#56: Disentangling Race and Ethnicity

Human beings are tribal. As described poignantly by Aristotle, we are animals that form political units, societies, towns, or in the Greek understanding, poleis. We are political animals in the sense that we are animals creating political structures – polis is the political aspect of the city, not the physical one (which would be (ástu). When forming societies, we are groupish, we connect with those we think of as related. This is primarily family first, typically extended family. All human societies do that. Family is primal, and relatives are central to original societies.

This is where Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society is dead wrong. He seriously misunderstood indigenous societies, and falsely understood them as relics of the past rather than living, modern societies. He underestimated the importance of family and relatedness, what Vine Deloria jr. calls an indigenous “theory of relativity.” If the foundation is wrong, then what follows is flawed as well, specifically Rousseauvian fantasies about “primitive peoples” and Friedrich Engels’s ideas about the origin of family and private property. Both authors can, of course, be forgiven, as they wrote in the 19th century and based their conclusions on much less data than available now. But in the meantime, we have been able to understand that family is not an epiphenomenon, but rather the original basis for all societies (see Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491 for more up-to-date and very readable descriptions of early societies as well as of indigenous civilizations).

The centrality of relatives, and thus of genetics, is contained in original conceptions of human societies. The idea of descendancy can be found in traditional stories from most if not all cultures. Groups are formed around cores of similarity, of belonging, whether truly genetic or through association. This is where our idea of ethnicity comes from.

Ethnicity is the concept that a group of people is more similar to each other by being in clear relation to each other mainly genetically. Just as a tribe is typically an extended family, an ethnic group is the assumedly supersized version of that. But “genetically” here – and this is where it becomes more complicated – is not really meant only biologically, but more in the sense of “being related to each other.” Typically, it is a combined package of having lived in a shared homeland (thus somehow a notion of autochthonous or even indigenous existence), speaking a language that directly originates from its related historical antecedents, having the same religion or a version thereof, having a shared historical experience, and demonstrating close cultural similarity in practices, values, beliefs, etc. Importantly also, ethnicities also demarcate territories against other rival ethnicities.

So much in theory. Now, if you applied a wide angle on Europe, most Europeans could be understood as related to the Germani. Germanic tribes conquered and succeeded Western Rome and founded the early states that would grow into the nation states we know today. Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths and Langobards, Gaul by the Franks, England by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and later also by the Danes and Normans, Spain by the Visigoths, Suebi (and the Iranian Alans), and Vandals (alas “[V]andalusia”) North Africa by Vandals (see Peter Heather’s books, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians). Charlemagne was clearly a Frank, meaning a German, and functions as the founder of both France and the Holy (Roman) (German) Empire.

(But if you ran around Europe today, especially after two brutal German-led World Wars, calling the Spanish, French, British, Italians and Americans (via immigration) all versions of Germans, you would get into trouble, especially with the “British” Royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Battenberg/Mountbatton, or more obscurely, Windsor – a family that has taken great pains to not be seen as German.)

Ethnicity may finally be a cultural construction, but it is constructed specifically on the idea of lineage and descendancy, specifically as regards a combination of rough family resemblance, territorial continuity, shared linguistic and cultural roots and practices.

This is what eventually led to the concept of the nation, as described by Benedict Anderson as an Imagined Community, namely that “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (p. 26).

Thus you are typically seen as a German if your ancestors lived in Germany, you speak German, and occasionally participate in German-specific cultural practices. Recent or current immigrants and their descendants sadly oftentimes still experience a lack of belonging and identification as truly German by the majority because of this understanding of ethnicity (and nationality), but it is my belief that this will slowly fade as it has faded with all other immigrants in the past, like the Huguenots and the many Germans of originally Slavonic backgrounds.

“Ethnos” is typically translated as “natio” – and ethnicity and nationality are frequently seen as similar, but they are not the same. Ethnicity, contrary to the nation state, has no defined boundaries on the map, may predate, survive, or even transcend the nation state. There have been Germans before there ever was a Germany (1871), there have been Kurds without ever having a nation state (unless you count Saladin’s realm as Kurdish), and there are many Americans which – in addition to their American citizenship – claim a specific ethnic identity in addition to their American-ness.

There is thus a sense that while ethnicity surely is also culturally constructed, it is more primal than more political notions of nationality.

So what about race? As noted before, race does not exist as a meaningful biological category, or a category of genetic descent – it is mostly if not merely cultural. As I phrased it, race is not real, but racism is: Other than ethnicity (which is self-identified), racial identity in the sense it is used in America is ascribed by the outside. “Race” is something attributed primarily to you, not by yourself. You may choose eventually to buy into the racialist way of thinking, but that may happen more as an act of resigned acceptance of the way things are, rather than the way things should or could be.

