The field of racial and ethnic politics concerns itself with the role that race and ethnicity play in shaping the political behavior of individuals and groups, as well as the role that race and ethnicity play in how social, economic, and political institutions are constructed. This article provides an overview of that field by sketching out the major themes that exist in the body of scholarship known as racial and ethnic politics, as well as illustrating the manner in which the insights gained from such inquiry can be useful in understanding the political experience of minority groups in America. It begins with an overview of the basic terms, concepts, and political strategies that have been identified by scholars in the field. Next, a few examples are provided of the way in which these terms, concepts, and strategies may be applied by briefly examining the experience of some of the various minority groups in the American political system. Finally, a brief discussion of the future directions of the field is provided.
- Racial and Ethnic Political Theory
- Basic Terms and Concepts
- Majority and Minority Status
- Ethnicity, Race, and Racism
- Prejudice and Discrimination
- Social Stratification and Segregation
- Acculturation and Assimilation
- Minority Political Strategies
- Majority and Minority Status
- The Political Experience of Minority Groups in America
- Irish Americans
- Mexican Americans
- African Americans
- African Americans and the Strategy of Separatism
- African Americans and the Strategy of Radicalism
- Future Directions
Racial and Ethnic Political Theory
In providing an overview of any field of inquiry, it is important to define the meaning of the basic terms and concepts that are used. As Michael LeMay (2000) has pointed out, this is all the more true for the field of racial and ethnic politics because the terms used are often controversial and emotionally charged. In fact, the manner in which scholars in the field use terms such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination can sometimes be at odds with the manner in which these terms are used in the media and in popular discourse. Therefore, the following section of this article seeks to carefully define the core terms and concepts that are used in describing the experiences of minority groups in the American political system. It then turns to a brief overview of the various political strategies that ethnic and racial groups have utilized in coping with their status as a minority group.
Basic Terms and Concepts
Majority and Minority Status
The most basic of concepts in understanding the role of race and ethnicity in a political system are the concepts of majority and minority status. These two terms refer to the degree of power that groups have with respect to each other in a political system (LeMay, 2000). In other words, in any given political system, there will be a group that has the power to determine the norms and values of society, with the remaining groups being subject to those determined norms and values. Thus, the term majority refers to the group in a political system that has the power to determine the norms and values by which social, political, and economic life is structured. Importantly, this group does not necessarily need to represent a numerical majority, as in the case, for example, of blacks in South Africa under apartheid rule. Although blacks in South Africa at this time represented an overwhelming numerical majority, they were subject to the official South African policy of apartheid (separateness), which included statutory requirements that excluded blacks from positions of power, denied them access to many public accommodations, and enforced a rigid social hierarchy in which white South Africans enjoyed a position of power and privilege. Under such conditions, white South Africans, though not a numerical majority, enjoyed superordinate status as a group in the political system and were therefore the majority group. In turn, the term minority in this context refers to those groups that are subject to the norms and values of the majority but, for one reason or another, do not enjoy membership in that group.
Ethnicity, Race, and Racism
Peter Rose (1964) has defined an ethnic group as a group whose members share a social and cultural heritage that is passed from generation to generation. According to Rose, this sense of belonging to the ethnic group can be deeply influenced by the manner in which the dominant group in society responds to the ethnic group. If the ethnic group is accepted by the majority group, they may come to identify themselves more closely with the majority group, and so in such cases the “sense of peoplehood” that they share as an ethnic group may weaken (LeMay, 2000). On the other hand, where the majority rejects the ethnic group, the bonds that hold the ethnic group together may actually strengthen as they seek to cope with their status as a minority group in the face of majority group hostility. Edgar Litt (1970) points out that these dynamics between groups are neither new nor unique to the American experience but are as old as the human condition itself. As he puts it,
The shared symbols, interests, affections, and real or imagined traits which draw some men together into the group or community are the walls which separate these men from others . . . for there to be “brothers” there must be “others.” (p. 4)
In contrast to ethnicity, the term race refers to the genetic makeup of individuals that accounts for the differences that we find in physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. The term racism applies where individuals hold a belief that these differences in physical characteristics are directly linked to intellectual functioning, and on the basis of those differences, people make distinctions between races that are superior and races that are inferior (LeMay, 2000).Michael Banton (1967) has argued that, from the standpoint of social science, it is the social dimension of race that is important in understanding the nature of race relations, rather than the biological dimensions. In other words, the focus of analysis for social science researchers should be related to how the concept of race is socially constructed and the implications that those constructions have for how individuals meet the expectations assigned to those roles.
