Race and Ethnicity

(Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Race)

How are race and ethnicity different?

Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann (1998) provide a helpful discussion of the differences between the concepts of race and ethnicity. Relying on social constructivism, they 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…Determining which characteristics constitute the race…is a choice human beings make. Neither markers nor categories are predetermined by any biological factors” (Cornell and Hartmann 1998, 24). Ethnicity, conversely, is defined as a sense of common ancestry based on cultural attachments, past linguistic heritage, religious affiliations, claimed kinship, or some physical traits (1998, 19). Racial identities are typically thought of as encompassing multiple ethnic identities (Cornell and Hartmann 1998, 26). Thus, people who are racially categorized as black may possess a variety of ethnic identities based either on African national or cultural markers (e.g., Kenyan, Igbo, Zulu) or the newer national, sub-national, or trans-national identities created through the mixing of enslaved populations in the Americas (e.g., African American, Haitian, West Indian).

Cornell and Hartmann outline five additional characteristics that distinguish race from ethnicity: racial identity is typically externally imposed by outsiders, as when whites created the negro race to homogenize the multiple ethnic groups they conquered in Africa or brought as slaves to America; race is a result of early globalization, when European explorers “discovered” and then conquered peoples with radically different phenotypical traits; race typically involves power relations, from the basic power to define the race of others to the more expansive power to deprive certain racial groups of social, economic, or political benefits; racial identities are typically hierarchical, with certain races being perceived as superior to others; and racial identity is perceived as inherent, something individuals are born with (1998, 27–29).

Race and ethnicity differ strongly in the level of agency that individuals exercise in choosing their identity. Individuals rarely have any choice over their racial identity, due to the immediate visual impact of the physical traits associated with race. Individuals are thought to exercise more choice over ethnic identification, since the physical differences between ethnic groups are typically less striking, and since individuals can choose whether or not to express the cultural practices associated with ethnicity. So an individual who phenotypically appears white with ancestors from Ireland can choose whether or not to assert their Irish identity (say, through the symbolic celebration of St. Patrick’s Day) than whether or not to assert their white identity (Cornell and Hartmann 1998, 29–30). Moreover, Mary Waters (1990) argues that the high level of intermarriage among white Americans from various national ancestries grants their children significant “ethnic options” in choosing which of their multiple heritages to identify with. Such agency is typically lacking in racial identities, which are externally imposed through informal perceptions and formal laws and policies. Indeed, a person with one Irish parent and one Italian parent, while inheriting these ethnic roots, can choose whether or not to identify with either ethnicity, but American society will generally and immediately perceive this person as white. Compare this to a person with one Irish parent and one Kenyan parent, who might also have choices regarding ethnic identity but whom American society will most likely perceive as black. Waters (1999) and Philip Kasinitz (1992) document how phenotypically black West Indian immigrants exercise agency in asserting their ethnic identity in order to differentiate themselves from native-born African Americans, but discrimination and violence aimed at all Blacks, regardless of ethnicity, strongly constrains such agency.

The greater constraints regarding racial identity stem from the role of informal perceptions and formal laws in imposing racial identity externally. Examples of the formal, legal imposition of racial identity include Census categorization (Nobles 2000) and the infamous “hypodescent” laws, which defined people as black if they had one drop of African blood (Davis 1991). Less well known but equally striking are the “prerequisite cases,” judicial opinions issued to determine whether specific immigrants could be classified as white, since the original American naturalization law of 1789 restricted eligibility for citizenship only to “white” immigrants (Lopez 1996).

Race in moral, political, and legal philosophy

Two strands in moral, political, and legal philosophy are pertinent to the concept of race. One strand examines the moral status of the concept of race; the other normatively assesses specific policies or institutional forms that seek to redress racial inequality, such as affirmative action, race-conscious electoral districting, and the general question of colorblindness in law and policy. Both strands demand reflection upon the metaphysics of race discussed above, but in fact only the moral status strand consistently addresses this question, with the result being that many scholars debate the justice of policies like affirmative action without questioning the ontological status of the groups involved.