Excerpted From: Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, Social Construction of Race Undergirds Racism by Providing Undue Advantages to White People, Disadvantaging Black People and Other People of Color, and Violating the Human Rights of All People of Color, 94 University of Colorado Law Review 415 (Spring, 2023) (148 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AdjoaAAiyetoroThe social construction of race is fundamentally a story of power, in which those in positions of political, economic, and social authority create and recreate categories of difference and assign meaning and value on the basis of those categories to maintain and naturalize their own dominance. Article presents a reframing of the description and, therefore, the analysis of White on Black violence. It explores the role the internalization of the socially constructed racial hierarchy plays in creating White on Black violence, seen most vividly in racial massacres such as the one that occurred in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This reframing also applies to other acts of violence against Black people by White people, whether acting in positions of institutional authority, such as law enforcement, or acting individually against a Black person without any perceivable threat to their well-being. The lynchings that took place in the United States between the mid-1860s to the 1950s, documented by the Equal Justice Initiative, implicate both White people in authority positions as well as individual White people. Finally, this Article suggests that a way to dismantle this social construction is through the development and implementation of a reparations model.

I began developing this reframing in 2004 when I started a tenure-track position at the University of Arkansas Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. My legal practice and other teaching positions all focused in some way on racial justice. My scholarly interest was primarily in reparations. My first article to satisfy the tenure-track requirements did not address the social construction of race explicitly, although it is implicit in that article as well as others that followed. As many scholars do, I read broadly and narrowly in researching for my articles, including the first article to make the case for reparations from the American Bar Association. This broad reading included Derrick Bell's casebook, Race, Racism, and American Law, and his discussion of the racial hierarchy that was constructed to maintain Black people in a subordinate role. Ian Haney Lopez also presented a cogent analysis on the social construction of race in his 1994 article. However, my initial response was not the arousal of intellectual curiosity. It was visceral: my whole physical and emotional being shouted “NO!” The social construction of race and the concomitant racial hierarchy, constructing the status of the “races,” had been taught to generations of people worldwide for centuries and had been so internalized that the first lie, the lie that underpins all the other lies, was that race is a biological fact. I, not unlike most people regardless of their “race,” was raised to believe that race was a biological factor--a genetic predeterminate of identity. This was taught in school, was the basis of sermons, was reinforced in the media, and, most significantly, was the basis of and explanation for brutal “racial” oppression. The fact that as I taught seminars on race some students initially resisted the view that race was a social construct but were willing to sit with the uncomfortableness this raised for them fueled my interest in applying this knowledge in analyzing racial oppression for which reparations are required.

The thought to rank or categorize people due to differences in appearance, known as phenotype, began with Europeans and spread throughout Europe and to the Americas. This racial hierarchy was formalized by a U.S. scientist and embraced throughout the United States and Europe to rationalize and defend Europe's and the United States' acts of violence against Africans and the development and implementation of the enslavement of Africans. The construct of the racial hierarchy justified the use of brute force and other inhumane actions to subordinate African peoples and maintain systems of oppression.

The embrace of this artificially constructed racial hierarchy is the conscious and frequently unconscious rationale for racial massacres of communities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also is frequently used to justify the daily physical, social, and economic violence against Black people by institutions and systems in the United States, including law enforcement, educational institutions, and those that control the economic lives of people. It is the answer to the post-slavery and post-Jim Crow question: Why are Black people at the bottom of all indicia of well-being and at the top for almost every indicia of alienation and marginalization? Article examines the creation of race as a social construct. It focuses on the myths of White supremacy and Black inferiority used to justify the continuing abuse and disadvantaging of Black people specifically, and other groups of color generally. It is these constructs that lead to the destruction of thriving Black communities such as Tulsa and the refusal to acknowledge and support the genius of Black people. As Otis Clarke, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre and plaintiff in the 2003 federal case said, “[T]hey were jealous of our little town.” In fact, since the lie that race is a biological fact has been believed by so many, the display of Black genius is unfathomable to many White people. Many White people and White-led institutions resolve this incongruency by inflicting physical and emotional violence on Black people and their communities. This reifies the fact that Black people are at the bottom of this man-made hierarchy. . .]

The social construction of race began as early as the sixteenth century with Caucasian people embracing the view that they were better than the peoples they encountered in their travels based on phenotypic differences. The need to be “better than” was expressed in two primary ways: the need to have more materially than others and the need to have more power than others. This need to be “better than” is the foundation for the genocidal acts against Indigenous Peoples and Africans and their descendants. The lie of “better than” or “superior to” was fought against by those who Caucasian people sought to oppress, and their response was even more violence--desecrating communities-- and incorporating in institutions and societal structures the fundamental lie of inferiority that has resulted in Black people and other groups of color being disadvantaged based on group identity.

Since Africans and their descendants are at the bottom of this human-constructed racial hierarchy, their disadvantaging continues to result in being, as a group, at the bottom of the indicia of well-being in the United States. The lie of the racial hierarchy and White supremacy is in the bones of the United States. Yet individuals and organizations founded by Black people and their allies have fought against the lie, worked tirelessly to reveal it and the damage it has caused, and formulated various strategies to tap and re-invigorate the knowledge of human equality and the strength to own that knowledge, despite the embeddedness of the human-made lie in the structures and systems within the United States.

Seeking reparations is a vehicle for expanding the “truth-telling” process and engaging communities in a dialogue that will dismantle the lie. It is not an easy task to loosen the lie's grip on the psyches of people and reconfigure institutions and societal structures that have this lie embedded within them. If this country has a chance of survival, of actually being great, it must embrace this challenge that incorporates restorative and transformative justice and reparations. It must stop ducking acknowledgment. It must make reparations for the crimes against humanity that were slavery and its legacy, the many acts of violence and destruction against Black people and their communities post-slavery of which the Tulsa Race Massacre is an example.

Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law. Although the editors of the University of Colorado Law Review prefer not to use racial slurs in this journal, I have chosen to keep a racial slur in a quote in Footnote 94 of this Articl