Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Context and Nuance: Part Three

Having said something about race, I will now turn to the concepts of caste, class and ethnicity. These intersect with race in complicated ways, but we need to unpack the individual parts and try to get a shared understanding of them before we try to put them back together.

A caste is a socially constructed category that is strictly inherited, and assigns people to differential status. The caste system of India is well known. Historically, people inherited quite specific occupations, including priest, warrior, and waste collector. People whose caste assigned them to menial jobs were otherwise despised and ritually unclean. But European feudalism wasn't all that dissimilar although the categories were broader. You had nobility, free commoners who were generally artisans or merchants, and serfs. In the United States, obviously, enslaved Africans constituted a caste, as did formerly enslaved African-Americans in the post-war years, particularly in the former Confederate states. This status has gradually eroded -- e.g. African-Americans can now be admitted to Harvard or elected Governor -- but of which a substantial legacy remains and in the minds of some people is still fully operative.

Class is a more fluid category. It is not strictly inherited but most people stay more or less in the class to which they were born. People like rags to riches stories but they are highly unrepresentative. Marx defined class in relation to ownership of the means of production, but capitalism has evolved somewhat since his day. Once people get rich by whatever means they tend to own stock or other productive assets but economic status is determined by other means as well. There is obviously a big lifetime earnings premium to higher education. Some people in professional or management roles can wind up with the big bucks by moving up in the ranks. Thanks to mass media, a very small number of performing artists or athletes can score big as well. Then you have professionals (like me) who make a pretty good salary and might be able to save enough to last through retirement; and the majority of people who pretty much live hand to mouth.

Some people inherit a large fortune, and they tend to think they deserved it. That includes people like George W. Bush, the Koch brothers, and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. People who grow up in middle class households generally have access to higher education and wind up about where their parents were. In the postwar years, blue collar workers assumed their children would end up better off than they were and this tended to be true until about the 1980s when working people pretty much got stuck. And, if you're born into poverty, you'll probably stay there but again, class is not a strict category like caste and some people do move up or down in life.

Ethnicity, broadly speaking, refers to shared cultural identity. It used to be that many nation states were ethnically largely homogeneous, e.g. the Scandinavian countries -- well, if you ignore the Sami. But we tend to notice ethnicity more when it refers to sub-national groups. They may be distinguished by language and other shared history within nation states that have been cobbled together (viz. Belgium, all African countries), be immigrants and their descendants who may or may not speak the dominant tongue; or be conquerors or the remnants of conquered people. The origin of some ethnic groups, such as the Irish Travelers, is unclear. 

We tend not to think of the dominant culture as an ethnicity because we take it as the referent. Anglophone European-Americans are the dominant culture in the U.S. so we think of "ethnic" groups as everybody else, but that's obviously a form of blindness. I was at a conference one time and I met with a group interested in issues relevant to Latinos. (I'm not Latino but I worked for a Latino CBO at the time.) There was an old white guy there who said, literally, "I always wanted to have a culture. When I was growing up there were Hispanic kids in the neighborhood and they had a culture and I didn't, and I wanted one." Uhh, dude, I've got news for you.

Where there is a dominant culture, ethnicity is defined in its terms. People who come to the U.S. from the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas are defined as "Hispanic" or "Latino." But before they crossed the U.S. border, they were Chilean or Argentinian or Mexican, and they also belonged to some sub-national group within that context. For example, I have friends who were Argentinian Sephardic Jews, Ecuadorian cholos (which essentially means acculturated indigenous people), and Mexican mestizos -- people of mixed European and indigenous heritage. But they're all Hispanic now, whether they like it or not.

All of these categories, as I say, can intersect in complicated ways. I'll close for now and take that up next time.

1 comment:

Don Quixote said...

I know what that older Caucasian guy meant, because people from other countries often seem to have ways of life, customs, traditions--that seems like a "culture" to someone who doesn't feel he has his own traditions of music, cuisine, visual art, dance, etc.

It has struck me for some time now that when I worked on catering crews, the groups of people gathering after weddings in renovated barns--almost all Caucasian, in general--danced for hours to the music of African-Americans musicians and groups, like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind & Fire, etc. I don't know what those parties would do without this music. And then there are all the African-American athletes who provide meaning and entertainment for Americans, mostly Caucasians of course. And the great jazz musicians and comedians and artists ... it just seems like such an outgrowth of the days of slavery, when Caucasians removed from their own countries of origin relied on African-Americans for so much, including construction, agriculture, entertainment, and for many, using an entire ethnicity that was labeled "lesser" in order to feel superior.

It seems to me that the culture of America includes much that comes from Appalachia (bluegrass) and the west, but people who came to this country renouncing their own probably feel in a lot of ways that they don't have their own "culture."

What are they going to dance to at parties, Kid Rock? It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

I just want the Caucasians in America to realize that African-Americans are us, and we are them, and this IS our culture--and we need to welcome the people who were for so long perceived as "lesser" and realize we're all one nation.