Race and Ethnicity

views updated May 14 2018

Race and Ethnicity

John Snetsinger

To many observers one of the surprises of the 2000 census was that fully 10 percent of Americans reported that they had been born in a foreign country. Thirty years earlier the figure had been just 4.7 percent, the smallest in the Republic's history. The significance for the future formulation of U.S. foreign policy is not to be lost in the current number of foreign-born within the population. The political reality of the American system is that the greater the number of foreign-born, as well as of others within the population who retain ties with ancestral associations, the more likely it is that ethnic group politics can influence foreign policy. Demographic trends in twenty-first century America hold the promise that ethnicity may well play an even greater role in the making of foreign policy than has generally been the case.

A defining element of the American experience has been the degree to which ethnic affiliations, and to a lesser degree racial identity, have influenced foreign policy. Since the first census in 1790, the federal government has gathered information on ethnicity and race, although the type of data collected has changed over time as interests have shifted. With public awareness heightened by the impact of surging immigration by 1850, census respondents were asked not just their place of birth but also that of their parents. The influence of ethnic groups on the making of foreign policy has fluctuated with the ebb and flow of immigration.

Because there has never been a time in which a higher percentage of Americans had themselves been born in a foreign country, or had at least one parent born overseas, historians commonly focus on the influence of ethnic constituencies on President Woodrow Wilson's diplomacy of war and peace. There is merit in identifying the winners and losers among those engaging in ethnic politics in this era, as will be discussed later. The 1920 census reported that approximately one-third of the national population either had been born overseas or had at least one parent who had been. This remarkably high figure is worthy of attention, but it is also significant that ever since the founding of the Republic, foreign policy issues have been viewed by millions of Americans through the prism of their ancestral ties of culture, nation, language, religion, or race.


Reasons for the link between American diplomacy and ethnicity are found in the manner in which the country was settled. In Europe it was common to have a single national or religious identification shared by the public. In the emerging American republic, however, the composition of the population reflected a high degree of national, religious, and racial diversity. One wave of immigrants after another swelled the American population with persons of vastly dissimilar backgrounds.

White English settlers made up the clear majority in the American colonies, but only through the second half of the eighteenth century. During that period three-quarters of the new settlers were Scotch-Irish, Scottish, German, French, and Swiss. Thirty percent of New Englanders came from places other than England in the years immediately preceding the War for Independence. Settlers of English ancestry were only 30 percent of the population in German-dominated Pennsylvania. In the southern colonies African slaves comprised the single largest ethnic or racial group.

These immigrants, and in many instances their descendants, have retained ancestral loyalties. Over centuries, waves of immigration have brought to America innumerable groups and tens of millions of immigrants whose ancestral identity has been handed down to present generations. It has been, and remains, common for ethnic minoritiessuch as Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, and Polish Americansto embrace their new American loyalties while clinging to their kinship ties. Groups with millions of immigrants, such as those noted above, have the advantage of their large numbers in lobbying for a particular foreign policy. A fascinating element of ethnic politics that will be explained is that even a relatively small ethnic group representing only a fraction of 1 percent of the national population, such as Armenian Americans, can exert significant influence on the conduct of foreign policy.

The process through which American foreign policy is formulated works to the advantage of ethnic groups interested in assisting some cause of their homeland. All forms of government, including dictatorships, ultimately rely upon the support of public opinion to sustain their activities abroad. In a democracy, however, the link between the nation's diplomacy and the desires of the citizenry is more direct than in nondemocratic states.

The extent to which ethnic minorities are able to shape foreign policy is a uniquely American phenomenon. No other nation has absorbed such extensive waves of immigration as the United States. Sixty percent of the world's international migration between the early nineteenth century and 1930 came to the United States.


Until the 1960s many historians believed that ethnic group influence on foreign policy would gradually diminish as the population became an American population with fewer immediate ethnic ties. Beginning in the 1920s, the flow of immigration slowed dramatically with laws reflecting anti-immigration public sentiment. Depression and war continued the trend to the point where under 5 percent of the population had been born in a foreign country. The political and cultural trends that lasted through the 1950s stressed the need for assimilation and conformity to the mainstream norms. The Cold War, with its emphasis on the righteousness of the American position and its constant invocation of national patriotism, further inhibited criticism of mainstream American values and institutions. School textbooks extolled the virtues of the "melting pot" to which other cultures contributed, but nonetheless stressed the importance of unity and adaptation to the national norm.

As with so much else in national life, these concepts and the national ethnic and racial makeup changed dramatically in the 1960s. An event that unmistakably precipitated the changes, and one whose legacy might well include significantly altering the policies of American diplomacy in the decades ahead, is the Immigration Act of 1965. Sponsored by liberal Democrats in Congress and Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, this law changed the rules of entering, and thereby opened the doors to the greatest influx of immigrants in history. The Hart-Celler Act, as it was then known, received little attention when it was passed, and continues to be relatively ignored in histories recounting Johnson's reform program, the Great Society. Nonetheless, it may be the single most significant legislation of that era as far as its impact on the nation's future.

Rejecting national origin quotas as the basis for admittance, as had previously been the case, in the 1965 law family reunification became the basis for admittance for nearly two-thirds of those who would immigrate. Three subsequent laws increased the impact of the 1965 law: the Refugee Act of 1980, which recognized a separate category of those fleeing political oppression; the Immigration and Control Act of l986, which provided amnesty for three million immigrants who had entered the United States illegally before l982; and a 1990 amendment to the l965 law that substantially raised the number who could enter as legal immigrants.

The flow of immigrants has risen steadily, particularly after 1990, when the annual totals for legal immigration peaked for several years at approximately 1.5 million. Between 1965 and 2000, approximately 23 million immigrants legally entered the United States. Adding estimates that there are also from 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants, the total attests to a massive foreign-born influence. Twenty-five percent of California's population is foreign born, and New York state is not far behind, with about 20 percent.

As important as the sheer number of immigrants is, it is also significant that 85 percent of the legal immigrants are from non-European backgrounds without the traditional foreign policy interests of most Americans. Europeans comprise approximately 15 percent of legal immigrants, Asian Americans about one-third, and Latin Americans most of the rest. The foreign policy issues that concern these new Americans have already begun to shape the direction of diplomacy, notably on trade and on immigration issues, such as amnesty for undocumented workers already in the country. Future diplomacy is likely to concern such issues more directly. One reason is that demographers project that, because of higher Hispanic birthrates and the origins of future immigrants, the United States will see a decline in its population of European background and a substantial rise in its Hispanic and Asian population.


Astute politicians not only must be aware of broad-based national sentiment concerning a diplomatic issue, but also must give a hearing to ethnic minorities who have a particular interest in certain areas of the nation's foreign policy. Organized ethnic minorities can bring pressure on the government for specific policies that are peculiarly their own and that may favor their original homeland in relation to another nation or a particular political movement within the homeland, or simply reflect an attitude that is common to similar American immigrant groups.

So apparent and consistent are the desired diplomatic policies of some ethnic minorities that politicians can frequently anticipate what actions will solidify their support among these groups. Even though the resulting positions may flout foreign policy objectives outlined by the federal government, politicians have made attempts to please the large ethnic blocs within their constituency. Mayor William H. ("Big Bill") Thompson, for example, placated citizens of Irish extraction when in the late 1920s he threatened that he would "punch the snout" of the king of England should the monarch dare to enter Chicago.

New York City mayors Robert F. Wagner, John V. Lindsay, and Abraham D. Beame pursued a policy designed to meet with the approval of the city's three million Jews by refusing to welcome Arab rulers on goodwill tours of the United States. Politicians across the political spectrum share their contempt for Cuba's Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, in seemingly endless verbal assaults when the goal is to win the support of Cuban Americans.

Mayors and other local officials may irritate foreign leaders, but the extent to which such actions affect American diplomacy is relatively slight. More serious consequences can arise when ethnic minorities place sufficient pressures on the national government to alter the direction of foreign policy. During the first half of the twentieth century, for example, the development of a close understanding between the United States and Great Britain was blocked on several occasions by persistent Anglophobia that centered among citizens of Irish and German ancestry. These two minorities opposed early American intervention to aid Britain in both world wars. Partly on account of such opposition, the United States not only postponed early wartime alliances with Britain, but also handled peacetime rapprochement with extreme caution.


Concern about ethnic groups and efforts they might make to pressure policy decisions dates from before the founding of the Republic. James Madison and others who collaborated in writing the Federalist Papers (17871788) translated their concerns over what they saw as the inevitable impact of ethnic factions into a representative government in which popular passions and individual pressure groups could be countered by calmer and wiser leaders. President George Washington expressed misgivings over what the impact of ethnic factions might be on the young nation's diplomacy. One of the earliest examples of ethnic group pressure came from Irish Americans, who by 1800 made up a majority of the newly naturalized immigrants to America. Favoring the cause of an independent Ireland, and the revolutionary activities already under way to accomplish that goal on the home island, Irish Americans broke with the pro-British stance of Washington and the Federalists and backed the political fortunes of Jeffersonian Republicans.

During John Adams's presidency the passage of the restrictive Alien and Sedition Laws (1798) were in part an effort to silence the criticisms voiced by Irish Americans. Although never seriously competing in effectiveness with the greater influences that moved national foreign policy toward association with Great Britain throughout the nineteenth century, Irish Americans were a consistent and significant force in diplomatic deliberations. The large-scale immigration of Irish to America during the famine of the 1840s, the political activism with which the Irish became associated, and the constant turmoil that seemed to define the struggle in Ireland itself demanded the attention and concern of those who had left. These factors combined to heighten interest in attempting to shape their new nation's diplomacy toward Irish independence and relations with the British.