“Race,” in the current understanding, is an outcome of two historical developments. First, the colonization of America and other areas of the world happened by selfishly and wrongly justifying that the original inhabitants were of inferior character and thus could not own the land, and the doctrine of discovery was presumed to grant Europeans the right to earn the land. “Race” thus has a colonizing function. Second, the early modern slave trade, conducted by Arab, African and European slavers, was tied into the colonization framework and transported African slaves to the Americas, with the justification that they were “racially” different or inferior. This also changed the nature of slavery, and created an inter-generational race-based system of discrimination with no or hardly any possibility for manumission. Religion was abused sometimes to justify these deeds, but it only found excuses for a merely practical business deal. “Race” was invented as a convenient tool to pretend-explain the exploitation of (1) whoever needed to be exploited and (2) who would not in principle be easily integrated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.

As shown by Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race, and by David Hollinger in Postethnic America, the idea of race also bore out the idea of whiteness. Basically, whoever was not seen as fit to be fully American (on the entire continent) was considered non-white. Race has never been just about skin color, but about a combination of national origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, other physical features, culture, and sometimes class. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants were – at various times – not considered “white.”

This betrays the idea of “whiteness” as an ideological position, just as the idea of “nonwhite.” It’s the old grammatical distinction between “unmarked” (neutral, white) and “marked” (different, non-white). The Spanish “casta” system goes into more detail (and establishes an intricate race- and descendancy-based caste system) which may have some relevance in the United States as well, although not overtly. “White” skin is not white, it is piglet pink, and “black” skin is not black, but a shade of brown. American Indian / Native American populations are not “red” either, neither are Asians “yellow” (but Buddhist robes are; which may have been the inspiration). This shows race as a merely ideological disposition, and it may also point to the practice of elites in Renaissance times powdering their faces white, and wearing white wigs, that may have given the inspiration for the color “white” in the first place.

One euphemism for “white” is “Caucasian,” which typically describes populations within the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, speaking Indo-European languages. But Indo-European speakers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are typically not recognized as Caucasian. Here is where ethnicity and “race” are in direct conflict: All European populations (with the exception of Basques and Saami) – this includes Germanic-, Romance-, Slavic-, Romani-, Greek-, Baltic-, Celtic- and related speakers – are related, genetically, culturally and linguistically, with populations in the Asian countries mentioned above, and some more. Do they all count as white?

“Race” makes no sense, other than to describe it as a category of exploitation; as I have said, “race” is not real, but racism is.

Ethnicity may be complex, can also be shifting, can be transferred, can be genetic and cultural, or both, and is not easy to grasp sometimes either, but it can easily be mixed – dual- or multi-ethnic affiliations are possible (just as I, myself, would now identify with East German, American, and some other origins as well). It may not be perfect, but it is certainly real, and maps with the living experience of cultures all over the world, past or present, and certainly, future.

Maybe “race” can be transformed, eventually, into an ethnicity, which could reframe it from a term of horrible discrimination to a term of pride. In some ways, this seems to be happening. It certainly would help if we could finally stop using terminology typically associated with Nazis and slavers.

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Now comes the point where I can use the title of this web log as a deus ex machina: This was an “erratic attempt”, and it does not have to tell the whole story. I am aware that this could become much more complicated, but it’s a blog, not a book. More to come if needed. Let me know if you want me to touch on a specific topic or aspect via e-mail.

#14: The European Project Needs Both Unity and Disunity

Now in a major crisis, the European Union has a chance to lead. But how should such leadership look like, and how strong should such a union be?

It may well be understandable that currently, during the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, its individual member states are concerned about their own safety, and that they have seemingly fallen back on national thinking. But this would be a misleading conclusion that would fall in line more with those suspicious of the EU as an overreaching enemy of national identities.

But the European Union is not such a super-state, and it should never become one. The history of Europe teaches us two major lessons: First, without some form of unity, European states will defeat each other in their selfish quests for dominance. Many a war has been fought in pursuit of this, and it took several wars of global scope to demonstrate that point eventually. The Seven Years War, the Crimean War, World Wars I+II, and the Cold War have revealed Europe to be a danger to itself and the entire world that needs to be contained by some form of structure stressing cooperative and mutual success over selfishness and deadly competition. Yet second, history has also shown that national, regional, even tribal identities in Europe need to be respected as well, and that they need to also be recognized administratively.

Accordingly, the answer to European Integration can only be a form of supranational, very weak federalism. But this is not a weakness, it is a strength, and it is recognized already in the EU’s motto “united in diversity.”

Throughout history, many a charismatic leader has tried to unite the area that could be called Europe under a single ruler. The only stable approach to this has been the Roman Empire, but this was at a different time, under completely different historical circumstances that cannot quite be compared to our times.

