Race as a Master Status
In the United States, being identified as a racial minority is frequently so important in shaping the way that others (especially whites) react to an individual that race can become a master status. Many biographies of African Americans feature poignant remembrances of the subjects’ dawning realization of the significance of race to their social identity. Here are examples from the lives of two well-known leaders of the civil rights movement, James Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr. First, James Farmer writes:
A small boy holding onto his mother’s finger as they trudge along an unpaved red dirt road on a hot mid-summer day. The mother shops at the town square and they trudge homeward, the child still clinging to her finger. She removes a clean handkerchief from her purse and pats her son’s face and then her own. The boy looks up at his mother and says, “Mommy, I want to get a Coke.”
“You can’t get a Coke here, Junior,” the mother replies. “Wait till we get home. There’s lots of Coke in the icebox.”
“But, Mommy,” says the boy, “I don’t want to wait. I want my Coke now. I have a nickel; daddy gave it to me yesterday.”
“Junior, I told you you can’t get a Coke now. There’s lots of Coke in the icebox at home.”
“Why can’t I get a Coke now, when I have a nickel?”
“You just can’t.”
The child sees another boy enter a drugstore across the street. “Look, mommy,” exclaims Junior, “I bet that boy’s going to get a Coke. Come on, let’s go see.”
He pulls his mother by the finger across the street, and they look through the screen doors, closed to keep out the flies. Sure enough, the other kid is perched on a stool at the counter sipping a soft drink through a straw.
“See that, mommy,” said the small boy. “We can get a Coke here. He got one. Let’s go get ours.”
“Son, I told you to wait till we get home. We can’t get a Coke in there.”
“Then why could he?”
“He’s white? And me?” inquires the boy.
As King recalled it fifteen years later, his early childhood years were spent in “a very congenial home situation,” a family “where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present.” Only one incident, he later said, marred those early childhood years. That came at age six, just after he had begun his actual first grade education at Yonge Street Elementary. For several years one of his close playmates had been a white child whose father owned a small grocery near the King home. After they began attending separate schools, they saw much less of each other. As King later described it:
This was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement. We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here, for the first time, I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before.
Another distressing occurrence took place two years later, when King and his high school teacher, Miss Sarah Bradley, traveled to a South Georgia town for an oratorical contest sponsored by the black Elks. M. L. did well, delivering his speech on “The Negro and the Constitution” without either manuscript or notes, but on their way back a white bus driver insisted that the two surrender their seats to newly boarding white riders. M. L. resisted at first, but his teacher finally encouraged him to get up, and the young man had to stand for several hours as the bus made its way to Atlanta. “It was,” King recalled twenty years later, “the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
That was not the most traumatic encounter with segregation that young King suffered. He had seen his father refuse to accept second-class service in stores, tell white policemen that a forty-year-old black minister should be addressed as “Reverend,” not “boy,” and himself had been called “n____r” by a hostile white in a downtown store. Looking back on these experiences a decade later, King recalled that he had never fully gotten over the shock of his initial discovery of racial prejudice as a six-year-old. “From that moment on,” he remembered, “I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older, this feeling continued to grow,” even though “my parents would always tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty, as a Christian, to love him.”
What does this tell us about the social status of African Americans in the past? Has anything changed? Is Race still a master status?