From the beginning, a major challenge to the image of a unified American space has been the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities with respect to social, legal, and political rights. Above all, “whiteness” has had a privileged status within the practices and ideology of American society. It is only since the 1950s that dominant American institutions such as the federal Supreme Court and the presidency have paid sustained and positive attention to the claims for equal treat ment by racial minorities. As a result of their passage to America as slaves, African-Americans have endured a particularly long history of discrimination and exclusion. Since the Civil War in which slavery was formally abolished it has been largely as a result of their own efforts, particularly by means of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950S and 1960s, that African-Americans have achieved even nominal political equality in the United States. Persisting high economic and social disparities between white and black Americans, however, make the promise of political equality something of a hollow one. Yet, there is a continuing tension between the need to right the historic wrong of systematic discrimination and exclusion and the American ideal of a “color blind” national identity in which people appear as individuals before the courts and as voters. This now erupts in disputes over government programs to make up for past discrimination through affirmative action programs (diluted perhaps by the extension of such programs to cover large numbers of groups, such as Hispanics, for example, that are neither racial groups in any meaningful sense nor subject to the systematic discrimination afflicted on AfricanAmericans), over disparate prison sentences for similar offenses to those committed by white defendants that now lead large numbers of black men to spend more years in prison than they do in school, and over the drawing of electoral boundaries to try and guarantee group representation in political institutions. Political geographer Benjamin Forest takes up the difficult issue of race and identity in the United States through the question of electoral redistricting. First, however, he offers a useful overview of debates over racial and ethnic identity
in the United States, pointing out how categories such as “black” and “white” are widely used socially yet are also regarded with suspicion when used academically or with respect to political debate. The recent rise of various “symbolic ethnicities” based on personal choice is dis tinguished from the persisting importance of black/white racial identity, suggesting the degree to which judgments about physical differences are actually important in motivating discriminatory behav ior. A second section explores the history of racial identity in the United States, using a series of maps (Figures 8.1-8.6) to show how highly regionally-and locally-concentrated the various racial groupings identified by the United States Census actually are. Forest points out how racial categories themselves are subject to considerable contestation. The one permanent feature has been the continuing attempt to dis tinguish “whites” from “nonwhites.” Much of the chapter, however, examines the disputes since the 1960s over race, segregation, and polit ical representation and how these relate to the ongoing American difficulty of dealing honestly with race while also remaining true to the claim of allowing for distinction without domination. Forest suggests that regarding racial identities as akin to religious ones may allow Americans to finally come to terms with what has been arguably their greatest challenge.