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Race: A Concept Analysis

December 1, 2009

in Essays

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When analysing the concept of race, the first springboard of discussion is the fact that race is meaningless as a biological description. To quote David Mason, a professor of sociology, “There are no races, in the biological sense of distinct divisions of the human species”.[1] Although the term has existed since the sixteenth century in English and descends from the Italian razzo (meaning kind or species), like most social constructions, the concept has shifted in meaning, often according to the political affiliation or the existing prejudices within the person seeking to define it. This can have quite significant implications for public policy-making.

David Mason argues that race came into existence as a concept in the fifteenth century, as European explorers came across other human societies, from small tribes to complex empires, and that the greatest point of difference was that they were physically different-looking. While they may have been quite surprised (and the Catholic Church had to have an internal debate to determine whether the native dark-skinned population even had souls and were therefore human),[2] the Roman Empire had brought Europeans into contact with different coloured peoples from Carthage in Africa to Judea in the Middle East. However, it may be argued that for the Romans, ethnic differences were less important than one’s citizenship. As Roman citizenship gave you the right to vote, to participate in public life, and to receive protection under Roman law; in ancient eyes it was the most prized of identities.[3] The crusades, too, ensured regular contact between white Christians and non-white Muslims, Jews and indeed other Christians, so it seems that Mason is drawing a false conclusion. Race cannot be rooted in people seeing someone physically different to them – exceptionally short people are not defined as a different race, and even today the media discourse around Eastern European immigration could be described as racist, even though all the people concerned are white.[4]

Ian Law, a Social Policy lecturer at the University of Leeds, also disagrees with Mason in that he argues that the concept of race originally referred to group with “common origins and history”.[5] This was commonly linked to national identity and so the English and the French were conceived of as different races despite having the same skin colour. What really began the concept of race as something other than a synonym for national identity, Law argues, is the scientific classification of species that began in the early 1800s within the field of natural history.[6] Law outlines how Darwin used his evolutionary system to destroy the credibility of racial categorisation but which eugenicists continued to use. However, what he does not consider is why eugenicists  wished to do so, which would seem to be to put a scientific veneer on their fear of the other at a time of great economic and social instability (eugenics, Social Darwinism and Aryan nationalism reached their peak during the global depression of the 1930s).[7] Race is often just a tool for racism, itself an artificial concept meant to provide racists with someone to blame for something else.

As a direct result of the fact that race exists as a socially constructed term, if not in reality, social scientists and policy-makers are required to grapple with the concept. Ian Law raises the question of whether the very act of talking about race is exacerbating tensions between racial groups.[8] Mason quotes Robert Miles, a Sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow, who agrees with this idea and argues that using race as a concept only supports people who seek to maintain there are real biological distinctions between human beings.[9] However, Law also notes that the active suppression of the concept of race from French policy-making has not prevented people from suffering racism in France.[10]        In fact, with the increasing acceptance of certain racial groups into societies, such as Jews, black people, and Irish people, traditional targets for racial discrimination in Britain, there is now a new racial group who aren’t of the same nationality, ethnicity, or even culture – Muslims. Primarily a religious identity with vast ethnic diversity (only 20% of Muslims are Arab), Muslims are increasing seen as a homogeneous group and are being increasingly subjected to racist abuse and attacks.[11] Law linked this to the concept of an “underclass” in society, undermining it from within, a concept taken up by writers and thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum. Mason also comments on the apparent identification of Muslims as a racial identity, but links it instead to a greater problem of overly broad categorisation of people (i.e. “Asian” vs. “Indian and Bangladeshi”, or even “Indian” vs. “Gujerati Indian”).[12] Although Law may have a point about how the poor working class of certain groups are unfairly demonised in our society, Mason seems to have a more accurate analysis. If race as a concept is essentially a social construction that means whatever a particular society determines it means, then the increasingly popular and populist view of Muslims as a race (and the subsequent embracing of this idea through the use of the term “Islamophobia”) cannot be deemed invalid.

Bearing in mind that the concept of race has no biological basis, it can therefore only be social or political. Race, therefore, synthesising both Mason and Law, might best be defined as a identity, either self-proclaimed or imposed, on a group of people who share some kind of physical, social, or cultural characteristics not shared by other neighbouring groups, against whom they feel the need to be defined, for a variety of reasons. Mason notes that after scientific racism had been thoroughly discredited, “even those who were convinced by the evidence that races in the biological sense did not exist found them themselves having to confront the fact that large sections of the population, and indeed whole societies, continued to conduct themselves as though they did”.[13]   “Race” as a concept matters in public discourse only because people believe it matters – but  because those people believe that it matters and act upon it, through direct and indirect racism, the concept becomes real and must be given reference.

 


[1]   Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 2.

[2]   Hayden and Lansford, Politics and Ethics in Review, pg 82.

[3]    Gross, Citizenship and ethnicity, pg 35-36.

[4]   See, for example, the discussions on negative press attention and rising ethnic tensions at Polish-migrants.co.uk: http://www.polish-migrants.co.uk/polish-immigrants-racial-tension.html

[5]   Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 3.

[6]   Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 3.

[7]   Adams, The Wellborn Science, pg 68-73.

[8]   Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 5.

[9]   Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 8.

[10] Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 8.

[11] Law, Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy, pg 54-55.

[12] Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 124-5.

[13] Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, pg 7.

