The social construction of race

In this essay I will look at the effects that the social construction of race has had on the British ‘black’ community – I will do this by looking at the representation of young black males in the United Kingdom and also at issues such as identity, racial discourse, representation and stereotyping. A proper understanding of how we understand and use the term ‘race’ requires a study of the process of how racism became a coherent ideology used for the purpose of dividing people into ‘racialized groups’ identified and subordinated on the grounds of alleged biological differences.

A discursive construct of race was originally developed to benefit the merchants and plantation owners of the 17 and 1800’s although this has stayed with us throughout history and the ramifications are still being felt today in 2010 some 200 yrs after slavery was abolished. However since the 1960’s Social Scientists and anthropologists have argued that race as an idea or classification based on alleged biological differences belongs ‘in the dustbin of analytically useless terms’ (Miles, R (1989), p. 2) There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all ‘blacks’ but not by ‘non- blacks’; similarly, there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all ‘whites’ but not to non-‘whites’. Yet in the UK and across the western world developed discourses of race still exist – alleged ‘biological attributes characteristics’, most obvious being skin colour, have transformed into racial signifiers indicating class, intellect and behaviour (among others) leading to the construction of marginality.

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The idea of Racialization proposes that race does not exist outside of representation and is wholly a social construct where ‘ethnicity’, in this case ‘blackness’ carries pre-conceived assumptions and expectations – our society has become ‘racialized’. ‘Racialization refers to those instances where social relations between people have been constructed by the signification of biological characteristics in such a way as to define and construct differentiated social collectives’. (Miles, R (1989), p. 75. Miles.

It could be argued that societies have become inherently racist not out of hatred or ideas of supremacy but through the misrepresentation and stereotyping of ethnic groups. Stereotyping in mass media is often inevitable as media producers need as wide audience as possible to quickly understand information. This can be seen as a form of ‘coding’ as it quickly gives audiences a common understanding of a particular social group or issue, usually relating to their / it’s classing, race / ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender.

Stereotyping creates simplistic categories of wide and diverse groups of people and these often ignorant assumptions can be transformed into realities. This can lead to representations being used to justify those in positions of power and can perpetuate social prejudice and inequality. Representation is the process in which meaning is derived from stimulus denoted by the media and connotative messages can be varied and individual to the consumer.

The media has the power through selection and reinforcement to give portrayals of groups and subcultures in society and shape public views towards them. The most common portrayal of young black males in the media is as criminals and deviants involved in gang and knife crime this can lead to the public believing ‘blackness’ is inherently linked with crime; that it is a distinct aspect of black culture.

An example of sensationalist press reporting establishing a link between black culture and criminal activity was the panicked frenzy surrounding a spate muggings In the 1970s where the media working with the police instigated a general notion that all young black men were muggers. In actual fact personal robbery did not increase in the 1970s compared to the decade before it was just now with the increased number of black youth in the UK they were of course now committing a percentage of street crime.

The media today still reinforces this criminal label by linking black youths with gangs and violence however as Hall et al’s (1978) Policing the crisis demonstrates, although the media does target certain groups in society there tends to be an element of truth behind every moral panic. Yasmin Alibhai-brown & Daniel James Henry argue that the sensationalism found in newspapers are playing a major factor in the criminalization of black youth – ‘Newspapers circulate negative stories about young black men. It sells the papers. And when a group feels put upon, it will behave worse.

So the papers run more stories. The young, gifted and black have become young, bitter and black, partly because they cannot bear the degeneration of their own, partly because they are almost expected to follow this destiny. ‘ (Alibhai-brown, Y + Henry, D J. 22 November 2008 article Young, black and British: The young men who refuse to bow to the stereotypes). Although 24 of the 27 young males murdered in London this year were black, the white males killed received three times more coverage, notably Ben Kinsella and Rob Knox.

It seems if a black male is murdered it is brushed aside as journalist Joseph Harker comments ‘there is a racial dimension to the reporting. If the victim is black, it must be gangs, so move on – it’s been explained. If it’s a white teenager the thinking is: Gosh this could happen to any of us and sadly it seems the stories that reach the papers always seem to have ‘black’ gangs youth as the perpetrators’ (Alibhai-brown, Y + Henry, D J. 2 November 2008 ONLINE article Young, black and British: The young men who refuse to bow to the stereotypes).

The media coverage of young black males creates social realities and impose lasting impressions with people who are not normally in contact with black males – this even happens to the suave Labour minister David Lammy: “On the rare occasions when I am not working and I’m on the street,” he reports, “I too experience somebody crossing the road because they think I am carrying a knife. (ONLINE article, see last reference). If a grown man can feel this discrimination imagine the effects it has on young and vulnerable teenagers who are constantly stalked by prejudice of their race and the temptations to conform to these stereotypes. ‘The label of criminal placed upon young black youths in society leads to society defining their acts as criminal and extending this judgment to them as people. Having been labelling, there is an expectation that this criminality must be expressed.

With this attached stereotype, the general population will perceive them to be criminal and treat them accordingly. This produces unanticipated effects; the label of criminal is intended to prevent individuals from participating in criminal activities but it actually creates the very thing it intended to stop. It produces a self-fulfilling prophecy which is defined is a false definition of a situation, evoking a new behaviour that makes the original assumption come true. (Burke, J (2005), p. 286).

This stimulates the construction of marginality and heightens difference. This discrimination nurtured by racial myths and negative representation of black people, can also lead to the sometimes nominal marginalisation of black youth were they will alienate and eject themselves (as a result of being alienated in the past) from social processes (education etc) and embrace the negative stereotypes imposed upon them. However I do not believe this is the underlying problem as black youth would not alienate themselves if these racial discourses were not in place at all.

As Michael Moor examines in his short documentary The African-American Wallet Exchange this stereotyping is leading to the need for a moral re-think of our attitudes to ethnic minority groups. In the African-American Wallet Exchange Moore explains how the stereotypes of young black males in America are being used as scapegoats for sloppy policing with officers wrongfully shooting at black males because they believed they were holding guns in their hands when in most cases they were carrying wallets.

This is one of the most damaging effects that the media has had on any one social group with innocent men being killed at the hands of their country. Obviously this is an American example but with armed police now in every major UK city how long will it be before we experience this type of extreme institutional racism in our own county? In conclusion I believe it is quite obvious that ‘the social construction of race’ has had a very negative effect on the ‘black’ British population.

In an age where we make sense of the world semiotically through signs and images that are encoded according to our own subjectivity, it would be easy for someone who does not come into contact with none or few ‘black’ people to assume all ‘black’ people behave in the way that they are most commonly represented in the media. The social construction of race has had a devastating effect on the ‘black’ community as a whole leading to a range of negative outcomes such as under achievement in school, high gun and knife crime, majority of population living in poverty and the criminalisation of ‘black’ youth.

I fell one of the only way to tackle this issue is to increase the positive representation in the media and for the press to give a more balanced view on regarding black gun and knife crime -emphasising on the reasons as to why black youths commit a disproportionate amount of crime such as social and environmental conditions. Although it will take a very long time to tackle what appears to be subconscious racism.