A domestic affinity group, the Fenian Brotherhoodwhich was associated with the revolutionary Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Irelandhad substantial support among Irish Americans in attempting to achieve twin goals. First, the Fenians were committed to assist their revolutionary brothers abroad and, second, to try to foment a war between the United States and Britain as a way to somehow secure Irish independence. Both the Republican and the Democratic Parties looked the other way when the Fenians engaged in activities as radical as launching abortive armed raids on Canada. These raids (18661870) were intended to bring the United States into a war over Canada, but they were dropped after Canadian forces easily repelled them.

As the United States moved inexorably toward closer association with the British around the turn of the twentieth century, Irish Americans' hatred toward their avowed enemy, and any diplomatic understanding between them and America, were translated into political campaigns. Irish-American organizations, lobbyists, and voters unsuccessfully opposed U.S. support for the British in the Boer War, the Hay-Pauncefote treaties (l900 and 1901) that ensured an accommodation on the building of a U.S. canal in Central America, and, most significantly, the U.S. entry into the Great War in 1917.

Racial minorities, including African Americans and Chinese Americans, found themselves excluded from the democratic system as it existed in the nineteenth century, and therefore without leverage to influence policy. Some Caucasian immigrant groups found that they had limited influence because of their precarious economic status and widespread prejudice directed against them. A diplomatic episode involving Italian Americans demonstrates this situation. In 1891 a mob of white nativists in New Orleans converged on the jail in which eleven Italians and Italian Americans were being held following their acquittal on murder charges. Stirred by ethnic animosities, the mob lynched the eleven and subsequently received what must be considered general plaudits from "respectable" Americans, some public figures, and the press. Future president Theodore Roosevelt declared the lynching "a rather good thing."

Italian Americans were justifiably outraged, and demanded prosecution of those involved in the lynching and compensation to the victims' families. The perfunctory rejection of their demands by the American government led to a campaign, spearheaded by Italian Americans, to engage the help of the Italian government. Italy severed diplomatic relations with the United States, and rumors of war between the two nations were widely circulated. President Benjamin Harrison defused the situation by issuing an apology and agreeing to pay compensation to the families of those who had been lynched.

It was less than a satisfying resolution for Italian Americans, who unsuccessfully sought to have justice served through the arrest and conviction of those who had participated in the lynching, and who also wanted some efforts to be made to dampen anti-Italian prejudice. Although Italian Americans lacked any real political influence and were commonly subjected to vicious discrimination that isolated them, they were white and they had sufficient numbers to gain them at least some role in electoral politics.

Tempering any dynamic role that ethnic groups might play in the shaping of policy in the nineteenth century was the reality that for all but the final few years of the century, the United States was not much of an influential player in world affairs. That would change abruptly in the new century.


President Woodrow Wilson projected the United States into the center of postwar European political issues, and his call for self-determination to become an underlying principle in drawing the new map of Europe excited many domestic ethnic constituencies with the possibilities of national independence for their ancestral homes. After having stirred the aspirations and raised hopes of ethnic groups as never before, Wilson the peacemaker could not match expectations. He had not counted on either the multiple conflicting aims among the hopeful nations or his inability to win the approval of the other allied powers. Ethnic groups that had once supported him now fought the approval of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). His inability to press for Irish independence as part of the World War I peace settlement resulted in bitter Irish-American attacks against the president and the treaty, and played a key role in blocking its passage in the Senate.

Whether to ratify the treaty was, in fact, an issue that resulted in several other emotionally charged campaigns. Various ethnic minorities, each specially motivated to seek a negative Senate vote on ratification, assailed Wilson's handiwork. German Americans could not accept the relatively harsh punishment meted out to Germany. Since the Versailles agreement failed to provide for the expanded Italy hoped for by Italian nationals, initial Italian-American enthusiasm for Wilson soon turned to denunciation. Exclusion of the Adriatic city of Fiume from Italy's control was considered to be one of the treaty's most objectionable points.

Not only the larger and more influential ethnic minorities resisted Wilson's endeavors to secure U.S. acceptance of the treaty; Armenian Americans, Syrian Americans, Greek Americans, and Lithuanian Americans, as well as several other groups, joined forces with the foes of ratification for a variety of reasons. Millions of Americans viewed Wilson as the man who had betrayed dreams of nationalistic glory for their land of origin.

New nations did come into existence as a result of Wilson's insistence that the treaty recognize self-determination, and Americans with ties to those fortunate nations were delighted. Few ethnic groups have been as successful in influencing foreign policy as were Polish Americans during the peacemaking following the world war. The re-creation of Poland following the war has been linked to the Wilson administration's interest in securing the Polish-American vote.

Scholars have clashed over the issue of whether Anglo Americans, whose contributions of language, law, and culture have been synonymous with the launching of the Republic, can legitimately be considered another of the nation's ethnic groups. There is no doubt, however, that Americans of English ancestry have had a significant impact on formulating diplomatic relationships with Great Britain. Since the earliest days of the Republic, Anglo Americans have influenced American foreign policy. For instance, by placing pressure upon President Wilson, who was of English ancestry, the Anglo Americans exerted a powerful influence in stimulating American intervention in World War I.


Examining individual ethnic groups and their particular campaigns on behalf of shaping policy in a region or toward a particular nation provides clues as to how and why ethnic politics can work in America's pluralistic democracy. It is likely that the most extraordinary case of an ethnic group successfully shaping the direction of foreign policy is the campaign of American Jews to win U.S. support for both the creation of Israel and the close partnership between the two nations that has followed.

Many factors need to be in place for ethnic politics to succeed; what is interesting about the campaign initiated by American Jews following World War II is that the community did so many things so well. Although small in numbers, there was near unanimity among American Jews in support of the Zionist goal of creating a viable Jewish state. Furthermore, it was understood that although direct support to those creating Israel in Palestine was important, what was essential politically would be to bring the United States in on the side of the new state.

American Jews represented only 3 percent of the population, but in the presidential election year of 1948, when Zionists declared the existence of Israel, American Jews were concentrated in those states that constituted the biggest electoral prizes. Half of the nation's Jews lived in New York State, which had by far the most electoral votes.

Winning American support for Israel became the community's most important political objective, ensuring that politicians would pay attention to the issue. Firmly established within the political structure, almost all Jews voted, many were activists involved in campaigns, and as a high-income group they had already established a record of financial support for candidates and organizations that backed their causes. President Harry Truman, and most members of Congress, responded favorably to the call to assist the newly established state when Zionists proclaimed the creation of Israel on 1415 May 1948.

It was Truman's support in extending de facto American recognition of Israel just eleven minutes after it was declared to exist that proved crucial. It not only gave Israel, which was immediately plunged into defense of itself in the first Arab-Israeli war, great moral legitimacy by being acknowledged as a state by the most powerful nation in the world, but it also proved to be the first step in a continuing stream of support from the United States. It is always difficult to attribute motivation, but a case can be made that Truman recognized Israel and continued American support for the new nation out of a concern for the political consequences in a presidential election year.

Thanks in large measure to American Jews' fostering the "special relationship" that grew between Israel and the United States, by the 1970s the political, economic, and military ties were so firm that they became a foundation of American foreign policy. American Jews identified with and felt pride when Israel achieved its goals in the face of constant adversity. When Israel stunned the world with its unexpected military victories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, perhaps no citizens of one nation have ever been as committed to another nation's fate as Jews in America were to Israel. More than any other event, the outcome of the war forged unanimity toward Israel on the part of Jewry in the United States.

An American lobbying group, the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), has met with so much success that it has become a symbol of foreign policy lobbying effectiveness. Some political observers have said that AIPAC has become the most powerful foreign policy lobbying group in Washington. Focused exclusively on lobbying the U.S. government for Israel's needs, AIPAC avoids identification with the liberal causes with which Jewish groups usually associate. This has allowed AIPAC to remain ideologically comfortable with anticommunist conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and the territorial expansionists on the political right in Israel. AIPAC developed the capacity to mobilize thousands of activists across the United States when needed, and into the 1980s they were able to stifle dissent among Jews who questioned the direction Israel was taking.


Israel's policies first stirred signs of unease among American Jews when Israeli bombers destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, in a separate event, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, was the target of Israeli bombers. It was, however, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre of at least six hundred Palestinian civilians by Christian Phalangist (Lebanese) troops allied with Israel that began a new era for American Jews. Prior to the invasion of Lebanon, Israel's wars had been struggles for survival. The invasion tested the resolve of many Jews who had followed the unwritten prohibition against Jews publicly criticizing Israel.

In their dash north, the sixty to ninety thousand Israeli troops, supplemented by naval and air support, left mass destruction of property and substantial numbers of civilian casualties. World public opinion, including most Americans, opposed the invasion. American Jews rallied to Israel's cause at the time, but an erosion of support had begun. One poll found that 93 percent of American Jews still supported Israel, and 83 percent reported that if Israel were destroyed, it would "be one of the great personal tragedies in my life."

Yet as time passed, individual mainstream Jewish leaders and major organizations spoke out in anger and dismay at the actions taken in Lebanon by Prime Minister Menachem Begin's right-wing government. The massacres were particularly troubling because the Israeli army had taken responsibility for the civilians' safety and had been nearby during the two days in which the killings occurred. How could a nation of Jews, with a 5,000-year heritage of respecting human life and a history of suffering nearly as long, be in any way involved in massacres of civilians? As the debate heated up, criticism of Israel reached a new level within Jewish circles in America and elsewhere.

Three years later, Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew employed by the navy as a civilian analyst, was arrested and charged with being the most prolific spy in American history. Over a two-year period he had stolen and turned over to Israel 360 cubic feet of top-secret files. The U.S. government argued that Pollard had compromised the entire American intelligence-gathering apparatus. Many American Jews found it incomprehensible that Israel would engage in such spying. Israel's use of an American Jew seemed to play into the hands of anti-Semites who would surely charge American Jews with dual loyalty. Why, it was written, would Israel steal secrets from the one ally whose goodwill was essential and upon which the country was almost absolutely dependent?

