Racial Prejudice

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Racial Prejudice

People throughout history have had a fascination with physical differences among humans. Usually, traits attracting the most attention are visible, such as skin color, size and form of head, hair type, nose shape, and body size. As European explorers spanned the globe in their ships in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they observed that these physical differences were not random around the world but occurred in a certain geographic pattern, with people living in the same region sharing similar traits. This pattern resulted from groups of people living in certain regions who shared genetically distinct biological traits shaped by the environment through time. This time period also saw the rise in interest in science. Therefore, these early observations led Europeans to group people into a limited number of physical types commonly referred to as races. The number of identified races in various schemes ranged from three to over thirty. One of the first schemes to use the term "race" was introduced by Francois Bernier (1625–1688), a French physician, in 1684. He classified humans into four categories—Europeans (western and southern), Asians, Africans, and Lapps (the more northern inhabitants). With skin color as the emphasis, others offered the classic racial labels of white, red, black, and yellow. The idea of race increasingly appeared in Western European literature through the eighteenth century.

Though the term race was commonly used through the next three centuries, biologists and other scientists who studied human populations found it increasingly difficult to agree on what criteria should be used to define distinct races. The notion of race in scientific terms slowly came to an end by the twentieth century. The scientific interest shifted from an emphasis on similarities in groups to the broad diversity in human populations. Biologists considered race a useless concept since so much biological variation can be found even within a single group of people.

Human variation

The early fixation on human similarities led to the creation of stereotypes (a biased oversimplified generalization of others). The use of stereotypes served to long distract appreciation of the vast human diversity and variation found throughout the world. Though commonly sharing numerous characteristics shaped by the environment, each individual inherits a unique combination of physical traits. Clusters of these traits inspire the idea of regional populations or racial typologies. However, any one trait in a cluster—such as kind of hair—straight or curly, coarse or fine—usually can be found in other groups as well.


The process of conforming to the cultural values of another social group and ultimately losing one's original ethnic identity to the new dominant culture.
Large-scale immigration to a new land bringing governmental controls from the distant nation of origin.
A major consequence of prejudice by treating differently or favoring one social group over another based on arbitrary standards or criteria.
A socially defined group based on physical characteristics, commonly including skin color but may also include hair texture, eye shape, body build, facial features, and other biological features.
Prejudice against people of a particular physical trait, such as skin color, based on a belief that the physical trait primarily determines human behavior and individual capabilities and that leads to feelings of superiority of one race over another providing justification of dominance of one group over another.
Using laws to separate whites and blacks.
social mobility:
The amount of opportunity a person has in a particular society to change his social standing from one social class to another.

Throughout history, human groups often migrated over large distances and inter-bred extensively with other groups with whom they came in contact. This movement contributed to very hazy genetic boundaries. Therefore, the populations of early recognizable races observed by early explorers and scientists steadily became more obscure through time and the complexities of the worldwide human population became more apparent. Even in modern times the Hispanic category used in the United States includes a broad range of people with European, African, and Native American ancestries of various combinations. Variations in skin color, general stature, hair texture, and head shape vary as much within any given group as between groups.

By the twenty-first century, scientific interest focused more on biochemical factors, such as DNA makeup and blood groups, rather than physical factors. Rather than being distinct physical groups, the perceived races were human groups with differing incidences of certain genes. People within these groups shared a common gene pool (the entire span of genetic traits of a particular group, or breeding population) and a close ancestry since they were set apart from other groups. However, migration, exploration, and colonization (one nation populating and gaining political and economic control of another, usually less developed, country and its resources) through centuries of time led to considerable genetic mixing.

Despite the shift away from the idea of race by scientists, the general public continued using the concept of race in daily life. It shaped relationships and greatly influenced prejudices. Sometimes even cultural factors such as language became combined with traditional biological traits in distinguishing races. The public continued believing these physical differences were somehow related to behavioral differences and mental capabilities. These physical distinctions were used to establish a person's place in society. Though race categories had no real scientific basis, they served a social purpose as people attempted to organize in their minds the human diversity they see around them.