Prejudice and Discrimination
The term prejudice refers to an attitude (usually a negative attitude) that is directed toward individuals who are perceived to belong to a particular group (Rose, 1964). Simply put, prejudice is the practice of prejudging an individual on the basis of his or her membership in a group, rather than on his or her unique individual characteristics. According to Kitano (1997), prejudice may develop for a variety of different reasons. For example, where one group dominates another for their own benefit, prejudice may develop as a means of keeping the other group in a subordinate position in order to justify the existing social order. Similarly, ignorance may serve as another source of prejudice because a lack of information about a racial or ethnic group can lead to the formation of stereotypes, which are oversimplistic and overexaggerated beliefs about a group. Selective perception and the projection of these images through the mass media and popular culture of society subsequently lead to their reinforcement. In contrast to prejudice, which, again, is an attitude, the term discrimination refers to behavior. Put otherwise, a person who acts on prejudicial views in dealing with members of a group is engaged in discrimination, or as LeMay (2000) calls it, “applied prejudice.” An employer, for example, may hold prejudicial views about a minority group without acting on those views. However, if the employer were to deny an individual employment because of prejudicial views about the group to which they are perceived to belong, then the employer would have engaged in discrimination.
Social Stratification and Segregation
The term social stratification refers to the process whereby individuals and groups are assigned to different roles and positions in society, which, in turn, results in an uneven distribution of the rewards and power that accompany those roles and positions (LeMay, 2000). A related concept, segregation, refers to the act of physically separating members of a minority group from the members of the majority group in order to limit contact between the two groups. Segregation may be either de jure (in law) or de facto (in fact). An example of de jure segregation can be found in the legal statutes or so-called Jim Crow laws of the post–Reconstruction Era South (Sitkoff, 1981). Such segregation codified in law the barring of African Americans from access to various public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, and public pools. In other cases, segregation statutes created an entirely separate set of social institutions on the basis of race, including public schools and military units. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these types of laws in its landmark ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson (1896) by establishing the separate but equal doctrine. Although the Court reversed itself almost 60 years later in its Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling by declaring that “separate is inherently unequal,” the practice of segregation proved difficult to undo. In lieu of de jure segregation, various manifestations of de facto segregation persist to this day (Barker, Jones, & Tate, 1999). In contrast to de jure segregation, de facto segregation occurs as a result of social practices that, although not codified in law, have a similar outcome in terms of maintaining the separation of a minority group from the majority group.
Acculturation and Assimilation
When different ethnic groups come into contact with one another, their members become conscious of the different norms and values that exist between them. As a result of contact between groups over time, acculturation takes place. Litt (1970) defines acculturation as “the process whereby the minority member absorbs the cultural ways, values, and lifestyles of the wider community, or that portion of the wider community which operates within the regional and class confines available to him” (p. 15). According to LeMay (2000), however, this process of acculturation is two directional, meaning that not only do minority groups begin to internalize norms and values from the majority group, but also—vice versa—majority group members begin to internalize some of the norms and values of the minority group. The decoration of Christmas trees, for example, now a common practice among majority group members in America, was absorbed via contact with German immigrants. Similarly, pizzas and quesadillas are now a mainstream staple of American cuisine as a result of contact with Italian and Mexican immigrants. Acculturation, then, simply refers to the process by which these sorts of practices make their way from one group to another.
Assimilation is a concept that is related to acculturation but refers to a much more deeply transformative process wherein an individual or individuals of one group begin to identify psychologically with the other group—that is, the minority group is essentially absorbed into the majority group as new members (LeMay, 2000). This is most often the case where majority group members are willing to accept the minority group (or individuals within that group) as members of their own group. In such cases, distinctions between the groups become less meaningful as the respective members begin to view themselves as all members of one group. In American society, for example, Germans were once considered a distinct minority group in relation to the Anglo-American majority. However, as German immigrants began to adopt the English language and Anglo-American customs, the process of assimilation made the distinctions between German and Anglo- Americans less important, and over time they became assimilated into the majority group.
