Inequity in the System: Racism in American Society & on College Campuses

By Turner, James | Diversity Employers, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Inequity in the System: Racism in American Society & on College Campuses


Turner, James, Diversity Employers


Racial conflict in higher education mirrors the racism in American society. In order to combat the problem, African-American students must understand its roots.

Racism in America is older than the United States. Its institutionalization began one hundred and ten years before the meeting of the first Continental Congress in the mid-18th century, when it adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Some of the first racist laws were enacted in Virginia in the 1660's, clearly demonstrating that racism constitutes a fundamental contradiction in the American body politic.

From its very inception America has espoused a belief in the principles of "... One Nation, Indivisible, Under God, With Liberty and Justice for All." However, it should be clear that these beliefs, which our children are taught to recite in school as self-evident truths, are in fact distortions of the truth.

A very different reality is evident: a profound commitment to dividing society along racial lines with the intent of constructing and perpetuating a system that exploits African labor in order to maintain the power, privilege, and prosperity of European Americans. Racism has a long and sordid history rooted in the culture, institutions, and religion of this country. One of the oldest justifications for the inhuman practices associated with racial subjugation was that it was ordained by God.

The legacy of this radically conservative political agenda is manifested in a tradition of gaping racial inequity, which is evident in contemporary American society. It is critically important for African Americans, particularly students, who potentially are on the cutting edge of change, to understand that racism is a system that was devised specifically to maintain a hierarchy in which the preferential treatment of Whites would be secured for posterity. Conversely, this same hierarchy perpetuates the exclusion, exploitation, underdevelopment, poverty, and brutality of African Americans. The United States is a highly racialized society in which all significant goods and services, wealth and power, are distributed through this intricate racialized criterion.

The socialization process in this country produces a racialized consciousness, a lens through which Americans view the world as naturally as they breathe, eat or make love. Likewise, beauty, status, and prestige are defined and perceived by this same racialized criterion.

However, racism is not a natural phenomenon; but it is a human invention, socially constructed to manipulate resources to benefit a specific group. Thus, racism critically shapes two fundamental aspects of American culture: 1) attitudinal or ideological, which encompasses belief systems, and 2) institutional or behavioral, which is manifest in the social structure. Plans to execute change in race relations tend to focus on problems associated with the former, while ignoring those more fundamental issues inherent to the latter. However, it is precisely this latter dimension that is most salient to the continuity of institutional practice, its abiding effect on society, and resistance to change.

Racism and Education

From this historical and conceptual institutional framework, we can more effectively analyze interracial relations, as well as better understand the interaction between racism and education. Education plays a reciprocal role in that it is influenced by, and is a primary conveyor of, the history, traditions, and values of society. Education is critical to the socialization process, because it transmits the established knowledge of the collective experience as perceived by the dominant group. It is less an agency of change, and more a conservator of the Status quo.

Because of its centrality to social mobility and life chances, education is pivotal to maintaining the racial hierarchy and perpetuating competition for status and opportunity. Despite this fact, Africans in America have invested much energy, resources, and hope in this institution, recognizing that it is an essential component to self-determination and the redefinition of self; that it provides a basis for competition and a means of acquiring skills to develop their communities. …

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