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Race: America's #1 Ally to Supremacy and Capitalism

The slavery era triggered racism as many Blacks were used as a source of labor. America developed laws and policies to promote enforced labor from Blacks. These laws and policies described Blacks as a labor asset of America, legalizing enforced labor. Later, various human rights advocated for equality, and Blacks became increasingly aware of their rights. The enslavement and human rights advocacy influenced today’s definition of “black” and “white.” The definitions can cause depressive symptoms


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Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

a year ago | 14 min read

The term “race” was used frequently before the 1500s to identify groups with a kinship. However, the modern-day use of “race” as a human invention. Salter et al. (2018) define race as a human-invented term used to describe and classify people into different social groups based on physical features, skin color, and genetic heredity. Even though the race is not a valid biological concept, it is regarded as a real social construction that denies or gives privileges and benefits (Lincoln et al., 2017). American society developed the race notion early to justify its capitalist economic system, which depended on forced labor from enslaved African people. This paper discusses the origins of the social construct of race, how “white” and “black” definitions cause psychological harm, and how racial constrict are an ally to racism, white supremacy, and capitalism.

The Origin of the Social Construct of Race

Slavery is vital in explaining the origin of the social construct of race. Various events such as enlightenment ideas of natural human rights, religious freedom, searching for property, and evading persecution significantly contributed to the social construction of race Smedley & Smedley (2015). These factors influenced European colonies to visit North America to create a new society. The enlightenment ideas spread to the North American colonies and built their democracy basis and brutal servitude — chattel slavery.

Before the 1500s, the hierarchy notion was a common standard. Every person belonged to a specific hierarchy structure (e.g., children to parents, laborers to landowners, parishioners to churches, etc. As the notion of natural man rights became much more prevalent in the 18th century, the equality concept became a principle stream of thought (Shih et al., 2017). Consequently, humans were categorized based on a new hierarchy (race), which many considered science.

In the early 1600s, Europeans captured the first Africans and handed them to American colonies to provide enslaved labor, as most colonies declared enslavement legal. During the early colonial American era, enslaved Africans were a source of labor. Smedley & Smedley (2015) reveal that the English used enslaved indigenous persons and European indentured servants as forms of coerced labor. The two groups, enslaved and forced labor, worked collaboratively and interacted in various ways. The enslavement notion changed through the 1600s. Enslavement was not an obvious condition and did not uniformly apply to all Africans in the 1600s. Enslavement was not a permanent lifestyle; the boundaries between groups shifted over the next decades to make distinctions that led to law.

In the late 1600s, the colonies experienced significant shifts. While many European immigrants survived, the demand for land and labor increased. Consequently, indentured servitude became unattractive due to its inadequate profit to use servants of European decent (Lazaridou & Fernando, 2022). White settlers turned slavery into the primary source of forced labor in most colonies. African people were considered more desirable slaves as they provided advanced farming, bricklaying, carpentry, leatherworking, and metal-making skills. Africans’ characterizations in the early colonial period were generally positive, and the colonists believed their future depended on Africans’ labor.

A significant change occurred in 1662 after Virginia established the hereditary slavery law, which meant the mother’s status determined the child’s status. However, Shih et al. (2017) say that the law did not align with English common law, which described the legal child’s status based on the father’s status. Thus, enslaved women’s children would automatically be considered slaves. This law built the foundation of increased enslaved Americans and oppression of female slaves by men. Another Virginia law was enacted in 1667 to promote enslavement regardless of religion, including Christians. Consequently, the justification for “black” changed from religion-based to race-based.

Several collisions, including the poor people coalition, protested against the increasing planter class to preserve land for indigenous people. Smedley & Smedley (2015) argue that elite colonies needed to find more native lands to enhance their expansion, pacify poor Europeans who wanted economic advancement, and keep promoting the labor force for agricultural work. In the mid-1700s, additional laws and societal norms associated Africans with perpetual labor, influencing colonies to make the social construct based on people’s appearance, heredity, and place of origin. The Africans’ physical distinctiveness as “black” marked their newly created identity.

The liberty paradox in America’s consciousness also effectively explains the origin of the social construct of race. Colonists’ beliefs in natural laws triggered revolutionary political thought in the 18th century. New American generations born in the colonies clutched upon ideas, such as John Locke’s “Social Contract,” which emphasized the right to life, property, and liberty (Shih et al., 2017). Besides, the Social Contract’s slavery concerns surfaced among black colonists embracing freedom. However, in the mid-19th century, the scientific community legitimized society’s views of racism. Scientists argued that Africans were inferior because they were degenerate or denied access to perpetual services (Shih et al., 2017). European and American scientists grouped humans based on race. For instance, Samuel Morton argued that blacks had smaller skulls; therefore, they were less intelligent than whites (Shih et al., 2017). Scientists spread the belief that blacks were a separated specie, undermining them while promoting white supremacy.

In the 1850s, the antislavery campaign intensified, spurred by whites’ attempts to protect slavery and protect national political dominance. Proslavery spokespeople emphasized the value of humanity. Most of the campaigns were based on racist scientific findings (Lazaridou & Fernando, 2022). As millions of enslaved people opposed the pressure on America’s idea of freedom and equality, new meanings of race emerged as the federal government wanted to highlight the rights of black people. For instance, Roger B. Taney ruled that slaves were America’s property based on the constitution; therefore, owners (whites) could not dispossess their property. According to Salter et al. (2018), the court’s definition of “black” as American property would interfere with equality and lead to anti-black sentiment for future generations. However, America defended slavery under property rights because the enslaved labor was profitable to the nation. In addition, America developed its race concept based on racist theories and beliefs to protect its slavery-built economy (Lazaridou & Fernando, 2022). These beliefs resulted in widespread anti-black sentiments that would influence the American consciousness in the post-slavery era. In this sense, the social construct of race originated from laws, theories, and beliefs that promoted enslaved labor to build the American economy.

How the Definition of Black and White Can Cause Psychological Harm

The definition of Black and white can cause psychological by promoting racial discrimination and injustice. According to Lincoln et al. (2017), racial discrimination and injustice can trigger depression, anxiety, and racial trauma. “Black” and “white” definitions can lead to racism, which is significantly associated with mental health problems. For instance, Lincoln et al. (2017) argue that horrifying images or videos of police brutality can cause an emotional toll on blacks, increasing their risk for depression, stress, anxiety, and substance abuse. Discrimination and racism against blacks is an overlooked reality that can lead to psychological harm.

Based on the definition of “black,” Blacks are more likely to experience unpleasing live events such as unemployment, poverty, abuse, or incarceration. Thus, society tends to overlook Blacks’ contribution to culture and history, while popular TV shows and movies focus on negative racial stereotypes regarding the black community. In addition, prominent politicians promote hatred and violence against the black community because it is considered vulnerable (Tyler et al., 2022). Tyler et al. (2022) also observed that financial institutions gave some credit to businesses whose advertisements undermined the Black community. In this sense, Blacks are likely to experience psychological harm because their white peers have constructed negative stereotypes based on the “black” definition.

The definition of Black has led to subtler forms of racism in modern life that affect daily interactions between the Black and White communities. While the definition of Black portrays Black people as violent, they experience discrimination in various public places. For instance, Pieterse et al. (2017) observed that the police and security guards are more likely to suspect Black men of stealing than White men. Boss also overlook Black employees for promotions because Black people are portrayed as vulnerable to unemployment. Pieterse et al. (2017) reveal that some white employers followed the 1600s laws that regarded Black people as a source of forced labor. Therefore, these employers believe that Black people do not deserve managerial positions. Pieterse et al. (2017) found that only seven percent of Black employees work in managerial positions. Workplace discrimination can lead to work-related stress. For example, employees who are not promoted to managerial positions despite their loyalty, qualifications, high performance, and experience may develop work-related stress (Pieterse et al., 2017).

On the other hand, the definition of “white” psychologically harms the white by limiting their interactions with their black peers. For instance, Lincoln et al. (2017) reveal that nineteen percent of the Whites experienced informed empathy and guilty due to securing more educational opportunities than Blacks. The study found that the nineteen percent of the Whites experiencing informed empathy and guilt had the highest multicultural education level and the greatest cultural sensitivity. Hence, this population recognizes how the American economic system has historically prevented Blacks from growth opportunities. Lincoln et al. (2017) studied another group of Whites that was unempathetic and unaccountable. However, this group had low levels of fear and guilt. Lincoln et al. (2017) found that thirty percent of the White population was fearful and guilty. This data shows that the definition of “white” can lead to a sense of guilt among whites, especially when interacting with Blacks. Lincoln et al. (2017) say that white individuals may think that they are responsible for Blacks’ suffering. White’s understanding of Blacks’ vulnerability is significantly a measure of their cultural awareness, which may lead to psychological harm. For example, Whites who have little cultural awareness are more likely to experience relationship issues with their Black partners than those who with high levels of cultural awareness (Lincoln et al., 2017).

