The Truth Behind the American Dream

Racism began in the Middle Ages. 

The origins of modern racism date back to sixteenth century Europe during the middle ages. The interaction between European traders and the West African kingdoms founded slavery as we know it today, as well as the post-slave societies in the New World. According to Stuart Hall, "
In the middle ages, the European image of Africa was ambiguous- a mysterious place, but often viewed positively... Gradually, however, this image changed... Identified with nature, they symbolized 'the primative' in contrast with 'the civilized world" (Hall). As time went on, the European ideology of classification and enslavement based on skin color became accepted and commonplace in societies all over the world.

Additionally, America's history is clouted with acts of racism and racial discrimination since first being founded. America's reputation as a nation of immigrants presents the nation as being an all-accepting territory of equal opportunity. Though in fact, the opposite is true. Paul Spickard in his book about immigration, race and colonialism in American history says that, "While the nation-of-immigrants ideology perfunctorily recognizes that the people who came to North America from England were immigrants, it does not treat them that way. On the contrary, is posits the English as by definition native to the American landscape, and measures others with respect to English Americans" (Spickard). This is most likely a product of the racial ideologies that began in Europe during the middle ages. So from our nation's beginning, racial discrimination was apart of our everyday practices and was readily accepted. As a result, America was founded with the underlying belief that European, white Americans were the superior race and that anyone who didn't look the same was not to be treated the same or allotted equal rights. 

Understanding the history of racism in the world and in America allows one to see that racial discrimination was accepted not only in society, but also by our government and political figures. This explains why advertising, such as the billboard in Bourke-White's photograph, would project a message of racial hierarchy and illustrate the 'superior' American class. Because these racial ideologies were commonplace it seemed natural and justified to discriminate against people with physical differences. Thus, billboards, advertisements and commercial goods that were imbedded with racial messages didn't seem out of place.  Bourke-White's photo serves to show the contradiction behind America as an equal opportunity nation of immigrants, when really its values are founded on hierarchy and racism. 

Race is an invention.

As a result of the long history of racism, and its mass acceptance, racial ideologies became customary. Though, the concept of "race" is not natural or fixed in nature. The term race is a social construction, something that society invented to justify slavery, discrimination and social hierarchy. Identifying people on the basis of race serves as a way to classify and organize individuals. It also determines a system of distributing wealth, power and status, and makes social inequality seem natural or "just the way things are." Race is a way of reading the body, it is a system of representation that tells us what people are like on the inside and out. We believe that a person's characteristics, intelligence, occupation and social class can all be determined by the color of their skin. 
The above video is one portion of a three-part documentary, produced by California Newsreel, that confronts the myths and untruths associated with race. From the 50 second point, until 2 minutes and 12 seconds, the clip addresses the purpose that race serves, what race means to people and how genetical studies disprove the ideology that race is inherited, or determined biologically. Racial difference was created to support racial hierarchy, slave trading and colonial conquests in the transatlantic. Presently, racial science has been disproven but its legacy still continues, and the large majority of people still believe that race is determined by our genes and DNA. 

Why do people care about stereotypes?

People care about stereotypes because they are a system of understanding and ordering people. People believe they can determine almost everything about a person based on the color of their skin. Moreover, communities and groups are created around the notion of race and for some, a person does or does not belong depending on their race. Essentially, stereotypes matter because of the three purposes they serve, "Stereotyping gets hold of the few, 'simple,' vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognized characteristics about a person, reduce everything about the person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them, and fix them without change or development to eternity" (Hall). Thus, stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes difference. And as a result of this, society can justify discrimination and denying the inherent rights of certain people. 

In Bourke-White's photograph, the viewer can distinctly see the differences among the people pictured. If stereotypical thinking wasn't dominant, or important, then why couldn't a black family be pictured in the billboard, or why would this photo be considered controversial? For most people, we understand racial ideologies because they have been accepted for so many years and have become "the way things are," so we accept them without questioning their origins. But understanding where these ideologies come from, how they affect the people being discriminated against and why they are so widely accepted, uncovers the real messages that are being projected in advertisements and government publications.