When the Europeans took hold of lands in Africa and the Americas, they tried creating racial classifications based on biological and behavioral differences in order to maintain power. Europeans had this worldview of treating races not as the same level but as servile (esp. natives) and apart of this worldview consisted of the eradication of property rights, denial of political rights, and coercive labor. The very idea of race assumes a hierarchy of racial groups and within that classification, Africans were on the bottom and Europeans on the top.
In terms of the diaspora, racial systems have mechanisms for determining who is in which race, for that determines where people, families, and other groups fit into this racial stratification. Racial identification is a symbol of social status, and an important factor in the maintenance of group differentiation. Having African-like features and dark skin color places one within the lower levels of the racial hierarchy. However, there are other determinants, besides colorism, that places people of African descent at the bottom of this categorization. It appears that colorism is the most significant factor in perpetuating racial hierarchy, but it actually is a amalgam of multiple factors which include the wealth gap and whiteness as a normative attribute that cause this differentiation of races.
In most diasporic nations, colorism, or skin color stratification, is the dominant form of racial hierarchy used to assert light-skinned people of color over dark people in areas such as income, education, housing,. etc. This form of racial discrimination clearly gives advantages to lighter skin tone rather than racial or ethnic identity. This form of hierarchy is seen in Cadet’s Restavec, where there was an instance where his father could not take him home to his family because of his brown skin (Cadet, 14). This suggests that colorism, has an effect on family lines, because if someone in the family is darker than the rest or has black skin, he or she is already disowned due to their complexion and they would already be classified as servile. In Brazil, their government and their census tracker categorizes the races by color. “Three Brazilian censuses (1991, 2000, 2010) asks respondents what is either your color or race? (a sua cor ou raçae?)” (Telles, 1165). This suggests that even Brazil’s own government dichotomizes their people by color in order to separate by income or education level, which shows the discriminatory efforts the federal system puts in to keep dark people in their place.
Another factor that could perpetuate racial stratification is the distribution of transformative assets and inherited wealth between whites and blacks. Past overt discrimination ensured a greater ability for White Americans to pass on their wealth to the next generation (Shapiro, 34). This suggests that not only were blacks oppressed in trying to gain education to move up financially but also were discriminated in the workplace. “Inheritance helps whites secure unearned advantages in the form of transformative assets that increase the wealth gap between the races” (Shapiro, 47). This indicates that whites, historically, through privileged opportunities, were able to attend school and obtain a high quality jobs, thus has led them to earn larger salaries due to their occupation, and thus blacks were kept out of those high quality jobs due to past discriminatory laws that banned their presence in those institutions (i.e. workforce and schools). “Black families possess only 10 cents for every dollar held by white families” (Shapiro, 47). This suggests that wealth cap between blacks and whites is substantial, not only because of racial inequality, but also due to lack of transformative assets occupied by blacks that could truncate the gap between wealth accumulation. “80 percent of family wealth is procured not from savings but from the transformation of money from generation to generation” (Shapiro, 61). This shows that there is a dichotomy between races based on wealth and that whites are the ones who are at a advantage to be able to pass down money from their children to the next. Since, blacks have gone through long lines of oppression and slavery, did not and still do not have the opportunity to pass down wealth, because their own assets are not enough to support themselves.
Whiteness benefit whites from a plethora of institutional and social arrangements that gives them unprecedented advantages that are not granted to other races. Whiteness is “equated with goodness and purity, as well as intellectual and spiritual superiority” while “darkness is associated with evil and debasement,” leads to white hegemony over blacks. As a normative view on racial classification, the concept of whiteness is the dominate form of lifestyle that tries to subordinate other races’ culture and attempts to elevate their traditions as the status quo. Whiteness creates this hierarchy that if they do not follow the standard of being white or associating themselves with that concept, it is considered deviant. “Whiteness decides the legal status of a person as a slave or free” (Harris, 280). This shows that laws that construct legality of slaves and freemen was created on the basis of disadvantaging blacks and skewing the laws to give advantage to white people. Also, “the law approved the rule of hypodescent- racial identity determined by blood and white was preferred” (Harris, 283). This indicates that even though someone is mixed and has some black in them, if they have a single drop of white then mulatto people would be preferred over blacks due to the fact that light skin is more superior and they would obtain more privileges. ” The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to persons who lived in the United States for two years, who could commence their good character in court, and who were white” (Harris. 285). Even in laws that were enacted in 1790, whiteness took precedence over blackness, and these laws that were formed in late 18th century were created by the government who promoted legislation that advocated for white rights and gave privilege to them over other ethnicities.
Racialization has been in existence since the emergence of White Europeans who determined that the white race is dominate over other races, who were not black and deviant. Not only is colorism one of the forms used to classify races, but also economic accumulation and whiteness as the normative characteristic in society. Any form of stratification, leads to exploitation of another race and the destruction of their culture. Not only are their multiple factors that can contribute to the perpetuation of different ethnicities, but also understanding its existence and presence as a critical part of our society can shape the way we view race and its effects on a culture.
Cadet, Jean-Robert. Restavec: From Haitian slave child to middle-class American. University of Texas Press, 1998.
Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as property.” Harvard law review (1993): 1707-1791.
Shapiro, Thomas M. The hidden cost of being African American: How wealth perpetuates inequality. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
Telles, Edward. “The overlapping concepts of race and colour in Latin America.”
Ethnic and Racial Studies 35.7 (2012): 1163-1168.