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7.2: Relevance of Race and Ethnicity in the United States

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    The importance of race and ethnicity is variable both across space and across time. Historically, divisions in the United States along ethnic or racial lines have been the norm. but now these divisions based on race or ethnicity are not as prevalent as they have previously been. From the earliest days of the country and codified in the US Constitution, slavery created a profoundly divided society, particularly between the free, white population and the enslaved Black population. Free people of color provided a small degree of linkage between the groups.

    These were not the only divisions in the US, however. The dominant group were people of English descent. In geographical terms, we refer to them as a charter group. The charter group does not refer to the first people to come to a place; they are people with the first effective settlement. This is an academic way of saying that they are the first group with political dominance. English settlers produced laws that furthered their own interests. They promoted their own language (English), religion (Protestant Christianity) and governance. Groups coming in later found themselves in a place where many of the cultural questions had already been answered. The pressure to assimilate in the United States applies to everyone. There can be political pressure; for example, during World War One German Americans largely stopped speaking German. The pressure can be social; for example, young children at school can feel isolated when they cannot speak the majority language. Particularly, the pressure can be economic. Without conforming to general social (majority) norms, it can be difficult to navigate the employment market. A lack of English, unawareness of the norms of formal dress or behavior, or just the inability to recognize social cues can make life difficult for those who have not acculturated.

    The charter group also changed. For example, the definitions of “whiteness” and “blackness” have not been historically constant. Consider the history of the United States. Initially, the U.S. population was made largely of Protestant British white people and African black people. Adding people from other places required that definitions be amended.

    Would Catholic Italians be considered “White?” In the past, many Americans would have said no. For that matter, neither would the Irish (because of their Catholicism) or Jews (because they aren’t Christian), but over time, these groups were generally included into the white category. Whiteness broadened to include more people. It became less of an ethnic category and more of a racial category.

    Definitions of blackness evolved as well. In the American South, there eventually arose a legal framework that defined blackness as having any African ancestry. It would be possible (and relatively common) to be phenotypically white and legally black. Historically, mixed-race Creole people in Louisiana did not consider themselves to be black or white; they were another category altogether.

    People attempting to emigrate from Asia, particularly China, were subject to their own set of exclusionary laws, which severely limited their migration to the United States. As late as World War II, it was considered acceptable for the government to intern (imprison) American citizens of Japanese descent over questions of their racial origins and loyalty.

    One of the current interesting ethnic questions in the United States is the status of Hispanic people in the existing racial categories. Since Hispanic is not itself a racial category, people within this ethnicity can choose what label they feel is most appropriate. It appears now that Hispanics are identifying themselves as white in the U.S. census. This has an impact on projections for the future U.S. population. If Hispanics identify as white, then the U.S. will remain majority white for quite some time. If they do not, the U.S. will have no racial majority in a few decades.

    Although race and ethnicity in the U.S. were largely associated with state- mandated identification, restrictive laws, and onerous obligations, today both race and ethnicity are self-identified for the census. Whereas at one time being Irish could be enough to deny someone employment, now it is a slogan to place on your welcome mat and celebrate once a year in March.

    7.2.1 Racial Identifiers

    The language used to identify racial groups has changed as well. For example, in broad terms of ethnicity, people of Asian descent who were born in the United States are now referred to as Asian Americans, although the census racial category is still Asian. The term Asian implies a relationship with Asia and no relationship with America. Asian American explicitly ties this group to America.

    People who trace their ancestry to Africa have a different problem. This problem is a function of American history. The first census label for this group was simply Black. Over time other labels were used, such as Negro (which means black), and eventually the term African American was adopted. This term is meant to provide a relationship between a population of people and a place of origin. In other words, it explicitly ties a group to their ancestral origin.

    Although Native American is used in common speech in the U.S., the Census category is still American Indian, which is not the same as Indian-American (peoples associated with South Asia). The continued use of American Indian is somewhat outside the trend toward more descriptive categories.

    7.2.2 Racism in the United States

    Although racism and ethnic discrimination are similar, they are not the same thing. Although ethnic markers (generally) diminish over time, physical differences do not.

    Exclusionary racial policies existed in the United States from the very beginning and have continued beyond the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century. From the US Constitution that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person to restrictive housing covenants in the 1960s, the country has had a history of racism that did not end in the Civil Rights era. This exclusion has not solely been limited to African Americans. Many groups have been subject to racist laws and acts. The indigenous people of the United States were not fully considered citizens until 1924. In the past, voting rights, access to housing and even union membership had racialized politics directed at many marginalized groups.

    This is not to say that ethnically-based discrimination does not exist. Such discrimination has been prevalent in United States history, but it tends to subside as the host population absorbs the immigrant population.