Moreover, “black” and “white” definitions lead to Black and White thinking, which can lead to psychological harm. Tyler et al. (2022) define Black and White thinking as a thought pattern that influences people to think in absolutes. For example, a person may think he is always right or wrong. This thought pattern is a cognitive distortion because it prevents a person from viewing life based on its reality: uncertain, complex, and constantly changing. Black and White thinking influence people to believe in the negative stereotypes regarding racial groups. According to Tyler et al. (2022), Black and White thinking prevent people from examining whether specific statements against racial groups are true or not, leading to depression. For example, a Black man may form a false impression of himself because society portrays Black men as violent.

While it is normal to experience Black and White thinking, it could be a sign of serious psychological harm because it is associated with narcissism, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lincoln et al. (2017) define narcissism as an excessive interest in oneself resulting from Black and White thinking. People with narcissism experience challenges in getting professional help because they quickly dismiss therapists and doctors. In addition, people with anxiety and depression often think in absolutes. Severe emotions can worsen Black and White thinking, leading to anxiety and depression (Lincoln et al., 2017). A borderline personality disorder is a mental illness characterized by intense feelings of anxiety, anger, and depression. Black and White thinking can cause this illness, especially for individuals with poor impulse control. On the other hand, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder think in absolutes because of their sense of control and comfort, which can lead to rigidity to change (Lincoln et al., 2017). For example, a white person may believe that Blacks are naturally unintelligent, undermining the efforts toward achieving equality.

Most importantly, the definitions of “black” and “white” can lead to racial trauma. Pieterse et al. (2017) define racial trauma as psychological harm caused by encounters with racial bias and discrimination. Individuals who have experienced an emotional racist encounter have a high risk of developing race-based traumatic stress injury (RBTS). Pieterse et al. (2017) reveal that Black people are more vulnerable to RBTS than other racial groups due to living under white supremacy. Race-based discrimination can cause psychological harm to individuals and communities. Pieterse et al. (2017) say individuals exposed to race-based discrimination for a relatively long time may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as anger, depression, recurring thoughts, low self-esteem, and loneliness.

How Racial Construct Is an Ally to Racism, White Supremacy, and Capitalism:

Racial Construct and Racism

Many scholars agree that race is not biological but a social construct. Nyborg (2019) says that there are no genes common to blacks or whites. If race was real from the genetic perspective, the racial classification of individuals would be constant across boundaries. A person who could be characterized as black in the US might be considered white in an African country (Nyborg, 2019). A person’s perception of racial identity can change with time and experience. Racial identity can be fluid, like race. For example, whites in interracial Black-White relationships or marriages experience a change in how they understand their racial identity. In addition, in a society where being White (regardless of socioeconomic class or specific disadvantages) means white skin privileges, many people may not feel like Whites. White skin privileges based on the social construct of racism include being presumed safe, noncriminal, and competent. However, Virdee (2019) argues that whites living in the lower class or with specific disadvantages do not align with the social meaning of “white.” Unlike racial identity, the social, economic, and political meaning of race is not fluid. For instance, the racial meaning of non-European groups has remained stagnant.

Racial Construct and White Supremacy

White supremacy is the belief that Whites are inherently superior to other racial groups and they should control other races. White supremacy developed due to several myths about White people. For example, it is always intentional. Brown et al. (2019) argue that white supremacy develops due to various laws and systems such as American slavery, redlining, and housing discrimination. However, people support it without realizing its negative impacts on their lives. For example, an organization’s policies and practices may promote white supremacy. The professionalism notion is also based on white supremacy. For example, a Black man with dreadlocks may be considered unprofessional based on white standards. In addition, Brown et al. (2019) mention that corporate policies upholding white beauty standards may unintentionally promote white supremacy. Intentional and unintentional policies or practices can promote white supremacy.

White supremacy is also based on the racial construct because only white people uphold it. A commonly held belief is that only whites uphold white supremacy. This myth prevents blacks from exploring how they may sustain white supremacy (Virdee, 2019). Virdee (2019) suggests that being black does not prevent a person from propagating white supremacist ideologies and views. White supremacy in black communities tends to manifest as white adjacency. Virdee (2019) defines white adjacency as supporting whiteness and avoiding non-white racial and ethnic identity to access opportunities. In addition, white supremacy is manifested as colorism. For example, a mother telling her daughter to avoid playing in the sun to prevent her skin from getting too dark upholds white supremacy. Such a woman reinforces the belief that women with lighter skins (whiteness) are more beautiful.

