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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Are Americans An Ethnic Group?

Several weeks ago Randy McDonald asked the question:

Do Americans constitute a separate ethnonational group, after more than two centuries of independent statehood and almost four centuries of continuous history in their homeland? My inclination is to say that they do. If so, what sort of relationship do they share with other post-British settler cultures, like the English Canadians, the Australians, and the New Zealanders? Do Americans living outside of their homeland form a diaspora?

In response to the first question, I'd be inclined to say no, at least in terms of describing all Americans. I think that the central point of the American identity is that it is a political one, a sort of civic religion that is explicitly disconnected from ethnicity, that, indeed, exists specifically because this is a multi-ethnic society. The prevalence of ethnic divisions is quite obvious, given our mania for hyphenation, and for collecting statistics on different racial and ethnic groups. These boundaries do not remain the same over time (no one really cares about the English vis a vis the Scots-Irish any more, for one thing) but the idea of these boundaries still retains a power.

I would say that in order for an ethnicity to exist, its members must be conscious of their belonging to the tribe (as it were). In America, I just don't see this as the case. At the national level, most Americans will, indeed, see themselves as American, but they also see themselves in more narrower racial or ethnic terms. Thus, a typical American of European descent will usually see themselves as American, sure, and thus connected, in a way, to the rest of American society, but then they will also see themselves as being white, in contrast to being black or Asian or whatever, and sometimes, too, depending on their background, as being Irish- or Italian- or Greek- or Jewish-American. The same thing goes for Americans of African descent; they are Americans, quite clearly, but they are also unambiguously black, and, although white Americans often don't realize it, there are also divisions in the black community between the descendants of the black slaves of the South and the children and grand-children of more recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.

I would say that a case can be made that there are new ethnic groups in America that are distinct from old world archetypes. This is particularly true in regards to African-Americans, at least in terms of the descendants of slaves brought to North America from West Africa. Black Americans were more cut off from their African heritage than other African slaves elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. African cultural continuities are less apparent in general among African-Americans than among, say, Afro-Brazilians or Afro-Cubans, which is the legacy of the ways in which slavery in the Deep South took a different path from the ones it took in the Carribbean and the northern part of South America. There isn't the space here to really discuss these differences, but they include the different structures of slavery, a greater diversity of African origins (in Brazil, for instance, which imported many times more slaves than America, the overwhelming majority of slaves were brought from what are today Angola, the Congo, and Mozambique), later endings of the Atlantic slave trade (the importation of slaves into the United States ended in 1808, quite a bit earlier than elsewhere), a greater tendency to keep kinsmen apart, a greater willingness to separate families, a lower tolerance for continuity of African cultural forms such drumming, language, a much harsher line on the blending of animist religious forms with Christianity (as in the cases of Candomblé and Santería), and the 'one-drop rule' which prevented the emergence of a mulatto class in between Whites and Blacks (although, of course, miscegenation did occur relatively frequently).

Thus, African-Americans, with roots in a huge variety of West and Central African ethnic groups (and it must be said, a certain amount of admixture from European and American Indian groups), developed in the Deep South, through the particular strictures to which they were victim, a distinctive culture and identity that accompanied them to the North and the West in the course of the Great Migration. Black American culture is, of course, American, and there are many overlapping similarities between the ways in which black and white Americans live their lives, how they think about the world, and so on, and internally, within the black community, there are class differences, regional differences, religious differences (Christianity versus Islam, for one thing), and so on. Yet, I think that it is a fairly uncontroversial statement to say that there are some cultural differences, in the general sense, between white and black America (and brown, yellow, and red, for that mattter).

While Pan-African ideas have an important influence on the African-American intelligentsia, for the most part it is a relatively self-contained culture, responsive to shifts in the wider American cultural landscape, that also provides something to which black immigrants from elsewhere can assimilate to. An example of this can be seen in this article, which I originally linked to here, about two friends from Cuba (one black, one white) and how they grew apart in Miami's racially segregated world, and how the black friend, Joel Ruiz, found himself assimilating into Miami's African-American culture:

It is not that, growing up in Cuba's mix of black and white, they were unaware of their difference in color. Fidel Castro may have decreed an end to racism in Cuba, but that does not mean racism has simply gone away. Still, color was not what defined them. Nationality, they had been taught, meant far more than race. They felt, above all, Cuban.

