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American Racism Essay, Research Paper

American Racism Society

In Nathan McCall’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” he describes the difficulties he must face as a young black boy experiencing the slow, never-ending process of the integration of blacks and whites. Through this process, his autobiography serves as an excellent example of my theory on the formation and definition of racial identity; a theory which is based upon a combination of the claims which Stuart Hall and George Lipsitz present in their essays regarding racial identity. Therefore the definition I have concocted is one in which racial identity consists of an unstable historical process through which one comes to know themselves in relation to an outside group. In this paper I will present Hall and Lipsitz’s arguments, describing how they confirm and support one another, leading to my theory concerning racial identity. I will then show how this theory is clearly exemplified in the story of McCall’s childhood.

In Stuart Hall’s “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” he claims that identity is a volatile social process through which one comes to see the self. Hall argues that identity is not a thing rather a process “…that happens over time, that is never absolutely stable, that is subject to the play of history, and the play of difference.” (Hall 10) These factors are constantly entering the individual in a never-ending cycle, re-establishing and affirming who one is.

The “play of difference” contributes to this cycle through what Hall identifies as “the Other,” an outside group used for differentiation. He claims that “only when there is an Other can you know who you are.” The “Other” serves to provide a comparison in order to discover that which one is not; this is differentiation. Identity does not solely rely on the social differentiation of the self – identity is mutually constructed. It does not exist without “the dialogic relationship to the Other.”(Hall, 11) That is, one’s personal narrative of the self must also come into play, relating identity to difference.

This personal narrative is attained only because of the important role History plays in tying these factors together. In order for one to relate identity to difference using the dialogical method, he/she must “position [themselves] somewhere in order to say anything at all.”(Hall, 12) This position is attained through an understanding of history; a history which is constructed not only politically, but also through narrative and memory. (Hall, 13) The past is “recovered” and therefore present in our lives.

Throughout his essay, Hall applies his ideas regarding identity to race and racism through the examples he presents. He describes instances that show how members of certain races come to relate themselves to their race through the identity process he presents. The discovery of race, how people interpret one’s biological makeup, is also attributed to history and “the Other.” The form of racism, the system of providing disadvantages and advantages due to race, that Hall talks about is a definition which shows the way all of our behavior/conduct is pervaded by certain racist elements. He argues that “racism is a structure of discourse and representation that tries to expel the Other symbolically…” (Hall, 11) Race is attributed to the mutual construction of one’s social position as seen by “the Other” and the individual’s position. In this respect, racism is relational because people rely on differentiation to “know who they are.” They must sustain the “Other” by recovering history to “expel the other symbolically.” (Hall, 11)

In Lipsitz’s “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the White Problem in American Studies,” he explores the political aspect of the history which is “recovered” in respect to race through a specific set of political policies. He argues that through the historical process of political institution and various explicit racist policies since World War II, whites develop an economic advantage. He discusses numerous governmental policies concerning housing, employment, and education which have led to racism today by creating a certain identity and investment in whites. This “possessive investment,” which began as covert with previous racist policies and is now inscribed within the U.S. social democracy, means that being white came to mean economic advantages and these advantages became “natural.” (Lipsitz, 198) In accordance with Hall, this history of governmental policies created a certain identity for whites.

The first category of policies that Lipsitz explores is housing. He begins by explaining how “from the start, European settlers in North America…encouraged the appropriation of their land.”(Lipsitz, 198) Then, in 1934, the Federal Housing Act “aided and abetted the growth and development of increased segregation in U.S. residential neighborhoods” by channeling loans away from older inner – city neighborhoods and and toward white home buyers moving into segregated suburbs.” In accordance with these policies, state tax monies and urban renewal efforts were generally directed away from black neighborhoods. (Lipsitz, 200) This led to a population loss in black neighborhoods which led to a decrease in political power, making minority groups more likely to be victimized. (Lipsitz, 201-202) They were found less likely to receive loans from banks and therefore received less access to housing choices leading to a higher housing cost. (Lipsitz, 203)

