Turning perception into reality

Race is very much a part of our social structure and is much larger than the individual.

Race is constructed and changed through time, but not arbitrarily—definitions of race, the racial categories that people create and how we assign individuals to the categories are most often a matter of power. And these definitions are held in place through institutional policies and practices.

These policies include laws, but also economic policies, educational opportunities, housing, criminal sentencing, banking and lending, voting rights and more. For example, consider the “one drop” rule, which categorized anyone with 1/32 of African or African-American ancestry as black. Or contemplate the example of Chinese exclusion laws in the U.S. that kept Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans out of workplaces and residential communities, leading to the growth of Chinatowns.

And while policies in the present continue to disadvantage some groups to the benefit of others, past policies also continue to affect us. Discriminatory housing policies—even those that are now strictly forbidden—have created a society marked by residential segregation. Workplace discrimination and the history of slavery before it have created marked differences in access to wealth and, as a result, education. The debts of the past are not removed simply by removing the policy—those might be really important steps, but they don’t level the playing field since parents pass down access and privilege to their children.

Two very important things that we learn from this structural view: 1) even if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate individual prejudice, we would still have enormous inequality as the result of accumulated advantage and disadvantage; and 2) if we want a more just and fair society, we need to tackle the structural roots of inequality alongside attitudes and beliefs.

—Karen McCormack, associate professor of sociology