One more event undercut the breadth of support that Israel had had from American Jews. Beginning in l987, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself, engaged in a mass revolt against Israeli authority. Led mainly by the young, the Intifada has transformed relations between Palestinians and Israelis, and among many American Jews has led to greater calls for a peace process that will end the fighting and provide Palestinians with some degree of self-governance.

Israel still has the support of American Jews, and the "special relationship" that underpins U.S.Israeli relations continues. Israel receives more foreign aid from America than any country in the world, and is likely to continue to do so. However, Jewish-American unity has fragmented, with significant criticism of Israel being expressed openly as never before. AIPAC remains a model of how a successful lobbying group can represent the policy goals of an ethnic pressure group, but even its supporters acknowledge that it may have lost its edge because there no longer is community consensus on some issues. These changes have created an opportunity for an opposition group to emerge and challenge pro-Israeli policies of the American government. Still relatively in the shadows, an Arab-American group has taken on the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East.


Proponents of pro-Israel policies might well be sobered by changing public attitudes toward Israel and Middle Eastern issues, and what such changes might mean for future U.S. policy. In the fifteen surveys since 1989 in which the Gallup Poll has asked Americans to describe their attitude toward Israel, there is still a 5930 percent advantage of favorable to unfavorable. However, these results indicate declining public support from earlier times. For comparison, the three countries with the highest rankings in the Gallup survey are Canada (17 May 1999), Australia (12 February 2001), and Great Britain (16 February 2001), with, respectively, 907, 858, and 859 percent favorable to unfavorable ratings.

Events in the Middle East occasionally signal the very real possibilities of regional war, a world energy crisis, the use of nuclear weapons, or an unleashing of worldwide terrorist activities. As a result the American public has heard, read, and seen more about this region than most others, and increasingly has arrived at conclusions not shared by the government of Israel or its American proponents. Successful lobbying groups would often prefer to have their issues exist "under the radar" of public attention.

A Gallup Poll survey in May 1999 indicated that the American public, by a margin of 5326 percent, favored the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Creating such a state has long been the goal of the Palestinian Authority, the internationally sanctioned agency that legally represents the interests of Palestinians currently living within the boundaries of Israel.

Israel remains one of the firmest allies of the United States, and it continues to draw support from the majority of Americans. Arabs are generally viewed unfavorably by the public. The Palestinian Authority received a 2263 percent unfavorable rating when Gallup surveyed public opinion in February 2001. What is likely to change in the future is that the efforts of Jewish Americans, and other supporters of Israel, will no longer go unchallenged by other ethnic groups or larger elements of the general public who have views contrary to those of Israel and Israel's American supporters.


The emergence of a significant Arab-American population, along with its inclination to be more engaged in politics, may already have begun to change the dynamic of how the United States deals with Middle Eastern issues. Until the 1970s Arab Americans were few in number and seemingly invisible on issues involving their ancestral lands. James Abourezk, an articulate senator of Arab-American descent from South Dakota, became one of the first outspoken proponents of the Arab position in national life.

Enumerated at one million in the 1990 census, Arab Americans were estimated to have increased to 3.5 million in preliminary figures of the 2000 Census Report. A source of emerging strength rests in the clustering of Arab Americans in four states crucial in presidential elections. Arab voters are a factor in southern California, New York City, northern New Jersey, and, most critically, Detroit and southern Michigan. The largest concentration in the country is in metropolitan Detroit, with 350,000 Arab Americans. Only African Americans represent a larger minority group in Detroit.

There is now recognition that Arab Americans are a factor in political strategy, particularly in Michigan, where they represent 4 percent of the vote. Spencer Abraham, an Arab American, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994. Arab Americans vote in high percentages (62 percent in the 1996 election), they have high incomes, and they are increasingly involved in national elections. In 1996 neither Democratic President Bill Clinton nor the Republican challenger, Bob Dole, attended events, but in 2000 all the serious presidential contenders addressed Arab-American groups.


Another contemporary case of an ethnic group dominating regional policy is provided by Cuban Americans. As with Jewish Americans, the record of Cuban Americans in shaping policy toward Cuba proves that groups do not need to be large in number to succeed. Only in the 1960s did significant numbers of Cuban exiles arrive in the United States, fleeing Castro's revolution. Driven by an often all-consuming singleness of purpose concerning one overriding foreign policy issue, Cuban Americans gradually became the driving force behind Washington's unyielding hard-line policy toward the Cuban regime. Most exiles left behind their property in Cuba and settled in Florida, and a significant number among them devoted their time and resources to pressuring the U.S. government to bring down the Castro regime and restore an anticommunist government. Since this result has never occurred, the movement has continued to thrive among Cuban Americans.

Cuban exiles were close to their homeland, only ninety miles away, and expected that the Castro regime might collapse at any time, which in turn would allow them to return. Thus in their first decade in the United States, Cuban Americans were said to have a "visitor mentality," which acted against engagement in local civic activities. Cuban Americans instead promoted an intense interest in how Washington dealt with Cuba and Castro.

Other factors have also been responsible for Cuban Americans' rapidly becoming a force in shaping foreign policy. Many of the early exiles, from the upper classes, were well educated and provided leadership for the group. Continued emigration from Cuba has provided a reasonably significant population base; the 2000 census reported 1.24 million Cuban Americans. A population of over a million is enough for politicians to pay attention. Yet that number dramatizes how even a relatively small ethnic group can be effective. Cuban Americans represent less than 0.50 percent of the national population and less than 10 percent of Hispanics in the United States.

An important factor enhancing the influence of Cuban Americans as a group is their shared political ideology, and the fact that the conservative Republicans with whom they identify have controlled the presidency, and hence the levers of foreign policy implementation, during recent decades. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan received 90 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Dade County (which includes Miami). Since it has been estimated that 63 percent of Cuban Americans live in the Miami area, the political significance of winning the support of this group is not lost on presidential candidates. Florida is a crucial swing state in presidential elections, as the presidential race in 2000 amply demonstrated. It is simply political reality that those seeking the presidency must consider the implications of their policy toward Cuba if they wish to win Florida's electoral votes.

Another advantage Cuban Americans have had in driving policy is that there is no significant group challenging their anti-Castro agenda. In fact, the anticommunism expounded by Cuban exiles fit in easily with the Cold War rhetoric that dominated the campaigns of presidential contenders. A series of chief executives, who have been humbled by Castro's resilience, have found it politically advantageous to align with the hardline policies proposed by the exiles.

The result has been a U.S. diplomatic assault on Cuba so virulent and excessive that it has been condemned by many nations, including some that are considered staunch American allies. No other regime anywhere in the world can currently be said to suffer from as clearly prejudicial diplomatic measures on the part of the United States as the Castro regime. Since the early 1960s an embargo has denied trade and investment from the United States. Travel by U.S. citizens has been denied, although since the 1990s exceptions have been made for travelers who can justify their trips as having an educational purpose. Alone among all nations the United States denies the right of its citizens to send medicine or food to Cuba.

In 1992 passage of the "Cuban Democracy Act" prohibited U.S.-owned or -controlled subsidiaries overseas from engaging in any business with Cuba. The harshest measure of all has been the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a tightening of the embargo that allowed U.S. citizens to sue foreign corporations that had purchased U.S. property confiscated by the Castro regime.

Almost alone in the world, the island nation of Cuba struggles with a total embargo, including medical and food products, imposed by the United States. With a gross domestic product that is less than 6 percent of what the United States spends on its military, the island hardly poses a security threat to its northern adversary. The degree of the isolation and hostility aimed at the Cuban regime is in large measure the result of a successful campaign of a relatively small but dedicated and powerful advocacy group, the 1.24 million Cuban Americans.


American Jews and Cuban Americans, respectively 3 percent and 0.50 percent of the national population, are two groups with enormous influence in shaping foreign policy even though they are relatively small in number. Other similarly marginal groups in terms of population have demonstrated that size alone is not always an impenetrable barrier. One such group, Armenian Americans, were at first unsuccessful when they sought American support against Turkey during World War I. From 1915 to 1923 Turkey engaged in a policy of genocide that cost approximately one million Armenian lives. Yet when Armenia declared itself a republic independent of Turkey in 1918, Armenian Americans waged a campaign that resulted in Wilson extending de facto recognition of the new state. Similar efforts to prevent the United States from recognizing Turkey during this period proved futile.

More recently, Armenian Americans, who number over one million, have demonstrated that they wield a certain degree of influence in their particular area of interest. A California-centered group whose politics leans to the Republican, Armenian Americans lobbied Congress in 1990 to commemorate the aforementioned genocide. Even though Turkey's long-standing record as a crucial NATO military ally of the United States might have suggested different treatment, Congress nearly passed the resolution. Even though the administration of George H. W. Bush opposed it, it took a Senate filibuster to defeat the resolution and prevent a likely break with Turkey. If Congress had approved the measure, which used the term "genocide," Turkey made it clear that a grave crisis would result. Even though they lost, the political acumen of the Armenian-American lobbyists in nearly securing passage of a measure that had significant implications for diplomacy had to be acknowledged.

Although Turkey was firmly integrated within American defense policies during the Cold War, Greek Americans were able to lobby successfully in favor of punitive diplomatic measures against that nation in the wake of bitter Greek-Turkish disputes over Cyprus in 1974. Even though Greece was governed by militarists who had overthrown elected democratic leaders, and had instigated the troubles on Cyprus, the fact remained that there were one million Greek Americans whose lobbyists knew how to use political leverage to affect foreign policy. Washington responded to the pressure by placing a three-year embargo on military sales to Turkey and agreeing to provide Greece with 70 percent of the military aid that would be given to Turkey in future years. Ethnic politics prevailed over what was accepted to be the national security interest in maintaining good relations with a crucial geopolitical partner on the Soviet border.

