Karl Marx, Max Weber and Robert Park all argued that race and ethnicity would cease to matter, yet almost a hundred years later race and ethnicity are still indicators of life chances, still influence policy and law and are still used as justification for genocide, hatred and fear (Cornell and Hartmann, 2007). Race and ethnicity have shaped the way the world is organized; they have contributed the formation of both global and local societies including establishing systems of privilege and denial (Dalmage, 2010a). The concepts of race and ethnicity are so imbedded in the structures of society that it is not just a matter of “seeing past race” or “moving beyond race” but looking at the way these concepts have been institutionalized and have shaped individuals, beliefs and ideals. In order to explain why race and ethnicity still matter, I will define these terms, explore their historical construction and discuss how this effects the current moment.
According to Cornell and Hartmann, ethnicity is a relational construct used to distinguish one group from another on the assumption that one group shares something that the other does not (2007:20). Ethnicity does not exist by itself, like all social constructions, it can only be seen in relation to what it is not, therefore it is a portion of the whole population with some perceived difference between itself and the remainder. Cornell and Hartmann make an important distinction between an ethnic category and ethnic group, a category being ascribed to a portion of the population by outsiders and a group is when the ethnic identity is subscribed to by the population itself (2007:21).
Cornell and Hartmann define race as a “human group defined by itself or others as distinct by virtue of perceived common physical characteristics that are held to be inherent” (2007:25). Skin color, eye shape and hair texture vary across the globe, but these physical attributes have no meaning in and of themselves, only what we assign to it. We choose which physical attributes are important, organize people according these boundaries and then behave in a way which gives these categories meaning, thus creating races. Proof of social construction can be found in the fluidity of the meaning we assign to these categories, changing them when it is in the best interest of those in power.
There are two major differences between race and ethnicity. The first is that while both are used to describe some perceived difference, ethnicity does not have to be hierarchical, while race is inherently hierarchical (Dalmage, 2010b). Cornell and Hartmann point out that race was generally assigned by a dominant group to a less powerful one as a way of othering (2007:28). This was by and large done by Europeans during their expansion and colonization and by the act of labeling and designating race they were establishing a social hierarchy—placing themselves at the top and labeling others as inferior, implying they had less worth.
The second difference is that ethnicity can be, and often is, assigned as a category, but frequently it is asserted by the group itself. An ethnic identity can be used to affirm a common culture, history and sense of community. Ethnicity is not necessarily about the power dynamic between ethnic groups, although it can be. In some cases a group can be both a race and an ethnicity, in they have been assigned a hierarchical place as a race, but have self identified as an ethnic group as well, subscribing to their own culture and shared history (Cornell and Hartmann, 2007).
According to Banton the academic classification of humans did not necessarily begin in an effort to establish a hierarchy of races, although one can see Eurocentric discrimination in the writings of people like Buffon and Kant (1987:46). It was in 1774, in Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, that placed what we would now refer to as racial groups into a hierarchy with, of course, white Europeans at the head (Banton, 1987:50). It was not until the 1830s that a real school developed which supported the idea that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and were a separate species developed (Banton, 1987:54). Most current academics have rejected the idea that there is any biological significance to race.
The construction of race as we know it began with expansion of European colonialism (Winant, 2001; Cornell and Hartmann, 2007). As Europeans arrived they brought with them ethnocentric ideals and a hunger for resources which provided the reasoning behind and the motive for deeming native peoples as different and inferior. Without doubt the construction of the black and white races is the best example of this.
Slavery existed in various forms prior to the chattel slavery that came with the Atlantic slave trade; some groups took prisoners of war as slaves, while for others it took a form closer to indentured servitude (Winant, 2001:53). As Europeans began transporting slaves from Africa to the New World, slavery became racialized—chattel slavery was permanent and transgenerational (meaning that slaves bore slaves) and Africans became identified with slavery (Winant, 2001:54). To be black was to be a slave and to be white was to be free, thus began the myth of white superiority.
As these varied ethnic groups of enslaved Africans journeyed to and arrived in the New World, they resisted their white captors in various ways: attempting mutiny on slave ships; creating maroon communities; or participating in what Winant calls “foot dragging” or work slowdowns (2001:60). As a result of these acts of resistance and the shared goal of attaining their freedom, blacks, although diverse racial category, also became an ethnic group (Winant, 2001; Cornell and Hartmann, 2007). In various countries this division of power associated with race effects the futures and life chances of their citizens up to the current day, creating a color line which marks the boundaries of race, and therefore power. These boundaries are patrolled by both blacks and whites, although for different reasons, as Dalmage states, “whites patrol to protect privilege, blacks as they struggle for liberation” (2000:34).
In the U.S. the imbalance of power associated with race is inextricably entwined in our history, culture and legislation. Europeans created a Eurocentric culture and norm to which others were, and still are, expected to assimilate (Cornell and Hartmann; 2007) Blacks were legislated as property, treated as livestock and denied citizenship, and after emancipation from slavery they were again subjected to legislated violence, segregation and discrimination under Jim Crowe. They were denied equal wages and education—even after defending their country in World War II, blacks were denied the G.I. Bill and affordable mortgages. By creating and supporting racist legislation and policy that perpetuated the white superiority myth for the past three hundred years, the U.S. has denied African Americans the ability to build economic, cultural and social capital, maintaining this racial power imbalance.
In Africa the modern day effects of colonization and the construction of race by Europeans is also evident. Besides establishing the white superiority myth and racial borders, Europeans also established national borders; effectively shaping physical boundaries of African countries regardless of the cultures and language of the people they contained (Cornell and Hartmann, 2007:46). Colonizers cast their lots with various tribes, shifting the balance of power from one ethnic group to another or at times helping to establish new ethnic and/or racial divides (Cornell and Hartmann, 2007).
In South Africa whites established western cultural norms which Africans had to conform to in order gain legal rights, such as to hold property (MacDonald, 2006:96). They established an apartheid system, which legislated racial classification and segregation. Under the system a minority of whites retained power and citizenship while blacks were stripped of citizenship and relegated to ghettos or removed from the country. In 1990 the process of dismantling apartheid began, but it has left the country an extreme imbalance of power, as well as economic and cultural capital due to the increased access to wealth and education for whites (MSU, 2010). Even in the face of a new racially integrated government strong racial divisions exist, as MacDonald points out, new policy may dictate equality, but “…the ANC could not and can not [sic] prevent South Africans from harboring racial affinities” (2006:112).
Race and ethnicity still matter because they are central to the organization of societies across the globe. They have established power dynamics which are still maintained by legislation, policy and public opinion and are so embedded in our society and individual lives that it can be hard see the influence they have on us. Ultimately, race and ethnicity still matter because power and privilege is still concentrated within the confines of race and as long as there is racial inequality race and ethnicity will be important.
Banton, Michael. 1987. “The classification of races in Europe and North America: 1700-1850.” International Social Science Journal, 39(1):45-60.
Cornell, Stephen and Douglas Hartmann. 2007. Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Dalmage, Heather. 2000. Tripping on the Color Line: Black-White Multiracial Families in a Racially Divided World. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
----- 2010a. “Week Two Overview of Questions.” Retrieved June 15, 2010: http://roosevelt.blackboard.edu.
-----.2010b. “Week Three Overview of Questions/Comments.” Retrieved June 15, 2010: http://roosevelt.blackboard.edu.
MacDonald, Michael. 2006. Why Race Matters in South Africa. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Michigan State University (MSU). 2010. South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid. “Introduction.” Retrieved, June 16, 2010: http://www.overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/unit.php?id=11
Winant, Howard. 2001. The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. New York: Basic Books.