Chapter 3: Racism in the United States / The American dilemma


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (Preamble).

Racism has existed in the US since the birth of the nation in 1776, despite having been founded on the egalitarian value principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence (National Archives, 2016), the Preamble to which can be found above. Racism, defined as a “system of cultural, institutional, and personal values, beliefs, and actions in which individuals or groups are . . . [disadvantaged] based on ethnic or racial characteristics” (Tinsley-Jones, 2005), has long been considered the hallmark of US history, because the construct of race[1] both was and still is the fundamental determinant of sociopolitical ordering in the nation (Essandoh, 1996; Omi & Winant, 1994). Racialized sociopolitical ordering affected and continues to affect without abatement the legal, natural, political, psychological, and social rights of human persons in America (Miller & Garran, 2007; Omi & Winant, 1994). It also affects their labor market positioning and personal identity.

Right from the outset as a nation, the US involved itself in the active organization, interpretation, and management of race, and it did this for two reasons. First, to compare, contrast, and control the ‘different’ or ‘unknown’ other in relation to the Anglo-Saxon norm as the ideal of a human person. Second, to attempt to establish a ‘pure’ or ‘real American’ race by reducing or eliminating the ‘undesirable other’ as much as possible and this in a legal manner. 

As a consequence of these ideological and sociopolitical maneuvers, the variable of race replaced the variable of class as a foundational second-order construct in both the individual and collective psyches of the American people (Jones, 1997; Wang & Sue, 2005). The construct operated in their hearts and minds at both the conscious and unconscious levels of mental operations, in the latter case with great intensity, despite personal unawareness of its operations. Desirable, but more often less-than-desirable and undesirable thoughts, actions, and behaviors in everyday life started being manifested toward the different other at every level of society.

The American Dilemma

From my years young in days of youth,
God did make known to me his truth,
And call’d me from my native place
For to enjoy the means of grace (William Bradford).

Racism in the US was overt, institutionalized, and sanctioned at the macro-level through the rule of law by the Founding Fathers[2] themselves, ostensibly to safeguard and promote the principles that had been codified in the Declaration of Independence (National Archives, 2016). This rule was in reality intended to mask the stark incongruence between the colorless creed that had just been drawn up on paper on the one hand and the racialized facts that were put into practice on the other hand, in terms of the forced allocation of societal resources (Omi & Winant, 1994) – an allocation that determined which human persons in the nation would get to live, exist, or die. Such implementation was at heart and in effect intended to gratify the strong desires of the Pilgrims for free worship, enterprise, and land ownership (de Tocqueville, 1835-1840/2000) in accordance with their Anglo-Saxon heritage, the faith of Puritanism,[3] and their over-idealization of Whiteness (Jones, 1997). From its very inception, therefore, racism was institutionalized de jure in the US and the process became known as ‘the American dilemma’ (Myrdal, 1944).

A few generalized socioracial categories were constructed by the federal government to locate the diverse human persons that comprised the US population. These categories were purported to serve the function of collecting census data on race and ethnicity, to study the demographic, economic, health, and social characteristics of the general population (Office of Management and Budget [OMB], 1995); and to aid in program development for the prevention of genetic diseases. These categories, however, masked the implementation of a massive racial project that was intended to determine “access to employment, housing . . . goods, social program design, and the disbursement of local, state, and federal funds . . . [and] elections” (Omi & Winant, 1994).

The racial project was put into place by a series of laws and policies that prima facie appeared to maintain and promote the common good. Throughout the implementation and enforcement of these laws and policies, however, the practices of degradation, dehumanization, exclusion, oppression, and repression were manifest at each and every turn toward every single categorized or uncategorized racial and ethnic minority group in the nation. At the same time, the Pilgrims and other original settlers – all of White colonial stock – continued amassing human capital, land, and wealth without reserve, reinforcing and extending their privilege.

The term stock originated from the field of animal husbandry (Jones, 1997). In keeping with the prevalent mentality of regarding human persons as capital (i.e., objects), the term is used to this day by the federal government in their legal categorizations to describe people (e.g., Central Intelligence Agency, 2016).

[1] A social construction that maintains a sociopolitical hierarchy.

[2] The Pilgrim settlers.

[3] The beliefs of a sub-group of English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries, who had considered the Reformation as incomplete and sought to simplify and regulate the different forms of worship to God.