According to Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster.com), a “social construct” is “an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society.” In other words, they are shared ideas or perceptions that exist only because people in a group or society choose to accept them. Or, to put a finer point on it. Social constructs are created out of thin air. They are made up and promoted to where a segment of society accepts them as having meaning or as truths. For example, the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys is an example of a social construct related to gender. There is however, absolutely no data or scientific research behind this notion or belief.
Race is a social construct. It is a system of stratification based on the belief that some racial groups are superior to other racial groups.
Anthropology and human evolutionary biology prove that all humans are of the same type, species, and kind. Research has shown a lack of genetic difference between racial groups. In other words, the difference between whites and Blacks is literally only skin deep. Under the skin, we are no different. We’re essentially genetically identical. Yet, why is the notion of the racial inferiority of POC so prevalent?
Historically, the notion of creating human hierarchies around constructs such as race, ethnicity or groups was not created in America. It can be traced back to Aristotle. Ibrahm X. Kendhi references this in his work Stamped From the Beginning. He writes:
“In studying Aristotle’s philosophy, Puritans learned rationales for human hierarchy, and they began to believe that some groups were superior to other groups. In Aristotle’s case, ancient Greeks were superior to all non-Greeks. But Puritans believed they were superior to Native Americans, the African people, and even Anglicans – that is all non-Puritans. Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BCE, concocted a climate theory to justify Greek superiority, saying that extreme hot or cold climates produced intellectually, physically, and morally inferior people who were ugly and lacked the capacity for freedom and self-government…All of this was in the interest of normalizing Greek slaveholding practices and Greece’s rule over the western Mediterranean…”Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves, or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command; and those who are born to obey.” (P. 17).
While the notion or concept of a human hierarchy social construct did not originate in America, it was a notion that prevailed in white society when the first enslaved Africans arrived on our shores in 1619. And that notion was repurposed for the New World by whites, who promoted and perpetuated the narrative about Black “inferiority” to placate their guilt for their unjust and utterly cruel treatment of Black people.
Robin DiAngelo explains it as follows, “Freedom and equality – regardless of religion or class status – were radical new ideas when the United States was formed. At the same time, the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people and the annexation of Mexican lands…The tension between the noble ideology of equality and the reality of genocide, enslavement and colonization had to be reconciled….The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment; belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment.” White Fragility P15 – 16.
The most powerful passage I’ve read about race being a social construct belongs to Lillian Smith. Smith was considered by many to be the foremost white liberal writer of the mid-twentieth century. Her book Killers of the Dream, first published in 1978, is one of the most powerful critiques of the pre-1960’s American South. Here’s what she wrote:
“Hypocrisy, greed, self-righteousness, defensiveness twisted in men’s minds. The South grew more sensitive to criticism, more defensive and dishonest in its thinking. For deep down in their hearts, southerners knew they were wrong. They knew it in slavery as they later knew that sharecropping was wrong, and as they know now that segregation is wrong…Our grandparents called themselves Christians and sometimes believed they were. Believing it, they were compelled to believe it was morally right for them to hold slaves. They could not say, ‘We shall keep our slaves because they are profitable, regardless of right and wrong.” P. 61.
And this is where it gets really interesting as she essentially implies that southerners used the excuse that God allowed them to enslave Black people.
She continues, “Our grandfathers’ conscience compelled them to justify slavery and they did; by making the black man ‘different’, setting him outside God’s law, reducing him to less than human…they took God’s place and ‘decided’ which of His creatures have souls and which do not. And once doing it, they continued doing it, and their sons continued doing it, and their grandsons, telling themselves and their children more and more and more lies about white superiority until they no longer knew the truth and were lost in a maze of fantasy and falsehood that had little resemblance to the actual world they lived in.” p. 61.
At risk of over simplifying, as a nation we couldn’t square our supposed fundamental principles of Christianity and America’s promise of all men being created equal when we were enslaving Blacks. The powers that be (a society controlled by whites) had to come up with a theory or “proof” that it was okay to enslave Blacks because they were somehow “inferior”. Whites needed to create a justification for their exploitation; a justification that would excuse their cruelty. Eventually, when enough white folks, including political and business leaders as well as some scientists, developed and promoted this notion of inferiority, it eventually became, at least in the white world, accepted as fact.
“The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell”, adds Ibrahm X. Kendi in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “Consumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people.” (p. 10)
In other words, it’s not Black people, who are responsible for the inequalities and the negative life consequences and outcomes that result from those inequalities, but rather it’s the policies that lead to such social, economic and health disparities. And here’s the rub as Kendi sees it. If we in fact believe, as our Constitution suggests, that we are all created equal, then the wide disparity in the conditions can only be the result of systemic discrimination.
Or, in the words of Michael Eric Dyson, “After more than a century of enlightened study, we know that race is not just something that falls from the sky, it is, as anthropologists say, a fabricated idea. But that doesn’t mean that race doesn’t have material consequences and empirical weight. It simply means that if we constructed it, we can get about the business of deconstructing it.” Dyson, Tears we Cannot Stop p. 67.
If we can make up a social construct around the inferiority of Blacks, we can also create, promote and perpetuate an alternative social construct around the notion of justice and equity for all, including Black Americans. That will take a lot of work. The question is whether we are willing to do the work necessary to create and perpetuate that alternative construct.