It is important to note here that not all minority groups can, or want to, assimilate into the majority group (Litt, 1970). For whatever differences existed between them and the majority Anglo group, German Americans were still Caucasian, primarily Christians, and shared a great many of the basic norms and values of the Anglo majority group. Thus, assimilation was relatively easy and desirable for them. Other groups, however, particularly those of African descent, have experienced a significant degree of acculturation but have at the same time been blocked from assimilation as a result of factors such as prejudice and racism (Rose, 1964). Thus, the distinction between acculturation and assimilation is an important one. As Litt (1970) explains, the minority group member “who undergoes acculturation is not necessarily freed from feelings of marginality or minority group status” (p. 15). In any event, minority groups often find that they must use some strategy, or combination of strategies, to cope with their status in the political system, and so this article now turns to an examination of the principal political strategies that minority groups use.
Minority Political Strategies
David Easton (1953) once famously defined politics as the authoritative allocation of values. Seen from this perspective, politics is a process whereby it is decided who gets what, when, and under what circumstances. In this process, minority groups are at a disadvantage in relation to the majority group in influencing the allocation of those values in a manner that benefits their group members. As noted previously, through the process of acculturation and assimilation, a minority group may seek acceptance into the majority group for the purpose of enjoying the privileges of majority group status. However, not all minority groups can or want to assimilate into the majority group. How minority groups are perceived by the majority, and whether they can or desire to assimilate into the majority, influences the choice of political strategies that minority groups employ to cope with their minority status. Following Litt’s (1970) taxonomy of minority political strategies, as well as the work of LeMay (2000), this section briefly discusses the three strategies that minority groups typically pursue: accommodationism, separatism, and radicalism.
The term accommodationism refers to a political strategy in which the minority group (at least for the most part) accepts the norms and values of the majority group and seeks to become part of that group (LeMay, 2000). Gaining entrance into majority group membership, in turn, allows its members to share in the privileges that accompany majority group status. LeMay has argued that in employing the strategy of accommodationism, minority groups will follow one of two routes: the economic route or the political route. In those instances where a minority group voluntarily migrates, possesses good job skills, and arrives at a time of economic prosperity, the economic route may be the most attractive form of accommodationism. In such cases, minority groups often rely on occupational niches and occupational queuing.
The term occupational niche refers to the presence of a high concentration of minority group members in an occupation in which the majority group does not feel threatened by their presence. In contrast to occupational niches, the term occupational queuing refers to the rank ordering of jobs in terms of their socioeconomic desirability. Minority groups that are willing to take less desirable jobs— low-skill jobs in agriculture or in meat processing facilities, for example—may be filled by minority group members without representing a threat to the majority. Successfully exploiting the use of occupational niches and occupational queuing allows minority groups to climb the socioeconomic ladder by providing improved educational and career opportunities for their children.
As a minority political strategy, however, economic accommodationism is not a viable option for all groups who may desire to pursue it. In some cases, minority groups find that the economic route is not open to them, as a result of poor economic conditions or as a result of discriminatory employment practices. The Irish, for example, on arriving in America were greeted with open hostility and employment discrimination—often unabashedly pronounced in signs that read “Irish Need Not Apply” (Rose, 1964, p. 33). In such instances, a minority group may choose to pursue a political route of accommodationism by exercising influence within the political system through the electoral process. To do so, however, the group must possess the means to organize themselves as a cohesive voting bloc that can influence the electoral process. Through a strategy of political accommodationism, then, a minority group may seek rewards from the ruling party in exchange for their votes. In those instances where a strategy of accommodationism is either unavailable or undesirable, the minority group may instead seek to pursue a strategy of separatism or a strategy of radicalism.
