As Black History Month draws to a close, the question of dividing humanity according to race remains an active issue in contemporary discourse, as the arbitrary creation of racial differences (out of all the possible differences between people) tells us that race is not a natural construct. Some in the US decry the racial divisions that they associate with racial identifications and events like Black History Month. The National Review denounced such “tribalism” and “identity politics” in the days before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, holiday last month. These assertions blame continual racial division on this tribalism within minority groups, but the broader history suggests that these racial identifications and community formations are a consequence of racism, a response to the discrimination and marginalization that racism generates, not the other way around.
To argue that racism produces race appears counter-intuitive, as you cannot have discrimination based on race if race does not exist, but Kamala Visweswaran argues just that. The experience of discrimination produces the sense of a community (particularly among those ascribed a subordinate status) organized according to race. She writes in Un/common Cultures,
The Middle Passage, slavery, and racial terror produce a race of African Americans out of subjects drawn from different cultures; genocide, forced removal to reservations, the experience of racial terror make Native Americans, subjects drawn from different linguistic and tribal affiliations, a race; war relocation camps and legal exclusion, the experience of discrimination make Asian Americans, subjects drawn from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, a race; the process of forming the southwestern states of the United States through conquest and subjugation, the continued subordination of Puerto Rico constitute Chicanos and Puerto Ricans as races.
When we argue that identities like race are constructed rather than inherent components of the individual or group, that assertion does not imply that constructed identities can be simply ignored or considered irrelevant. These constructions not only have significant impact on individuals and communities through experiences of discrimination, but these constructions also contribute to the formation of communities and notions of community connection and pride. Constructed identifications that people project onto others, such as discrimination based on a presumption of racial difference, can influence others when they are treated differently because of the presumed identification, the significant influence of constructed identifications becomes obvious.
Photo of White Trade Only sign on restaurant in Lancaster Ohio, 1938, by Ben Shahn (1898–1969) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons