African-American Studies

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Research on African Americans covers many important areas, only a few of which will be discussed here: theories of white-black relations; the enslavement of African Americans; the development of an antiblack ideology; the creation of white wealth with black labor; the idea of whiteness; racial discrimination today; and possibilities for social change.


Explanatory theories of U.S. racial relations can be roughly classified into order-deficit theories and power-conflict theories. Order-deficit theories accent the gradual inclusion and assimilation of an outgroup such as African Americans into the dominant society and emphasize the barriers to progress that lie within the outgroup. Power-conflict theories, in contrast, emphasize past and present structural barriers preventing the full integration of African Americans into the society's institutions, such as the huge power and resource imbalance between white and black Americans. They also raise larger questions about the society's historically racist foundations.

Milton Gordon (1964) is an order-deficit scholar who distinguishes several types of initial encounters between racial and ethnic groups and an array of subsequent assimilation outcomes ranging from acculturation to intermarriage. In his view the trend of immigrant adaptation in the United States has been in the direction of substantial conformity—of immigrants giving up much of their heritage for the Anglo-Protestant core culture. Gordon and other scholars apply this scheme to African Americans, whom they see as substantially assimilated at the cultural level (for example, in regard to language), with some cultural differences remaining because of "lower class subculture" among black Americans. This order-deficit model and the accent on defects in culture have been popular among many contemporary analysts who often seek to downplay discrimination and accent instead problems internal to black Americans or their communities. For example, Jim Sleeper (1990) has argued that there is no institutionalized racism of consequence left in United States. Instead, he adopts cultural explanations—for example, blacks need to work harder—for present-day difficulties in black communities.

In contrast, power-conflict analysts reject the assimilationist view of black inclusion and eventual assimilation and the inclination to focus on deficits within African-American individuals or communities as the major barriers to racial integration. From this perspective, the current condition of African Americans is more oppressive than that of any other U.S. racial or ethnic group because of its roots in centuries-long enslavement and in the subsequent semislavery of legal segregation, with the consequent low-wage jobs and poor living conditions. Once a system of extreme racial subordination is established historically, those in the superior position in the hierarchy continue to inherit and monopolize disproportionate socioeconomic resources over many generations. One important power-conflict analyst was Oliver C. Cox. His review of history indicated that from the 1500s onward white-on-black oppression in North America arose out of the European imperialistic system with its profit-oriented capitalism. The African slave trade was the European colonists' Away of recruiting labor for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America" (Cox 1948, p. 342). African Americans provided much hard labor to build the new society—first as slaves, then as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and later as low-wage laborers and service workers in cities.

In the late 1960s civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (later renamed Kwame Ture) and historian Charles Hamilton (1967) documented contemporary patterns of racial discrimination and contrasted their power-conflict perspective, which accented institutional racism, with an older approach focusing only on individual whites. They were among the first to use the terms "internal colonialism" and "institutional racism" to describe discrimination by whites as a group against African Americans as a group. Adopting a similar power-conflict perspective, sociologist Bob Blauner (1972) argued that there are major differences between black Americans and the white immigrant groups at the center of assimilationist analysis. Africans brought across the ocean became part of an internally subordinated colony; white slaveowners incorporated them against their will. Black labor built up white wealth. European immigrants, in contrast, came more or less voluntarily.

More recently, sociologist Molefi Kete Asante (1988) has broken new ground in the development of a new power-conflict perspective, termed afrocentricity, that analyzes the Eurocentric bias in U.S. culture and rejects the use of the concepts such as "ethnicity," "minority," and "ghetto" as antithetical to developing a clear understanding of racism and to building antiracist movements. Similarly, anthropologist Marimba Ani (1994) has shown how from the beginning European colonialism was supported by a well-developed theory of white supremacy, a worldview that attempted to destroy the cultures of other non-European peoples. Yet other analysts (Feagin 2000) have argued for a power-conflict framework that understands white oppression of black Americans—with its racist ideology—as the foundation of U.S. society from the beginning. From this perspective much in the unfolding drama of U.S. history is viewed as a continuing reflection of that foundation of systemic racism.


Research on slavery emphasizes the importance of the power-conflict perspective for understanding the history and conditions of African Americans. Manning Marable (1985, p. 5) demonstrates that before the African slave trade began, Europeans were predisposed to accept slavery. Western intellectuals from Aristotle to Sir Thomas More defended slavery.

