In what ways is 'race' socially and spatially constructed?
In what ways is ‘race’ socially and spatially constructed?
The Question of ‘Race’, what is it?
Firstly to understand how race is socially and spatially constructed we must first understand what race actually is.
Alex Watson an opinion columnist for the Western Herald stated that race does not and never has existed,
“It is an almost entirely social construct with extremely minor differences in external appearance at its root. The entire concept of race is a misbegotten stepchild of 19th century pseudoscience…….” (Western Herald Online: ) 11/03/04.
Today race is described is a popular marker of human difference based upon; physical criteria of a person i.e. skin colour, national heritage, cultural affiliation and history, ethnic classification, and the needs of a population socially, politically and economically (R.J Johnston. etal 2000, Dictionary of Human Geography).
However, throughout time the perception of race has varied from person to person and the understanding of race in society has also changed considerably.
The History of ‘Race’ as a Social Construction
As European powers attempted to widen their lands and empires by exploration trips and voyages, confrontation between the white Europeans and the indigenous people of these foreign lands highlighted differenced in appearance. Studies of 15th Century contacts with Native Americans helped Europeans develop a notion of distinctiveness. Europeans began to see themselves as unique (Allen and Unwin, Australia Independent Book Publisher: http://www.alenunwin.com/acedemic/Race.pdf) 12/03/04.
The indigenous people of their colonies were seen as pagan, animalistic, uncivilised and almost un-evolved human beings. Europeans classified peoples in their colonies into a hierarchy of categories which placed Europeans at the top of a pseudo-evolutionary scale. The stereotypes created are still evident in today’s society (Rebecca Riehm Homepage: ) 11/03/04.
The European settlers believed in their superiority of their civilisation sustained by Christianity, technological advances and the capacity to conquer foreign lands. The Europeans also believed that the product of the indigenous cultures was inherent to them; some groups were able to advance in civilisation while others seemed incapable of any advances.
Early definitions of race around the 17th and 18th Centuries were based upon biological differences of people. The influence of Darwinism (evolution of humans) began to influence people to believe that the human species were divided into sub-species and that people of a different ‘race’ were biologically different i.e. different levels of intelligence.
In 1758, botanist Carolus Linnaeus, famous for his system of classifying plants and animals, declared that the human species was made of four sub-categories, which he called, red, yellow, black and white. () 11/03/04.
By about the mid 19th Century a distinct system of defining race began to unfold. European racism which was based on the experiences in their foreign colonies, described different races as being biologically distinct. Most of this idea was based upon the idea of genetic makeup which influenced physical appearance, intellectual skills and moral qualities.
Some early racism can be seen as a natural development of religious bigotry. Brutal conduct towards the indigenous people was justified by religion; an example of this was the Crusades and Massacres of Jews in Medieval Europe which was sanctioned by Martin Luther (1500’s) (Allen and Unwin, Australia Independent Book Publisher:
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The natives of many of the European colonies were described as animals and were therefore treated as animals. Many of the indigenous people were used as slaves although slavery wasn’t accepted on religious terms, it was seen to feed the labour needs and also a way of controlling. However soon enough the native people began to stand up for themselves.
They saw themselves as equals to the white Europeans. They wanted equality and an end to slavery. Throughout many European colonies there were slave revolts against their foreign leaders.
In 1791 there was a slave revolt in Haiti lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave who would become the future President. Many scholars have described Haiti as the second democracy in the Western Hemisphere. A democracy created and then run by ‘slaves’. Another famous rebellion was the Jamaican rebellion of 1865 towards British rule.
With the increased number of slave revolts to stand for equality, continuous Christian teaching emphasised the unity of mankind. The Bible gave no support to the idea that mankind was divided into sub-species. Along with this there was increased biological research trying to highlight differences between races. Scientists were looking for variations in skeletal framework and intellectual skills. No substantial findings upheld the belief that people were biologically different, colour was only skin deep.
By the 1860’s there was numerous concepts to explain human diversity. One particular concept by Alfred Wallace a British naturalist and biologist stated that at one time humanity was homogeneous and as humans spread over the globe they began to physically adapt to the different climatic conditions (Allen and Unwin, Australia Independent Book Publisher: ) 12/03/04. This concept help create a foundation that was beginning to influence society that racial difference was only reflected by physical difference and not biological.
Continuous equality for former slaves and integration of races within the white society began to take its toll. In 1790 the US Census stated race as ‘White or Other’ as the named races. By 1860 citizens could classify themselves as White, Black or Mulatto, by 1870 American Indian and Chinese were added to the categories.