Government use of race

Nations continue using the concept of race when shaping social policies. For example, in the census (an official count and description of people living in a nation taken on a regular basis) it takes every ten years, the United States asks all people to classify themselves using a set of race categories—white (including Hispanic), black, American Indian, Eskimo, and Asian or Pacific Islander. Race statistics are then used to guide social policies, such determining the kinds of social services that should be made available in certain areas. In this way the government mixes inherited traits with economic and social issues.

Some nations strive for what they consider to be racial purity. Germany and Japan established criteria for citizenship partly based on biological factors. For example, unlike in the United States, a person born in Japan to foreign-born parents does not automatically become a Japanese citizen. Japanese also are restricted in having dual citizenships, meaning being citizens of two nations. Because of these and other restrictions, few foreign-born people become Japanese citizens. Few people who do not have the desired physical appearances can qualify for citizenship in those nations. American Indian tribes also consider the degree of full-bloodedness in determining who qualifies for tribal membership. Many tribes seek to maintain what they consider biological and cultural integrity. Of course, many societies do not use physical traits to make group distinctions.

In sum, race is the sharing of common features through a shared descent. By the twenty-first century, the concern was not so much what race was, but how the concept of race was used. Usage varied from country to country. For example, the United States considers anyone with any degree of African ancestry, black. In Latin America, a person with only partial African ancestry is considered white. Racial differences are based on cultural, social, political, and economic factors. Race is a social construction, not a biological fact. Therefore, the notion of race is very subjective based on people's prejudices.

The blight of racism

Racism is the belief that one race is naturally superior to other races. Racists believe they should enjoy some exclusive benefits because of their perceived superior genetic attributes. Racists believe that human physical traits determine intellectual capacity and behavioral characteristics. Such beliefs have major negative implications for many people. People are denied opportunities in life not because of their abilities (or lack of them), but because they are considered a member of some identifiable group. As a result, they may be denied equal access to education, housing, jobs, and even justice before the law. These prejudices are often built into the very institutions of a society. Racism equates differences in physical appearance with differences in status and power in a society. A race can exert its superiority through military conquest, colonialism, forced migration of others, and various social policies that deny others equal consideration and treatment.

Racism is a certain form of ethnocentrism (judging other cultures by the standards of one's own out of a sense of superiority). Often their group is distinguished from other groups by cultural differences, such as religion or long-held traditions. However, frequently it is based on physical appearance. Sometimes cultural and biological traits are combined in distinguishing human groups. But many times some single biological trait, such as skin color, forms the basis of distinctions and this is known as racism. Other biological traits besides skin color are sometimes used to distinguish certain groups; Jews and Irish have been the targets of racism by being identified through biological traits in a negative manner leading to oppression by dominant groups and even mass murder. Racism gives social and cultural meanings to skin color or any other trait considered important. Regions where racism has been most prevalent in the twentieth century include the United States, Western Europe, and South Africa.

History of racism

Racism in the world can be traced to the colonial period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Technologically advanced Western European nations were conquering and settling areas around the world already occupied by native peoples with different languages, customs, and skin color. The natives were exploited (making use of people without appropriate or just compensation) as laborers or even as slaves. At the same time, black Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean for use as slaves. These colonized areas were in the New World, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The relationship between master and slave strongly reflected paternalistic (parent-child) relations, as slaves were considered incapable of controlling themselves. In the minds of whites, what they did was for the slaves' own good. Whites were dependent on blacks for labor, and blacks depended on whites for life's basic necessities such as food, clothing, and housing.

By 1750, all of Central and South America and half of North America were divided by European countries including Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. Much of India and parts of Africa also became conquests of European nations. Forts for slave trading were established along the western Africa coast. Next followed colonization in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and China. By 1910, much of the world had been Europeanized.

Europeans historically associated dark skin with evil since it was associated with traditions foreign and threatening to Western society. This perspective shaped opinions of the colonists about the native peoples they encountered during this long period of time. They considered natives less civilized and perhaps even less human. The colonists used these racist beliefs to justify exploiting the native people for labor and extracting the resource wealth of their lands.