Research by sociologists, historians, and legal scholars emphasizes the point that slavery is the foundation of African-American subordination. Legal scholar Patricia Williams has documented the dramatic difference between the conditions faced by enslaved Africans and by European immigrants: "The black slave experience was that of lost languages, cultures, tribal ties, kinship bonds, and even of the power to procreate in the image of oneself and not that of an alien master" (Williams 1987, p. 415). Williams, an African American, discusses Austin Miller, her great-great grandfather, a white lawyer who bought and enslaved her great-great-grandmother, Sophie, and Sophie's parents. Miller forced the thirteen-year-old Sophie to become the mother of Williams's great grandmother Mary. Williams's white great-great grandfather was thus a rapist and child molester. African Americans constitute the only U.S. racial group whose heritage involves the forced mixing of its African ancestors with members of the dominant white group.

Eugene Genovese (1974) has demonstrated that the enslavement of African Americans could produce both servile accommodation and open resistance. Even in the extremely oppressive slave plantations of the United States, many peoples from Africa—Yorubas, Akans, Ibos, and others—came together to create one African-American people. They created a culture of survival and resistance by drawing on African religion and values (Stuckey 1987, pp. 42–46). This oppositional culture provided the foundation for many revolts and conspiracies to revolt among those enslaved, as well as for later protests against oppression.

In all regions many whites were implicated in the slavery system. Northern whites built colonies in part on slave labor or the slave trade. In 1641, Massachusetts was the first colony to make slavery legal; and the state's merchants and shippers played important roles in the slave trade. Not until the 1780s did public opinion and court cases force an end to New England slavery. In 1786 slaves made up 7 percent of the New York population; not until the 1850s were all slaves freed there. Moreover, an intense political and economic subordination of free African Americans followed abolition (Higginbotham 1978, pp. 63–65, 144–149). As Benjamin Ringer (1983, p. 533) puts it, "despite the early emancipation of slaves in the North it remained there, not merely as fossilized remains but as a deeply engrained coding for the future." This explains the extensive system of antiblack discrimination and "Jim Crow" segregation in northern states before the Civil War. Later, freed slaves and their descendants who migrated there from the South came into a socioeconomic system already coded to subordinate African Americans.


Truly racist ideologies—with "race" conceptualized in biologically inferiority terms—appear only in modern times. St. Clair Drake (1987) has shown that in the Greek and Roman periods most Europeans attached greater significance to Africans' culture and nationality than to their physical and biological characteristics. Beginning with Portuguese and Spanish imperialism in the fifteenth century, a racist ideology was gradually developed to rationalize the brutal conquest of the lands and labor undertaken in the period of European imperialism (Snowden 1983).

The system of antiblack racism that developed in the Americas is rooted deeply in European and Euro-American consciousness, religion, and culture. Europeans have long viewed themselves, their world, and the exploited "others" within a parochial perspective, one that assumes European culture is superior to all other cultures, which are ripe for exploitation (Ani 1994). For the colonizing Europeans it was not enough to bleed Africa of its labor. A well-developed anti-African, antiblack ideology rationalized this oppression and thus reduced its moral cost for whites. As it developed, this ideology accented not only the alleged physical ugliness and mental inferiority of Africans and African Americans, but also their supposed immorality, family pathologies, and criminality. Notions that African Americans were, as the colonial settlers put it, "dangerous savages" and "degenerate beasts," were apparently an attempt by those who saw themselves as civilized Christians to avoid blame for the carnage they had created. As historian George Frederickson put it, "otherwise many whites would have had to accept an intolerable burden of guilt for perpetrating or tolerating the most horrendous cruelties and injustices" (Frederickson 1971, p. 282).


In his masterpiece The Souls of Black (1903), the pioneering sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois anticipated current research on the significance of African Americans for U.S. prosperity and development: "Your country. How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the spirit" (Du Bois 1989 [1903], pp. 186–187). The past and present prosperity of the nation is substantially the result of the enforced labor of millions of African Americans under slavery and segregation.

Under common law, an innocent individual who benefits unknowingly from wealth gained illegally or by unjust actions in the past generally cannot, if the ill-gotten gains are discovered, claim a right to keep them (Cross 1984, p. 510; Williams 1991, p. 101). A coerced taking of one's possessions by an individual criminal is similar to the coerced taking of one's labor by a white slaveholder or discriminator. Over centuries great wealth was unjustly created for white families from the labor of those enslaved, as well as from the legal segregation and contemporary racist system that came after slavery.

Some researchers (see America 1990) have examined the wealth that whites have unjustly gained from four hundred years of the exploitation of black labor. Drawing on James Marketti (1990, p. 118), one can estimate the dollar value of the labor taken from enslaved African Americans from 1620 to 1861—together with lost interest from then to the present—as between two and five trillion dollars (in current dollars). Adding to this figure the losses to blacks of the labor market discrimination in place from 1929 to 1969 (plus lost interest) would bring the total figure to the four to nine trillion dollar range (see Swinton 1990, p. 156). Moreover, since the end of legal segregation African Americans have suffered more economic losses from continuing discrimination. For more than two decades now the median family income of African-American families has been about 55 to 61 percent of the median family income of white families. Compensating African Americans for the value of the labor stolen would clearly require a very large portion of the nation's current and future wealth. And such calculations do not take into account the many other personal and community costs of slavery, segregation, and modern racism.

Research has shown that for centuries whites have benefited from large-scale government assistance denied to African Americans. These programs included large-scale land grants from the 1600s to the late 1800s, a period when most blacks were ineligible. In the first decades of the twentieth century many government-controlled resources were given away, or made available on reasonable terms, to white Americans. These included airline routes, leases on federal lands, and access to radio and television frequencies. During the 1930s most federal New Deal programs heavily favored white Americans. Perhaps the most important subsidy program benefiting whites was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan insurance that enabled millions of white families to secure homes and accumulate equity later used for education of their children (Sitkoff 1978). During the long segregation period from the 1890s to the late 1960s, black families received much less assistance from government programs and were unable to build up wealth comparable to that of white families.


From the beginning of the nation, the ideas of "whiteness" and "blackness" were created by whites as an integral part of the increasingly dominant racist ideology. The first serious research on whiteness was perhaps that of Du Bois (1992 [1935]), who showed how white workers have historically accepted lower monetary wages in return for the public and psychological wage of white privilege. In return for not unionizing or organizing with black workers, and thus accepting lower monetary wages, white workers were allowed by employers to participate in a racist hierarchy where whites enforced deference from black Americans. Several social scientists (Roediger 1991; Allen 1994; Brodkin 1998) have shown how nineteenth-century and twentieth-century immigrants from Europe—who did not initially define themselves as "white" but rather as Jewish, Irish, Italian, or other European identity—were pressured by established elites to view themselves and their own groups as white. Racial privileges were provided for new European immigrants as they aligned themselves with the native-born dominant Anglo-American whites and actively participated in antiblack discrimination.

Today, whites still use numerous myths and stereotypes to defend white privilege (Frankenberg 1993; Feagin and Vera 1995). Such fictions often describe whites as "not racist" or as "good people" even as the same whites take part in discriminatory actions (for example, in housing or employment) or express racist ideas. In most cases, the positive white identity is constructed against a negative view of black Americans.


Racial discrimination involves the practices of dominant group members that target those in subordinate groups for harm. Discrimination maintains white wealth and privilege. A National Research Council report noted that by the mid-1970s many white Americans believed "the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had led to broad-scale elimination of discrimination against African Americans in public accommodations" (Jaynes and Williams 1989, p. 84). However, social science research still finds much racial discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations.

Many scholars accent current black economic progress. In the 1980s and 1990s the number of black professional, technical, managerial, and administrative workers has increased significantly. Yet African Americans in these categories have been disproportionately concentrated in those jobs with lower status. Within the professional-technical category, African Americans today are most commonly found in such fields as social and recreational work, public school teaching, vocational counseling, personnel, dietetics, and health-care work; they are least often found among lawyers and judges, dentists, writers and artists, engineers, and university teachers. Within the managerial-administrative category African Americans are most commonly found among restaurant and bar managers, health administrators, and government officials; they are least commonly found among top corporate executives, bank and financial managers, and wholesale sales managers. Such patterns of job channeling indicate the effects of intentional and indirect racial discrimination over several centuries.

Studies have shown that housing segregation remains very high in U.S. metropolitan areas, North and South. This is true for both low-income and middle-income African Americans. Change in residential balkanization has come very slowly. Census data indicate that from 1980 to 1990 there were only small decreases in the level of residential segregation in thirty major U.S. metropolitan areas; fewer changes than for the previous decade. Two-thirds of the black residents of the southern metropolitan areas and more than three-quarters in northern metropolitan areas would have to move from their present residential areas if one wished to create proportional desegregation in housing arrangements in these cities (Massey and Denton 1993, pp. 221–223). U.S. cities remain highly segregated along racial lines.

At all class levels, African Americans still face much discrimination. After conducting pioneering interviews with forty black women in the Netherlands and the United States, social psychologist Philomena Essed (1990) concluded that racial discrimination remains an omnipresent problem in both nations. She showed that black accounts of racism are much more than discrete individual accounts, for they also represent systems of knowledge that people collectively accumulate to make sense of the racist society. Research by U.S. social scientists has confirmed and extended these findings. Lois Benjamin (1991), Kesho Y. Scott (1991), and Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes (1994) conducted in-depth interviews to move beyond the common litany of black underclass pathologies to document the racial discrimination that still provides major barriers to black mobility in U.S. society. These field studies have revealed the everyday character of the racial barriers and the consequent pain faced by blacks at the hands of whites in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations.

