Until the Revolutionary period, slavery was an unquestioned "fact of life." It was only when Americans proclaimed the radical new idea that "all men are created equal" that slavery was first challenged as immoral and thus required justification. The new idea of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted.
Not a single characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race, no matter how we divide people. Nevertheless, the idea that race corresponds to biological differences (e.g., traits such as IQ, behavior, propensity for disease, physical appearance) has long shaped public policy and social discourse—and can even lead to biological consequences.
Racial and ethnic groups are not an inherent feature of human society, but constructed in different ways that vary according to time, place, and political interests. Mutable and fluid, the history of racial categories reflects not melanin or nationality, but power.
A long history of government policies and private practices has disproportionately channeled power, wealth, status, even health to white people. Even though de jure segregation no longer exists, these practices persist in other forms to this day.
Like other racial categories, whiteness is not a biological property, but a changing identity and social position defined by laws, policies, and norms affecting the distribution of resources and power. Considered visible and unmarked, whiteness operates to maintain the status quo in subtle and explicit ways.
Wealth, or net worth, is a vital measure of economic health. Wealth buffers against periods of insecurity, funds risk-taking opportunities, supports retirement, and undergirds intergenerational transfers of opportunity. Government housing policies and private lending practices primarily account for the racial wealth gap, with housing equity attesting for two-thirds of all wealth.
In 1790, Congress passed a law declaring that only “free, white” immigrants could become naturalized citizens. We’ve been fighting over who gets to be an American ever since, with race playing a central role in the debate.