Finally, the intervention of the United States in the Balkans in the 1990s revealed not only that the Balkan nationalities themselves were broken into competing factions, but also that the conflicts among the various nationalities within America presented policymakers with another kind of Balkanization. U.S. troops entered Bosnia, and then Kosovo, in an effort to block Serbian territorial expansion and genocide ("ethnic cleansing"). As a strategy to stop Serbian genocide in Kosovo, and at the same time limit American armed forces personnel in the campaign, President Bill Clinton in 1999 began a massive bombing campaign within Serbia.

Constituencies in the United States associated with those nationalities that benefited from American intervention supported Clinton's action. Orthodox Christian ethnic groups, including Serbian Americans, Greek Americans, and Russian Americans, all protested. Although there are Serbian enclaves on the east coast, the most politically sensitive Serbian population is made up of the 250,000 who live in Chicago and comprise the largest community of Serbs outside Serbia. Orthodox Christians in America charged Washington with being insensitive to the suffering of their coreligionists in the Balkans while overlooking the excesses and favoring the cause of western Christians and Muslims.


Because the results to date have been so marginal for Mexican American efforts to influence diplomatic issues that affect them, there is some temptation to conclude that this is a group destined to fall short in the future. Yet with the 2000 census reporting what might well be described as an explosion in Hispanic and Mexican populations, cautious observers will likely reserve judgment before suggesting that the future will resemble the past for Mexican Americans. Demographics, the current attention being paid by both political parties, and group activism seem likely to combine to make this ethnic group one with enormous future influence on foreign policy.

From the time of the Mexican cession in 1848, Mexicans were targets of prejudice, violence, and economic exploitation in the land that was once theirs. Whether established residents or itinerant agricultural workers, they were an underclass striving to avoid poverty and discrimination in the United States. The Mexican government was indifferent toward them, and public attitudes in the United States ensured that they remained politically inactive.

Civil war in their homeland and severe economic problems drove one-tenth of Mexico's population into the United States in the two decades prior to the Great Depression. However, a search for scapegoats in the 1930s led to mass deportation of Mexicans back to Mexico. Distinctively dressed Mexican-American youths were frequently attacked by white servicemen in Los Angeles during World War II. These "zoot suit riots" led the Mexican government to protest, and request that measures be taken to end the violence. After the war the Mexican population in the United States rapidly increased with the addition of millions of contract laborers (braceros) and undocumented workers. These groups did not participate in politics, and even those immigrants who could have participated did not move quickly toward naturalization and a role in the political system.

Political activism at the national level began in the 1960s with Mexican-American organizations lobbying for immigration legislation, congressmen of Mexican ancestry playing the major role in forming the Hispanic Caucus, and the Mexican government finally cooperating with the community's leaders and associations. The first real success Mexican Americans demonstrated as a pressure group on foreign policy issues was in shaping the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The inclusion of an amnesty program for millions of the undocumented who could prove they had been in the United States prior to l982 was a striking victory.

Because of demographic changes and their emerging political activism, Mexican-American leaders have suggested that in the future their record of influencing foreign policy in areas of interest could match that of any other ethnic group. The increase in Hispanic population, to 35,305,818 (13 percent of the national total), was the phenomenon of the 2000 census. Mexican Americans comprised 59 percent of that Hispanic total and 7 percent of the national total. The 20,640,711 Mexican Americans represented a 53 percent increase in just ten years. Eighty-seven percent of Mexican Americans live in the West and the South, giving them a regional importance in both sections that could well be translated into even greater political advantage. In two crucial states in presidential elections, Mexican Americans make up 24 percent of the population of Texas and 21 percent in California.

Barriers still exist that militate against Mexican Americans' reaching their potential political strength. Even those Mexican Americans who have been in a position to exercise their citizenship rights by participating in electoral politics have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Proximity to Mexico has made it possible for some immigrants to travel back and forth and not identify themselves with the cause of working for their rights as residents of the United States. As an ethnic group in the lower economic strata, the route to political influence through financing candidates and causes is not as likely as it might be for high-income groups. The median age of Mexican Americans is twenty-four, compared with a national median age of thirty-five, so a substantial percentage of Mexican Americans are not yet of an age that allows them to participate in the electoral system. Yet with all these qualifications, the overriding conclusion is that someday Mexican Americans will play an influential role in American foreign policy.

The major foreign policy initiatives that most interest Mexican Americans involve immigration and trade issues between Mexico and the United States. These include amnesty for undocumented Mexicans working in the United States, consideration of a new guest-worker program, controls over drug trafficking, liberalizing trade and investment ties, regulation of the border, and fighting discrimination and violence against immigrants. The attention that has recently been given to these issues by the political parties and politicians testifies to an awareness of the political potential of Mexican Americans.

When he ran for governor of Texas, George W. Bush made a concerted and successful effort to win the Mexican-American vote. Both as a candidate and as an elected president, Bush has stressed his understanding of Mexican-American concerns, his interest in immigration liberalization, the promotion of Hispanics to high government positions, implementation of policies to improve the economic status of the group, and his ties with Mexico and its new president, Vicente Fox. Most dramatically, in 2001 Bush promised to work to legalize the status of millions of undocumented workers, mostly Mexicans, living in the United States.

Republicans consider Mexican Americans an ethnic minority that can be won over from its tradition of being Democrats. In 1996 Bill Clinton received 72 percent of the Hispanic vote, so there is no reason why Democrats will concede Hispanics and Mexican Americans to the Republicans. However, since Bush won one-third of the Hispanic vote in 2000, Republicans are confident that a shift is under way. Throughout the presidential and congressional elections from 1990 to 2000, the two major political parties have been as evenly divided in electoral strength as has ever been the case. Perhaps whichever is more successful with Mexican-American voters will prevail early in the twenty-first century as the majority party. Given the history of ethnic politics in making foreign policy, it seems likely that politicians and parties will endorse much of the agenda in foreign policy that Hispanic and Mexican-American groups will put forward in the future.


Since the time of the Constitution, racism frequently has been a part of the mix of factors that shaped diplomacy. Although there were other forces involved, such as the unbridled national enthusiasm for "pole to pole" territorial expansion, race became an articulated element of the expansionist policies associated with "manifest destiny." The term first appeared in 1845, and suggested that the Almighty in his ultimate wisdom had "manifestly destined" the procreative and vigorous Americans to extend their ennobling institutions of republican governance. The result was seen by some as way to spread superior democratic ways of life, but to others, focused on race, it provided a way to replace uncivilized and backward populations with those of purer blood.

President James K. Polk (18451849) translated "manifest destiny" into a plan of action, and the result was the annexation of Texas, purchase of the Oregon Territory, and a war with Mexico that resulted in the northern one-third of that nation being ceded to the victorious United States. Settling the western land acquired during the Polk administration, and the intervening Civil War, dampened further interest in foreign policy initiatives until the 1890s. By the turn of the century there were new ideas that had gained currency and influenced incorporating race into the making of foreign policy.

The British biologist Charles Darwin had introduced his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859), and by the turn of the century his views had been widely popularized in America. Evolutionary theory suggested that in the biological world, higher life-forms evolved through a process of "natural selection," popularized as "survival of the fittest" in the struggle for existence. Such a hypothesis was easily applied by some to sociological theorizing, even in the realm of international affairs. Since there was a ruthless struggle for existence within the biological sphere that resulted in survival of the fittest, or "best," some concluded that a similar struggle among nations or races might produce similar results. Ruthless international competition might well be justified in the name of "progress." Popular writers and clergymen believed that in the future, Anglo-Saxons, particularly Americans, would dominate in the world.

America's foreign policy initiatives were the result of a variety of forces, and one such force was racism. Before, during, and after his presidency (19011909), Theodore Roosevelt expounded upon the Social Darwinist interpretations of "natural selection," "survival of the fittest," the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons, and the "white man's burden" to uplift and civilize backward peoples. It is sometimes difficult to separate the racism from other factors that motivated conduct. Yet as America began to move into the world at large around the turn of the twentieth century, attitudes of racial superiority were observable. One example is provided by the American presence in the Philippines following the settlement of the war with Spain in 1898.

When it became clear to the Filipino nationalists that the United States was intent on occupying the islands rather than providing for their independence, a four-year war ensued. The historian Brian McAllister Linn, in The Philippine War, 18991902, warns that it is incorrect to ascribe racism to all the vicious behavior of American troops against the Filipinos. However, even with Linn's cautionary note that such behavior has been typical of combat soldiers for hundreds of years, the evidence demonstrates that part of the reason for the poor treatment of Filipinos was racial hostility.

The pacification and occupation of Central America and the islands of the Caribbean during the early decades of the twentieth century also reflect America's attitude of racial superiority. The occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, for instance, resulted from a mixture of morality and strategic concerns, along with racism. Reflecting the racial attitudes of American policy and the occupation troops, Haitians were involuntarily placed in labor gangs, beaten and terrorized, and treated as prisoners. Marines killed two thousand "workers" in 1919, following an insurrection. Enforced segregation was imposed, and Americans favored the mulattos over the darker skinned Haitians. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who had deployed marines in Haiti, wrote that the "African race" had an "inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature. Of course there are many exceptions to this racial weakness, but it is true of the mass as we know from experience in [Haiti]."