Reasons for the failure of Rome are manifold, and always fun to discuss. There is no one factor to pinpoint. But maybe it helps to see that the great empires of antiquity – which would include Egypt, Persia, Seleucia, and Rome, acted as developmental drivers for the entire Mediterranean region. All these multicultural empires were enabling infrastructure, local development, science, and culture; but they eventually also enabled different regions to develop their own identity. While everybody focuses on the Germanic invasions later on as a cause for the breakup of Western Rome, it is more instructive to look at local independence movements in Gaul, Britain, Palmyra, and other areas. In the end, all subsequent attempts at unifying the entire realm by force would fail, thankfully.

The lesson here may be that large empires can be established when the provinces and regions are weak, but this is, of course, no sustainable economic model. Once provinces and regions grow stronger, centrifugal forces will keep creating division if the central authority is perceived as too strong. If there is any lesson history can provide us, it is probably that.

If we apply this to the European Union, we need to first provide the major caveat that the EU is of course not a structure created by force but voluntarily so. Its creation, however, was hastened by several factors, namely the legacy of World War II, the dangers of the Cold War, the external help from the United States, and finally, the legacy of Soviet oppression. If we simplify these forces, the lesson here is that democracy and freedom are drivers of unity, while authoritarianism is a danger against which European states will eventually rise up.

This reveals the following: Any attempt at European integration that aims for a unified super-state with state-like powers will fail. An all-powerful and intransparent central bureaucracy will kill the European project just as much as any authoritarian dictator will. Brexit surely was idiotic, but predictably so. In order to retain some form of European unity, some form of disunity will need to be tolerated.

#10: Corona, or, Nothing Important Is Happening Today

There is this anecdote that on July 4th 1776, King George wrote into his Journal “Nothing is Happening Today.” These were the times without instant worldwide communications, and surely, he could not have known what had just happened in the American colonies. And as most such famous quotes go, it very probably is not true, just as most of these things aren’t. These historical “fake news” exist to show a person’s character, or rather, to reveal the lack of royal insight in this case.

It will be interesting what will remain of all of us for future generations. People like to ridicule how in the “Middle Ages” (whatever that means) believers would flock into churches to pray against the Black Death, and thus would unknowingly spread it, or that Native Americans would congregate in Sweat Lodges, only to unknowingly spread diseases as well. There are countless such examples from all human cultures throughout all of history, I would assume.

We are not much better now.

It’s quite depressing watching the news, but it’s also a strange social and political experiment, somehow. Each country, it seems, has found different ways to deal with the issue ineptly; if it weren’t so sad, it would be fascinating. Watching young people frolicking outside, either here or in Europe, is a strange sight to see. Fear can do many different things with the human psyche, I guess.

It is an outrageous assumption that human beings would have somehow evolved to be smarter now. We are now seeing the evidence to the contrary, once again.

The sinister regime in Communist China felt that their reputation was more important than the safety of the entire world. They lied, persecuted truth-tellers, refused to share information, and are responsible for what is happening today. They know, but in true Socialist-Communist fashion, the party is supposed to be smarter than reality. Reality, supposedly, can be bent to the social engineering of a hubristic utopian cult hell-bent on eradicating every trace of individuality in the name of the “perfect” state.

(Should anyone dare to misunderstand what I am saying, my criticism aims at the regime and all those supporting it, in thought, words, and actions; it is not aimed at the innocent people imprisoned, dominated and abused by a sadistic system run by sadistic people.)

What started in China, and was made worse by the Chinese government, has, of course, spread now to the entire world. In the Western World, reactions have been less than perfect, and the tragedy unfolding in Italy right now may hit other countries. We are not prepared for such a pandemic, but surely, we will survive it, and luckily, this is Corvid-19, which is clearly a dangerous respiratory virus, but it is certainly not the Black Death, Ebola, or whatever gifts nature may still have in store for us.

But this is a lesson for the future.

Globalization – always – has brought with it both immense riches and immense risks. It mortally wounded the Eastern Roman Empire, once the Black Death made it to the Mediterranean area. It killed off probably about 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas, Australia, and other areas. Global Interconnectedness means also the global spread of diseases.

We need to learn from this. Health care systems and modern medicine need to be made to withstand whatever comes next. Every country needs to be able to make their own medicines. We cannot rely on rogue players for our own survival.

We are learning right now very unfortunate things. We are back, sadly, in Europe to each country being on their own. Maybe European Integration needs more coordination with regards to health care? In each federal system, be it Germany or the United States, we need more coordination between states.

But mostly, we need people to listen. This is dangerous. Follow instructions. This is how civilizations can end. You may believe you can shape reality in any way possible, but reality will laugh at you. Nature is stronger than us. Only together will we survive this.

But as usual, the response to all the admonitions, all the warnings, all the instructions, is a cynical, casual, superior snark of “nothing important is happening today.” Neil Postman was right that Aldous Huxley was right. We are choosing our own pleasure as the instrument of our suppression. This has happened before, and it will happen again.

Fear can produce the strangest reactions, and I guess denial is just human nature.