 

Bibliography

  1. Adams, Mark. The Wellborn science: eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  2. Gross, Feliks, Citizenship and ethnicity:the growth and development of a democratic multiethnic institution. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
  3. Hayden, Patrick, and Lansford, Tom. Politics and Ethics in Review. Nova Publishers, 2005.
  4. Jrank.org, “Race and Racism – Dilemmas Of Meaning: The Concept Of Racism”. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10952/Race-Racism-Dilemmas-Meaning-Concept-Racism.html
  5. Law, Ian. Racism, Ethnicity and Social Policy. Prentice Hall, 1996.
  6. Mason, David. Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, 1995.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, “Racism”. Accessed 24th October, 2011. http://www.oed.co.uk (Subscriber only)

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From reviewing all five sources and the context of the time, it seems that Somerset undoubtedly pushed an economic policy that economic policy that proved disastrous, he was not helped by the economic problems left over from Henry VIII’s reign, as Source 4 makes clear. Additionally, political and religious factors interlinked to tie his hands and prevent Somerset from pursuing as more fruitful policy: for example, he was continued to pursue the war against Scotland for the sake of national pride and to maintain political support, despite the government being nearly bankrupt and in no state to continue fighting. Having said that, Somerset’s religious policy, characterised by the Prayer book rebellion of 1549 that acted as the catalyst for his removal from office, may be considered, for this reason among others, to have been worse than his economic policy.

The Duke of Somerset already had major economic problems from the moment he became Lord Protector, many of which he merely continued, as Source 4 justly points out. Inflation and food prices had been rising since the 1540s, with agricultural wages failing to keep pace. This was partly fuelled by Henry VIII’s decision to debase the coinage by adding base metal to it. Somerset not only did not stop this, but ordered more debasement, which only worsened the problem. Both Source 1 and 3 are in agreement, however, that if the garrisons in Scotland were to be maintained, then debasement had to continue; “Somerset, therefore, refused to listen”. The war on Scotland was unavoidable if the government was to maintain support among the political elites of England, and also to attempt to keep the French from joining the Scots and surrounding the English with hostile enemies. It could therefore be argued that Somerset could not have avoided such a turn of events, and thus it was not so much his policy at fault, but merely the circumstances that led to it being so disastrous.

The religious situation Somerset inherited was equally chaotic; however, the consequences from Somerset’s religious policy were possibly much worse than those of his economic policy. Source 2 is a set of charges against the Duke of Somerset, shortly after the Western rebellions, which had been caused largely by his introduction of an English prayer book. The rebellion was largely formed by areas, such as Devon, that were dependant on sheep and had also suffered from forced enclosures, though the main cause was religious dissatisfaction; as Source 5 says, “The new Protestantism… never seems to have penetrated to the nation at large”. Somerset’s attempts to introduce Protestantism were, “deplorably futile in execution”, for example, in the abolition of the chantries, upsetting a great number of ordinary people and then failing to put down the rebellions that ensued. Somerset’s Act of Repeal, which repealed many of the laws of heresy and loosed much of the restrictive legislation on preaching (as described in Source 5) resulted in an explosion of preaching and theological debate, which at that time, was more unstable than productive, and only increased pressure on the Duke Somerset from both Catholics and Protestants. The dates at which Sources 2 and 3 were produced indicate that there was a lively rebellion active throughout at least the first half of 1549, which would have had consequent effects on political stability, as Source 2 indicates by stating that the “whole state might be brought into peril”. Somerset’s economic policy did not have the same effect and thus is might be argued that in this way, Somerset’s religious policy was the worst.

It could be argued that Somerset’s worst policy was actually to only listen to himself. Source 1 demonstrates that Somerset ignored his advisors on economic issues, and Source 3 on religious ones. Significantly, Paget’s letter states that “I told you Grace the truth, and was not believed; well, now your Grace sees it, what does your Grace say?” Paget was a Privy Councillor, and his assertions are backed up by Source 2, which accuses Somerset of “minding to follow his own fantasies”. It seems clear that Somerset believed he knew what was right for the kingdom and persisted in it regardless of what others were telling him. Traditional historiography has portrayed him as a compassionate man whose social policies were very advanced for his era: however, more recent historians have argued that he was largely identical to his fellow aristocrats, if more ambitious. Somerset’s policy of ignoring all of his advisors, and even his fellow Privy Councillors, seems to have been his worst policy, though it was not really a policy as such, as he lost the support of his peers, the king, and everyone he was dependant on to maintain his position. Additionally, the country suffered greatly, economically, religiously, and politically as a result of his arrogance.

It is difficult to extract the effects of Somerset’s policies, as they all interlink, with religious, economic, and foreign policy all meshing in a way that is difficult to separate. The Western rebellion was instigated by religious protest, but also had shades of economic frustration and political grievances. Source 5 also demonstrates this, in its argument that many nobles were by no means convinced by Protestantism, but supported the religious reforms of Somerset in order to maintain their secular interests, having acquired much church land. With no concept of secular and religious as exists in countries today, it is hardly surprising that, as Source 4 indicates, many saw the economical problem England was going through as a punishment from God for Somerset’s religious policy. Certainly, if this were true, Somerset’s religious policy would be his worst. Somerset also had to deal with Scotland and France, which drained money from England and consequently hampered Somerset’s room for manoeuvre in economic policy.

In conclusion, though it is extremely difficult to pull out the separate strands of the Lord Protector’s various policies, the sources and historical context both suggest that it was more Somerset’s religious policy that was his worst conceived, implemented and enforced, than his economic one, though his economic policy was to have negative effects that only ended with the accession of Elizabeth I. The prayer book rebellion of 1549, referenced in Sources 2, 3, and 5, which represented the nadir of the Somerset Protectorate and led to the deposition and execution of Somerset was largely due to religious reasons and thus contribute to this idea.

Reminding you just in case you’ve forgotten. :)
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