Racism continued as a sometimes expressed element in American foreign policy through the 1920s and 1930s. World War II, however, set in motion events that resulted in a change in attitude on race both domestically and in foreign policy. Ambivalence on racial issues marked the U.S. record during the war. On the one hand, the tradition of white supremacy and racial prejudice, enforced through segregation, in many ways remained the standard of race relations in American society. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, some 112,000 Japanese Americans living in the western states were arrested and removed to a series of "relocation centers" in isolated interior locations. Two-thirds of this group were U.S. citizens, and most of the rest had been denied the right of citizenship because they were not born in the country. The sole criterion for removal was their Japanese ancestry.

Military service was rigidly segregated by race and defined the nonwhite soldier as inferior in every way. Decorated war heroes returned to a society in which they could not get a haircut from a white barber if their skin was not white. However, World War II also proved to be the cauldron from which dramatic changes in race relations would come forth. The beginning of the modern civil rights movement can be traced to the national wartime experience, and these domestic events, as well as the imperative of dealing with a different world, would influence changes in how U.S. foreign policy would deal with racial issues in international affairs.

The world order that emerged from the war was one in which a handful of western European nations no longer were supreme over the majority of the world's populations. The United States, emerging as the single most powerful economic and military nation, found it was in its own interest to distance itself from the racism with which Western nations had been identified. It was essential to Washington that a distinction be drawn between current American policies and association with the European legacy of colonialism, antinationalism, and racism. Interacting with a world no longer predominantly white or European, American policy distanced itself as much as it could from the influence of racism in its past.

Although this new emphasis was pragmatic in nature, it also was shaped by undeniable changes in attitude toward race that were occurring in American society. By the end of the 1960s, the colonies once held by European nations had largely disappeared. Nonwhite populations were assuming control of their own fate around the world, and proponents of white supremacy were increasingly on the defensive. During the war the United States had condemned the racism inherent in Nazi German society. Postwar policies increasingly reflected a condemnation of racial prejudice.

In planning for a continued global American presence, the reality was that the governments and populations with which the United States would deal were inevitably going to be nonwhite. In the presidencies of Harry Truman (19451953) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (19531961), nationalism among the nonwhite populations of the world was publicly acknowledged to be a force that the United States supported. Although the administrations did not always back up their rhetoric on nationalism with action, there were important examples of the United States supporting nationalistic aspirations of nonwhite populations at the expense of traditional European allies. One such example was Eisenhower's decision during the 1956 Suez crisis to side with the cause of Arab nationalism at the expense of British and French interests.


U.S. commitment to the ideals incorporated in the principles of the United Nations symbolized the change in attitude toward race that marked postwar foreign policy. A legacy of Wilsonian diplomacy, the impetus for a United Nations developed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The charter of the world organization was written by Roosevelt's aides, and it came into existence in October 1945 largely because Roosevelt made it a centerpiece of his postwar diplomacy.

The charter provides evidence of how postwar U.S. diplomacy identified with policies of fundamental human rights, and had taken a step back from policies that were influenced by racist attitudes. The UN Charter "reaffirm[s] faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Pledging its member nations to "practice tolerance and live together in peace," the charter promotes the development of "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples" and "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

Although this ideal was not necessarily always adhered to, the concepts noted above became major elements in the message that America presented to leaders, governments, and populations throughout the world. Policies of the United States were to be based on fundamental human rights and an acceptance of the nationalistic strivings of underdeveloped, largely nonwhite populations. It was never an option in diplomacy to revert to the ideological racism that for so long had been one of the factors shaping the making of policy.

The continued overt existence of racism within American society, and the increasing attention that was drawn to it by the civil rights movement, posed problems for Washington. It made it more difficult to assure others that the racism that had marked American diplomacy for so long was gone for good. News reports of racial discrimination, violence against peaceful civil rights activists, and growing white resistance to integration undercut the message of equal rights and tolerance abroad. When violent protest blocked the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, President Eisenhower commented that it was "a tremendous disserviceto the nation in the eyes of the world." When dark-skinned diplomats were refused service in segregated restaurants, it was reported around the world.

The passage of time brought success for much of the civil rights agenda at home, which was reported the world over. The United States has identified with many of the third world nationalist movements, and it has opposed its European allies when they moved toward policies that could be interpreted as a reassertion of colonial-style conduct. A good example of the latter was the blunt warning given in 1956 by President Eisenhower to Britain and France during the Suez crisis. In effect the American president said that if these two European allies did not end their military campaign in the Suez region, swift economic and political retaliation from the United States would result.


Racial attitudes in the United States ensured that prior to World War II, Asian populations would have little political leverage and would play only a marginal role in determining foreign policy in Asia and the Pacific region. With dramatically increased population and economic affluence, since the 1970s Asian Americans have built the political structure that has allowed them to participate in the process of influencing American foreign policy. It is still more the promise of what the future holds in this arena for Asian Americans than their current ability to shape policy that should be noted.

Chinese were the first Asians to immigrate to the United States in significant numbers: by 1880, with their community numbering seventy-five thousand, they comprised 10 percent of California's population. Fear that Chinese Americans might use the vote was one reason behind congressional passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among the provisions was one that made Chinese "aliens ineligible to citizenship." With this legislation Chinese Americans were banished to the political margins, and a significant precedent was set for the political and social marginalization of all Asian groups who would follow. Only in 1952 were the last of the legal restrictions against Asian citizenship removed.

During World War II the United States lifted the ban on Chinese immigration; in the first year of implementation (1943) the change was as much symbolic as substantive as only 105 persons were allowed to enter the United States. Chinese immigrants were allowed to become naturalized citizens. Since China was an ally of the United States during World War II, these moves were made in large measure to win favor with Chiang Kai-shek's regime. Chinese Americans were too few in number and too politically inexperienced to be of much influence in promoting such changes. After the war Asian Americans remained politically marginalized in foreign policy decisions. No Asian-American group or individual, for instance, proved influential in shaping the events and policies that brought America into the Korean War.

Koreans in America were too few in number, and they had little experience with American politics. The condescension shown by many U.S. government officials toward both the Korean and the Chinese Communist combatants in the war smacks of racist mentality; these leaders were unlikely to have taken seriously those Asian Americans who would have tried to influence policy. White American soldiers commonly disparaged both the Chinese and the Koreans (including their South Korean allies) with racial barbs. The same pattern prevailed in the growing involvement of the United States in Southeast Asia that began in the 1950s. No Asian-American ethnic groups, nor individual Asian Americans, had any meaningful role in the policies that led to the war in Vietnam.

Several factors changed for Asian Americans beginning in the 1970s. Driven by a surge of immigration from Asia as the result of the 1965 immigration law, Asian Americans command attention by their sheer numbers10,242,998 (3.6 percent of the nation's population, according to the 2000 census). They are well situated politically because in California, the greatest electoral prize by far, between 11 and 12 percent of the population is Asian American. These ethnic groups collectively can boast exceptionally high levels of educational attainment. Education is a primary reason for another political strength shared by Asian Americans, their affluence. Median family income for Asian Americans is 138 percent of the national average.

Obstacles continue to block the path of these groups as they attempt to achieve a level of political sophistication and develop the capability to influence foreign policy toward their ancestral homes in Asia. The population numbers themselves may be misleading when the level of political participation is considered. Because so many of the immigrants allowed in by the 1965 law are part of reunited families, the rate of immigrants who become naturalized is low. The percentage of Asian Americans who register to vote is low, as is the percentage of those who actually vote. If some other ethnic groups have attracted political attention because of their community solidarity and bloc voting tradition, it remains a liability for Asian Americans that they evenly split their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Split votes inevitably remove political leverage. Certain groups also split on the issues involving their land of ancestry. Chinese Americans, for instance, divide over the central issue of what policy should be promoted by the United States toward the communist regime in Beijing.

An "8020 initiative" was begun in the 1990s with the goal of delivering 80 percent of the Asian-American vote to one presidential candidate. However, there are six significant Asian groups represented, and the ideological differences among them make the kind of political solidarity that the "8020 initiative" promotes unlikely. Chinese Americans are the largest ethnic group, with nearly 2.5 million, followed in order by Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese. Each has its own particular foreign policy issues that relate to the homeland, so collaboration among the groups has proved to be difficult.

The Vietnamese, politically the most conservative group, have focused on U.S. policy toward the government in Hanoi. As opponents of the regime, Vietnamese Americans have acted as somewhat of a brake on the inexorable American move toward normalizing relations. With a huge influx of immigrants within their community, Chinese Americans have focused on both immigration issues and the U.S. relationship with China. Dubious charges of espionage against Lee Wen Ho, a Chinese-American nuclear scientist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000 mobilized Chinese Americans to protest that the American government perpetuated the stereotype that Chinese Americans were somehow doing the bidding of the government of China. Because China is seen as the enemy by many Americans, Chinese Americans believe they are tainted by association because they are ethnic Chinese. In a fund-raising scandal in the 1996 election, millions of dollars were illegally collected from Chinese sources outside the United States; Chinese Americans protested that press coverage did not adequately explain that it was not Chinese Americans engaged in raising illegal contributions, but foreign Chinese who may well have been associated with the communist Chinese government. Chinese Americans believe that their ability to influence policy has been compromised by these episodes in which they have been unfairly accused of wrongdoing and of being in the service of a foreign nation disliked by the American public.

Each of the Asian groups wants to bring more Asian Americans into the foreign policy decision-making process involving Asia and the Pacific region. With so many different cultures involved, finding a consensus has not been easy for the Asian-American groups.


There are countervailing pressures that can neutralize or even eliminate the opportunity an ethnic group has to affect foreign affairs. If public sentiment is clearly defined as opposed to the policy being sought, or if nonethnic special-interest lobbies in the United States wage a campaign against an ethnic minority's goals, or if other ethnic groups commit themselves to work on behalf of a different policy, the influence that an ethnic minority can command is mitigated.

