Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Context and Nuance, Part 4

We have reviewed the labels sociologists use for various socially constructed categories. I have not yet mentioned gender, which is obviously at least equally important, but I want to keep the number of moving parts manageable for now.

Racial categories can vary from time to time and place to place, but because the theory of race is that it's inherited they are generally pretty rigid -- you're stuck in the category you were born into -- and they can also be more or less coextensive with caste. For example, people imported from Africa and their descendants were categorized both by race and caste throughout much of the nation's history. However, the nature of the coextensive  caste category did vary. Africans were slaves in the antebellum South but they were emancipated before the Civil War in the northern states and, while they faced discrimination and disadvantage, did have the status of citizens. The status of former slaves and their descendants remained a strictly defined inferior caste status in the South after the Civil War until the rebellion of the 1950s-60s and now the caste distinctions in the South are much attenuated, but the legacy of disadvantage and discrimination continues to leave most African Americans in a lower class position.

A further complication is that people can be of mixed ancestry, which means that the physical markers of race and caste may be ambiguous. Although the theory of the Southern racial caste system was that any amount of African heritage made a person a Negro (which was at one time the inoffensive term), it wasn't always apparent, and people could choose to "pass" as white, and some even forgot that they had Black ancestors. Sally Hemmings was an enslaved woman who had children of Thomas Jefferson. He emancipated them in his will and over the years, some of the descendants chose to be Black, and some chose to be white. Families even splintered over these choices.

Another complication is that people have immigrated from Africa, and people of African descent have immigrated from the Caribbean. They are ethnically distinct from the descendants of slaves in the United States, and there are culturally distinctive Haitian, Jamaican, and other ethnic enclaves in U.S. cities. To most white people, however, Black race is the most salient marker and they don't much distinguish. However, ethnicity is a fluid category. One's physically apparent signs of race may restrict the ethnic communities to which one has access, it is possible to assimilate to an ethnic community other than the one into which you were born. So people of African or Afro-Caribbean origin may end up living in the same communities as African-Americans, going to the same churches, and eventually their descendants may not particularly remember that their grandparents were actually from the Haiti.

This actually happened to Barack Obama. He was raised by his white mother and grandparents, but eventually he married an African-American woman, attended a predominantly African-American church, and lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. He could do that because his physical appearance made it possible.

Similarly, immigrants from European countries other than England were originally ethnically distinct, and may even have been relegated to an inferior caste, as were the Irish. But over time, since their physical appearance didn't strongly mark them, they could assimilate into an undifferentiated mass of whiteness. Distinctly Italian ethnic enclaves still exist in some U.S. cities, but other people of Italian descent have little distinct ethnic identity. Being of Irish descent no longer means much of anything in the U.S.

Now I should mention religion. Religion can be a strong component of ethnicity, and religious communities may also be relegated to an inferior or disfavored caste status. People who don't think about these issues very deeply may more or less conflate caste, race, ethnicity and religion in thinking about, say, Jews or Muslims. In fact these religions are of course highly diverse, include people of may different ethnicities, and are not properly described as racial categories at all. Believe me, it is not the case that all Jews are descendants of Jacob, Rachel and Leah or indeed, of anybody from the Middle East.

Okay, next time I'll get to the "Hispanic" concept, and then to the current socio-political problems of race and ethnicity in the U.S.

1 comment:

Don Quixote said...

Humans' artificial divisions are ludicrous. So many humans create dividing lines that don't exist, and make no rational sense--especially when considering we're all descended from common ancestors from 80,000 years ago.