty becomes primarily the responsibility of those who hire the least educated, least experienced, least skilled, and most vulnerable workers. Is it realistic or efficacious to expect this?
It is revealing to compare unemployment over the past forty years among low-skill workers and the minimum wage relative to the average wage in the United States. Between 1998 and 2000, US unemployment was at its lowest point since 1970. The minimum wage had little apparent effect on higher-skilled workers.
There are policy alternatives to a living wage law. Opponents of the living wage movement argue that there are other ways to deliver income to the poor, such as the US Earned Income Tax Credit, the UK Working Tax Credit, or a negative income tax. Such measures do not have the unemployment effects that critics claim are the result of living wage law. Critics even claim that Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs are more efficient than some living wage laws.
Chapter 2 examines immigration to the United States, especially across the Rio Grande—our southern border with Mexico. There are approximately 12 million undocumented migrants in the United States. At least half of them come from Mexico. Mexican migration to the United States increased strikingly as a result of both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—a trilateral trade bloc created by the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada that came into effect on January 1, 1994—and other political and economic changes in Mexico. NAFTA was partially responsible for pushing down the incomes of poor Mexican corn farmers, although this pattern had been evident since at least the early 1980s. Although NAFTA certainly helped Mexican industry, it did not provide enough jobs for young adults entering the job market for the first time or for poor peasant farmers from villages who moved to cities because they were no longer able to make a living growing corn and other crops. Thus, an exodus followed.
Hellman puts a vivid face—actually many faces—on immigration through five years of in-depth interviews with Mexican migrants in New York City, Los Angeles, and some of the emigrating villages in Mexico. She uses the phrase “the rock and the hard place” in her subtitle to denote the extremely difficult—often perilous, maddening, and desperate—situations and experiences that push people out of Mexico (the rock), and bring them to the foreign soil of the United States (the hard place). Illegal US-Mexico border crossing has become increasingly exhausting, dangerous, and expensive. Yet Mexican migrants journey across the Rio Grande through treacherous desert in order to reach a new domicile in the United States with hopes for a better future for themselves and their families.
There are five groups of players in this borderlands drama: the migrants who try to cross illegally; the border patrol (migra), whose job it is to try to catch and deport them; the Minutemen (their name draws from militiamen who fought in the American Revolution), activists who believe that the US government is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration and who, in April 2005, began monitoring the flow of illegal immigrants (both Mexican and Canadian) along the US borders; the humanitarian workers who supply migrants with water, food, clothing, and emergency medical care; and the ranchers who own much of the land where these activities take place.
There is an immediate transition for migrants: one day they were members of the majority in their own homeland, and the next day they have become powerless minorities in a strange land with a vastly different culture and language. Clearly, Mexican migrants are caught between their homeland and their new destination. There are often plenty of soul-searching and meticulous calculations that determine whether a migrant remains in the United States to make a permanent home or returns to a beloved homeland.
Hellman aptly illustrates the contradictions and latent consequences of our current immigration policy and corresponding ideologies and makes a strong case for an open-border policy. According to a 2005 Washington Post survey, 61 percent of US citizens believe that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to keep their jobs and apply for legal status (The Economist 2005). This would imply the desire for an open border among a clear majority of US citizens.
The significant and complex issue of Mexican immigration to the United States is of concern to policy-makers, Latin and Mexican American scholars or students, political scientists, ethicists, communication and ethnic studies scholars, sociologists, economists, contemporary historians, theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and anyone interested in social justice. While acknowledging the need to carefully secure our border for political, sovereign, and security reasons, chapter 2 offers a humanistic voice to and a deeper understanding of the contributions of Mexican migrants to American society.
Chapter 3 examines racial profiling and ethnic stereotyping. Racial profiling is discriminatory practice by law enforcement that targets individuals for suspicion of crime on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. This chapter examines three distinct types of racial profiling.
The first is the pattern of law enforcement officers stopping and searching black motorists. In these cases, blacks are racially profiled as criminals, especially as drug traffickers, sellers, and users; the phenomenon is known as DWB (Driving While Black).
The second type of racial profiling is when law enforcement and airport security officers stop, question, search, and detain people appearing to be Muslim, Arab, or of Middle Eastern descent. In such cases these groups of people are profiled as potential terrorists. This is a reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11 as well as other subsequent attempts, albeit prevented, to commit terrorist acts. There has been a sharp rise in discrimination against Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners since September. They have faced increased scrutiny from government and law enforcement agencies as well as airport and airline personnel.
The third and final type of racial profiling examined is the pattern of law enforcement and border patrol officers stopping, searching, and detaining Latinos or foreign-looking people. In these cases, Latinos and others are racially profiled as criminals, especially as illegal aliens or undocumented workers as well as people who assist, harbor, or employ them. DWB has also come to mean “Driving While Brown.”
There has also been a rise in the harassment, detention, and deportation of Latinos. Along the border, Latinos face a hostile climate generated by political and social attitudes towards immigrants. This represents the intersection of two contentious issues covered in this book: immigration and racial profiling.
Chapter 3 evaluates the merits and problems associated with racial profiling. There is analysis of current policy relevant to profiling. Solutions are suggested, and policy implications are put forward.