The first of these balancing factors has frequently proved to be critical to ethnic minorities desiring to convince a president and Congress that specific policies should be accepted. Ethnic groups can exert disproportionate pressure in a specific area if their demands arouse no broad opposition from the public at large. Part of the Jewish-American success in winning American support for the creation of a Jewish state following World War II resulted from the existence of this condition.

It was fortunate for the Zionists that throughout the struggle to obtain official U.S. backing for a Jewish state, the American public was either mildly sympathetic or at least apathetic. The basic Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish state was consistently favored by those in the polling samples who had an opinion, although at times the margin of support was as narrow as a few percentage points.

Perhaps as significant as the opinions expressed was the fact that so large a percentage of the public did not follow the Palestine controversies. Only 45 percent of those questioned in one poll (National Opinion Research Center poll, May 1946) could identify Britain as the country that had the mandate for Palestine. As late as the fall of 1946, 49 percent admitted that they had not followed the discussion about establishing a Jewish national homeland (American Institute of Public Opinion poll, September 1946). Outside the Jewish community the Zionist program did not raise very intense political issues.

Generally, the public tunes in to foreign policy issues only at times of international crisis or when a policy debate is infused with overwhelming significancefor example, when a war may be on the horizon, or when policies fail (as with the continuing commitment to fighting in Vietnam). Most international issues do not interest the public at large; such apathy translates into public ignorance. In 1964 only 58 percent of those surveyed knew that the United States was a member of NATO. Nearly two-fifths replied that the Soviet Union was a member,

Only half of Americans polled in 1978 knew that the United States imported any oil, at a time when approximately half of the nation's oil came from overseas. It is a tremendous advantage to members of a unified, organized ethnic group when they have the field to themselves to promote an issue that does not interest the public at large.

When an ethnic group does recommend a policy position that is clearly opposed by the general public, they are unlikely to receive it. Significantly, the one aspect of the Zionist program in 1948 that ran into clear-cut public disapproval was never accepted by the American government. Following Israel's birth in May 1948, the new nation asked for positive action by the American president on three specific issues. One was for President Harry S. Truman to extend de jure recognition to Israel. Great urgency was also attached to the request for a $100 million American loan to Israel. Truman responded favorably to both requests. Truman was also asked to lift the American arms embargo on the Middle East, thereby allowing Israel to purchase weapons. On 5 December 1947 the American arms embargo had been imposed at the request of the UN Security Council.

Truman was persuaded by the State Department that any unilateral revocation of the embargo would be regarded as exhibiting a striking disregard for UN efforts to pacify the Middle East. Another compelling reason for presidential inaction derived from the public response to the embargo. Although the Zionist program generally met with either mild public approval or indifference, one nationwide poll (National Opinion Research Center, 1 July 1948) indicated that 82 percent of the electorate opposed any change in the status of the embargo.

A second balancing factor that can challenge the influence of an ethnic minority's ability to influence policy is nonethnic special-interest lobbies that are determined to have foreign policy conducted along the lines they desire. For example, economic interests within the United States might seek policies that are diametrically opposed to the programs sought by ethnic groups. In a democracy, ethnic minorities make up just a small percentage of pressure groups hoping to influence foreign policy.

A third factor that works against the policymaking influence of a particular ethnic minority consists of other ethnic groups taking on the role of the adversary. President Wilson was faced with a variety of ethnic groups, each of which insisted that he fully endorse the claims of their homeland. America's ethnic populations collided over how the map of the world should be redrawn. Wilson's attempts at compromise left most of the groups dissatisfied, and led in part to his inability to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified.

The situation of having one ethnic group lined up against another occurred in 1935 when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent his troops into Ethiopia in an effort to expand his colonial empire. Supporting their ancestral home, most Italian Americans defended the action, and many lobbied against any American plan to establish a discriminatory embargo against Italy. Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed Mussolini's actions during the Ethiopian campaign, large numbers of Italian Americans turned against the president and the Democrats.

On the other side, African Americans rallied to Ethiopia's support on the basis of their ethnic identification with the black African nation. They called for the United States to stand up firmly against Italy. Lester Taylor, the chairman of the New African International League, wired the State Department: "Black citizens are surprised and filled with misgivings at the lukewarm attitude of this government." In the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, there was a tendency for the two ethnic groups, Italian Americans and black Americans, to cancel out whatever political influence the other hoped to wield on this issue.

In summary, the three countervailing factors that can diminish an ethnic group's ability to shape particular policies are the existence of widespread public sentiment in opposition, the presence of nonethnic special-interest lobbies on the other side, and the existence of other ethnic groups who take a contrary position. Where none of the three countervailing pressures exist, even a relatively small ethnic minority can dominate a policy area.

Placing foreign policy in the context of electoral politics, the candidate or officeholder has everything to gain and nothing to lose by endorsing the goals of a particular ethnic group. Politicians can obtain the political support of the members of the group who consider the issue in question to be of significance; at the same time no voters are alienated.

Truman's political advisers made just this argument in obtaining the president's support for the new state of Israel during the 1948 presidential election. White House staff members Clark Clifford and David Niles suggested to the president that he could obtain the support of Jewish voters by taking a pro-Israel stand; at the same time he would not lose any significant number of votes.


For nearly two centuries following the establishment of the American republic, it was generally accepted that a common identity and purpose bound the nation together even though the population itself had various ethnic origins, languages, and religions. Although there was an acknowledgment that immigrants added to the culture through their unique contributions, unmistakably the American standard was white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and European.

Often referred to as the "melting pot," American society was constantly in transition as new ideas changed it. It remained clear that the dominant values and traditions were still those of the generation of the Founders and their Anglo-Saxon heritage. This tradition provided a standard to which immigrants must strive. Early in the twentieth century the largest influx of immigration in world history brought millions of eastern and southern European immigrants into the United States. Since these newcomers were less familiar with the accepted American values (such as democracy) than previous immigrant groups had been, "Americanization" programs were initiated to ensure that new Americans came to accept the values of the old. Education, politics, and popular culture promoted the bedrock message that America was a single nation, one people, with a common culture regardless of the mixture of backgrounds.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union there had been a perceived common threat to national security that further emphasized to Americans the importance of consensus and approaching problems with a singleness of purpose. The Cold War created a mood that encouraged solidarity and reinforced the argument that Americans should remain a unified people with shared values. The failure to replace that Cold War consensus with any coherent foreign policy agenda that might have brought the public together has become a factor in the disintegration of consensus for at least a segment of the public.

In recent years a contrary vision concerning how much Americans hold in common has received wide currency and has in turn opened up a serious dialogue concerning what the rights and obligations of individuals and groups should be in a democracy. The question of what it is that holds a nation together is at the heart of the issue. Implications regarding how foreign policy should be determined, as well as the appropriate influence of ethnic and racial groups in the making of policy, are involved.

World War I destroyed the European order and empowered Wilson's doctrine of self-determi-nation, and World War II ended western colonial empires and opened the way for greater racial and ethnic militancy everywhere, including the United States. Changes in immigration law in the 1960s ensured that most immigrants would no longer come from Europe, but rather from Central and South America and Asia. Along with a new militancy on the part of African Americans, millions of non-European immigrants were equally unwilling to accept the old rules of assimilation because their backgrounds were so different from that of the mainstream American ideal.

Among African Americans, other racial minorities such as Native Americans, and new immigrants there has been a growing acceptance of what has been labeled the multiculturalist interpretation of what holds America together. Rejecting assimilation and promoting the concept of America not as one nation but rather a nation of groups, the multiculturalists aim for an acceptance of pluralism without any cultural hegemony. In a nation of groups, race and ethnicity, rather than a national identity, can be the defining experience for individuals. The basic meaning of American history, say the multiculturalists, is as much the divisions into racial and ethnic groups as the traditional explanation of there being one nation and one people.

Is there one national interest that should be protected in the making of foreign policy? In the past, ethnic groups hoping to influence policy had to justify their specific goals as being consistent with basic policy guidelines. Blaming the change on the influence of multiculturalism, Samuel Huntington has written: "They [multiculturalists] deny the existence of a common culture in the United States, denounce assimilation, and promote the primacy of racial, ethnic, and other sub-national cultural identities and groupings."

Critics of multiculturalism decry what they see as a higher priority being placed on ethnic identity than on identifying with the greater American community. By pursuing a diplomatic agenda that is of interest only to itself, an ethnic group is expecting the entire nation to serve its interests. The political scientist Tony Smith, in Foreign Attachments, comes down hard on multi-culturalists, who, he charges, have given a higher priority to one's sense of ethnic identity than to the greater American community. Smith believes that American influence in the world, which should be used for goals related to the common national good, is at risk of being squandered by a process in which ethnic minorities split up the resources and use them for individualized group interests.

With the end of the Cold War leaving America without a defined policy that sets boundaries on what ethnic constituencies can request, and with influencing policy so easy today because of the scramble for money and votes in a political system so evenly balanced between the two major parties, Smith fears that the balance has tipped in favor of pressure groups that include ethnic minorities. While ethnic groups certainly have the right to lobby the government, Smith believes that they also have an obligation to reconcile their ethnic agenda in foreign policy with a broader national interest.

Smith argues that as difficult as it sometimes is to define, America needs a sense of national purpose in world affairs. Individual ethnic groups cannot define that purpose, and they should not have exclusive rights to determine policy, as they sometimes claim they do. Who speaks for America in international affairs? Smith says that the answer should be that it is those who think of themselves first as Americans. Too many multi-culturalists are unable to give that answer.


As American diplomacy enters a new century, it is indisputable that ethnic politics plays an important role in shaping policy. A substantive question is whether such influences upon the conduct of foreign affairs are an obstruction to sound policymaking or make a legitimate contribution. The traditional approach has been for students of American diplomacy to condemn the interrelationship between ethnic pressure and the direction of foreign policy. Diplomatic decision making, it is often said, should be determined solely on the basis of what is best for the national interest of the United States. This sentiment was presented clearly by the political scientist G. Lowell Field, who in 1964 wrote that he was interested in discovering remedies "for the curse of ethnicity in American politics."

