Issues Concerning Race and Ethnicity
Issues concerning race and ethnicity are widespread throughout academia and the socio-political spheres. However, these two terms, "race" and "ethnicity," are concepts that society evolved and constructed to advance the goals of dominant groups. Due to the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States, these ideas have made their way to the forefront.
Although people in the United States use race and ethnicity interchangeably, they are different. One's race refers to shared phenotypic traits that tie someone to stereotypic categories of people which members of a society consider important. Society socializes people to believe one can distinguish racial types through genetics. However, there is more genetic variation within each racial category than between members of different groups (Macionis 15.1.1). For example, someone of Asian descent is genetically more similar to someone from Australia than someone else of Asian descent.
While there is a biological basis which alters the way people physically look, one's race is still a social construct because society imbues these characteristics with social significance. Thus, race becomes something that seems natural because society has agreed to normalize the concept. Race is a concept that an individual can personally identify, but society also assigns. However, ethnicity is a concept that has less externally imposed implications, and one has more control over defining for oneself.
One's ethnicity refers to the shared heritage, practices, values, or beliefs which create a distinctive social identity for a group of people. Through socialization, people learn language, religion, clothing, cuisine, or cultural traditions that make up their ethnicity (Macionis 15.1.2). For example, the Han people are an East Asian ethnic group who speak Mandarin Chinese and other Han dialects, predominantly practice Taoism, and celebrate the Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival (Song). These cultural elements separate this ethnic group from other ethnic groups in East Asia, such as Tibetans, Taiwanese, Japanese, or Korean, who all have their cultural practices and ideologies. The core difference between race and ethnicity is that race is based on perceived shared physical characteristics, and ethnicity is based on shared cultural practices or beliefs. However, both race and ethnicity are socially constructed concepts.
Race is socially constructed as political and economic priorities, geographical location, and time change. The documentary Race: The Power of Illusion demonstrated society's shifting narrative to make sense of the world. For instance, the Jim Crow Laws classified African Americans according to their "blood ancestry," but the amount to constitute someone as African American or not varied between states. In other words, someone could travel across state lines, and legally, their race would be different (PBS). Young children can recognize differences among people, but they learn the social significance of this biology through what others tell them.
If race were not a social construction, then racial classifications would remain consistent across geographical boundaries. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is socially constructed differently. However, someone perceived as Black in the United States may be perceived differently in Brazil. Additionally, in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, The United States society once considered Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, and other Europeans a minority group and a non-white identity. As time went on and contexts shifted, identifying as white became a more inclusive racial category. However, the minority share of the population will steadily increase as "more than half of the nation's population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority" in 2019 (Frey). Moreover, the United States census allows people to identify as more than one race.
There is a tendency for ethnic majority groups to label minority groups. Therefore, any other ethnic group diverges from the majority group because it perceives itself as the "norm." Ethnicity is socially constructed in terms of how society views ethnicity as deviant or not. In the United States, the more western the cultural practices and the more white the ethnic group look, the more likely society will not label them as deviant. A society's political and labor needs, as well as public sentiment contribute to defining ethnic groups as "different from the dominant group" to make unfair actions more justifiable or palatable to understand. For instance, Germany scapegoated Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and other groups for the country's inflation, economic depression, the loss of World War I, and other consequences from the Treaty of Versailles (The National WWII Museum). While anti-Semitism still exists, as time passed, society enfolded this ethnic group into whiteness and largely transformed the perception of Jewishness from a deviant ethnicity to a more "acceptable" one.
Those outside of an ethnic group may use different cultural markers to identify them than the members of that ethnic group use to self-define. Additionally, individuals can either play up or down their ethnicity depending on whether they want to assimilate or deviate from the dominant group (Macionis 15.1.2). For some people, ethnicity is a large part of their identity, whereas it may not be for others. Also, ethnicity may become important at different points in one's life, such as during cultural festivals, religious ceremonies, or conflicts in a country. A country's borders are socially constructed through the advent of war, conquest, annexation, and a dominant group's decision to create borders. Therefore, using geographical location to define one's ethnicity reinforces why it is a social construction because boundaries shift. Throughout history, society has constructed and reconstructed racial and ethnic categories.