The same was evident on the other side of the Atlantic in Britain. As more and more colonists were migrating to the motherland for economic salvation the question of race became more evident within society.
There has always been migration of racial minorities into Britain but the numbers have been small. Historical episodes include the Huguenots of the 16th 17th century, and the Ashkenazi Jews of the late 19th century. Other migrations were demographically insignificant (Migration Watch UK: ) 16/03/04.
The 1950’s seen a significant rise in migrants in Britain, mainly from New Commonwealth colonies. The first influential ‘tides’ of immigrants into Britain came from the Caribbean then eventually, India, Bangladesh, Africa and the Far East. During the 50’s and 60’s citizens of British colonies were granted the right to freely enter, settle and work in any area of the British Empire (Christian Dustmann, Francesca Fabbri, Ian Preston: Ethnic Concentration, January 2002,Prejudice and Racial Harassment towards Minorities in the UK, University College London, Department of Economics).
The same was evident in many other Western European states. This came about partly because the colonial powers, especially France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, were receiving back nationals from their former colonies
Another factor for the increase number of immigrants had been the increase in labour shortages in Western Europe, beginning in the wake of post-war reconstruction, and continuing in some sectors of the economy to the present day (United Kingdom Parliament: ) 16/03/04.
Although more and more ethnic minorities were beginning to integrate within a White society there still remained a lot of tension and discrimination towards the ethnic peoples.
Spatial Construction of ‘Race’
Minorities were seen as undesirable and therefore became spatially isolated. This was not just the case in Britain but also world wide. Ethnic minorities were discriminated against and this had a great influence on where the populations of minorities settled. Many well known Ethnic Groups include African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Vietnamese and Chinese in American cities; Afro Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Irish of British cities; Algerians, Central Africans and Spaniards in French cities and Turks and Croats in German cities (Paul Knox; 1995, Urban Social Geography an Introduction, 3rd Edition).
When immigrants arrive to a new place they look for work, cheap accommodation, availability of resources and the lack of need for private transport, all of which are found in inner city areas. A well known example can be seen with Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Minorities from Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania established themselves around the CBD of Chicago in order to find the cheapest accommodation. Eventually the CBD was surrounded by a patchwork of different Ethnic settlements. Chicago had developed a series of concentric zones of distinctive neighbourhoods belonging to particular Ethnic groupings (Paul L. Knox, Sallie A. Marston, 1998, Places and Regions in a Global Context, Human Geography).
Most of Britain's ethnic minority population lives in the major cities, particularly the inner city. Given the high levels of deprivation in inner cities, most tend to live in deprived areas (Joseph Rowantree Foundation; Ethnic minorities in the inner city, September 1998; Ref 988: ) 19/03/04.
The need to gather with similar people is most strongly felt in an unfamiliar environment this leads to the development of distinct social areas of a landscape and also influences land uses of a particular area (Keith Chapman; 1979, People, Patterns and Processes, An Introduction to Human Geography).
Although it is evidently clear that minorities are segregated from the charter or majority group, minorities tend most times to be segregated from each other so as a result there tends to be a lot of competition for territory. Therefore clusters of ethnic groups can be seen as defensive and conservative in function (Paul Knox; 1995, Urban Social Geography an Introduction, 3rd Edition).
Clustering has been identified to have four principal functions: defence, support, preservation and attack.
Clustering for defence is evident whenever discrimination by the charter group is intense and over wide areas. The area provides a withdrawal option from the wider society to a safer environment. Well known examples include Jewish ghettos in medieval European cities and also the Catholic and Protestant communities of Belfast.
Such functions include providing support in particular ways which range from formal oriented institutions and business to informal friendship and kinship ties.
Many settlements also help preserve and promote a distinctive cultural heritage. Many studies have put the clustering of Asian communities in British cities in this category.
Many minorities also cluster to create a ‘base’ formation. The definition of attack can be both of peaceful and legitimate terms. Ethnic clusters can represent strong electoral power. This ahs been the case in many cities in the USA, Black ghettos many of which were vast in size provided an important political power base.
However the clustering of minority groups also provides a base for illegitimate attacks. Obvious examples can be taken from Belfast where Republican and Loyalist para-military organisations use their territories to base attacks (Paul Knox; 1995, Urban Social Geography an Introduction, 3rd Edition).
Settlements of ethnic clusters in cities have been referred to as ghettos and enclaves. Ghettos are usually forced dwellings of ethnic minorities which holds claim of a large majority of the minority of an area, whereas an enclave contains only a small minority of an ethnic group. The characteristics of a ghetto are usually enforced dwelling, treating atmosphere, expanding population and permanent dwelling, whereas an enclave is voluntary dwelling, symbolic, touristic and temporary dwelling (Ceri Peach, 2001; The Ghetto and Ethnic Enclave, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Conference Paper).
However if the ethnic minorities were to better their position in society and become socially acceptable many thought that the peoples of particular ethnic groups would pass through particular settlement phases of the urban landscape and eventually become suburbanised and assimilated with the charter group (Ceri Peach, 2001; The Ghetto and Ethnic Enclave, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Conference Paper).
The process of assimilation is thought to be important if an ethnic minority is to become full accepted in particularly racial segregated society.
The 1920’s and 1930’s ethnic settlements showed evidence for assimilation of ethnic minorities with the charter group. However not only does the charter or majority group have to accept the minority group but the minority must be willing to part with traditions to become full integrated within an alien society. Many of Chicago’s city born ethnic population of the 1940’s and 1950’s didn’t feel the need for security in ethnic neighbourhoods and eventually began to integrated themselves into the white dominated society, eventually obtaining better jobs and houses than that of there ancestors.
However there has been evidence for the lack of will for ethnic minorities to integrate with the charter group. An example can be of the Chinese community of Los Angeles which is famous for its downtown Chinatown. Here the whole Chinese population went through social integration but still remained to keep ethnic ties. This resulted in a whole migration of a Chinese population to the suburbs of Los Angeles. This has been described to as the creation as an ethnoburb. from the Department of Geography & Asian American Studies Institute University of Connecticut has described an ethnburb as:
“Ethnoburbs are suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts in large metropolitan areas. They are multiethnic communities, in which one ethnic minority group has a significant concentration, but does not necessarily comprise a majority. Ethnoburbs are created through deliberate efforts of that group within changing global/national/local contexts. They function as a settlement type that replicates some features of an enclave, and some features of a suburb lacking a specific ethnic identity. Ethnoburbs coexist along with traditional ethnic ghettos/enclaves in inner cities in contemporary American society”………
(Wei Li, Ethnoburb versus Chinatown: Two Types of Urban Ethnic Communities in Los Angeles, Department of Geography & Asian American Studies Institute University of Connecticut Storrs)
Similar processes are evident in Britain but racial difference tends to influence segregation of minorities. For example the Japanese population of London have move to outer suburbs of the city highlighting social integration, this is also evident within the Pakistani and East Asian populations as well, most of whom obtain well paid jobs and are educated in private schools. Whereas the proportion of Blacks in London still live in poorer inner city areas categorized by low income families. Many therefore believe that Blacks of inner city areas need to go through the process of suburbanization to show social integration.
It is clear that since the earliest time whenever the question of race was though of, ideas have changed considerably. Today race still creates a category by which we can identify ourselves and maintain cultural identity.
Everybody likes to think as themselves as being unique and different to each other, it gives us a feeling of pride. That is why I believe the question of race was first brought about by the early European explorers, they wanted to see themselves as unique to other people.
Therefore I believe that race will always be evident in society and will exist forever, no person likes to feel inferior to another, many not equal but better to others. So the construction of ‘Race’ still continues.
Allen and Unwin, Australia Independent Book Publisher: http://www.alenunwin.com/acedemic/Race.pdf 12/03/04
Keith Chapman; 1979, People, Patterns and Processes, An Introduction to Human Geography
Christian Dustmann, Francesca Fabbri, Ian Preston: Ethnic Concentration, January 2002,Prejudice and Racial Harassment towards Minorities in the UK, University College London, Department of Economics
R.J Johnston. etal 2000, Dictionary of Human Geography
Paul Knox; 1995, Urban Social Geography an Introduction, 3rd Edition
Paul L. Knox, Sallie A. Marston, 1998, Places and Regions in a Global Context, Human Geograph
Migration Watch UK:
Ceri Peach, 2001; The Ghetto and Ethnic Enclave, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Conference Paper
Rebecca Riehm Homepage: 11/03/04
Joseph Rowantree Foundation; Ethnic minorities in the inner city, September 1998; Ref 988: 19/03/04.
United Kingdom Parliament: 16/03/04
Wei Li, Ethnoburb versus Chinatown: Two Types of Urban Ethnic Communities in Los Angeles, Department of Geography & Asian American Studies Institute University of Connecticut Storrs
Western Herald Online: 11/03/04