According to Field, ethnicity poses a "danger to prudent national decision-making." Besides suggesting the abolition of the nationalities divisions of the Republican and Democratic parties, Field favors the "ostracism[of] any political leader who obviously directs special appeals for the support of particular foreign policies to ethnic groupings with an undue emotional involvement."

Field argues that in the "proper moral climate" an ethnic group should be embarrassed when politicians make "this kind of appeal, just as a judge would be embarrassed by efforts to get him to participate in the decision of a case involving a close relative." It is simply illegitimate, Field says, to promote or even "tolerate situationslike those in which foreign policy hearings are conducted by the major parties before their national conventionsin which it appears that the feelings of ethnic minorities are legitimate grounds for deciding whether or not such intervention by American power is possible or desirable."

Taking decision making in foreign policy out of domestic politics and consigning it to the experts is a suggestion not limited to academe. In 1961 Senator J. William Fulbright insisted that foreign policy should not be determined in a deliberative forum in which parochial domestic interests would have influence. "The question I put," wrote Fulbright, "is whether in the face of the harsh necessities of the 1960s we can afford the luxury of 18th century procedures of measured deliberation."

Fulbright doubted that a successful foreign policy could originate "by continuing to leave vast and vital decision-making powers in the hands of a decentralized, independent-minded, and largely parochial-minded body of legislators. I submit that the price of democratic survival in a world of aggressive totalitarianism is to give up some of the democratic luxuries of the past." Foreign policy, Fulbright argued, should be determined by the experts in the executive branch of government and should not be a political football in Congress. Implementation of Fulbright's thesis that Congress should play less of a role in foreign policy formulation would clearly hinder the ability of ethnic groups to lobby for their particular interests.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, those who approve of the link between ethnic minorities and foreign policy no longer argue from a defensive position. They instead point out that policymakers are themselves often highly partisan and political on specific foreign policy issues. For example, Jewish Americans have long contended that the Middle East desk at the State Department has traditionally been staffed by personnel who are pro-Arab. Since some persons in the State Department contend that the national interest lies in protecting American commercial interests in the Middle East, ethnic bias is not the only possible explanation of the State Department position. Similarly, supporters of America's pro-Israel stance are not necessarily Zionists but can instead insist that the national interest is best served by supporting democracies, such as Israel, wherever they exist. Why, the critics of official Washington ask, should it be assumed that the State Department's interpretation of the national interest is any more creditable than the views of State Department critics?

Ethnic leaders have suggested that nothing could be more appropriate in a democracy than to bring interest groups into the decision-making process. Following an era in Washington marked by governmental disdain for the public, the concept of broadening the public's role in decision making has substantial appeal.

Promoting good relations with foreign nations is basic to American diplomacy. One way to foster such friendly ties would be to make conspicuous a link between specific ethnic minorities and U.S. foreign policy toward their homeland. Ethnic leaders have argued that the goodwill that can be won by emphasizing the interrelationship between the ethnic group and policy toward the land of origin provides a compelling argument for encouraging such a relationship.

Among world powers, only the United States, with its diversity of ethnic populations, has had such obvious opportunities. Individual representatives, as well as an entire ethnic community, can be effectively used for diplomatic purposes. When President John F. Kennedy visited his ancestral home in Ireland and when he frequently referred to his Irish background, the resulting benefit to Irish-American relations was enormous. Similar goodwill is gained when a prominent member of an ethnic group is given a diplomatic assignment.

One example of using an entire ethnic group to obtain a foreign policy goal was presented in Italian-American relations during the late 1940s. Washington became concerned that the Italian electorate might vote the Communist Party into control of the national government. Encouraged by U.S. officials, Italian Americans mounted a mail campaign in which relatives in Italy would be persuaded to vote against the Communists. Italian Americans responded enthusiastically.

The legitimacy of ethnic groups' lobbying for policies they desire no longer seems as questionable as it was once considered to be. American elections and the political process have moved in the direction of multiple interests seeking to have their ideas heard and the policies they support accepted. Why is the attempt by ethnic minorities to influence the direction of foreign policy any less legitimate than the lobbying efforts of any number of economic interest groups? Why should it be any less legitimate to vote from ethnic considerations than for economic or social reasons? These are questions asked by spokesmen for ethnic minorities involved in foreign affairs issues.


An argument made against ethnic influence on foreign policy is that such influence is likely to spring from emotional loyalties rather than rational objectives. The goals of U.S. foreign policy can be summarized as military security, protection of economic interests, and minimization and peaceful settlement of international disputes. Ethnicity certainly has no obvious relation to any of these goals, and to the extent that it might be in conflict with them, it is an improper influence.

What this argument ignores is that the rational objectives articulated by professional policymakers generally omit such "emotional" factors as fairness to downtrodden or impoverished peoples. This has usually been the case with respect to colonial or dictatorial governments friendly to the United States. Such governments, especially in strategically located or mineral-rich countries, have consistently been supported by the United States for the reasons previously suggested.

Thus, the articulation of arguments for a contrary policybased on justice, commitment to democracy, and other idealsis typically left to the affected ethnic groups. An example in the recent past is the dictatorship in Greece, in the creation of which the United States played a considerable and unsavory role. American support was drastically curtailed, in large measure, on account of the persistent efforts of Greek Americans. Similarly, the ethical commitment to displaced Jewry after World War II was argued mainly by Jewish Americans, while the State Department and the public at large took little interest. Any ethical commitment to Palestinian Arabs, who had been consistently under foreign domination, was overlooked. There was not a significant Arab-American lobby to promote the cause of the victimized Palestinian Arabs.

It is argued that to insist that the formulation of foreign policy should remain separate from the right of ethnic groups to exert influence would be to abandon a central attribute of a vital democratic state. Ethnic participation in foreign policy is defended as being consistent with the American political ideals of democracy and freedom.

Those opposed to ethnic participation counter by saying that the result of openly sanctioning such political bartering would be a foreign policy in which a president or Congress would risk national survival simply to uphold a political pledge. The safeguard against such a disaster would likely be the general public. The political reality would seem to be that the public would not tolerate a president or a Congress embroiling the United States in some ill-conceived adventure designed to placate a particular group.

Although it would have been popular with a variety of ethnic voters, the Republican Party did not "liberate" eastern Europe from communism following the 1952 election. Republican campaign pledges proved to be insincere, since there was little likelihood that the new administration was actually going to war in order to terminate communist control of eastern Europe. Presented with the opportunity to intervene in the 1956 Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union, the administration quickly indicated that it would stay uninvolved in that effort to throw off Soviet domination.

The political scientist Lawrence Fuchs, arguing in favor of a close interrelationship between minority group pressure and American diplomacy, has suggested "that foreign policy is too important to be left to the experts." Opponents of the enhanced role that ethnic constituencies have in contemporary foreign policy decision making remain unimpressed. They instead fore-cast grave danger ahead for any coherent national diplomatic agenda if foreign policy continues to be even more of a political football than it has in the past. The question of the appropriateness of mixing ethnicity with foreign policy will no doubt continue to be debated, but even diehard opponents of the phenomenon now concede that ethnicity is probably an inevitable concomitant of the American political process.


Ahrari, Mohammed E., ed. Ethnic Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York, 1987. Articles on selected ethnic constituencies and their efforts to shape American diplomacy.

Baldassare, Mark. California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. A treasury of quantified data and political analysis of California's current political scene that includes much on the state's multiple ethnic constituencies.

Chang, Gordon, ed. Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, and Prospects. Washington, D.C., 2000. Rich collection of articles on both the collective Asian-American political experience and individual studies of particular ethnic groups. Section on voting behavior contains useful quantified data on the political behavior of Asian Americans.

Cohen, Michael J. Truman and Israel. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. Account of both the Jewish-American campaign to influence the Truman administration before and after the creation of the Jewish state, and the administration's response to the pressure, always with its own political interests in mind.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992. By far the best and most thorough contemporary history of ethnic groups and the influence they have in shaping American foreign policy.

Druks, Herbert. The Uncertain Friendship: The U. S. and Israel from Roosevelt to Kennedy. Westport, Conn., 2001. Political history of the diplomacy of four presidential administrations and how they responded to the campaign to establish a Jewish state, and the alliance that developed between Israel and America.

Free, Lloyd, and Hadley Cantril. The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion. New York, 1968. Public opinion study with useful material on attitudes on foreign policy issues.

Fuchs, Lawrence. "Minority Groups and Foreign Policy." Political Science Quarterly 76 (1959). An early exception to the view that ethnic pressure on foreign policy goals was undesirable.

Gerson, Louis. Woodrow Wilson and the Rebirth of Poland, 19141920. New Haven, Conn., 1953. Specialized study of how one ethnic group affected a particular aspect of foreign policy. Gerson identifies the role played by Polish Americans in helping to create an independent Poland in the aftermath of World War I.

. The Hyphenate in Recent American Politics and Diplomacy. Lawrence, Kans., 1964. One of the first thorough studies of ethnicity and American foreign policy, Gerson's perspective was the inappropriateness of ethnic group pressure being an important factor in shaping diplomacy.

Gomez Quinones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 19401990. Albuquerque, N.M., 1990. Examines the barriers Hispanics encountered in efforts to establish a position of legitimacy within the American political system, and the initial successes they experienced within the Democratic Party structure beginning in the 1970s.

Gutierrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley, Calif., 1995. Of particular value for the material on the relationship between Mexican Americans and the Mexican government.

Huntington, Samuel P. "The Erosion of American National Interests." Foreign Affairs 76, no. 5 (1997): 2849.

