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“Black Lives Matter” is a slogan used by many Black people with the intent to broaden “the conversation around state violence” by informing people “of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state” (blacklivesmatter.com). As seen by this popular movement started in 2014, racial conflicts in urban America continue even after the civil rights movement and the election of a black president. Sociologists and anthropologists claim that race is socially constructed, and the concept of the social construction of identity helps to explain why these conflicts are still happening. Social identity refers to an individual’s association with known groups or categories including race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. People may identify themselves in one way, however culture and society may also attach certain identities to people, sometimes not in the same ways that they believe. All societies have different ways of differentiating between “us” from “them” and when existing in the same society, there is a potential for inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. This problem can become exacerbated when one group takes control of economics and power.
Today, race is defined primarily as how one perceives one-self as well as how one is perceived by others. These perceptions may be based on history or phenotypic characteristics like skin color, but they may also be include cultural practices, economic needs or political affiliations. In complex societies such as the United States, race is a social construct that is produced by the dominant group, the group in power, often associated with government, laws, and social control. Being in power, they have the ability to define the boundaries of race, creating the racial identity for a large group of people at the macro-level of culture and society. By generalizing this whole identity of race, stereotypes can form, and pertaining to those of the African American and Black people, many of them are very discriminatory. Identity is not only how others perceive, but, as mentioned earlier, it is also how one perceives themselves: the micro-level of identity. Many African Americans who identify themselves one way, are discriminated against due to stereotypes perceived from their macro-level racial identity.
Stereotypes are created on the macro-level through the media- including the news, TV, Magazines, and social media online, through science and the social sciences, and through other forms of cultural entertainment in which all can categorize people in particular ways to create dominant stereotypes. Unfortunately, Black people everywhere and especially those living in urban “ghettos” have stereotypes including dependence on welfare, violence and crime, poverty, unemployment, as well as many others and are seen as lazy, disorganized, and don’t act for themselves. However, it should be known that definitely many Black people do not fit these stereotypes which were formulated by the social construction of race. One author, Steven Gregory, attempts to challenge these stereotypes and show to his readers that black people, their personalities, and their culture are not to blame for these stereotypes, instead they were established through economic and political issues and are imposed through this macro-level identity.
In his book, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community, Gregory explores these described issues through his research in a popular neighborhood called Corona, home to many African Americans along with people from many different backgrounds, located in Queens, New York during the late 1980’s through the mid-90’s. Here he uses ethnographical methods, such as oral histories and open ended interviews with residents, participant observation in neighborhoods and political action meetings, and archival research to challenge the depictions of the black urban experience in the media, academics, and public policy debates. Throughout the findings he described in his book, Gregory challenges the stereotypes black citizens of Corona face. He explains how various problems in these urban communities cause its’ black citizens to get stuck in the situations involving their stereotypes. The people he interviews do not fit the stereotypes and some people from this neighborhood are activists, some have good jobs and families, and some are middle-class. He tries to show how many of the black citizens who make up Corona are not all unstable and bad, and explores the causes of the portrayal of stereotypes that outsiders witness and construct into the identity of the black citizens (Gregory 1999: 14-19).
Constructions of race in the media and political policies are some of the forerunning factors that effect black and African American residents of Corona, and the discrimination that they face. Media has a large effect on the black citizens of Corona because of what people see on the news, TV, and movies. In black communities such as Corona, to be able to get respect on the street, one must commit to violence, some type of crime, or dealing drugs. Even if someone doesn’t want to do this, they must at least act the part. This macro-level identity imposes this stereotype on to an individual’s micro-level identity, meaning the way people may view him/her affects the way an individual must view themselves. These crimes and acts of violence don’t go unnoticed by the authorities and in response, the news might be filled with these people committing criminal acts. People from outside view this and the stereotypes for all the black people in the community are strengthened, even if many of them aren’t even involved. Many black citizens in Corona were middle class had respectable professions, yet they are still identified as bad people.
