Sociological Approaches to Racism in the USA

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The recent increase in media attention towards police brutality against African-Americans has brought the implementation of “legalised” racial violence in the United States to the forefront of sociological thinking about race. Amateur film footage of “legalised” murders of African-American men by policemen, in particular, is frequently circulated on social media. These images directly juxtapose the widely held understanding that race and racism are nonexistent and, thus, inconsequential in a “post-racial” Obama era. Indeed, the rise in right-wing populism in the USA since Obama’s election in 2008 has defied this claim in numerous ways. The recent election of Donald Trump has magnified this issue, and sociologists are currently striving to make sense of the impact of his election on current and future social attitudes about race.

Racism in the USA is a systemic ideology that affects the daily experiences of minority citizens in numerous ways, including access to housing, medical care, certain vocations, and social groups. Whilst legalised discrimination is no longer tolerated, de facto discrimination continues in many of these areas. The purpose of this module is to map the ways in which attitudes about racial difference and hierarchy have changed in the USA since the period of slavery, and to trace the continuing underlying assumption that race is a key signifier of individual character and potential.

Learning outcomes:

1) To understand the meaning of race and racism in an American context and the ways in which this differs from other countries like the UK.
2) To successfully identify the ways in which racial attitudes have changed and adapted to rising socio-political movements.
3) To understand how racism has affected and continues to affect the daily experiences of African-Americans.

Racism can be viewed as both a social and a political phenomenon. Beginning with the period of post-emancipation, this module will analyse the extent to which racism has been, and continues to be, a potent socio-political issue despite the “post-racial” rhetoric that surrounds it. In addressing its contemporary relevance, it is necessary to assess the motivations behind promoting ideas of racial difference. After we have analysed the implications of the post-emancipatory period, we will look at the shift towards an emerging understanding of the North as a site of promise for disenfranchised Southern African-Americans. We will then turn to the period known as the “Harlem Renaissance” to address the impact that African-American poets, authors, and artists had on constructing a new African-American identity. We will then consider a more contemporary understanding of the significance of racial difference by looking at the Civil Rights Movement, Hurricane Katrina, and the blacklivesmatter movement as case studies.

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