|Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)|
|13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation|
This paper argues that the historical experiences of groups in the United States significantly shape the various cultural lenses through which people understand inter-ethnic conflict. Specifically, the mode of incorporation of a people into the social and cultural structure of the United States, along with their subsequent treatment, influences three aspects of that understanding at both the individual and group levels:
1. The meanings attached to racial and ethnic identities: are these oppositional identities, immigrant identities, or symbolic identities?
2. The relationship of the group and its component individuals to the state: do they trust the institutions of the state to be fair and honest? Do they see systematic oppression, and the power of the state exercised against them, or do they see the state as an instrument of power to be used by their own group or as a neutral arbiter among groups?
3. The meanings attached to incidents of hate crimes, violence, and intergroup encounters: are they perceived as temporary, accidental and individualized, or as permanent, systematic, and institutionalized?
The empirical material used to amplify this argument is a study of four major bias incidents in New York City in the period 1987-1992. Subsequent to these incidents, the well-publicized rioting in Los Angeles occurred, a racially-tinged event that caused considerable death and destruction of property. While Los Angeles is not discussed here, the four New York incidents examined remain particularly worthy of analysis.
This paper focuses on understanding the roles, reactions, and perceptions of three groups of people: West Indian immigrants, African Americans, and white ethnic Americans. It explores the little-known fact that most such incidents in New York City during the past five years have involved West Indians as victims. Nevertheless, these incidents have generally been reported and understood in terms of the long-term racial problems involving whites and blacks in the United States. However, I differentiate the experiences of West Indians and American blacks, and trace how those differences contribute to different understandings of causes and consequences of hate crimes in New York City.
The paper proceeds as follows: First, I trace the historical distinction in the United States between groups defined in terms of ethnicity and in terms of race. I explore the differences in the ways these groups have been incorporated into the American society and polity and the differences in how they have experienced violence.
Second, I examine the ways in which some of these distinctions have broken down in the last 30 years or so, with the large-scale immigration of non-Europeans following upon changes in American immigration laws in 1965.
Third, I introduce a typology of three groups - involuntary minorities, voluntary minorities, and the dominant white group (who are themselves descendants of voluntary minorities). In New York City these three groups are represented by African-Americans, West Indians, and white ethnics, such as Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, and Irish-Americans.
Part 4 of the paper describes the four major bias incidents, and traces the popular understandings of what happened in each of these groups in the Howard Beach case, to illustrate the general differences in their perceptions. I conclude with general principles of intergroup relations which can be abstracted from analysis of these incidents.
Race and ethnicity in the United States Americans generally distinguish between race relations and ethnic relations. The term "race' commonly refers to distinctions drawn from physical appearance while the term "ethnicity" commonly refers to distinctions based on national origin, language, religion, food, and other cultural markers (Stone, 1985). The history of the groups defined as ethnic has been one of increasing inclusion in society, economic and social assimilation and a decline in the salience and determinacy, though not the existence, of ethnic identities (Takaki, 1987; Lieberson and Waters, 1988; Waters and Lieberson, 1992; Neidert and Parley, 1985). Ethnic groups have generally been identified in cultural and social spheres but have not been given explicit legal status as a group (Glazer, 1987, Thernstrom, 1987).
In contrast, the history of racial groups has been marked by a greater degree of conflict and continued exclusion (Takaki, 1987; Blauner, 1972). Racial groups continue to be very separate from other groups in American life in terms of socio-economic status, residential segregation, and intermarriage (Lieberson and Waters, 1988). Moreover, since 1965, groups defined as racial or language minorities have been given explicit legal status and recognition by the government. The four federally designated minority groups are blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans (Thernstrom, 1987).
The different experiences of groups defined racially and ethnically have in part been explained by the different modes of incorporation of the groups into American society (Lieberson, 1961; Blauner, 1972). European ethnic groups are generally composed of voluntary migrants and their descendants who chose to come to the United States. Those defined racially, such as blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans in the South-West, and Puerto Ricans, have generally been incorporated into the United States historically through conquest or the forced migration of slaves.
As Lieberson (1961) argues, the mode of incorporation of a group into the society has long-range effects on the probabilities of conflict and the extent to which that conflict becomes violent. He describes two different situations of initial contact: (1) subordination of an indigenous population by a migrant group; and (2) subordination of a migrant group by an indigenous racial or ethnic group. The first case has much more potential for conflict than the second.
In United States history, the initial violent confrontations between white settlers and the indigenous Indian, and later the Spanish, populations conformed to the first model by generally resulting in the formation of "racial" groups. The later successive assimilation of white European immigrants conformed to the second model and led to the formation of "ethnic groups." Lieberson identifies the United States after the subordination of the indigenous Indian population as belonging to the second type of society, as the core American group subordinated the incoming immigrant groups. The forced migration of black Africans as slaves does not fit Lieberson's model.