Thursday, November 27, 2014

Concepts of Race

 The way that things ought to be, and at that age typically are.  But beyond that, chances are these two young girls are actually of the same culture, which generally, but not always, is what people are actually talking about when they talk about "race".  Front piece to Holscher's Laws of Behavior.

Some of the thread that appear on this blog were started as drafts a long time ago. This is one such instance.  It's been more or less ready to publish as a text for months and months.  I just didn't get around to it.

A couple of events recently, however, caused me to rethink posting it.  For one, we've had the riots in Ferguson Missouri, which have brought race to the forefront of the national mind, in a probably unfair and skewed say. We also had the Presidents unilateral actions on immigration, which tends to bring race to mind as its generally presumed that most new immigrants and illegal immigrants are of some minority race.  And then a lawyer I know had sort of an odd experience at court the other day that had something to do with race.  So I took another look at this old thread.

Growing up in the Rocky Mountain West, I frankly thought very little about "race" as a kid.  To us growing up here, racism seemed a legacy of the distant past, or a weird relic in the South.  It didn't have much to do with us.  We were not really naive in these regards, it simply reflected where we lived.

Of course, a kids perception of reality doesn't match that which might be real, but for one reason or another, all that racial stuff that some regions of the country were, and still are, all tied up with just didn't have that much relevance here.  To a large degree, it still doesn't.  To those of us born and raised here, that people harbor deep fear or animosity towards American blacks, or other groups, seems bizarre.  Even with minor varieties of that we tend to find that people here are caught generally off guard.  I've occasionally met people who just moved here, for example, who will use some racial overtone that the rest of us have no frame of reference for and don't even know what they mean.  When it dawns on them that we don't get it, and aren't interested in learning to get it, they usually look embarrassed and if they stick around, they knock it off.  This isn't to say that there is no racism here, that wouldn't be true, but its certainly not like in some other regions of the country.

Which leads me to the American fascination with race, which is largely not shared by residents here.  On the national level, we're constantly treated to stories on race, and demographic trends on race.  It never seems to dawn on the commentators that race is a very fluid human construct, and indeed doesn't reflect anything in nature at all.

What is race?  People tend to define it by skin color, when there's really no basis to do that.  What they actually mean is culture, usually, which they erroneously conflate with skin color. What people really mean by a "race" is a culture, not a skin coloration, but they seem not to know that, so the categories they speak of are not only often not even real, but confusing at best.

Indeed, in physical morphology, while there are all sorts of physical attributes which are, or perhaps more accurately were, genetic adaptions to the environment, the actual genetic differences between one group of humans and another is inconsequential, if interesting.  Skin coloration, eye color and even height, are all genetic adaptations to specific environments. But morphological differences in humans, while apparent to us, really have very little significance in terms of variety in the human genome.  It is perhaps natural that people sort of instinctively fear a group of people not looking exactly like themselves, as that probably goes back to our ancient tribal structure in which any group of people not part of the immediate tribe was a potential danger, but people can and always have gotten over that pretty quickly.

When we look at how race has really been treated in the US, what it shows us is that its really based on something else entirely, or at least for the most part, and that's very revealing in terms of current news and analysis.

In the United States, blacks have always been regarded as a separate race.  No surprise there, as surely a group of people couldn't enslave another group in the conditions in which American slavery existed and not rationalize that away.  And blacks remain the freakish exception to what we will see is the rule, as they are still regarded as a separate race today.  Right away, I'm sure, some will be thinking "well of course they're a separate race", but they aren't so regarded everywhere in other cultures.  In Brazil, or  Cuba, for example, where there are many people of black genetic heritage, they're not regarded as a separate race.  In the US, on the other hand, the concept of black being a seperate race is so strong that it even applies to people whose genetic heritage if 50%, or less, black. That's really odd.

 Jack Johnson with this first wife, Etta Terry Duryea.  She was a Brooklyn socialite.  Their relationship was turbulent, and she killed herself in 1912.  All three of Johnson's three wives were white, and he was massively controversial at the time.  Upon the occasion of his second marriage, at least two southern ministers urged that he be lynched.  In a sign of progress, today three marriages might be slightly noted, but that they were interracial probably wouldn't cause much notice. As evidence of that, a certain family of half Armenian extraction, notable for being notable, and members of what was once regarded as its own race, have interracial marriages and nobody ever notes that, nor do they regard Armenians as a separate race either.

