Welcome to The Social Construction of Race website!
The aim of this page is engage in a thoughtful analysis of the common ways in which we conceive of race and ethnicity in American society.
By exploring the categories of race and ethnicity, as defined by the Census Bureau from 1790 -2010 we can understand how arbitrary these categories are discover how the definitions of both race and ethnicity have changed over time to suit the social, political, and economic needs of those in power.
A great theoretical orientation for understanding the social construction of race and ethnicity in America, over space and time is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses by Louis Althusser.
Excerpt from Ideology as Related to the Social Construction of Race
Thesis I. Ideology is a ‘Representation’ of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence
“We commonly call religious ideology, ethical ideology, legal ideology, political ideology, etc., [and racial ideology] so many ‘world outlooks’. Of course, assuming that we do not live one of these ideologies as the truth (e.g. ‘believe’ in God, Duty, Justice, etc….), we admit that the ideology we are discussing from a critical point of view, examining it as the ethnologist examines the myths of a ‘primitive society’, that these ‘world outlooks’ are largely imaginary, i.e. do not ‘correspond to reality’.
However, while admitting that they do not correspond to reality, i.e. that they constitute an illusion, we admit that they do make allusion to reality, and that they need only be ‘interpreted’ to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world (ideology = illusion/allusion).”
*Althusser’s first thesis also applies to racial ideology and ideological racism which is often followed up with repression by the state in the forms of voter suppression, stringent immigration laws, lynching, mass incarceration, internment, police brutality, and so on.
Recall that ideology is information that pervades society through a series of institutions education, the family, religion, the media etc. legitimate the economic base of capitalism.
From 1790 – 2010, the census categories defining race and ethnicity have been dynamic to expand or contract to suit the social, political, and economic needs of those in power.
As you will learn, two great examples of the social construction are black, and white/Mexican.
Did you know that racial category defining people of African descent changed roughly ten times between 1790 – 2010?
Some of these labels included: Slaves, Free Colored Persons, Black/Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Negro or of Negro Descent, and finally Black or African American.
The term African American only recently appeared for the first time on the 2000 Census and then reappeared in the 2010 Census.
The category of what defines whiteness has a similarly dubious history and has been highly influenced by historical epochs of immigration.
Did you know that prior to the 1930 Census Mexicans were counted as White?
We look forward to you learning from and exploring the various ways in which racial ideology informs race and interpellates individuals (us) as subjects within the context of capitalism.