Separatism is a political strategy that may be used by a minority group that rejects the norms and values of the majority group and consequently seeks to minimize contact with that group. According to Litt (1970), separatism occurs when a minority group “turns inward, creating its own institutions to replenish social, psychological, and cultural values that cannot find fulfillment in the larger society” (p. 75). As with accommodationism, LeMay (2000) points out that groups who pursue separatist strategies may choose one of two routes. In the case of separatism, depending on the circumstances in which the group must operate, minority groups may opt for either a physical or psychological separation. The Mormons and the Amish are examples of minority groups that were able to achieve physical separation because of the availability of sparsely populated land in what was then the Western frontier of the United States. Other groups, however, such as the Hasidic Jews, or members of the Nation of Islam, unable to achieve physical separation because of their settlement in densely populated urban centers, were able to maintain psychological separation through the erection of semiautonomous social institutions in the midst of majority society.
It is worth noting here that separatism may be imposed on a minority group involuntarily. In such instances, separation does not represent a political strategy on the part of the minority, but rather, segregation (as discussed previously)— a social condition that is imposed—by the majority group. The term ghetto, for example, is rooted in the Italian word borghetto, which refers to the section of European cities in which Jews were once required to reside (Levin, 1968). Modern-day ghettos, which normally refer to blighted inner-city areas with a high proportion of minority group members, are constructed through the enforcement of discriminatory legal and social practices that restrict access to housing for minority group members to specific areas (Kusmer, 1978). These settlement patterns are distinctly different from those that result from separatism as a minority political strategy because they come about because of concerted efforts on the part of the majority group to disrupt the process of acculturation and assimilation of the minority group.
As opposed to accommodationism and separatism, radicalism represents a political strategy in which the minority group rejects the norms and values of the majority group and seeks to revise or replace those norms and values with their own (LeMay, 2000). As with accommodationism and separatism, radicalism can take shape in two particular ways. Litt (1970) refers to the first of these as old-style or ideological radicalism in which the ideological views of the minority group are significantly different than the majority, but the political behavior remains essentially consistent with accepted norms. Groups that used this approach, such as the Marxists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily relied on the electoral system in their efforts to win over the majority. In contrast, groups using the new-style approach to radicalism— as in the civil rights groups of the mid-20th century, for example—shared an ideological position that was not necessarily contrary to prevailing majority group values. What distinguishes new-style radicalism from old-style radicalism, however, is the use of political behavior that is very much at odds with accepted norms of political behavior. According to Litt, these radical political behaviors encompass a wide range of tactics from nonviolent directaction protest to full-scale revolution and flow from a sense of urgency and passion. He writes, “The new radicalism is emotional rather than ideological . . . it is based on a preference for action rather than for cognition and polemics” (p. 101).
The Political Experience of Minority Groups in America
In the space available here, it is not possible to cover the diverse variety of experiences that ethnic and racial minority groups have had in the American political system. The United States is a land of immigrants from every part of the world, and as noted above, different groups have met with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance as they attempted to carve out their niche in American society. Nevertheless, to the extent that such an exercise can highlight the manner in which the foregoing theoretical concepts can be applied, it is helpful to examine certain aspects of the minority group experience. Still, the following overview of selected minority group experiences in the United States is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account of those experiences. Rather, the experiences roughly sketched out below are simply offered as examples of the manner in which some groups have sought to cope with their minority status and to help illustrate the extent to which the theoretical concepts associated with racial and ethnic politics can be usefully applied in an analysis of minority group political behavior.
Beginning in the 1840s, Irish immigration to America began to increase significantly due in large part to political repression that they experienced under British rule, but also by periodic famines in which many thousands of Irish starved to death (Harrigan & Vogel, 2000). These immigrants, who arrived on American shores with relatively small financial resources and few job skills, were viewed with suspicion predominantly because of their Roman Catholic faith (Rose, 1964). The dramatically increasing number of Irish immigrants alarmed many members of majority American society, and so during this period an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic backlash took place. According to Harrigan and Vogel (2000), a nativist movement arose to protect American society from this threat; churches and convents were burned by angry mobs; publications appeared such as Maria Monk’s anti-Catholic book, Awful Disclosures; and a political party called the Know-Nothings formed to protect the “integrity of American society” (p. 62). In their efforts to weed out popery, the Know-Nothings’ stated platform included restrictions on Irish immigration and the barring of persons of Irish descent from holding office.