As a result, prejudice, colonialism, and slavery spread racism around the world. Colonial domination was achieved through military might and missionary activity. Colonial expansion also introduced capitalism (an economic system in which production is privately owned, financed through private investments, and the demand for goods is established through an open market system largely free of government involvement) into the New World (Western Hemisphere) that required abundant cheap labor. Colonial expansion by European nations shaped modern race relations. For example, of the twelve million people that migrated to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ten million were slaves.

By the late 1800s, the concept of racism fit nicely with the newly emerging ideas of biological evolution introduced by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) with his 1859 publication of The Origin of Species. Influenced by scientific thought at the time, society in general believed the individual races represented different stages of human evolution. People of color represented early, less civilized times. Perhaps some environmental factors retarded their development. This simplified view of the human population persisted for decades. The Darwinian biological theories of evolution, including such notions as "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest," were applied socially to justify white superiority over blacks. These two concepts meant that certain traits or characteristics were more adapted to existing environmental factors than others, and those traits would increasingly dominate through time since it made individuals with those traits more fitted to the environment.

Racism greatly influenced the acceptance of newly arriving immigrants into nations. If these immigrants looked different or were culturally distinct from the societies and cultures into which they were relocating, then their acceptance was very limited. Immigration of Japanese and Chinese from Asia to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century led to fears of Yellow Peril (fear of Asian immigration into Western countries). Restrictive immigration laws first adopted in the nineteenth century became even more restrictive in the 1920s. Similarly the Australian government restricted the immigration of Asians to Australia for many years.

Racism in Britain

A long-standing belief around the world has been that Britain is a racially pure nation, inhabited almost exclusively by white-skinned people. However, that perception is far from the truth. Blacks have likely lived in England for over two thousand years. By the eighteenth century, black slavery played a major role in the English economy; slaves were found in its many colonies worldwide. Great Britain took a leading role in the international slave trade (see box). Its commercial ships journeyed from Africa loaded with slaves who were traded for sugar in the Caribbean, then sailed to the plantations (a large farm that owned one hundred or more slaves) of North America where the sugar was traded for rum and other goods which were then shipped back to Africa for more slaves. Some of the black Africans were also shipped to Britain where they became household servants.

Expansion of the British Empire was largely fueled by a belief in the racial inferiority of people of color, a key example of ethnocentrism. For example, for several centuries, Europeans portrayed their expansion as discoveries of new lands even though others who looked and behaved differently had long inhabited the lands. These explorers—and the colonists and missionaries who followed—believed they were bringing civilization to these societies previously unknown to the more modern world.

British racial prejudices were largely played out in its colonies. Native populations were subjected to British rule, and slavery became a key part of agricultural economies. Slavery also occurred in Britain itself, but on a much lesser scale. Farms were smaller because the soils and climate of Britain were less supportive of agriculture. Under pressure, particularly from religious groups, slavery was abolished within Britain in 1772 as some ten thousand slaves were freed. Britain discontinued its involvement in the international slave trade by 1807, and in 1833 slavery ended in British territories, leading to the freedom of around eight hundred thousand slaves. The former slaves continued as impoverished fieldworkers.

Black immigration begins into Britain

Following World War II (1939–45), the British colonies gained independence and became part of the British Commonwealth. Freedom from European colonialism often took their regions from direct domination to status as a Third World country. Third World countries are those countries with little industrial development. They always lag behind the more fully industrialized nations economically and as a result remain disadvantaged. Such countries in the twenty-first century include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

International Slave Trade

Use of African slave labor by European colonization began in the mid-sixteenth century when black Africans were brought to Brazil to work on Spanish sugar plantations. The uprooted African populations brought long distances from homelands and families were considered a more reliable slave workforce than local indigenous peoples who could more readily escape and receive local support. Until the 1730s the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese were the main slave traders. However, with the growth of the British Empire, the British became heavily involved. Between 1700 and 1810 the British alone transported 3.4 million black Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. Liverpool merchants financed British slave trade. As many fifteen million slaves in total were transported to the Americas. Most were shipped in the eighteenth century before the international slave trade was officially banned in the United States and Britain. Over ten million Africans were forcibly moved to North America. Another two million died on the way on the crowded and filthy ships. Most slaves were people taken from the west coast of Africa, where people were adapted to tropical conditions. This was useful for plantation work in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern part of North America. Growth of the Atlantic slave trade gave rise to a unique form of racism—black slavery—that contrasted to earlier slavery among indigenous groups. The intense racism associated with slavery would long outlive slavery itself. Governmental laws and social traditions grew through time based on racial prejudice.

Many blacks from the former British colonies of the New Commonwealth, including areas of the Caribbean, Africa, and India, migrated (move from one country to another) to Britain to find jobs in the postwar economic boom. Parts of Britain had been severely damaged by the war and much rebuilding was needed. As a result, the major issues of race relations shifted from the former colonies to Britain itself. The migrants were begrudgingly welcomed because of the need for abundant cheap labor to perform unskilled jobs that carried little status. The Nationality Act of 1948 helped ease the hurdles of migration by making all people of the British Commonwealth countries British citizens, including blacks and South Asians who began arriving in large numbers seeking jobs. Restriction to these menial jobs only served to support colonial stereotypes of blacks held by Britons. Little in the way of educational opportunities, housing, and welfare assistance was provided to assist settlement.

When the economic boom began to decline in the late 1950s as rebuilding from the war wound down, prejudice and discrimination escalated. The immigrants were viewed as competitors for the few jobs available. Racial violence first broke out in the Notting Hill district of London in 1958. Calls for new immigration restrictions mounted. Meanwhile, the immigrants remained limited to low-status jobs, earning much less than white British workers. Parliament (the British legislative branch of government) passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which increased restrictions by requiring immigrants to have written government approval before leaving for Britain. The racial bias of the anti-immigration movement was highlighted by the lack of restrictions placed on Irish immigrants. Immigration restrictions on people of color, such as from Pakistan, the Caribbean islands, and India, were extended and repeatedly strengthened by additional British legislation through the remainder of the century. While the rights of blacks were increasingly limited, police surveillance of minorities increased in search of illegal immigrants.

A weak commitment to ending prejudice

These strict immigration laws outweighed the weaker anti-discrimination measures passed by Parliament beginning in 1965 to supposedly ensure equality. In 1965 Parliament passed the Race Relations Bill that prohibited racial discrimination in public places, such as restaurants, hotels, entertainment places, and transportation. However, enforcement of British anti-discrimination laws received little emphasis. The act established the Race Relations Board to resolve complaints of discrimination by minorities. The Board, though, had little authority to enforce solutions as there remained little sympathy for the problems of immigrants. Fearful that race riots might spread in Britain as in America in the late 1960s, Parliament passed the Race Relations Act in 1968. The act included bans on discrimination in employment and housing. However, the power of the Board was not expanded reflecting the weak national commitment to actually solving problems of discrimination.

With studies conducted in the 1970s showing little improvement in the living standards of Britain's minorities, Parliament passed a new Race Relations Act in 1976 that created the Commission for Racial Equality. Though having investigative powers unlike the previous Board, the CRE proved little more effective than its predecessor given the strong anti-immigration feelings in the country, particularly toward people of color.

Racial violence erupts

Resentment among the racial minorities regarding the slow response to racial prejudice and discrimination grew through the 1970s. By the early 1980s, black youth began to strike back with violence. In the summer of 1981, a wave of violence starting in the south London area of Brixton spread throughout several other communities, including Leeds, Edinburgh, and Leicester. Minority youth including blacks and Asians clashed with police in reaction to charges of racial harassment by police authorities. The riot began as white policemen were taking a black knifing victim to a hospital for care; however, it was driven by harassment just in general. Many white youth also joined minority gangs in these clashes. Over three thousand youth were arrested during the riots. Besides the increasing distrust between minorities and police, unemployment, especially high among youth, also played a key role in the political grievances of the youth. Police were the chief targets of the violence in most cases. Though the violence was suppressed by police, resentments still simmered. In 1983, the Greater London Council adopted plans to address racism in the city including declaring London an Anti-Racist Zone. The ordinance enforced anti-discrimination laws.