The Death Penalty
Chapter 4 shows that the application of capital punishment is often an example of institutional racism; racial differences in both victim and offender in the rates of capital punishment. The majority of those arrested for murder, convicted, and executed are ethnic minorities; victims are disproportionately whites. Cultural transmission, group identity, and power-threat theories are used to explain racial bias in the death penalty. Removing racial bias from death penalty sentencing means increasing the number of ethnic minority judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and other defense attorneys and law enforcement officers. Chapter 4 does express support for capital punishment when it provides protection for potential victims of hate crimes, as a recognition of victim survivor rights, as just deserts for taking human life, when it induces greater reverence for the diversity of human life, as a recognition of the ability of DNA evidence to prove guilt, and as special and general deterrence.
The application of the death penalty has been inconsistent and unfair, and the death penalty process has been capricious and uninformed—opening the door for racial discrimination. There has always been a problem of racial and class discrimination in the use of capital punishment. Historically, many more blacks and Latinos than whites have been executed. Chapter 4 examines racial bias in relation to the death penalty—both in terms of the race of those executed and in terms of the race of homicide victims. This pattern of inequality adds to the swelling evidence that race continues to play an intolerable part in the application of the death penalty in America today.
Today racial discrimination via the death penalty has become subtle. While there still is a disproportionately high representation of blacks on death row, there are currently more white death-row inmates than black. The risk of unjust convictions in the application of the death penalty has led the American Bar Association and some states to call for a moratorium on executions. In studies of racial discrimination in application of the death penalty, the victim’s race is the most determinant variable. In cases with white victims, prosecutors are more likely to ask for the death penalty and juries are even more likely to impose it.
Unique historical experiences in the South resulted in a culture of violence. This maintained an ethos that encouraged and excused the lynching of blacks between the end of Reconstruction and the dawn of the civil rights era. A culture of violence is also responsible for the current propensity of Southern states to impose the death penalty against blacks who murder whites. There is a correlation between the US states that historically carried out the most lynchings and the states that currently have the highest homicide rates and most death sentences. The frequency of current death sentences is explained by the combination of previous lynchings against blacks and the current racial power-threat based on the size of the contemporary black population. The prior practice of deadly vigilantism improves recent efforts to use the death penalty so long as the threat created by current black populations is sufficient to trigger this legal but lethal control mechanism.
There is also racial discrimination in the selection of juries by prosecutors. The real question is not whether ethnic differences exist in the rate of imposition of the death penalty but whether the penalty is fairly imposed. Although evidence may suggest that ethnic minorities have been unfairly given the death penalty, an accurate appraisal must go beyond simple comparisons with racial representation in the larger population. There must also be measures of both the frequency and the seriousness of capital crimes between and within racial groups.
Racial bias in the application of the death penalty is part of a general pattern of institutional discrimination against minorities that produces an inequality of legal outcomes in the prosecution and punishment of criminals. The racial bias in the application of the death penalty is an indication of the extent to which social inequality affects the implementation of legal discretion.
Questions surrounding affirmative action have stumped several generations of Americans deliberating on how to adequately move forward on issues of equal opportunity. Chapter 5 emphasizes that affirmative action in its original form did not mean preferential treatment. Affirmative action is not about unqualified minorities or women being given an advantage over white males. Instead it is meant to level the playing field and repay certain groups for massive past discrimination. Chapter 5 posits that the backlash to affirmative action programs has been politically motivated. That is, Republicans knew that they could gain a political advantage by painting affirmative action programs as unfair, and a form of “reverse discrimination.”
Chapter 5 also highlights important Supreme Court and regional cases that have shaped public opinion about affirmative action, including Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978); Hopwood v. Texas (1996); Gratz v. Bollinger (2004); and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). I highlight the benefits of “narrowly tailored” affirmative action programs, including promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial stereotypes, and preparing citizens for the multicultural society of the near future.
Critiques of affirmative action are rebutted. There is particular focus on black Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and his views that affirmative action programs stigmatize all minorities as underqualified and that most colleges and universities use these programs to attract “a token few.” Next, I argue that the idea of “networking” is nothing but the “old boy” system, a form of affirmative action used by the white privileged to gain access to places from which minorities are almost certainly shut out.
Chapter 5 closes with a call for a grassroots movement among ethnic minorities, women, and social justice activists to support and utilize affirmative action programs to alleviate social inequality, racial prejudice, and discrimination and to create not only equal opportunity, but equal outcome for all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or religion.
Implications for Policy under Obama
Chapter 6, the concluding chapter, looks at how the Obama administration could influence social policy regarding the four major issues surveyed in this book. Obama’s endorsement of the Living Wage Campaign is also highlighted. Solutions from the perspective of a social justice model are suggested.
Conclusion: A Social Justice Model
In comparative, relational, and interdisciplinary style, this project examines four of the most contentious, pressing issues confronting America in order to critically analyze questions of power, law, and justice. These issues divide our society and continue to create tensions and foster institutional discrimination and social inequality. Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear in mass media about some matter pertaining to ethnic or racial conflict and tensions.
In explaining patterns of social behavior and racial and ethnic relations, I focus on how social factors affect individual behavior and racial and ethnic attitudes. My approach centers on social justice, which balances social responsibility with individual freedom. In order to obtain a just multicultural society, we must consider freedom from discrimination and equal protection under the law to be on par with free speech and free expression. Finally, implications for social policy on immigration, capital punishment, racial profiling, and affirmative action based on social justice are offered.
Each chapter includes at least one representative case study, in order to “put a face” on each issue. I use the case studies to bring a macro concern to the micro level—the lives of individuals—to enable us to see the implications of social policy. In this way, I hope to link a social scientific approach with a humanitarian one.