Researchers Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney (1996) gave about 2,000 black respondents a list of seven settings where there might be discrimination. Seventy percent of the female respondents and 84 percent of the male respondents reported facing discrimination in at least one area. The majority reported discrimination from whites in at least three settings. Several national surveys as well have found substantial racial discrimination. For example, a 1997 Gallup survey (1997, pp. 29–30, 108–110) inquired of black respondents if they had faced discrimination in five areas (work, dining out, shopping, with police, in public transportation) during the last month. Forty-five percent reported discrimination in one or more of these areas in that short period.

Discrimination for most black Americans entails much more than an occasional discriminatory act, but rather a lifetime of thousands of blatant, covert, and subtle acts of differential treatment by whites—actions that cumulate to have significant monetary, psychological, family, and community effects. African Americans contend against this discrimination in a variety of ways, ranging from repressed rage to open resistance and retaliation (Cobbs 1988). This cumulative and persisting discrimination is a major reason for the periodic resurgence of civil rights organizations and protest movements among African Americans (see Morris 1984).


During the 1990s numerous researchers from Latino, Asian, and Native-American groups accented their own group's perspective on racial and ethnic relations and their experience with discrimination in the United States. They have often criticized a binary black-white paradigm they feel is dominant in contemporary research and writing about U.S. racial-ethnic relations (see Perea 1997). From this perspective, the binary black-white paradigm should be abandoned because each non-European group has its distinctive experiences of oppression.

However, a few scholars (Feagin 2000; Ani 1994) have shown the need to adopt a broader view of the long history and current realities of U.S. racism. The racist foundation of the nation was laid in the 1600s by European entrepreneurs and settlers as they enslaved Africans and killed or drove off Native Americans. By the middle of the seventeenth century African Americans were treated by whites, and by the legal system, as chattel property—a position held by no other group in the four centuries of American history. This bloody article-of-property system created great wealth for whites and was soon rationalized in the aforementioned racist ideology. Ever since, whites have remained in firm control of all major U.S. institutions; they have perpetuated a racist system that is still imbedded in all these institutions.

White-on-black oppression is a comprehensive system originally designed for the exploitation of African Americans, one that for centuries has shaped the lives of every American, regardless of background, national origin, or time of entry. This long-standing white-racist framework has been extended and tailored for each new non-European group brought into the nation. Immigrants from places other than Europe, such as Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the mid-1800s to the 1950s and Mexican immigrants after 1900, were often oppressed for white gain and constructed as racialized inferiors without citizenship rights (Takaki 1990). Other types of white racism have been important in U.S. history, but white-on-black racism is the most central case. While it has changed in some ways as time has passed, this systemic racism has stayed roughly constant in its fundamentals. U.S. society is not a multiplicity of disconnected racisms, but has a central white-racist core that was initially developed by whites as they drove Native Americans off their lands and intensely exploited enslaved African Americans. Scholarship (Takaki 1990; Feagin 2000) has shown how this framework was gradually extended and adapted for the oppression of all other non-European groups.


Some African-American scholars have expressed great pessimism about the possibility of significant racial change in the United States. The constitutional scholar Derrick Bell (1992) argues that racism is so fundamental that white Americans will never entertain giving up privileges and thus that black Americans will never gain equality.

There is a long history of African Americans and other people of color resisting racism. The development of resistance movements in the 1950s and 1960s was rooted in activism in local organizations, including churches, going back for centuries (Morris 1984). Given these deep and persisting roots, many other analysts, black and nonblack, remain optimistic about the possibility of civil rights action for social change. Thus, legal scholar Lani Guinier (1994) has spelled out new ideas for significantly increasing the electoral and political power of black Americans. While the Voting Rights Act (1965) increased the number of black voters and elected officials, it did not give most of these officials an adequate or substantial influence on political decisions in their communities. Guinier suggests new strategies to increase black influence, including requiring supermajorities (a required number of votes from black officials who are in the minority) on key political bodies when there are attempts to pass major legislation.

Some scholars and activists are now pressing for a two-pronged strategy that accents both a continuing civil rights struggle outside black communities and an internal effort to build up self-help projects within those communities. A leading scholar of civil rights, Roy Brooks (1996), has documented the failures and successes of the traditional desegregation strategy. Though still supportive of integration efforts, Brooks has argued that blacks must consider separatist, internally generated, community development strategies for their long-term economic, physical, and psychological success. Working in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, numerous African-American scholars and community leaders have reiterated the import of traditional African and African-American values for the liberation of their communities from continuing discrimination and oppression by white Americans.


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Joe R. Feagin

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