Harrigan and Vogel (2000) argue that the Irish reacted to this hostility by taking the characteristics that were most despised by majority American society and embracing those characteristics as virtues rather than vices. For the Irish, chief among these characteristics was the Roman Catholic religion. Catholicism gave the Irish a sense of uniqueness and bound them together as a group. This, in turn, became an effective tool of political mobilization since it enabled the Irish to build electoral coalitions across class lines. Furthermore, the Catholic Church recognized that if the Catholic faith were to be preserved in this environment, it would be necessary to embark on substantial development of parish schools and churches. Harrigan and Vogel explain that this decision had two important consequences. First, it organized the Irish into relatively discreet geographical units, and second, it created a great deal of construction work that could be channeled to Irish construction companies and laborers. Thus, the parish became the center of Irish social life in America, and the activities of the parish and the work of the construction projects led to the emergence of an institutional framework that could serve the needs of the Irish as a minority group. Furthermore, because the Irish were geographically bound together as parish groups by the church, they were subsequently able to emerge as a very influential voting bloc that eventually gained control of the Democratic Party in major cities where they resided (LeMay, 2000). Over time, this led to Irish control of the political machines in those cities.
The Irish, of course, did not invent machine politics. What they were able to do, however, was to take over preexisting Democratic Party organizations established during the Jacksonian era (Harrigan & Vogel, 2000). Control of these political machines allowed the Irish to secure patronage jobs and to award contracts. Patronage opened up important avenues for the Irish in their advancement up the American socioeconomic ladder since jobs in the bureaucracies of the cities that they controlled went to their group members. Thus, in places like New York City and Boston, the Irish were disproportionately employed in public service positions such as the fire and police departments. Likewise, the ability to award contracts multiplied the success given to them by the church in construction and real estate. As a result, the Irish were able to successfully use accommodationism to secure their position in the American political landscape. Successive groups of immigrants have used this strategy as well, but as LeMay (2000) points out, “they used it less successfully because of changing conditions and because the Irish, who arrived before them, were more reluctant to budge from their newly acquired middle-class ‘rung’ than were the Yankees before them” (p. 115).
Mexican Americans, or Chicanos, consists of two distinct subgroups: Spanish Americans and Mexican immigrants. Rose (1964) explains that Spanish Americans became American citizens by default when the lands that they occupied for over 4 centuries in the Southwest were ceded to the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican American War in 1848. Gilberto Lopez y Rivas (1973) has argued, however, that there is a common misconception among Americans that the people in these “conquered territories received Anglo rule with open arms” (p. 9). Rather, he points out that a long history of resistance and struggle characterizes their experience in the American political system. In contrast to the Spanish Americans of the Southwest, Mexican immigrants began to come to the United States from Mexico in large numbers beginning in the 20th century. Although some left because of the turmoil that resulted from the Mexican revolution, many more were attracted by economic opportunities.
According to LeMay (2000), the rate and degree of acculturation and assimilation among Mexican Americans is very low. This is due in large measure to their close proximity to Mexico, which means that their culture is able to survive more easily than is the case with other groups. Additionally, Mexican Americans continue to have a strong sense of pride in the language and cultural heritage of Mexico. As a result of these and other factors, Mexican Americans have had relatively limited involvement in politics for much of their history in the United States. Some early groups did begin to emerge in the 20th century, such as the Order of the Sons of America and the League of United Latin American Citizens, both of which were accommodationist in orientation (LeMay, 2000). Following World War II, however, organizations that were much more politically oriented began to emerge in an effort to increase voter turnout, endorse candidates, and engage in community organizing (Garcia & Garza, 1977).
Beginning in the 1970s, it became much more common for Mexican Americans to employ radicalism as a political strategy. These groups, deeply influenced by a sense of cultural pride, were more militant than their predecessors. They included groups such as the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice, and various student organizations. The most widely recognized group of this movement was La Raza Unida (the United Race). According to F. Chris Garcia and Rudolph O. de la Garza (1977), as opposed to accommodationists who sought to “work within the system,” radical Chicano groups such as these were “willing and ready to resort to tactics which violate[d] existing political norms in order to attain their goal of restructuring American society” (p. 43). They caution, however, that distinguishing the two groups in this manner “grievously distorts the relationship” shared by them and that the “differences between them are less important than the similarities that [bound] them” (p. 43).