It's particularly odd in a cultural context, as we will see, as the majority of American blacks have ancestors who arrived in this country, or in the proceeding colonies, well before most whites, and they are steeped in the American culture.  In spite of the occasional shout outs to African cultures, by and large the African heritage of American blacks is very muted, if there, and therefore they're amongst the most American of Americans, which in most instances would wipe out the cultural distinctions.  Indeed, for those not from certain areas, that seems pretty evident when you are in a region that you are not from, as whites and blacks pretty clearly are part of the same regional culture in those locations.

But, its even so strong that it attaches to blacks whose family history doesn't go back very far in the US, which is a minority of American blacks.  President Obama, for example, is regarded as black, when of course he's half white, and his father, absent from his life while he was growing up, was a Kenyan.  That means that he doesn't really share in the African American experience very much, and yet he's regarded as black.

Indians were also regarded as another race from the onset, and like blacks, they remain so regarded, and perhaps for similar reasons.  Contrary to what is generally supposed, they were often widely admired by their conquerors, but at the same time they were regarded, by and large, as a separate race deserving to be conquered.  And their categorization as a separate race continues on, which we will see is definitely an exception to the rule.  As they do maintain separate cultures, perhaps that is the reason.

 Crow Indians, Crow Agency, 1940.  People have persisted in regarding Native Americans as a separate race, adn they are a separate series of cultures.  None the less, as a culture they fit into the rural Western culture as well, as this photo demonstrates.

So turning to race in general once again, consider that up until probably World War One or so Italians and the Irish were regarded as separate races, and as much so as American Indians or blacks.  Jews were very much a separate race.

Indeed, so were the "Anglo-Saxons".

And that tells us a lot about how "race" categorizations are false.

The early colonist in this country were largely from Great Britain. They were also almost all Protestant, if not all the same type of Protestants. And their view of the world was that they were the vanguards of Protestant Christianity against Catholicism and Heathenism.  They were English and Scots pioneers, and they viewed themselves as right thinking.  People could come around to their way of thinking, or get out of the way. Those who didn't, even if it was King George III, would be pushed out of the way.

Looking at the world that way, they came to view themselves as a special people, culturally.  And with that, they came to view most other peoples as a bit inferior.  Not just blacks and Indians (and often there was a begrudging admiration of Indians) but other Europeans as well. This was particularly the case with Catholic Europeans, although people of Jewish extraction were also very much regarded as a separate race.

The Irish in particular, who were a difficult British people who just wouldn't get with the Protestant plan, in their view, were a separate inferior "race". The "Irish Race" was tricky, lazy, and diminutive, and distressingly Catholic, in the English view.  The French were a swarthy Catholic group which seemed distressingly willing to mix their DNA with the native population.  The Spanish were a traditional enemy. As the late 19th Century came on, the Italians were another "dark skinned" "race". These views were held very seriously.  So seriously that those of English extraction came to self identify as being a separate race as well, the "Anglo Saxon Race".

 Political cartoon from the 1860s, depicting the fear that the United States would be consumed by Irish and Chinese immigrants, who are both depicted as odd looking races.  In the cartoon, the Irish and Chinese immigrants swallow the US, and the Chinese immigrants swallows the Irish one.  Today, nobody would regard the Irish as a separate race, and by and large Asians tend not to be either.

The defining nature of these views, which were often characterized in terms of physical appearance, had nothing to really do with how people looked, but what they believed.  Americans of strongly English descent began to regard themselves, as the English also did, as Anglo Saxons, a super charged colonizing enlightened race, with these other people being members of lesser races.

Well, nobody today regards Italians as a separate race.  What happened?

 Italian immigrants in Eastern city, at a time when Italians were considered a separate race.