Here in America, Mr. Ruiz still feels Cuban. But above all he feels black. His world is a black world, and to live there is to be constantly conscious of race. He works in a black-owned bar, dates black women, goes to an African-American barber. White barbers, he says, "don't understand black hair." He generally avoids white neighborhoods, and when his world and the white world intersect, he feels always watched, and he is always watchful.

"In Cuba, I walked as if I owned the streets," he says. "Here I have to figure out where, what, when, everything." He often finds himself caught between two worlds. Whites see him simply as black. African-Americans dismiss him as Cuban. "They tell me I'm Hispanic. I tell them to look at my face, my hair, my skin," he says. "I am black, too. I may speak different, but we all come from the same place." He has started to refer to himself as Afro-Cuban, integrating, indeed embracing, the ways of his black neighbors. … He dresses "black," he says, showing off his white velvet Hush Puppies and silk shirts. When he speaks English, he mimics black Miamians, but his words carry an unmistakably Spanish inflection.

I would say that it is harder to categorize white Americans into a single ethnicity, as in many parts of the country ancestral European ethnicities (German, Italian, Irish, and so on) still play a role in people's lives. Nonetheless, with European immigration running at quite a low rate over the last several decades and high rates of intermarriage between the descendants of the various European groups it seems clear that a generic 'white American' identity is becoming more and more of a reality, especially in light of declining proportion of whites in the overall American population.

The two other main ethnic/racial groups in the US, Hispanics and Asians, are, generally speaking, composed of much higher proportions of immigrants and the children of immigrants than is the case with whites or blacks, and thus ties to the various nations of origin are still, correspondingly, quite strong. Still, though, it seems clear that, as time goes on, the descendants of these immigrants will probably identify less and less with their particular countries of origin and more with American-created pan-Asian or pan-Latino identities.

As for Randy's second question, about American identification with the other English-speaking parts of the former British Empire, I don't think that there is much of that. For one thing, America, uniquely in terms of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, had a violent break from direct British rule. The American Revolution is something that is drummed into every American's head when they are a small child. In the other countries in question, direct rule from Britain lasted much longer and ended peacefully; those nations are still part of the Commonwealth and still have the Queen as their head of state. I have heard the term 'Anglosphere' tossed around by various conservative writers on both sides of the Atlantic, but I don't think it has much traction or resonance in wider American culture. This is also, it must be said, a fairly insular nation overall, and I don't think that many Americans feel a particular link beyond speaking the same language and observing some cultural similarities with the other parts of the English-speaking world, especially Australia and New Zealand, which are somewhat remote from America.

And, to answer Randy's final question, as to whether Americans living abroad see themselves as a diaspora, I would have to say sort of, but mainly no. Relatively few of the several million or so Americans who are living outside of the United States at any given time are permanent exiles. Most who leave will eventually return. There are exceptions, though. My parents are unlikely to move back to the United States, and my father's parents and sisters have lived in and around Geneva for nearly fifty years now. American institutions do exist overseas for expatriates; in London alone there is an American church on the Tottenham Court Road, several American schools, a variety of clubs, and a certain amount of stores providing imported American goods. So, people who have more or less permanently left America can, functionally, recreate some aspects of American life, but, at least in my experience with Western Europe, most American expatriates are integrated enough into local life that they have little need for the sort of communal closeness that has characterized diasporic populations throughout history, such as the Jews, the Armenians, the Greeks, the Maronites , and so on. I would guess, though, that American communities display more internal cohesion in less Western places, particularly in poorer and/or non-Christian nations. From what I have read of expatriate life in Saudi Arabia, from both the boom years of the 1970's to the insecurities of today, it seems clear that American (and British and so on) communities living there have functioned much more as traditional diasporas than Americans living in London or other parts of the West.

|| RPH || 8:03 PM || |