Black is beautiful, without a doubt. We are all versions of Africans with varying degrees and patterns of non-adaptive and often unfortunate mutations owing to chance, inbreeding, or genetic isolation, and we are all subject to clinally manifest selective forces resulting in clinally distributed phenotypes. Here and there there may be a pocket of people who really stand out from the rest of the species, but that is rare and is presumably a short term phenomenon, and the level of difference if actually measured between such groups and their neighbors remains far less than typical levels of difference between subspecies (races) in other mammals. For them most part, we are a race-less continuum of variation.
But that is not what everybody else thinks, and you will not be surprised to learn that racialized thinking has an effect.
On top of this fluid genetic pattern are two other forces that contributed to the diversity of humanity: Phenotypic plasticity and socially constructed, culturally mediated perception. The plasticity is generally more widespread than people think. Many features of our made-up races are actually things that change with diet, activity level, or other environmental shifts.
Social construction is almost always self serving to someone, and thus, denigrating, disparaging, disempowering to others.
One of the most interesting and at the same time insidious aspects of this pattern is that certain subgroups vehemently assert utter denial of the fluid, African-based, clinal diversity of the human species. These groups are often those at the phenotypic twigs and geographical margins of the population. White Europeans (perhaps especially that subset emigrated to North America) and Japanese are obvious, well known examples. A deeply ingrained racist trope has emerged in some of these societies with several common elements including the insistence of clear difference between “us” and “them,” the assertion that humans can be readily classified into neat groups (usually graded by darkness), and ultimately, the unwavering belief that the marginal group (ego’s group) is intellectually or morally superior to other, darker, more naturalistic or animalistic, groups.
Within the US and western culture more broadly, whiteness is a thing that grows or otherwise changes to be inclusive of the groups that manage to buy into it, and at the same time, blackness (or darkness) is a place to which certain things, deeds, or ideas are relegated. Think: dark arts, the dark side of the matter, blacklisting, white hats vs. black hats, and so on and so forth. This is an old story getting new attention in recent years.
And speaking of that recent attention, a new paper coming out in the next issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at “How social status shapes race.” From the abstract:
We show that racial perceptions are fluid; how individuals perceive their own race and how they are perceived by others depends in part on their social position. Using longitudinal data from a representative sample of Americans, we find that individuals who are unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished are more likely to be seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white, regardless of how they were classified or identified previously. This is consistent with the view that race is not a fixed individual attribute, but rather a changeable marker of status.
Now, gaze at the following graph and spend a little time with the caption.
Fig. 1. Racial classification by interviewer and current social status, 1979 -1998. Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.
A The percentage of respondents perceived to be white by the survey interviewer in the current year, restricted to respondents who were classified as white in the previous year.
B The percentage of respondents perceived to be black in the current year, restricted to respondents classified as black in the previous year. Incarcerated indicates whether the respondent was interviewed while in prison; unemployed indicates whether the respondent was unemployed at the time of the interview; and impoverished indicates whether the respondent’s household income was below the poverty line. Observations are person-years. Error bars, 1SE.
In other words, when you do bad you become black.
This kind of negativity in association with racializiation of social interaction comes out in all sorts of ways. We see it in the driving while black phenomenon, we see it in the vitriol that is often spewed by racists when they are called on their racism, we see it when a black man gets very close to being president among the racists attending the other guy’s rally.
A. M. Penner, A. Saperstein (2008). How social status shapes race Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805762105