For example, in Corona an issue that was brought about in their Neighborhood Stabilization Committee, was drug dealing on a certain street. This information was probably publicized in the news, and by word of mouth throughout the police force, and, even though the police chief said the crime rate was lower than ever (Gregory 1999: 110), the police were still profiling and people who were living in this area and were not involved were still said to be a part of the drug dealings. Gregory says that “issues of crime, drugs… bore racial connotations that remained close to the surface of discourse,” even though the police said it was not racially motivated (Gregory 1999: 110). Even in a mostly middle class area in Corona, youths were being harassed by security guards in a park because they believed they were dealing drugs. A member of the community said he you could be walking home from work and they push you out “’cause they suspect you to be a drug pusher” (Gregory 1999: 123). Members of the community said the cause of this harassment was due to the media representation of black teenagers as drug dealers. The issues with media’s portrayal of the area they were living created more struggle over the representation of their identity even when many black citizens were middle class had respectable professions.
Construction of race in regards to political policies put forth by the government also contributed to the struggle over the representation of the citizens’ identity and establishment of equality. The government and a major agency called Port Authority, had power over the organizations in Corona, and as mentioned earlier, having power gives the ability to make others do what you want. For example, Port Authority’s job was involved in the design and the infrastructure of the city, and with this power they could treat each district in Corona as a separate entity so that none had enough power to go against them. The black citizens were opposed to this because, as many were middle class and lived in nice areas, some would be grouped in lower class areas with poor immigrants; many not even black. These areas were known to have poverty and other issues, and for the black citizens to be grouped with them would only strengthen the stereotypes in the construction of race (Gregory 1999: 182). Port Authority also wanted to extend a runway to the airport in the northern area of Corona. Citizens of Corona acted against it for the same reasons as earlier, as it would impact the quality of life in this area. The citizens would try everything to not get it built, but with its power, Port authority was able to “thwart community opposition” (Gregory 1999: 186). The politics and those in power made it difficult for communities to establish and maintain equality, and prohibits them from voicing out against discrimination and act against the social construction of their identity.
Along with the media and political policy, history too plays a role in the social construction of the identity of black citizens in America. As seen in the film The Story we Tell- Race and the Power of an Illusion, throughout history, politics and the economy negatively impacted the social construction of the racial identity of African Americans, supporting the same ideas that Gregory had. Ever since the times of slavery, people had the idea that black people were less than everyone else because of the link between slavery and blackness. As America grew and became more white based, people were believing that black people were less, as many people “tried to scientifically prove blacks and other races were inferior” (Pounder et. Al 2003). People today have just inherited this ancient stigma from the past, which blossomed once the Africans were exploited for the powerful white Americans’ economic gain.
The study of race and race relations in the US can be complicated by certain issues. It is hard to define what race is and what differentiates one from another. Different nations and geographic locations have different constructions of what race is. The whole social construct of race changes over time, changes with geographic location, and changes depending on who is asked. Many people including those conducting the study, may have ethnocentrism, which mean people like their own culture and it might cause someone to have a bias in the study. Race and race relations are intertwined in a complex web with many factors contributing to how people perceive them, and in a study it would be hard to take all of them in to account. However, in his research, Gregory was able to encapsulate almost every angle of the issues he was discussing even though it was a very complex and broad subject to study.
Gregory’s description or race, class, and community are comparable to those of today. The definition of community is a little altered as the internet has woven an even larger network of relationships between people and thus communities are no longer restricted to specific geographic locations. Urban politics that he describes have not changed much today as many of the stereotypes of people in these areas are still prominent to this day. Those in power still have yet to solve the problems of poverty and violence in the ghettos, however black representation in politics has increased. As many black people don’t fit their racial stereotypes conflicts arise and they attempt to organize and retaliate through activism and protests. Today, issues with racial profiling, police brutality, and racism are in news headlines and are evoked by the very same reasons as Gregory mentioned; the economy, politics, and history heavily influence the social construction of identity.
Even though tensions may be higher today than in recent history, social media and the internet have added new tool for the oppressed to have their voices heard. Understanding the concept of the social construction of identity helps to explain why these conflicts are still happening today and can reveal how to deconstruct stereotypical racial identities and reconstruct them to reflect their true identities. It is hard to predict whether the economic system and politics will ever be altered, however, if people are able to coordinate and join forces towards a common goal as seen in certain points in history, they can work to eliminate stereotypes and discrimination and redefine their macro-level identities, and watch the change trickle down to the individual and give them a reason to be proud of their identity.
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