Why understand the social construction of race and its implications for minority groups in America?
Concerns about racism and discrimination are at the forefront of American media, particularly in light of unfair and unjust police brutality against many unarmed Black men and boys. Following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin, three women (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) created a movement and took it to social media with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Black Lives Matter (BLM) became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody, including those of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. In the summer of 2015, BLM began to publicly challenge politicians—including those in the 2016 United States presidential election—to state their positions on BLM issues. The movement returned to national headlines and gained further international attention during the global George Floyd protests in 2020 following Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Black Lives Matter Movement, combined with other media, reports on issues like the June 2015 controversy regarding the head of the Spokane Washington National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, Rachel Dolezal, who resigned after her biological parents revealed in 2015 that her ancestry was predominantly white with some Native American heritage. Her story is just a recent chapter in a long, tangled history of racial identity in America—encompassing issues and categories that go well beyond Black and white. For example, research has found that after the 9/11 attacks there was a substantial decrease in the probability that Arab and Muslim Americans would self-identify as white. Even among subgroups, such as Cuban-Americans, there are long-running, intra-community debates over ethnicity and race.
Racial and ethnic issues as well as heated political debates surrounding immigration make the information in this module about racial identity and the experiences of ethnic groups within the United States even more pertinent. Consider the example of Jose Antonio Vargas, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States at age 12, became a successful journalist, but later discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant.