Race relations refers to all forms of behavior arising from contacts and resulting interaction between people of different physical, cultural and ethnic characteristics. The term was introduced in the field of sociology by Robert E. Park (1864-1944), of the University of Chicago, who in the late 1910s and early 1920s conducted a study into race at the university and in the city. Park defined race relations as the relations existing between peoples distinguished by marks of racial descent, especially when such racial differences are consciously recognized by the groups of people and thus determine their conception about themselves and their status in the community. According to his theory, the cycle of race relations has four stages, as follow:
the first stage is when different races make a contact during a migration or conquest;
the second stage is the conflict which arises while races aim for supremacy;
the third stage is of accommodation, as the weaker group surrenders and a racial etiquette is adopted to keep a social gap between the races;
the fourth stage is of assimilation during which the subjected group merges into the dominant group, both physically and culturally.
According to Park, the race relations cycle represents the process of formation of new races, which prompts human evolution. Such theory gained popularity in both Britain and the United States and even emerged as the leading model in social sciences. Under his theory, Park considered that race relations in the U.S. would improve once African Americans had proven they deserve full civil rights. Park's theory was criticized in America by African Americans and those on the left of politics, and so the ideas remained laregly unchallenged for nearly 50 years.
The civil rights movement urged a revolutionary change in the race relations paradigm, placing the emphasis on race and racism. In Black Power (1967), Charles Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael distinguished "individual racism," from "institutional racism." Institutional racism refers to practices generating racial inequality without being obviously racist. The definition of institutional racism laid the foundations of affirmative action policy that helped African Americans get opportunities for professional development in administration and industry. Carmichael, who was leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, also exposed the exploitation of black men as soldiers to fight in the Vietnam war.
In Racial Oppression in America (1972), Bob Blauner distinguished between the term "immigrant," and "colonized minorities," who did not enter America voluntarily but were brought to the country enmasse as slaves or as a result of a conquest. Such "colonized minorities," were not only suffering racial bias and prejudice, but they were also deprived from rights and opportunities that other immigrant groups took advantage of to secure better life for their families.
The race relations theory in the early 21st century is represented by two opposing schools of thought. The "scholarship of backlash," deems racism and racial inequality issues as rather insignificant and re-establishes racial debates that emerged during the civil rights movement. As established by Park and African American leader Booker T. Washington, supporters of this theory believe the roots of racial inequality are to be found in assumed flaws in African American families and communities rather than in social structures. Such theorists either neglect or totally reject the existence of institutional racism.
This theory is opposed by supporters of the "scholarship of confrontation," that represents the ideas of the civil rights movement. Such scholarship is based on the core idea of "colorblind racism." According to these theorists, a society which is colorblind is the ultimate goal of the improvement of race relations. However, even by 2010, they considered society was still far from achieving it. On the contrary, the colorblind concept has been used to mask the withdrawal of anti-racist practices and policies such as affirmative action.
Race relations remain a significant social and political issue. Following the establishment of the United Nations in 1946, the proclamation of the principles of self-determination and equality unleashed a series of anti-colonialism and nationalism movements which paved the way to the emergence of numerous new nations. Such transformations raised questions about the relations between former colonial powers and new nations of color, which created new social structures and administration.