Race is a social concept used to categorize humans into large and distinct populations or groups by anatomical, cultural, ethnic, genetic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious, and/or social affiliation. First used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations, in the 17th century, people began to use the term to relate to observable physical (i.e. phenotypical) traits. Such use promoted hierarchies favorable to differing ethnic groups. Starting from the 19th century, the term was often used, in a taxonomic sense, to denote genetically differentiated human populations defined by phenotype.(Source: Wikipedia)
To paraphrase, race (in the human sense) is a social construct that was created to categorize humans into different groups. Race is used in different contexts, in different lands and at different times throughout history. In some ways it is synonymous with Caste or Class and in other ways it is very different. Race is one of those human constructs that, as defined in your part of the world, usually cannot be changed by the individual through any means. In the United States pre-history, race started out as a them versus us distinction to distinguish the European white explorers and colonists from the Native tribes they encountered. Believing the Native populations to be “savages”, as opposed to the “civilized” Europeans, this distinction of race became a hierarchical one.
In the course of American history, the term race has been used to apply to people from a specific country-of-origin (Italians, Poles, Irish, Germans, Dutch, British, Mexicans, French, Swedes, Norse, Indians, and even French-Canadians), people from specific continents (North America “Native Americans”, Asians, Africans, South Americans), and even people of different faiths (Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Pagans). As time goes on and race relations advance, the make up of what is considered a race changes.
There was a time when Italians, Irish, Poles, Germans, Dutch, French, British, and French-Canadians were not considered to be “White”. The same can be said for Catholics, Pagans, and Jews. Still, given time the “melting pot” of America accepted these populations in to the larger racial demographic of “white” because they had to spend more time distinguishing “White” people from the “Red man” (Native Americans), the “Yellow man” (Chinese and Japanese), the “Brown” people (Mexicans and other nationalities of Latino descent) and “Black” people. As these other “colored” people came into the country in greater numbers, for various purposes…work the plantation, build the railroads, work the farming fields, or vacate the land for colonization…it became more important to the previous owners of the “white race” moniker to have sufficient numbers of “white” people to maintain their societal hold over the growing number of colored people. This assimilation, as it was, is taking place again in this country (see Hispanic: the other White meat) as growing numbers of SE Asians, Indians, and Latinos migrate to this country every year.
Due to Western European empire-building and a “racial” homogeneity in Europe the standard was that “White” people were dominant and every other “race” was to be sub-standard, subservient, and submissive. That has rarely been the case but it has been a way of life that has been enforced by violence, by torture, by cajoling, by deceit, by greed, and by law in the 500+ years since the Spaniards and Portuguese began the European expansions into Africa and the Americas. Fortunately, relations between “races” have improved significantly since then and while many people have reached a point where they believe distinctions based on race are no longer necessary, they still exist and are enforced from birth certificate to death certificate. The identification with a race is plastered on everything from State IDs to Job Applications, the accomplishments of athletes, journalists, entertainers, politicians, and even business leaders are still classified based on their racial components. More so than in any other country, the United States of America places a perverse interest in maintaining racial dichotomy. You would think that any nation that so prides itself on being a “melting pot” would be more interested in blending the ingredients as opposed to keeping them separate based on color, but that is not the case…race is the case in this place.
Still, something very interesting has happened with race in the last 70+ years. The “White race” all but dissolved from the consciousness of “White” people. That statement may sound weird but let me explain. “White people” by and large still know that they are white, many of them are quite happy to be white and some are exceptionally proud to be white. That said, they let go of the racial components of their culture and became “Americans”. Suddenly every other race had a prefix or a hyphen added to their citizenship but White people were simple “Americans”. As Americans, they no longer “believed themselves to be” a collective race of people that mostly benefited from a racial hegemony over other races. Their successes were due to the success of the country, which just so happened to be due, in large part, to the unpaid and underpaid work of the racial “minorities”. As Americans, they no longer were ahead of other races because of their race…” so if I’m ahead of you it is because “America is a meritocracy”. Oh yes, these Americans do love to tell the tales of “people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” as a means of conveying that getting ahead in this country is a simple matter of hard work…which clearly they did and others did not.
That is, until there were scores of advancements by “minority races” in entertainment (music and acting), athletics (baseball, basketball, football and later tennis and golf), business, social movements and politics. Suddenly the greatest avenues of competition were being either infiltrated or dominated by a race of people who had been previously characterized as lazy. An interesting thing happened with many of those individuals when they hit the height of their stardom, they began being referred to as “American” stars. At the apex of their careers or influence they ceased being “Black” stars or later “African-American” stars but were reclassified as “Americans” who happened to be stars. This still happens today, especially with mixed-race stars like Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey.
In large part, these stars achieved something that nearly all minority races in this country have wanted since the beginning…something that the founding fathers of this country believed to be self-evident…something that was specifically written into the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution…something the Supreme Court has been ruling against since the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954…we don’t want to be separate! We don’t want to be a race. We don’t want to be treated differently because of a skin tone, an accent, a native language, a different shaped facial feature, or our faith. The goal of America is that all men (and women) are equal and so Americanism can not continue to be something that is relegated to “White people”. When we finally reach that point, we will have finally won the race.