After two years of uneasy quiet, violence erupted again in 1985 primarily between black youth and police over ongoing harassment. This time the riot was triggered again in Brixton of South London by police accidentally shooting a black mother of six, a Jamaican immigrant, while searching in her home for her son suspected of a firearms offense. Riots spread to the Tottenham district of North London and became known as the Broadwater Farm Riot. During this second wave of violence some rioters were armed and one police officer was killed. Approximately 220 police were injured. Three blacks were convicted of murder for the policeman's death and sentenced to life in prison.

Although racial tensions remained high in the twentieth century, some economic advances did occur for minorities in Britain. By the late 1980s, Asian and Caribbean entrepreneurs (those who take a financial risk in starting new businesses) became successful small business owners. By 1993, about 7 percent of this population was involved in minority-owned businesses. Many were businesses catering to minorities, such as restaurants and general goods stores. Entrance by minorities into management positions at larger businesses remained out of reach because of racism.

The obscure (not clearly evident) nature of the black presence in Britain owes largely to de facto (accepted as a standard, but not reinforced by law) racial segregation. British leaders long believed that the white British culture should be dominant. Therefore black Britons lacked equal opportunity for education and business. Continuing into the twenty-first century they lived in poor communities separated from white society.

Indigenous Australians

When British explorer Captain James Cook (1728–1779) arrived on the shores of Australia in 1770, the vast continent was inhabited by a diversity of indigenous (first or earliest-known inhabitants) peoples. Historians estimate they numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Many different languages and social customs existed across the continent in the numerous groups. Typical of other early explorers, Cook ignored the natives' attachment to their traditional homeland and claimed the eastern half of Australia as a British possession. British colonists began arriving in 1788. They referred to the natives collectively as Australian Aborigines.

As ranching and mining activities of the new settlers spread, the indigenous population was decimated by new diseases brought by the invading colonists. The new diseases for which they had no natural resistance included chickenpox, smallpox, influenza, and measles. They also suffered from the loss of their most productive lands and traditional food resources, resulting alcohol abuse of liquor acquired or traded from settlers, and hostile interaction between natives and settlers that occurred sporadically across the frontier (the edge of more substantial settlement). Those who lived along the more fertile coastal areas where Europeans first settled were affected first. Some groups disappeared altogether while others were absorbed into colonial settlements. Some 90 percent of the aboriginal population was ultimately lost.

Although the British government controlled activities in the Australian colonies, control of the natives was left to the colonists. Given their racial prejudices, this led to strict racial controls. A series of Aboriginal Acts limited the freedoms of the natives, such as freedom of movement and freedom to practice certain cultural traditions. By the twentieth century, most remaining indigenous Australians lived in remote desert areas or in impoverished neighborhoods on the fringes of European settlements. Many adapted to European ways of life, working as ranch hands or laborers. Often they would not be paid in money but instead given food, clothing, and other of life's necessities. Many living in the deserts kept their traditional ways of life and fought further expansion of European settlements inland. Out of hundreds of the separate original indigenous languages, only about two hundred survived.

In the early twentieth century, the Aborigine population began to rebound as its resistance to diseases increased. The birthrate of indigenous Australians increased as their population grew once again. However, the racial segregation of indigenous peoples from mainstream society and discrimination regarding educational and job opportunities kept them impoverished. Life expectancy was twenty years less than the average Australian citizen. The native population suffered higher rates of unemployment, more health problems, and greater poverty than the general population. Indigenous people were more likely to be imprisoned or to commit suicide. They were frequently called the derogatory term Abos.

Progress toward inclusion in the dominant white society and equality came slowly, later in the century. The first Aborigine to become an Australian citizen was Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) in 1957. Aborigines finally gained the right to vote in national elections in 1962 and in all state elections by 1965. In 1967, indigenous people were finally included in the national census.

From the early 1970s into the twenty-first century, many indigenous Australian community organizations were formed to exert greater independence from Australian government control. Some even fought to establish a separate, independent country. The Northern Territorial Lands Rights Act in 1976 and other legislation did give some land back, though most of it was arid desert difficult for farming and sustaining life. In 1992, indigenous Australians won a favorable decision in the Australian High Court. The Court ruled that indigenous people had valid claims to lands they had lost and were due payment for those losses. However, they lost in obtaining an amendment to the Australian constitution that would recognize the original occupation of Australia by Aborigines. Therefore, their gains were limited to individual claims rather than larger claims as a group.