Further, this victimization is only worsened when taking employment into consideration because not only did they have to pay more for housing than whites, but they earned less. Lipsitz argues that “because the 1964 Civil Rights Act came so late, minority workers who received jobs because of it found themselves more vulnerable to seniority-based layoffs when business automated or transferred operations overseas.” This meant that “minority workers would suffer most from technological changes because the legacy of past discrimination by their employers left them with less seniority than white workers.” (Lipsitz, 203) This proves that history is reconstructed to form racial identity, oppressing minorities. Also, even with these employment policies, minorities were still found to earn less than whites with the same family structure. (Lipsitz, 207)

This “family structure,” however, was much harder to attain due to the racism evident in education. Not only do oppressed minorities have less money to pay for school due to the previous policies but discrimination in schools is highly evident. Lipsitz provides the example of Medical Schools admissions boards which were found to protect admissions for white people, yet not for blacks. He analyzes the decision of the case against the boards by arguing that “the Supreme Court nullified affirmative action programs because they judged efforts to help blacks as harmful to whites: to white expectations of entitlement, expectations based on the possessive investment in whiteness they held as members of a group.” (Lipsitz, 210) The expectations are attributed to the identity which has been formed due to historical governmental policies which provided benefits for whites.

Together, these authors’ explanations for the formation and definition of racial identity provide an accurate representation of my theory. My ideas concerning racial identity consist of a combination of Hall and Lipsitz’s theories. I consider racial identity to be reliant on an outside force; a process through which one comes to see the self as a result of differentiation from the “Other.” This differentiation also depends on the self, however – one’s personal position. (Hall, 10) Yet this definition is not complete without an understanding of the historical policies that attribute to the identity of whites by making them an economically advantaged group. Therefore it is a combination of the Hall’s theoretical ideas combined with Lipsitz’s descriptions of the implications of social and economic investments in whites which provide the basis of my argument.

Finally, my theory is proved in everyday life in the American Society with an example of a young black boy who faces the struggles of growing up in America, where integration is a difficult, never-ending battle. This example is the autobiography of Nathan McCall. Through his example, McCall shows how past political policies continue to affect the present, shaping his identity through the differentiation of the other.

The three categories of past political policies that Lipsitz presents clearly effect Nathan McCall, proving that history is a crucial factor in the development of racial identity. He grows up in an all black neighborhood during the 60’s and 70’s. This neighborhood was so nice that McCall noted that it“wasn’t the kind of neighborhood [he] associated with black people,” (217) yet the residents were still simply members of “working-class.” (216) There were signs of the lack of “urban renewal programs” (Lipsitz, 201) such as the “big, ugly ditch.” (McCall, 219) The form of employment his father is able to get is so low that he is forced to hold two jobs – one of which is working as a gardener for a wealthy white neighborhood.(McCall, 221) Moreover, McCall attends a “white school” where he is the “only African American in most of [his] classes. (McCall, 224) In these classes he faces such harsh discrimination from whites (due to the possessive investment in whiteness shaping their identity) that he is forced to leave the school. (McCall, 225)

The policies affecting black status serve to shape McCall’s racial identity by creating an outside group through which he learns what he is not. As McCall notes: “It seems that there was no aspect of my family’s reality that wasn’t affected by whites…” (216) McCall is “reminded of [his] shaky place in the world” (219) by the resentfulness of the poor neighboring white community. (McCall, 220) He relates himself to the images he receives of blacks and whites through the television (219), his family (221-222), and the manner in which whites treat blacks.

(223) McCall begins to develop a sense of resentment for the whites and by the time he is a teenager, he has been “shaped” and reconstructed. This leads to the passionate hate he possesses towards all hate whites which causes him to beat an innocent white in order to “secure revenge for all the *censored* they’d [whites] heaped on blacks all these years,” (McCAll, 216) proving that history is still present.

In summary, I have presented a theory for the formation and definition of racial identity, providing an example which proves it true in American Society. Yet, this does not leave me with a sense of satisfaction, rather it leaves me with great disappointment. What does this say for the society we live in; a society which is supposed to be based on the American Creed? My arguments have only proved that we are not truly individuals; the American Creed is not something America lives by. Rather we are identified as groups and not seen on a personal level…a very disturbing realization.


Berteaux, John, and Gerrald D. Doppelt, ed. Dimensions of Culture 1: Diversity. New

York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1998.

Hall, Stuart. “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference.” Berteaux, Doppelt 7-22.

Lipzitz, George. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social

Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies.” Berteaux, Doppelt 196-211.

McCall, Nathan. “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” Berteaux, Doppelt 215-225.

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