In “The Declining Significance of Race,” WJ Wilson argues that economic class position is a substantial determinant of 'life chances' and economic prospects for African-Americans rather than race. Consequently, the significance of race is declining in terms of political power in the United States today. Different systems of production and policies gave rise to racial stratification during the preindustrial and industrial periods, but in the modern industrial period, there were political and economical changes, which caused class to become a more significant determinant of occupational mobility. The declining significance of race will be analyzed through the use of Gaventa's three dimensions of political power from Power and Powerlessness in relation to Wilson’s three stages of American race relations: preindustrial, industrial, and modern industrial periods.
To analyze the significance of race, a concrete definition of race should be established. Race is not a biological value, but it is a social construct, as Dorothy Roberts proposes. Race is a congenital part of human nature to group individuals ; this is inherited from family and outside influences. Dorothy Roberts makes this claim because race is not a natural division between individuals; but race is socially formed. Race does not have a biological meaning since genetics are not fixed upon racial lines; but the formation of race is based on constructed assumptions in society. By differentiating races, inequality of one race arises and leads to an unequal distribution of power; this is further analyzed in the essay by examining the powerful white aristocracy having control of the powerless black class during the preindustrial and industrial periods.
Gaventa’s three dimensions of power can be utilized to explain how race was the influential power in the preindustrial and industrial period but class became a more prominent power in the modern industrial period and continues to be a significant political power. Power in the first dimension states that the powerful have complete control over the powerless through the bargaining of resources and that there is observable conflict; thus, leaving the powerless with a lack of resources. The second dimension of power states how the powerful construct barriers through the mobilization of bias and non-decision-making against the participation of the powerless. The final dimension of power states how the powerful can influence and shape the hopes and desires of the powerless to accept the inequalities that they are facing. Through the three dimensions of power, the powerful form a quiescent powerless group in the face of inequalities.
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Gaventa’s three dimensions of power can be utilized to explain the dominating power of the white aristocracy during the preindustrial and industrial periods. The preindustrial and industrial periods can be characterized by the whites dominating the powerless group of African Americans through the manipulation of black labor, elimination of black economic competition, and political inequality. Wilson’s preindustrial period was marked by antebellum slavery and a plantation economy. During the preindustrial period, the white aristocracy lead the paternalistic form of racial relations and had the lead role in economic resources and juridical system. Gaventa’s first dimension of power explains how the white slaveholders gained control of the economic power and maintained this power through the system of production and formation of a juridical system.
This juridical system only protected and expressed the needs of the white aristocracy; this supports Gaventa’s second dimension of power since this mobilized bias and constructed barriers against the African American slaves. The white aristocracy also developed a split-labor market, which used racial antagonism to differentiate the price of labor for equal work between two groups and lead to the mobilization of bias, supporting Gaventa’s second dimension of power. The split-labor market theory also supports Gaventa’s first dimension of power since it focused racial oppression and directed all power to the dominant racial group. Karl Marx’s theory of capitalist exploitation of race can be explained both in terms of Gaventa’s first and third dimension.
Marx believed that the force behind capitalism and power was to suppress the black workers’ demands for wages and weaken their bargaining power to keep the powerful whites in control, which is evident of Gaventa’s first dimension of power. Therefore, the privileged white class gained power through the implementation of racial prejudices and ideologies against the blacks, which lead to the formation of a quiescent group of black laborers. Through this manipulation of black labor, an unpaid black labor force and racial oppression was developed to be a “mask for privilege” for the white plantation owners; the powerful white class had control over the powerless African Americans. The industrial period can be marked with rapid industrialization, leading to racial segregation.
In the late nineteenth century, there was rapid expansion and white workers attempted to eliminate black competition by the execution of the Jim Crow segregation laws, evident of Gaventa’s second dimension of power. During the industrial stage, the black community had greater restrictions on their economic, social, and political life as the white aristocracy was increasing their labor authority into political power. Supporting Gaventa’s first dimension of power, the polity was reinforcing these patterns and blacks were struggling over economic resources. Even with racial oppression, African Americans had the ability to attain political and economic resources during the shift from preindustrial to industrial.
Industrialization developed more jobs and allowed the migration of blacks from the South to the North. Near the 1940s, the political system promoted racial equality, which allowed the blacks to protect their interests. The modern industrial period characterizes the period during which the African American class started to partly resemble the white class. Supporting Gaventa’s second dimension of power, the African Americans acted upon their barriers and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s lead to the origination of the affirmative action programs, which opened up opportunities for jobs.
Evident of Gaventa’s first dimension of power, African Americans obtained their ability to vote which increased their control and allowed blacks to have a voice in society, but did not give them complete control. There are structures that remain that still present barriers to the African Americans due to their history of racial oppression; however, race is not as significant as it used to be in determining mobility. Institutions and education became available to the black community, which allowed them participate in the community, which is apparent by Gaventa’s second dimension of power. Industrialization lead to job opportunities for African Americans, leading to social mobility.
By analyzing Wilson’s argument and Gaventa’s three dimensions of power, the significance of race is declining in terms of political power in the United States today, meaning race is not as significant as it used to be. The preindustrial and industrial periods used race in terms of power that resulted in antebellum slavery and racial oppression by the manipulation of black labor, eradication of black economic competition, and political discrimination; however, through industrialization, race became less apparent and class is a more prominent identifier of economic prospects for African Americans. Hence, race is a social construct which was created back in the preindustrial and industrial periods by the white aristocracy to marginalize the black community.
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