Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

The Mess We've Made of Race

Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

The Mess We've Made of Race

Article excerpt

* Let me begin by welcoming all of my colleagues in sociology to Edinboro University. It's so great to have the sociological conference at Edinboro on the occasion of the University's Sesquicentennial celebration - 150 years of devoted quality service to the region, state and world. The Sesquicentennial provides an opportunity to focus on the past, understand the present, and plan for the future.

* Founded as a Normal School in 1857, Edinboro University (while not as old as the concept of sociology) was established before the first book was published with sociology in its title. Herbert Spencer published "The Study of Sociology" in 1874 and that was followed by "Dynamic Sociology" published by Lester Frank Ward in 1883. And, while the age of the University is nowhere near old enough to compete with the reality of human characteristics its founding predates the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in the United States, the right of women to vote, the Holocaust, mass immigration to the United States, and the near annihilation of Native Americans, among others.

* But, not only is this year the 150th anniversary of Edinboro University, it is also the 100th anniversary of a very important event in the history of sociology. One hundred years ago, in 1906, a group of people who called themselves the Niagara Movement met at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. They were African Americans led by W.E.B. Dubois, who is considered by many to be the father of American sociology. The Niagara Movement eventually became the NAACP.

* At that meeting in 1906, DuBois gave an address which directly confronted the issue of race when he said: "We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans."

* In a later speech in London, DuBois offered a profound prediction: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, the question as to how far differences of race will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization." We are still playing this out.

* The subject I want to talk about tonight is race - the same topic Dubois spoke on 100 years ago. There simply isn't another topic that has received more attention than race. Quite frankly, however, if you came here tonight expecting to hear a lecture on the sociological theory of race, or perhaps the results of a new study on race, you will be disappointed. What you will hear tonight is a real, honest-to-goodness account of what it is like to live in a racist society and why the concept of race itself is artificial at its core. We simply must have, as a universal goal and as scholars, the elimination of these artificial distinctions that negatively impact life chances. Sociology should lead the way.

* One could ask, what is race? When we talk about race, what do we mean?

* Professor Audrey Smedley of Virginia has said: "Race is an ideology that says that all human populations are divided into exclusive and distinct groups; that all human populations are ranked, they are not equal. Inequality is absolutely essential to the idea of race. The concept of race is a modern idea; it did not exist before the 17th century and came into fruition gradually during the 18th century."

* Smedley continued - "The invention of race was primarily a product of efforts to justify slavery and the continuing conquest and exploitation of Native Americans . Race from its beginning was a mechanism denoting social ranking and inequality of human groups."

* "If you give up racism, you're not giving up privileges," said Smedley. "What you're doing is expanding privileges. You're not giving up your rights. You're not losing anything. …

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