A new approach to understanding race in America is to understand the country’s political history.
Roger M. Smith, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania, lectured April 9 on “The Anatomy of American Racial Conflicts.”
Smith argued that racial identities and statuses should be seen as political constructions, things that have the power and importance because of the existence of “racial institutional orders.”
He described these orders as political coalitions by which political actors and groups gain control over key governing institutions. These include legislatures, courts and administrative agencies, and use them to distribute resources, rights and opportunities to the benefit of its members.
These coalitions, like the Ku Klux Klan, were put together by using racial concepts as a basis of unity. They sometimes modify prevalent racial concepts to help strengthen the coalition.
The lecture not only grabbed the attention of political theorists and professors, but students who had originally come indifferent on the subject.
“I came here because it was required for my political science class,” said Donnell Jackson, a junior Broadcast major. “It turned out to be real interesting and informative.”
Smith went on to talk about one of the two basic institutional orders in U.S. history: “white supremacist order.” This order arose to assist economic exploitation via slavery and the displacement of native tribes from their lands, but also extended to subordinating free blacks to whites in states without slavery.
He followed by adding poorer whites would accept their lower economic position for a share of authority in a race-defined coalition of power that was embodied in statutes and court decisions upholding slavery and limiting the rights of non-whites.
The period before the Civil War saw a struggle between this order, with white supremacists very much on top. Many Northerners came to see slavery as opposed to their economic interest, even if they were white supremacists.
The period after the Civil War led to the defeat of slavery and increased emphasis on equal rights. This was institutionalized via the post-war Constitutional Amendments and civil rights statute. White supremacists even helped the Irish be labeled ‘white’ to help shore up their side. It was a move to help sustain white supremacy in the Civil War era.
“I think there is a risk that more recent immigrants like Asians,” Smith said, “will ‘become white’ or seen as ‘white-like’ as a part of efforts to get them to support the anti-transformative institutional order today.”
The “anti-transformative institutional order” is any force opposed to working for further racial equality. Most are not openly white supremacist, but they are against policies that would reduce racial inequalities in jobs, the distribution of wealth and education.
Smith has published more than 90 essays in academic journals and public interest publications. He is also author or co-author of five books and has won numerous awards for his teaching. He has been awarded fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and American Council of Learned Societies for his work.
The lecture was the sixth on public policy sponsored by the Sandra & Bernard Featherman Lecture Fund. Previous Featherman lectures have been delivered by Frances Fox Priven, Theda Skopol and Michael Walzer.
Michael Abdul-Qawi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.