Well, time happened in part.  The immigrant populations blended in and rose up economically. As that happened, their alien nature seemed less alien, and it eventually came to disappear entirely. And, of course, strongly ethnic aspects of their cultures did diminish.  And inevitably, in spite of the nature of human self segregation, there's always the case of some English heritage young lad suddenly finding some dark skinned Italian lass fascinating, with a marriage ensuing, usually, when that first occurs, to the mutual horror of the two separate ethnic groups.  Over time, however, people refocus and the concern becomes one on actual cultural and philosophical differences; i.e, shared local culture, shared economic status, shared religion, etc. 

This is what has happened to nearly every "race" in the US, with the exception of blacks and Indians to some degree, although both of these populations are much more mixed and part of the general American culture than imagined.  None the less, it's notable today that Asian Americans, for example, are largely regarded as being the same race as the "white" majority, whether or not the Census Bureau regards it that way.  In large patches of the country, various groups that still have some racial identity in some places also no longer have any in most places.  Most Americans wouldn't regard East Indians as a separate race, but a separate culture.  Most also wouldn't regard Armenians, or North Africans, as separate races, but rather separate cultures.

With blacks and Indians, the story is oddly different.  The reasons are hard to discern, but it probably has a great deal to do with poverty and also with their unique histories.  With blacks having the legacy of slavery attached to their history, and being burdened with ongoing poverty, perhaps a strong national concept of race has been hard to eliminate.  Slavery, it seems, is the national burden that just won't go away.  Something similar might be the case with Indians, who are also an impoverished group, and who lost the continent.  Poverty in particular always produces its own problems, one of which is a prejudice against the poor.  Being a conquered people may also stick. And, of course, the United States entered into a peculiar relationship with those people in conquered in later years, in undertaking to maintain them somewhat, while attacking their culture at the same time, thereby preserving them in place and reducing them to poverty.

This brings me to Hispanics and other new groups.  I'm constantly reading that the country is becoming more "diverse".  Maybe it is, but I suspect that Hispanics are a group that's going to be regarded as its own race, now that they are a significant demographic, about as long as Italians were, and for the same reasons.  Fifty years from now, to be Hispanic will be to claim a certain ethnic heritage, and that will probably be about it.

Indeed, it's already the case that I read piles of wedding announcements in the newspaper every week between people with Spanish surnames and English, or other, names. These cultures are already mixing at an extremely rapid rate, and not just in terms of marriage, but culture.  Some time ago I attended something at Mass where a person self identified as Hispanic, but who would have been impossible to identify that way by appearance, and this is becoming the absolute norm.  Hispanic last names are rapidly only indicating ethnic heritage and not race, and usually mixed American ethnic heritage, the same way Irish, German or Italian last names do.  Hispanics may have been a strongly identifiable minority in many places, and indeed they still are, but they're rapidly entering the mainstream and vice versa, the latter being an interesting process we rarely think of.  Just as minority cultures pick up and adopt large parts of the majority culture, the majority culture adopts parts of the minority culture as well.  Across the street from my office, for example, there's a Mexican restaurants that's really Mexican.  It's very popular with local Hispanics, but most days at noon, any more, it's swamped with everyone else.  An establishment that started off being patronized mostly by members of its own culture now no longer is, even though it hasn't changed a bit.  Restaurants are, of course, a superficial example, but it's also interesting how many people now celebrate Cinqo De Mayo in some fashion, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated at Catholic parishes everywhere.

This doesn't mean that any one ethnic group doesn't have its own unique cultural aspects to it, of course. But the differences in culture do decline over time. St. Patrick's Day, for example, is still a serious day with strongly Catholic Irish Americans, but it's also a national party for those looking for one.  Cinqo De Mayo has already gone from being a date somewhat remembered in Mexico as the anniversary of a battle against the French, to being an excuse to have Mexican food.  Columbus Day still brings out Italian Americans in some parts of the country, but in most regions they ignore it like everyone else.  And of course the American habit of intermarriage means that after awhile everyone is pretty much everything.

This doesn't mean that we've now entered racial bliss, where nobody is a racist. That's obviously not true. And cultural differences between different groups of Americans still exist, with most being harmless.  But what it probably means is that the country ought to really focus on persistent poverty in some of the ethnic groups long burdened with it, as that poverty is a principal source of remaining racism.  Taking that on won't be easy, but it has to be done.  Included with that, are some pretty hard and difficult decisions, which the country generally hasn't been too willing to undertake recently.

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