Dominant groups of people have more access to resources to advocate for socio-economic and legal structures nationally/internationally and have the most power to define norms. These dominant groups chose to represent race and ethnicity to advantage them and disadvantage the minority groups. Therefore, dominant groups perpetuate systemic and scientific racism to establish, maintain, and expand their social power.
Minority groups experience subordination and a lack of power even though there may be numerically more of them compared to the dominant group. Dominant groups act out of self-interest. According to historian Barbara J. Fields, "Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery" (Fields qt. in "Race: The Power of an Illusion"). With (questionable) science supporting an innate difference between white people and African slaves, the southern plantation owners, who relied on enslaved people's labor, could justify slavery as acceptable because they considered slaves as less than human. Those who violate the norms set by the dominant group reinforce the legitimacy of those in power because they will enact harsher sanctions to increase adherence to the norms by minority groups.
Those with social power strive to reinforce the social hierarchy and preserve the dominant group's placement on top. For example, Thomas Jefferson believed that Native Americans were not much different from Europeans, and their ethnicity was a barrier to acquiring their land. Therefore, the white settlers set out to assimilate the Native Americans into American culture. They tried to convert the Native Americans to the Christian religion, teach them English education and commercial agriculture (Race: The Power of an Illusion). Jefferson, however, did not support trying to "civilize" the African slaves. By defining racial categories in terms of genetics, the colonials could protect their material interests by justifying their African slaves as innately inferior versus perceiving a difference in Native Americans' culture, which the white settlers thought could be unlearned and "civilized."
Additionally, unconsciously defining people of different races and ethnicities as inherently different from each other maintains a status quo. People may not speak out against racial inequality to "keep the peace." The fewer people who challenge racism, the more socialized people believe the differences between people are natural. Between the systemic racism in the macro-level mechanisms of American society (housing policies, law enforcement, access to healthcare, etc.) and the individual's conscious and unconscious prejudice (racist jokes, unconscious social distance, etc.), people become less disturbed by the inequality (Macionis 15.3.1). Those who benefit from racism (consciously or unconsciously) rely on perpetuated stereotypes and discriminatory policies because, otherwise, society would rebel against the norms. Therefore, justice and equality fall to the wayside because the dominant group's most valued principle is self-preservation.
Aforementioned, stereotypes shape how we are socialized to think about race and ethnicity. A stereotype is an unreliable and simplified assumption about a social group's characteristics or abilities. Stereotypes impact the way people treat others but also how it impacts one's self-image. Stereotypes impact what people think they "know" about race and ethnicity when they develop expectations based upon an assumption and experience cognitive dissonance when new information surfaces. In turn, when an individual knows others expect them to confirm a prejudice, it may pressure the individual to prove them wrong. When people continuously see evidence of this generalized description play out, it reinforces the "truth" to the stereotype. Although there may be a fraction of truth to the stereotype, a universal statement oversimplifies individuals and excludes other associated qualities with people.
The media's representation of race keeps racial stereotypes alive and fuels the shallow judgments people make of others and their access opportunities. For example, commercials, movies, television, books, and music underrepresents Asian-Americans. While there has been notable progress and push for more representation of Asians in film and television, it is saddening that the media typecasts Asians or seldom makes them the lead roles. While the stereotype of "Asians being good at math" may be a positive representation, it also downplays Asian-Americans' different societal areas and roles. The categories society assigns to people based on their appearance or how individually identify may determine the actuality of their experiences, incite violence, influence political outcomes, or be the difference between life or death.
Society also uses stereotypes to cast blame on others when negative things happen. Historically, dominant groups cast racial and religious minorities into the role of the scapegoat (Macionis 15.2.3). For instance, the United States scapegoats illegal immigrants for stealing the jobs of American workers. Therefore, states enacted laws to suppress and deprive immigrants of rights because they undermined American democracy. By deploying prejudiced beliefs, already vulnerable subordinate groups become more vulnerable.
Regardless of one's racial or ethnic group, all people experience struggle, success, and hope. This exploration of race, ethnicity, and stereotypes reveals how perceived differences between people are cultural and not genetic. Furthermore, dominant groups construct superior and inferior races and ethnic groups to further their political, social, or economic agenda. Thus, the underlying cause of conflict between dominant and subordinate groups is power-based. However, the more individuals can examine their own biases and challenge racial injustice, society's future will be one of recognizing the dignity of all human life.