As the Mexican American population has grown and participation rates have gone up, its political influence in American politics has increased accordingly (Browning, Marshall, & Tabb, 1984). Rodney Hero (1997), for example, argues that in the city of Denver, where Hispanics accounted for only 20% of the population, they were nonetheless able to elect Federico Peña by building an electoral coalition that crossed class and racial lines. In turn, Peña was successful at bringing Mexican Americans into city government to a level that is roughly proportionate to their size in the population.
As a minority group in American society, the experience of African Americans is unique because they represent the only group in American society to have arrived as a result of slavery. With some exceptions, most of the African Americans residing in the United States today are the descendents of Africans who survived the experience of slavery, as well as the subsequent decades of hostility and discrimination that they faced at the hands of the majority group. As Cornell West (1999) has pointed out, “Slavery is nearly as old as human civilization itself,” but “the distinctive feature of New World [American] slavery was its ‘racial’ character” (p. 51). As a result, the discrimination directed toward African Americans went well beyond their status as slaves, but was targeted directly at their racial identity. Thus, following their emancipation from slavery, with few exceptions, the struggle of African Americans for social, economic, and political equality continued largely unabated.
Early on in this struggle, two styles emerged around the persons of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Washington argued for an approach based largely on the principles of economic accommodation. Focusing on individual achievement, Washington called for African Americans to integrate into mainstream society by acquiring basic job skills and downplayed the role of political activity in pursuit of civil rights. In contrast to Washington’s approach, Du Bois argued that African Americans would need to emerge as a group if they hoped to break down the barriers that they faced. In 1905, Du Bois helped found the Niagara Movement, which quickly died out but whose cause was soon taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Over time, the NAACP has sought to fight racial discrimination primarily through courtroom litigation, with its most significant victory being the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation case.
African Americans and the Strategy of Separatism
Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalism Movement of the 1920s is an example of an African American separatist movement (LeMay, 2000). Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association, Garvey argued that people of African descent needed to establish their own set of social institutions, including banks, schools, and companies, and to ultimately reclaim the African continent for people of African descent. Drawing on Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of economic independence (but rejecting his individualist approach), Garvey sought to connect all of the black peoples of the world for commercial and industrial exchange through the establishment of a shipping company, the Black Star Steamship Line. However, because of a series of financial scandals involving the Black Star Steamship Line, he began to lose credibility among mainstream blacks. A conviction for tax evasion and mail fraud resulted in a prison sentence from 1925 to 1927, and on his release he was deported from the United States. Garvey died in 1940 at the age of 52 in West Kensington, England. Since his death, however, his role as an early advocate for black nationalism became more deeply appreciated, particularly by leaders of the black nationalist movements of the 1960s such as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.
African Americans and the Strategy of Radicalism
In December of 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested and jailed for refusing to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to a white man. With this act of defiance, Parks is credited with sparking the now famous Montgomery bus boycott and the modern civil rights movement. It was through the attention that the boycott received that Martin Luther King Jr. was first thrust into the national spotlight. Having recently arrived in Montgomery as the young new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he and other pastors formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and later the Southern Christian Leadership Council, of which he was elected president in 1957.
