Racism and Power

In the U.S., it is the case that the two “race” groups that are now the worst off are the groups that have been the worst off since early in colonial history, namely Native Americans and African-Americans. This does not mean that the changes over time with respect to race are unimportant. What it means, though, is that despite the changes, something is still at work reproducing racial inequality. If we want to understand the workings of power, then examining what produces and maintains unequal power structures is necessary.

There were somewhat different legal and institutional treatments of the federal and state governments and of individual people that produced what we call structural racism: the inferior positions of Native Americans and African-Americans compared especially to European-Americans. On the whole, the colonial and U.S. governments engaged mainly in attempted genocide against Native Americans (see Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). The last US Army war against Native Americans was in 1924, and federal residential schools that attempted to punish their culture out of Native American children continued into the 20th century.  The relationship of colonial and U.S. institutions to Native American tribes is called settler-colonial, where the intention was to replace the native population and its control over land and water resources with settlers (e.g., Drinnon, 1997). The way this colonization affected Africans was that African people were "extracted" (i.e., kidnapped) and their minds and bodies and labor and lives exploited in chattel slavery so that owners did not have to labor, and so that other free people did not have to be paid. Both aspects of this social-economic and political relationship are how White land-owning men created the race categories the U.S. uses, and their inequality. This history is not over, and its recent and contemporary forms of institutional racism perpetuate racial inequality today (e.g., Hayes, 2018; Rothstein, 2017).

I remind you of this because it is quite common in popular discourse to attribute racial inequality that subordinates African-Americans to the (rather vague) “legacy of slavery,” and is just as common to not even consider Native Americans as still present. While there surely are "legacies," (why a word meaning positive inheritance for so horrid a thing?) we need to be careful not to omit the agency of enslaved people and Native Americans from consideration. Enslaved African-Americans developed resilience, coded language, humor, and rebelled numerous times more overtly (e.g., Aptheker, 1983; Rasmussen, 2012). Similarly, Native American Tribes have adapted, reclaimed their religious and cultural meanings, and fought against their subordination and attempted genocide (e.g., Estes, 2019).

Just as important, I caution against blaming “the legacy of slavery” for contemporary inequality because there are recent and contemporary practices that are producing racial inequality here and now (e.g., Anderson, 2014; Rothstein, 2017). Those practices are something that can be changed.

In my courses, I assign students to read Shapiro (2004).

Regarding how power works, racial inequality, and any other form of group-based inequality is a useful area for comparing different varieties of power. Does group-based inequality necessarily imply that everyone in the dominant group is coercive and oppressive against anyone in the subordinated group? Instead, could the same result be produced through less violent exercises of power, say European-Americans using “influence” to advantage themselves, without being aware that the ways that are advantageous to them are not advantageous to all? Shapiro’s (2004) book pertains to this question.

The book by Shapiro that we will be reading uses multiple sources of information. There are a number of statistics using quantitative data. Sometimes people feel statistics are “inhuman.” Perhaps for this reason, the book contains several interviews with people living in several different U.S. cities and, as it turns out, different circumstances. In those we learn how they grapple with their problems, their hopes and dreams, and what they view as in or out of the picture for their families.

But statistics are not actually inhuman. They are, technically, unbiased summaries of the facts about many, many people. As long as the ways that the measurement was done was not biased – for example, samples were random and researchers measured everybody in the same way -- statistics are to be believed. And they don’t just tell us what people are like “on average.” A standard deviation tells us how much or how little the mean describes most people, and a frequency count, as long as it is not 100%, tells us how many people are in some category and how many people are not. Statistical comparison “tests” tell us how much to believe that the things measured differ between groups of people.

Probably no set of measures that statistics describe encompass all of people’s lived experience. For example, a statistic might tell us the proportion of people without a job, but it does not tell us how people feel when they lose their jobs. This is not because a statistic is “cold,” but because measuring unemployment is not the same as measuring how people feel. As you read the book, you can consider these two kinds of evidence, interviews and summary statistics, and consider whether they tell you different things, and whether they complement or contradict one another.

Class Exercises and Discussion Questions

  1.  Glance at your watch. Think of a movie, television show, or book that has a sympathetic African-American or Native American character. How long did it take you to think of one? What makes this person likable? Does the medium imply this person is more ordinary or more extraordinary? Can you think of a White character who is very similar to this character? Is this character male or female or something else?
  2.  Think of a work of historical fiction (movie, book, etc). Whose point of view does the work tell?
  3. Suppose an ancestor of yours had $100 to pass on to the next generation in 1950. If you inherited $100 today, how would that make you feel? What could you do with $100? If interest was a mere 3% per year, how much money would that $100 be worth today? What could you do with that amount of money?
  4. You don't have to believe in stereotypes to know what they are. I have stereotypes in my head and I do not know how they got in there. Write down some words that you think are stereotypes of African-Americans and Native-Americans. Check all the words that make them sound powerful. Put an O by all the words that make them sound trustworthy. What phrases or words on the list would you be proud to have describe your family?


Aptheker, H. (1983). American Negro slave revolts. New York: International Publishers.

Anderson, C. (2016). White Rage: The unspoken truth of our racial divide. New York: Bloomsbury.

Black, J. (2011). A brief history of Slavery: A new global history. London: Robinson.

Blackmon, D. J. (2008). Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of African-Americans from the Civil War through World War II. New York: Anchor Books.

Drinnon, R. (1997). Facing West: The meta-physics of Indian-hating and empire building. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An Indigenous People's History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Estes, N. (2019). Our history is the future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long History of Indigenous Resistance. New York: Verso.

Gibson, C. (2019). El Norte: The epic and forgotten story of Hispanic North America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Hayes, C. (2018). A colony in a nation. New York: WW Norton.

Rasmussen, D. (2012). American Uprising: The untold story of America's largest slave revolt. New York: Harper Collins.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York: WW Norton.

Shapiro, T. M. (2004). The hidden cost of being African-American: How wealth perpetuates inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: A theory of oppression and inequality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weatherford, J. (1988). Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas transformed the world. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Additional Material

Racial Income Gap

Politics of White Supremacy

Can One Quantify White Privilege?

The Atlantic: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Racism

Racial Wage Disparity

Shapiro's book: Purchase "The Hidden Cost of Being African American"

Mass Incarceration