In June 2001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were over 458,000 indigenous peoples, or about 2.4 percent of the total Australian population. Despite their gains, natives still suffered from marginalization (actions to exclude a particular group from fully participating in the benefits of society). Though the indigenous Australians gave up on establishing a new country, social services provided to them were reformed. For example, social programs designed to aid the indigenous peoples were originally handled separately from the rest of Australian government services by The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. However, in 2004 the Australian government abolished the commission and began providing assistance directly through the agencies that serve the general population in order to provide assistance in a more effective, direct way. In addition, the government established the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination within the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs to coordinate the various programs for indigenous peoples. Even the term Aborigine began to fall out of favor with increasing preference for Indigenous Australian.

Racism in Europe

For decades after World War II, the strict oppressive Communist (political and economic system where a single political party controls all aspects of citizens' lives and private ownership of property is banned) governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union suppressed most expressions of racism and other forms of ethnocentrism. Following the collapse of those governments in 1990 and 1991, racism in Europe intensified dramatically. In the former communist countries of Eastern Europe—such as Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—ethnic prejudices exploded as nationalist movements (organized efforts to establish or aggressively maintain a particular nation) grew. This trend saw the greatest violence in the former Yugoslavia as ethnic cleansing savagely occurred (see Yugoslavia chapter 15).

In Western Europe, racism was focused largely against foreigners of color. Beginning in the mid-1980s, right-wing political parties began gaining greater support largely through their anti-immigration positions. Racist movements increased their political clout.

A key target of the racist trends were black Muslims who immigrated from North Africa to France, Germany, and other European countries. Since the early 1970s, European officials had signed agreements with Arab League nations (an international organization of predominantly Arab countries established for economic and social cooperation) allowing for massive Muslim immigration into Europe. Two radically opposing world-views came into direct conflict and set the stage for strong racial prejudices. One part of society was rooted deeply in Western European social traditions, the other in Islamic beliefs. These differences not only involved religious practices, but such aspects as gender roles in society. Little assimilation (absorbing the culture of the majority group so that cultural trait differences disappear) resulted from the influx of immigrants. Muslim immigrants were among the poorest in France's population. They lived in poverty in many areas including suburbs of Paris, such as the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of the city. The large immigrant Muslim population was frustrated from the poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination they experienced. Whereas the unemployment rate was around 10 percent for the nation in general, it was as high as 20 percent in many of these impoverished communities. Not only were there no jobs for youth, but no job centers for training, either. Many employers would not hire a youth who came from these Muslim communities not only because of lack of training but primarily because he was Muslim. Attacks against foreigners, led by neofascist (strongly racist beliefs) groups, escalated. Often this violence was in the name of nationalism (see chapter 9, Nationalism). Campaigns were formed by private organizations to make countries such as France and Germany free of foreigners. Though largely unsuccessful, they did succeed in fanning anti-immigration sentiments.

Race relations in France reached a boiling point in late 2005 when riots spread throughout France. They were initially triggered by the deaths of two Muslim youths who were accidentally killed while running from police. Following their deaths, roaming gangs of angry youths burned thousands of cars and many buildings throughout the nation. Local community leaders called for fundamental changes, including an end to discrimination and greater employment opportunities. After much heated debate during 2006 among France's parliament and leaders of the immigrant populations, a youth job plan was adopted to help train immigrant youths for the French job market.

Racism in America

Racism in the United States progressed through several distinct periods since its colonial days and independence from Great Britain in the late 1700s. Slavery of blacks and destruction of Native American societies marked much of the nineteenth century. Slavery shaped racial prejudices and race relations long after it was outlawed as a formal institution. The end of slavery with the American Civil War (1861–65) led to segregationist Jim Crow laws in the United States beginning in the 1890s enforcing public segregation through much of the twentieth century (see Jim Crow chapter 17). Native Americans remained largely out of sight on the reservations for decades (see Native Americans chapter 18).

The immigration of peoples from East Asia and Mexico through the early twentieth century led to strong anti-immigrant feelings and highly restrictive immigration laws (see Hispanic chapter 21). When the U.S. economy slumped badly during the Great Depression (1929–41) blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities suffered even more than whites from loss of jobs and income. To see their way through this difficult period, blacks formed cooperative organizations such as the Colored Merchants Association in New York City. They would buy food and goods in large volumes to keep the prices as low as possible for purchase by minority families. Other efforts included "Jobs for Negroes," which promoted the boycotting of stores selling goods primarily to blacks but having mostly white employees.

By the late 1960s, the Jim Crow era of legally enforced racial segregation had come to a close with passage of the civil rights legislation banning racial discrimination in public places and opening up job opportunities. In addition, affirmative action programs (social programs designed to provide opportunities in education and employment long denied to minorities due to discriminatory social customs of the past) began opening up opportunities for racial minorities for education and jobs. Despite these advances, racial prejudice remained high as racist roots ran too deep for elimination by government laws and programs. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders established by President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) following the 1967 race riots in America reported that two societies were forming in the United States based on skin color.

Despite important progress and contributions of black Americans to U.S. society, social equality had yet to be achieved, and affirmative action policies of the 1960s came under increasing fire. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial quotas (setting the numbers of various minorities that must be admitted to a school) could not be used in admitting students to institutions of higher learning. In addition, the federal government under Republican president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) was less aggressive in seeking settlements for job discrimination complaints by minorities. Implementing traditional Republican Party goals of smaller government, the Reagan administration also reduced federal welfare and housing programs originally designed to aid recovery from previous longstanding Jim Crow policies. As a result inner-city housing became more crowded and dangerous and homeless families became a more common sight on the streets.

Throughout the 1980s, America's black population saw little economic improvement. In 1988, one-third of the nation's blacks still had incomes below the government's poverty line and 45 percent of black children lived in poverty. Blacks also had an unemployment rate twice that of whites. The standard of living (ability to afford the minimum of life's necessities and comforts) for blacks was far behind whites. Given the poverty and concentration of black populations in high-crime rate areas, as late as 2000 almost 48 percent of murder victims in the nation were black even though black Americans comprised just 12 percent of the population. Statistics showed little improvement for blacks in America since the late 1960s. Housing integration also showed few gains despite the federal housing policies since the 1960s of the new U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency created to promote more low-income housing in place of slums. The legacy of Jim Crow was still strong.

Black Americans continued fighting an uphill battle for upward social mobility (a person's opportunity to change his social standing). In the twenty-first century, race still influenced almost every aspect of American culture. Prejudice against poor women of color labeled as "welfare mothers" and stereotyped as lazy and immoral and not deserving of government assistance contributed to a major change in American social welfare policy in the 1990s.

Institutional racism replaced legally enforced racist policies. Institutionalized racism is concealed in the procedures of industry, schools, and other social institutions. It may not even be intentional. For example, banks may have tight credit policies for minorities for home and business loans based on attitudes and beliefs that minorities will not make good on the loan; job benefits may be restricted for minorities; and standardized school and academic tests may be based on the cultural norms of the dominant white society.

Race and policing

In the late twentieth century, numerous complaints were made of harsh policing activities against minorities in the United States, Britain, Australia, France, and Germany. Charges involved aggressive tactics by police while making traffic stops, searches, and arrests, as well as detainee treatment in custody and use of excessive force in general.

Minority anger against the justice systems persistently simmered just below the surface. For example, when a Miami, Florida, court acquitted (found not guilty) four police officers in 1980 in the beating death of a black businessman, violence erupted. Blacks attacked whites on the streets, sometimes dragging them from cars. Eighteen people died and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage occurred before police could regain control of the area.

A 1983 British study indicated young black males were much more likely to be stopped and interrogated than white youth. The same tendency was noted in the United States as well. Police departments responded that their "war on crime" frequently led them to minority areas where crime rates were high. Other complaints, aside from aggressive searches, involved intensive policing of minority neighborhoods, immigration raids, and general harassment.

Studies such as the 1968 report by U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders consistently showed that black youth were becoming alienated from legal authorities in many countries. This alienation led to riots in Britain in 1981 and 1985, in which black youth attacked police. The 1968 U.S. report stated that the police represented white racism and repression to the black communities. To calm the situation, black leaders called for better police training, including race relations courses, more minorities on the police forces, and stronger disciplinary measures for racist behavior displayed by law authorities.

In the 1980s complaints from black communities also resulted from the seeming lack of police response to calls for help from within minority areas. Black leaders charged that meeting the needs of minorities was a low police priority. Some crime-ridden neighborhoods felt abandoned. Some charged that when police did respond the minority victims were treated as if they were the criminals. Charges of lack of protection grew in France and Germany as violent right-wing attacks on minorities increased in the 1990s.

The intensity of black anger toward authorities was well demonstrated in 1992 in Los Angeles. An amateur photographer captured on videotape the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 during a routine traffic stop. Before the end of the day, the footage was released to all major networks and viewed by millions of Americans. The excessive violence used by four police officers on the tape shocked the nation. Acquittal in late April 1992 of the police officers who had been charged with assaulting King led to rioting in Los Angeles and an outpouring of anger against the criminal justice system by blacks. Many expressed a loss of faith in the justice system. The riots resulted in forty-four deaths and two thousand injured. Eleven hundred arrests were made.

In the spring of 2000, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in the United States released a report titled Justice On Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. The report indicated that people of color in America were treated more harshly by police and the criminal justice system than whites. At the same time a Justice Department study of the juvenile justice system reached the same conclusion regarding treatment of black youth. Racial profiling attracted considerable attention in both studies (see box). Many law authorities again responded that impoverished communities experience intensified levels of criminal behavior, and minorities make up the majority of those communities. However, the Justice Department study also showed that minority juveniles were twice as likely to be sentenced to prison as whites for similar crimes. Another study by the Border Action Network in 2004 also indicated that minorities were far more likely to be searched by U.S. Customs than whites. The studies highlighted that when minorities were targeted for traffic stops and searches, the police were no more likely to find incidence of lawbreaking than by stopping whites. Therefore, targeting minorities resulted in more minority arrests simply because they were stopped more often, not because there was a greater chance of uncovering unlawful activity. This prevalence of arrests, convictions, and sentencing of minorities further promoted racial stereotypes and prejudices. The practice of targeting blacks by law officers contributed in large part to continued poor relations between police and black populations.

Racial Profiling

In the late twentieth century, a new form of racial discrimination by government authorities came to the public's attention; it is known as racial profiling. Studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s showed that minorities were much more likely to be targeted by police out of suspicion and searched than whites in proportion to their presence in the local population. The studies showed that blacks were more likely than whites to be searched during routine traffic stops as well. Racial profiling occurs when police decide to stop a motorist or pedestrian based largely on that person's assumed race or ethnicity. Profiling is a policing strategy long used to focus attention on certain suspicious behaviors or circumstances likely to have criminal connections based on past crime patterns. Sometimes these patterns are only perceived, shaped by prejudices, and not well documented. Racial profiling in the United States grew out of the War on Drugs declared by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The War on Drugs involved more aggressive policing in drug enforcement, particularly aimed at drug trafficking on the streets. This brought police more often into residential areas containing a large proportion of minorities. Profiling was considered a tool to increase the efficiency of the policing. Accusations of discriminatory racial profiling escalated through the 1990s. The phrase "driving while black" captured the black community's frustration with alleged police harassment.

For More Information


Chessum, Lorna. From Immigrants to Ethnic Minority: Making a Black Community in Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.

Hirschmann, Kris. Racial Profiling. New York: Greenhaven Press, 2006.

Jones-Brown, Delores. Race, Crime, and Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

MacMaster, Neil. Racism in Europe, 1870–2000. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Molnar, Stephen. Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

Monague, Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. 6th ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1997.

Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Britain. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Palgrave, 2003.


"Arrest the Racism: Racial Profiling in America." American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). http://www.aclu.org/racialjustice/racialprofiling/index.html (accessed on November 21, 2006).

"Slavery and the Making of America." Public Broadcasting System. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/ (accessed on November 21, 2006).