    7.2.3 Housing

    Historically, ethnic groups tended to live near one another in spatially contiguous areas. Many cities have a Chinatown or Little Italy. These are known as ethnic enclaves. There are many reasons why groups cluster; some reasons are voluntary and some are not. In the United States, it was not uncommon for cities to restrict where African American citizens could live. These restrictions were either through the force of law, or through unwritten behavioral norms that resisted renting or selling houses to African American families outside of certain areas. This residential, spatial segregation was accompanied with educational, social, and economic segregation. African American communities were often known as ghettos, places where a certain population is forced to live. The word ghetto is older than the United States itself. Ghetto was an Italian name for the area that Jews were forced to live in. Although the word is Italian, the idea of forcing minority populations to live in designated areas has unfortunately had wide historical appeal. Legal housing segregation ended in the United States in 1968, but behaviors change more slowly than laws.

    Many ethnic communities have arisen from less coercive means. There are numerous reasons that an ethnic community would choose to live close together. Mutual support networks, the ability to develop schools and businesses catering to their own needs, a sense of safety, and the ability to retain their own cultural connections are examples of positive reasons. Institutionalized poverty, marginalized political representation, and active discrimination are negative reasons.

    7.2.4 Environmental Justice

    One of the spatial manifestations of racism and ethnic discrimination is the difference in levels of political representation. Another one is the location of unpleasant environmental activities. Landfills and airports tend to be built in places inhabited by less-powerful groups, while dominant groups rarely if ever have to organize to prevent such things being built in their neighborhoods. Some groups find their economic situations limited by underfunded schools or inadequate infrastructure. The idea that different groups should have access to decent places to live called environmental justice.

    7.2.5 Ethnic diversity in the United States

    Like all predominantly immigrant countries, the United States is ethnically diverse, but the range of ethnicities has varied over time as new groups arrive and previous groups acculturate and eventually assimilate. A male of Italian descent in the United States will sometimes just say, “I’m Italian.” This may be a person who speaks no Italian, isn’t Catholic, and never been in Italy in his entire life. What then, does this statement mean? It just signals an historic connection with an ethnicity, even if the connection has faded over time. This isn’t to single out Italian- Americans. Generally, as groups assimilate, their distinctive ethnic markers fade. Comparing Polish-Americans with Mexican-Americans may involve people who speak the same language (English), have the same Catholic religion, and live verysimilar lifestyles. The label has faded to a marker, with food being the one of the last cultural elements.

    7.2.6 Foodways

    One of the ways groups demonstrate ethnicity is through food. One of the most obvious hallmarks of the arrival of an ethnicity into the United States, or any other country, is the diffusion of a food from the group of origin. Pizza in the United States, curry in the United Kingdom, and doner kebab in Germany all exemplify the degree to which a food brought by immigrants can reach the status of adopted national cuisine. Food is also the cultural element that is most accessible to outsiders. Foodways are used to construct a spatial sense of one location as a reflection of the entire world.

    Foodways refer to the types of food that people eat, the ways they are prepared, and the cultural factors that surround and contextualize the food. Food is the most resilient cultural artifact. In countries undergoing language unification, foods can define ethnic groups. In mostly monolingual countries like the United States, foods may indicate geographical origins or social class. Food is easily bought, tried and accepted, or rejected. As such, it is the most accessible cultural element.

    In many ways, the consumption of a food and its production have been divorced from its roots by the modern restaurant industry and international food conglomerates. Americans have eaten foods they consider Chinese or Mexican for generations, while few know the histories of said foods. Questions of whether or not a food is authentic are difficult to answer when the cooks in a restaurant are of a completely different ethnicity from the stated cuisine.

    We can compare foodways between places and groups. Quantities of food, the ratio of prepared foods, and consumption of tobacco and alcohol all help us get inside the lives of people in different places, at different states of technological development, and different socioeconomic classes.

    7.2.7 The Ethnic Landscape

    Urban ethnic landscapes are often immediately recognizable. Signs in other languages advertising exotic products, ethnic architecture, and even local tourism reveal the ethnic fabric of a place. Most people in the US do not live in large cities with obvious ethnic architecture. The majority of Americans, including many ethnicities, live in the suburbs and smaller towns. Instead of obvious population clusters, ethnic populations here can be widely dispersed. Instead of living within walking distance of their local store or religious structure, people will simply drive to such a place. Ethnicity has sprawled along with the rest of America. Waves of migration to U.S. cities and suburbs have created landscapes of tremendous ethnic difference embedded in architectural homogeneity.

    7.2.8 Ethnic Festivals and the Idealized Homeland

    One of the ways that ethnicities represent themselves is through festivals. People wear traditional clothing, play music from the old country, eat food previously reserved for holidays, dance the old dances, and promote their culture to others. Festivals are a way of reproducing a sense of home in emigrant communities. They are also a way of keeping children participating in activities that would otherwise forget.

    Places represented in ethnic festivals in the United States are often not representative of those places now. Traditional Czech clothing at a Kolache Festival in Oklahoma represents a place/time that no longer exists, except perhaps to market “Czech-ness” to tourists.

    This page titled 7.2: Relevance of Race and Ethnicity in the United States is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by David Dorrel & Joseph P. Henderson (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.