Episode 3 of Race: The Power of an Illusion summarizes the previous concept that race is not a biological matter but has been given social value and then delves into the reasons its connections to social value are important. The perception of race and ethnicity has had a huge influence on public policy. At the start of the 20th century, the arrival of immigrants raised a new question of where they were in the racial hierarchy. What happened was a division of white races along with the division between whites and people of color that already existed. The Nordic whites and original colonists were of a higher white race and European immigrants were a of a lower order.
Then came the idea of the Melting Pot which still exists in modern day America. The Melting Pot was about all the white races melting into one American race but this pot never included people of color. Whiteness was and still is the key to citizenship. This is shown by public policies such as Congress’ declaration that free white immigrants could obtain naturalization and the implication that free nonwhite immigrants could not. African Americans could also not receive citizenship until after the Civil War. This plays into the perception of race. In some states, anyone with a drop of black blood was consider black and in others, people who were 1/8th or more were black. This matters because blackness changed from state to state so obviously it was not about biology but social political power. Then occurred the famous case of Takao Ozawa. He was a Japanese immigrant who petitioned for naturalization by arguing his skin was white, learning English, and assimilating into American culture but was still denied because Congress ruled science determined he was of the Mongolian race. Later, the court went back on their science argument when an Indian man petitioned for naturalization with the argument that South Asians were Caucasians. This time the court said science could not determine race; whiteness was seen by the average white man.
These cases demonstrate once again that perception of race was based on social political systems, not biological science. This continued as all the white races eventually merged into one and white immigrants received social political benefits unlike people of color. This is where the concept of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps came about, which still influences the American dream today. The bootstraps idea is that if one works hard enough, one can gain equal social/political/economic standing. This was shown not to be true as seen with the case of white suburbanization. If black families integrated into the neighborhoods, property values went down because white people left in droves. Even though black families worked hard to get homes, they were not equal.
The interesting thing is that bootstraps myth is still very much alive today and influences the American dream. Immigrants come to the US in hopes of a better life because they have been told the lie that if they work hard enough, they will have a vast array of opportunities equal to that of white US citizens. The bootstraps myth has also shifted into furthering divides between different racial and ethnic groups. The pervasive way that the American dream invades immigrant families and the bootstraps myth invades people of color has evolved into assuming laziness of other ethnic and racial groups when they are degraded or not viewed as successful. I have seen this unfortunate effect in my own parents and the immigrant families of friends. I have worked to help my parents deconstruct the idea that other people of color view them as inferior and that those people are “lazy.” Modern day perceptions of race and ethnicity still have social-political power ascribed to them that further white privilege and create divides between minorities.