Drawing on the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, King showed through his efforts that nonviolent direct action could be combined with legal tactics to successfully fight racial discrimination in the United States. In later years, organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee engaged in a combination of legal battles along with direct action tactics that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In April 1963, King was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he had been asked to come in support of the campaign of nonviolent resistance that was taking place there. During the course of those events, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. On April 12, 1963, a newspaper ad was taken out by eight clergymen calling for an end to the demonstrations and criticizing King for his role. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King responded to these criticisms and summarized the ideas behind the nonviolent direction action strategy that he advocated. According to King (1998),
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored. (p. 190)
Shortly after the events of Birmingham, on August 28, King addressed a crowd of 250,000 people who had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial inWashington, D.C., and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The following year saw passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, among other things, prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, required desegregation of public schools and colleges, and prohibited private sector employers from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin. Subsequently, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided a strong legal framework to reverse historical patterns of African American voter disenfranchisement.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were significant milestones in the African American struggle for political equality. However, it has been observed that although by the end of the 1960s the legal barriers that had prevented African Americans from fully participating in American social, political, and economic life had been removed, African Americans remained at “the lower ends of just about every segment of American life” (Barker, Jones, & Tate, 1999, p. 26). In fact, the struggle for full political incorporation is likely to continue. To be sure, there are many examples of African Americans who have met with great success. In addition to the many successful African American business men and women, artists, scientists, and elected officials, Colin Powell was appointed the first African American Secretary of State in 2001, and he was followed in that office by Condoleeza Rice, an African American woman. Of even greater consequence, of course, Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois, the son of a Kenyan goat herder, was elected president of the United States in 2008. However, as Barker et al. (1999) have argued, “Individual successes, no matter how spectacular, do not change the reality of group oppression” (p. 350), nor does it erase its persistent legacy. All the same, great progress has been made, and despite the fact that they are likely to remain salient features of American political life, the dynamics of race, ethnicity, and politics is evolving in new directions. It is to a consideration of those future directions that this article now turns.
With the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, it is common to hear speculation in the popular media that America has entered a new postracial political era. Indeed, beginning as early as the late 1980s, some African American candidates for political office found electoral success by playing down racial issues and seeking broad support from white voters. This campaign strategy of deracialization has been described by Huey Perry (1996) as a useful analytical tool for understanding African American politics since the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. According to Perry, Reagan was able to considerably strengthen the conservative mood of national politics at that time, and this mood included, in part, an implicit desire for African Americans to soften their desire for full incorporation into American political and economic life. Thus, in the decades that followed, African American candidates seeking election in majority white electoral districts found some value in deemphasizing issues related to race. Of course, Obama’s election to the presidency could not have been possible without the widespread support of white voters, and so, at least to some extent, deracialization remains an important concept in understanding the future of American politics.
Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that the election of America’s first African American president indicates that the United States has entered a postracial era in which questions of race become entirely moot. Howard Winant (2004) argues that the very social, political, and economic structures within which Americans operate have been polluted by racism on a global scale. It is his assessment that because racial domination has been so successful in shaping social, political, and economic life over the past few centuries, only radical upheavals can result in real change. In that vein, he points to the U.S. Civil War and World War II as seminal moments of upheaval where progress toward racial equality (however small) was able to take place. Although racial and ethnic discrimination may no longer be sanctioned by law, its legacy persists insofar as its effects are still plainly visible in the significant gaps that exist between the socioeconomic well-being of whites on the one hand and racial and other ethnic minorities on the other. Thus, race and ethnicity shall continue to play an important role in American political life and also remain an important area of scholarly inquiry among political scientists.
In that vein, Julie Novkov (2008) has described the emerging body of scholarship within the subfield of racial and ethnic politics. According to Novkov, much of the recent research in racial politics has incorporated the tools of American political development to illuminate the manner in which race has played a critical role in the development of American political institutions. Such scholarship seeks to highlight the degree to which race as a cultural concept influenced how American social institutions were designed and developed. Additionally, research in this body of work has emphasized “how race interacts with the fundamental ideological commitments and shifts in American politics,” as well as how “current institutions continue to reflect and refract this history of racialized struggle” (Novkov, p. 651).
This article has provided an overview of scholarship in the discipline of political science that focuses on the role that race and ethnicity play in the American political system. Such scholarship is concerned with not only the role that these social constructs play in shaping the behavior of individuals and groups, but also the role that they play in how social, economic, and political institutions are constructed. The paper’s purpose was to discuss the major themes that exist in that body of scholarship and to highlight some of the ways in which the insights gained from it can help us to understand the political experience of minority groups in America. The article began with an overview of the basic terms, concepts, and political strategies that are associated with racial and ethnic politics as a scholarly endeavor and then turned to a few examples of the way in which these terms, concepts, and strategies may be applied. Finally, a brief discussion of the future directions of the field suggested that, although significant gains have been made by racial and ethnic groups, race and ethnicity are likely to remain salient features of American political life for the foreseeable future.
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