Another myth promoting white supremacy is that it is not common. People tend to believe in the false narrative that white supremacists commit uncommon offenses such as treason. However, white supremacy is common. Personifying white supremacists as violent individuals leads to overlooking white supremacists within the communities (Brown et al., 2019). Good people can also be White supremacists, and they do not have age boundaries. Belonging to a particular generation does not prevent a person from being a white supremacist (Brown et al., 2019).

Moreover, the myth that a new leadership ends white supremacy promotes its continuity. White supremacy did not start with a specific leader or president. Therefore, removing an administration or president does not eliminate white supremacist systems and structures (Nyborg, 2019). Although the US elected its first Black president (President Obama) in 2008, anti-black racism increased during his leadership (Nyborg, 2019). Believing that white supremacy is based on leadership prevents a person from examining how the supremacy runs in laws, systems, policies, and social structures. Nyborg (2019) suggests that reading, education, and continued dialogue can help change people’s thoughts.

Racial Construct and Capitalism

The capitalism concept states that racial exploitation and capital accumulation are linked. Racial capitalism enhances competition and natural resource exploitation, leading to inequality for Black people. This continuous cycle of structural violence causes generational trauma that negatively impacts health and well-being Virdee (2019). According to Virdee (2019), capitalism created the modern economic system. For instance, during the slavery era, black people were considered vulnerable for their profits but an essential source of labor. Even today, blacks are essential to capitalists as they do critical tasks such as packing and delivering goods. However, Virdee (2019) observed that some white employers are not concerned with Black workers’ health and well-being because they work in hazardous environments.

Capitalism limits access to resources, leading to negative disease outcomes. For example, people with high socioeconomic status have access to quality health care, while those with low socioeconomic status have limited access. Virdee (2019) reveals that more whites have high socioeconomic status than blacks. Thus, blacks are likely to have limited access to quality health care compared to their white peers. The wealthy community can also sustain a healthy lifestyle because they can afford a balanced diet and exercise equipment. In addition, racism exposes Blacks to health problems related to incarceration. Virdee (2019) says that the vulnerability and a lack of freedom for detained populations increase their risk for mental health problems. Blacks’ vulnerability to incarceration shows racial capitalism because it reflects their low socioeconomic status.

Conclusion

The slavery era triggered racism as many Blacks were used as a source of labor. America developed laws and policies to promote enforced labor from Blacks. These laws and policies described Blacks as a labor asset of America, legalizing enforced labor. Later, various human rights advocated for equality, and Blacks became increasingly aware of their rights. The enslavement and human rights advocacy influenced today’s definition of “black” and “white.” The definitions can cause depressive symptoms in Blacks because they portray them as vulnerable and having limited opportunities. They also cause racial trauma and promote generational racism. Racial construct is associated with racism, white supremacy, and capitalism by undermining Blacks’ identity. These concepts suggest that Blacks must embrace Whites standards to get opportunities.

References

Brown, K. S., Kijakazi, K., Runes, C., & Turner, M. A. (2019). Confronting structural racism in research and policy analysis. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Lazaridou, F., & Fernando, S. (2022). Deconstructing institutional racism and the social construction of whiteness: A strategy for professional competence training in culture and migration mental health. Transcultural Psychiatry, 59(2), 175–187.

Lincoln, K. D., Chatters, L. M., & Taylor, R. J. (2017). Psychological distress among Black and White Americans: Differential effects of social support, negative interaction and personal control. Journal of health and social behavior, 44(3), 390.

Nyborg, H. (2019). Race as social construct. Psych, 1(1), 139–165.

Pieterse, A. L., Todd, N. R., Neville, H. A., & Carter, R. T. (2017). Perceived racism and mental health among Black American adults: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(1), 1.

Salter, P. S., Adams, G., & Perez, M. J. (2018). Racism in the structure of everyday worlds: A cultural-psychological perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 150–155.

Shih, M., Bonam, C., Sanchez, D., & Peck, C. (2017). The social construction of race: biracial identity and vulnerability to stereotypes. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13(2), 125.

Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2015). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American psychologist, 60(1), 16.

Tyler, K. M., Stevens-Watkins, D., Burris, J. L., Fisher, S. D., & Hargons, C. N. (2022). Black psychology and Whiteness: Toward a conceptual model of Black trauma through the prism of Whiteness. Journal of Black Psychology, 48(1), 5–42.

Virdee, S. (2019). Racialized capitalism: An account of its contested origins and consolidation. The Sociological Review, 67(1), 3–27.

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Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

I write for Tealfeed, CEO at Raheem Lay LLC, EQ & Empathy Coach.


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