White Conceptions of Racial Hierarchy: Temporary versus Permanent Preferences

By Gayles, Jonathan; Tobin, Sarah | Ethnic Studies Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

White Conceptions of Racial Hierarchy: Temporary versus Permanent Preferences


Gayles, Jonathan, Tobin, Sarah, Ethnic Studies Review


Studying Hierarchy

Ideas of race, racial identity, and racial categorization, reflect the inconsistent, context-specific and fluctuating nature of racial meaning (Nagel, 1986; Forbes, 1990; Davis, 1991; Nagel, 1994; Haney-Lopez, 1995; Ignatiev, 1995; Kibria, 1996,1998; Niven & Zilber, 2000; Morning, 2001; Lacy, 2004). Studies of racial hierarchy, specifically, enable an understanding of not only the social construction of race, but also the manner in which ideas of race operate to influence human reality.! Within the United States, race "permeates the lives of the native-born and immigrants alike" (Bashi & McDaniel, 1997, p. 686, see also Bashi, 1998). More specifically, a continuum between white and black persists and is a critical conceptual schema grounding the many manifestations of racism in the United States. This white-to-black continuum is hierarchical as well with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom (Feagin, 2000, p. 220). While the specific history of the United States facilitates this hierarchy, it has also been found beyond the borders of the United States (Small, 1994, Twine, 1998).

Further framing this white-to-black hierarchy is the assertion that some groups are neither white nor black, yet fill an intermediary space that entrenches the opposition of the two poles between which they are placed (see Almaguer, 1994 for a historical treatment of this topic). An excellent example of this situating is the research regarding the unique or even "model minority" status attributed to Asian-Americans (Chae, 2004; Edles, 2004; Ho, 2003; Tuan, 1998; Yamato, 1999). Min (1999) explicates the origins of much of this research as follows:

In the 1970s, the U.S. media and many scholars portrayed Asian-Americans as successful minority groups that overcame disadvantages through hard work, family ties, and emphasis on children's education. Largely in reaction to this "model minority" thesis, Asian-American scholars began to emphasize the structural barriers facing Asian-Americans. The revisionist critique of the model minority thesis currently has a powerful influence in Asian-American scholarship (195).

This "revisionist critique" critically engages the reductionist, monolithic and de-contextualized construction of the model minority and presents a more complete understanding of dynamic Asian-American experiences in the midst of racial group struggles. Lee (1994) for example, suggests that the representation of the model minority is not static, and represents a complex combination of contextual influences in the schooling experience of Asian American youth.

Arab-Americans provide another example of an emergent intermediary group. Particularly visible since September 11, 2001, Arab-Americans have come to the fore of race relations in a politically charged atmosphere. As Domke et. al (2003) describe, post September 11, 2001 representations in the popular and mass media outlets may have reproduced racial hierarchy in the United States and worked to support a position endorsing racial profiling. They found that prior to September 11, 2001, "policing" was a primary focus of news coverage on racial profiling, and constituted 82% of the discourse on the topic. After September 11, 2001, however, "terrorism" and "policing" occupied 95% of the racial profiling discourse. Their results indicate that while white Americans are more likely to speak on racial profiling from positions of social power or leadership than African-Americans or Arab-Americans, the post- September 11, 2001, discourse granted Arab-Americans a relatively higher and more powerful position to speak on the topic than African-Americans have historically been granted. Ultimately, the location of whites at the top of the hierarchy remains untouched while other racial groups, specifically Arab-Americans and African-Americans, compete for much lesser positions of authority.

Scholarship on racial hierarchy extends the boundaries of national dialogue regarding race beyond the binary constraints of black and white. …

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