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Race and Ethnicity in the US

Race and Ethnicity in the US

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize the roles of race and ethnicity in American society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I hope you're having a great day. Thank you for taking some time out of it to join me.

In this lesson, we're going to give a historical overview of various racial and ethnic categories. And we're going to focus on the way these racial and ethnic categories have existed in American society socially.

Firstly, let's start with Native Americans. Now it's important to keep in mind the fact that race is socially constructed. And ethnicity is socially constructed, as well. There's no necessary reason why people of different racial categories act the way they do.

We give racial categories meaning socially. You can learn about this in a different tutorial on social construction of race if you would like more detailed information.

So in this lesson then, what we'll do is unpack the social history of various racial categories to see then how these categories themselves even are socially constructed with histories that affect the way these categories exist in society today and the meanings we attach to them.

So Native Americans are people who could trace their ancestry to the original pre-Columbian, before Columbus, inhabitants of North America. When the settlers got here, these people were systematically deceived and controlled. Their land was stolen and they were slowly pushed westward.

If you look at a map of Native American ownership and control of land through American history, you'll see that the eastern seaboard has basically disappeared from Native American control. And they slowly got pushed westwards so now they exist in only little pockets. Little reservations.

Americans have confined them to reservations when we stole all the land. And in an effort to completely break their culture, we had a practice of forced assimilation. Where Native American children were taken, sent to boarding schools where they were essentially Americanized.

So this has resulted in some identity crisis and conflict in Native American populations. This still lingers today in a deep seated profound sense of injustice.

Well, many of the people who came to America in the first wave, many of the first settlers were what we call WASPs. Or white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants. And these were the people interacting with Native Americans originally. So WASPs definitionally are white Americans with mostly, we would say, English ancestry and Protestant cultural heritage.

So when they got here, they were imbued by Max Weber's Protestant work ethic, and they got to America, and they worked hard, and they got ahead. They were some of the first settlers here, as I mentioned. And they are found in all class levels. From low-class up to high-class.

They fought hard to establish their cultural traditions as the dominant majority in society. And they succeeded in this. Like I said, their dominance lasted up until about 1950. Successful WASPs then didn't like waves of immigration from lower groups of Europeans. Like Germans, Italian, Polish, Irish, which we saw in American society.

So WASPs then can be distinguished from other white ethnic groups. White ethnic groups or white ethnic Americans are Americans who can trace their ancestry to disadvantaged groups of white Europeans. Such as Irish, Polish, Italians, or Lithuanians, for example.

Many immigrations of ethnic groups into the United States in the 19th century occurred successive waves of ethnic immigration into this country. People searching for the American dream that they'd heard so much about and read so much about back home.

They wanted to escape home, for whatever reason, and come to America. These people, when they got here, were treated better than other ethnic groups because of their lighter skin. But they were discriminated against by the WASPs because they were seen as crude, less civilized, and more vulgar.

So the WASPs made an effort then to keep white ethnic groups down in some cases. The movie, Gangs of New York, if you've seen it, is about this. It details the development of Manhattan in the mid 19th century where different waves of immigration helped to shape New York City.

And as I mentioned, these white ethnic groups were often not looked at favorably by WASPs and so ethnic whites were shut out of labor markets in an effort to keep power in the hands of American whites. In some cases. Like Don't Hire Immigrants, was a slogan. Or We Only Hire Americans.

Next, we have African Americans. Or Americans who can trace their ancestry to Africa. Slavery and the slave trade brought the first waves of African Americans to this country. These people were denied citizenship, and they were forced to work in horrible conditions in sweatshops, and in fields producing crops.

These people have been systematically discriminated and shut out of labor markets. Even after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Ostensibly, [INAUDIBLE] freed the slaves. But after the Civil War, sustained bigotry and entrenched prejudice prevented African Americans from getting jobs in labor markets.

So if you control the markets like the whites did, if they can control the jobs, who gets hired, et cetera, well, they only hired whites in some cases in an effort to keep African Americans down. Especially in the south. And this is a repeated practice in Capitalism.

If you control the labor markets, if you control who gets hired, you can assert your power that way. Because if you keep somebody out of the labor market, well, how are they supposed to get ahead? And this has happened to African Americans in this country for centuries.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s made strong inroads against this dominant white culture and has improved the standing of African Americans in American society greatly. And it's made great strides, but historical vestiges of labor market exclusion and slavery have left African Americans still today seeing lower wages, and they occupy fewer positions of power in American society.

Next, let's discuss the cultural and social history of Asian Americans and the construction of an Asian American identity in American society. Asian Americans are Americans who can trace their ancestry to Asia. Huge cultural diversity characterizes this group. We have Japanese Americans, and Chinese immigrants, and Korea.

But also more recently, Filipino, Vietnamese, Hmong, Southeast Asian immigrants of all kinds. One third of Asian Americans live in California. This is astonishing statistic. The Chinese were some of the first Asian Americans to arrive here.

The Chinese came with the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century and didn't mind taking low status jobs that whites didn't want. So now Chinese immigrants in American society have experienced upward social mobility. Japanese immigrants, on the other hand, faced a crisis with World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

This induced some hostility towards Japanese Americans living in American society. And as such, President Roosevelt enacted legislation that relocated as many as 120,000 Japanese immigrants to an inland reservation.

Next, let's discuss Hispanic Americans. Hispanic Americans are Americans who can trace their ancestry to Spanish speaking countries and Spanish speaking descent. Currently, this is the largest wave of immigration occurring in American society right now. And Hispanic Americans currently form the largest ethnic group existing in American society.

Most Hispanic Americans live in the southwest United States. Given that they are the largest wave of immigrants occurring right now, they are often vilified and singled out in political discourse as the ones taking our jobs. You'll hear this trope again and again.

Arizona, in fact, recently passed a law that allows law enforcement agents to stop anyone that they think is suspicious and ask for identification and proof of citizenship. This is a highly controversial law because law enforcement agents are people too.

And they might have their own biases, and opinions, and stereotypes. And they can go around then and just indiscriminately stop Hispanic immigrants and ask them, well, do you have citizenship?

Finally, they like to discuss Arab Americans. Or Americans who can trace their ancestry to the Middle East. Arab Americans recently have faced wrongful vilification. Especially if Muslim after 9/11. Because Americans have expressed hostility and shown negative attitudes towards Arab Americans in response to 9/11.

Even though this is wrongful because it applies blanket generalizations to entire groups of people not responsible for the attacks of 9/11. But nonetheless, they have faced vilification in American society because of this.

The important point to take away from this discussion of ethnic categories in American society is that each of them have histories and socially constructed meanings that affect their place in society and treatment today.

Terms to Know
African Americans

Americans who trace their ancestry to Africa.

Arab Americans

Americans who trace their ancestry to the Middle East.

Asian Americans

Americans who trace their ancestry to Asia.

Hispanic Americans (Latinos)

Americans who trace their ancestry to Spanish speaking Latin American countries.

Native Americans

Americans who trace their ancestry to the inhabitants of North and Central America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Social Construction of Race

The notion that our ideas of race and our conceptual racial categories are created through social interaction, rather than being "natural" propensities.

White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs)

Americans who trace their ancestry to primarily English ancestors and have a Protestant cultural heritage.

White Ethnic Americans

Americans who trace their ancestry to disadvantaged, white European groups.