Levering, Ralph B. The Public and American Foreign Policy, l9181978. New York, 1978. Valuable work on the link between public opinion and foreign policy from the end of World War I through the late 1970s.

Levy, Mark, and Michael Kramer. The Ethnic Factor: How America's Minorities Decide Elections. New York, 1972. Contains some valuable statistical data on ethnic group voting patterns.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 18991902. Lawrence, Kans., 2000. History of the war waged in the Pacific that includes material on U.S. troops' racial attitudes and antagonisms toward the native population.

Moynihan, Daniel P., and Nathan Glazer, eds. Ethnicity. Cambridge, Mass., 1975. Moynihan and Glazer sympathize with the goals of ethnic political campaigns and emphasize the significant impact ethnicity has had on American diplomacy; they state "that immigration is the single most important determinant of American foreign policy."

Nathan, James A., and James K. Oliver. Foreign Policy Making and the American Political System. 3d ed. Baltimore, 1994. Survey of what Americans know of world affairs.

O'Grady, Joseph P. The Immigrants' Influence on Wilson's Peace Policies. Lexington, Ky., 1967. Account of the efforts by several groups to influence Wilson's peacemaking.

Rosenthal, Steven T. Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel. Hanover, N.H., 2001. Well-argued study to the effect that what was once unquestioned American Jewish support for Israel has been replaced by a number of sharp disagreements over Israel's conduct that have divided American Jews.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. New York, 1998. A highly influential rejoinder to multiculturalism by a noted historian identified with the establishment. Although there is no real attempt to examine multiculturalism and its relationship to the issue of who should speak for the United States in foreign policy, the arguments nonetheless relate to the central issue of identity and policy.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., 2000. Persuasive argument that ethnic groups play a larger role in making foreign policy than is widely understood, and that the negative consequences of this phenomenon far outweigh any benefits.

Snetsinger, John. Truman, the Jewish Vote, and the Creation of Israel. Stanford, Calif., 1974. An effort to explain the critical role that Jewish Americans played in bringing the state of Israel into existence.

Torres, Maria de los Angeles. In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1999.

United States Census 2000. Washington, D.C.: Department of Statistics and Administration, United States Census Bureau, Department of Commerce, 2001.

See also Asylum; Cultural Imperialism; Cultural Relations and Policies; Immigration; Public Opinion; Refugee Policies; Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy .


At age thirty-eight Clark McAdams Clifford arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1945 to serve in a relatively minor position as an assistant to the president's naval aide. By 1946 Harry Truman was so delighted with Clifford's performance that he chose the lawyer from St. Louis to be special counsel to the president. Clifford was immediately responsible for preparing many of Truman's state papers, speeches, and memoranda.

Once at the center of power, Clifford displayed an intelligence and an instinct for power that made him Truman's most influential adviser and one of the handful of most important White House aides in history. Labeled a "golden boy," the elegant, handsome, and charming aide seemed an unlikely political and personal partner of the president. With the enthusiastic backing of Truman, Clifford prepared a memorandum that in general terms outlined a strategy for Truman to win the 1948 election. In November 1947 the forty-three-page document, "The Politics of 1948," was presented to the president. This bold report demonstrated that Clifford was a tough political pragmatist.

Recommending a "course of political conduct" for Truman, his aide emphasized that the approach was based "solely on an appraisal of the politically advantageous course to follow." Truman read the memorandum carefully, and agreed with Clifford's analysis and proposed victory strategy. The report became the blueprint for the 1948 campaign waged by the president. One section dealt with the various special interest groups that the Democrats hoped to attract, including Jewish voters.

The memorandum, "The Politics of 1948," from Clifford to Truman on 19 November 1947, stated:

The Jewish voteis important only in New York. But (except for Wilson in 1916) no candidate since 1876 has lost New York and won the Presidency, and its forty-seven [electoral] votes are naturally the first prize in any election. Centered in New York City, that vote is normally Democratic and, if large enough, is sufficient to counteract the upstate vote and deliver the state to President Truman. Today the Jewish bloc is interested primarily in Palestine and will continue to be an uncertain quantity right up to the time of election.

Throughout the election year of 1948 Clifford recommended policies on the Palestine issue (involving the Zionist effort to establish a Jewish state in Palestine) that were intended to improve the president's standing with the American Jewish community. In the final six months of the campaign the president's decisions on Palestine bore the mark of Clifford's influence. Truman was increasingly willing to follow recommendations based upon domestic political considerations.

Race and Ethnicity

views updated Jun 11 2018

Race and Ethnicity

The concept of race emerged with modernity and European expansion. Race was entrenched by the nineteenth century as a scientific category, only to have its validity questioned in the twentieth century. Scholars in the early twenty-first century widely view race as a social construct. Race (raza in Spanish, raça in Portuguese) has been used throughout the Americas to mark human difference with reference to geographical origin and to inherited bodily and cultural traits. Yet traits commonly used to differentiate among racial groups (such as skin color, cultural attributes, or facial features) are not used consistently. The boundaries between racial groups are not universally agreed upon; nor is it always evident how to categorize any specific individual. Indeed, Latin America is known for the complexity and fluidity of its racial categories, especially in comparison to the more racially rigid United States.

Ethnicity is another concept that is also used to mark differences among human groups. Like race, ethnicity often makes reference to geographic origin and is also passed on through the generations. Ethnicity tends to emphasize language and cultural heritage, and is often used as a subset of broader racial categories. But ethnicity and race are sometimes used interchangeably. No single definition of either race or ethnicity suffices to encompass their historical uses.

This essay encompasses both Brazil and Spanish America. Specialists tend to treat them separately when studying race, and indeed, there are some important historical differences between the areas colonized by the Spanish and the Portuguese empires. But these differences are not necessarily greater than the historical variations within those areas. Similar historical patterns of colonization and exploitation have shaped race and ethnicity across Brazil and Spanish America.

Racial hierarchy is rooted historically in the European conquest of the Americas and the unequal development of global capitalism. In the colonial period, dominant ideologies of rigid segregation and hierarchy coexisted with dynamic processes of racial mixture. Since independence, ideologies of racial equality, harmony, and national unity have coexisted with ongoing discrimination, exploitation, violence, and prejudice along racial and ethnic lines. Time and again, revolutions have proclaimed the end of racism, yet every time the proclamation has proved premature.

Despite their status as social constructions that lack "fixed referents" (Wade, p. 5), race and ethnicity nonetheless affect the lives of Latin Americans. Across Latin America, racial and ethnic labels have varied widely from country to country, and from one era to the next. Yet an underlying pattern has persisted until the present: Latin Americans labeled as "black" or "Indian" have tended to inhabit the lowest socioeconomic strata of their respective societies. They are found disproportionately among the poor and they are underrepresented among the middle and elite classes. Race and class hierarchies, while not perfectly correlating, have been conjointly constructed.


Contemporary historians often use modern understandings of race and ethnicity, and variations on these terms (e.g., "racialization," "ethnic group," "racial hierarchy") as analytical terms to apply to places and historical periods when those terms were not explicitly used in the modern sense. Thus one can detect evidence of what is now called racism throughout world history. The specific terms "race" and "ethnicity," however, have their own histories, which are worth reviewing. These histories were initially shaped by European expansion and colonization.

"Race" first appeared in European languages during the early sixteenth century. The term referred simply to lineage, and was not widely used until the end of the eighteenth century. At the dawn of the Early Modern era, religion was paramount in the definition of Europe's emerging identity. Non-Christians were increasingly expelled or otherwise marginalized. Religion, not skin color, defined who belonged in Christendom. There was, however, already evidence of what in the early twenty-first century would be called "racial thought," whereby Europeans defined the Other with reference to bodily traits. Thus, Europeans called Africans—whom they were importing as slaves—"black." In the Iberian Peninsula, in particular, religion and lineage conjoined. With the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in the Iberian Reconquest, "Old Christians" differentiated themselves from "New Christians" by claiming to have "clean blood" (limpieza de sangre in Spanish, limpeça de sangue in Portuguese) free of the "stain" of Jewish or Muslim ancestry.

As early modern Europeans explored and conquered ever more distant lands, they encountered peoples whose diversity they sought to explain. The resulting theories, not surprisingly, tended to favor European superiority and expansionism. Climate was thought to determine human appearance, temperament, and intellect. The course of civilization in each region was attributed to the environment's effects on its inhabitants. According to the predominant school of thought, the overly humid and astrologically ill-fated New World climate had negative effects on the bodies, minds, and civilizations of its inhabitants. Most explanations of human difference did acknowledge that individual traits were passed on from one generation to another, yet such traits were also viewed as mutable, even within an individual's lifetime. Skin color, for example, could presumably be changed by prolonged exposure to a different climate, or even spontaneously by maternal disposition during conception. Thus, Europeans living in the tropics would be transformed by their environments.

Historian Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has shown that as early as the seventeenth century, Spanish-American colonists viewed the difference between themselves and the other inhabitants of the Americas in what would considered present-day racial terms. Bristling at European assumptions of American inferiority, American-born (creole) Europeans did not view themselves as inferior simply because they had spent a lifetime in the tropics. They preferred to explain their physical and moral traits as resulting from lineage rather than environmental influences. Spanish creoles viewed themselves as bodily distinct from the indigenous peoples they colonized and the African peoples they imported. Thus the creole colonists racialized and justified the relationship between themselves and the peoples they exploited.

In the late eighteenth century, the pioneering Enlightenment naturalist Carolus Linneaus and his disciple Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divided humanity into varieties by geographical origin, color, posture, and temperament. The Blumenbach scheme divided the species into Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays. Thus he provided the lasting template for modern-day racial categories of White, East Asian, Black, American Indian, and Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander.

By the nineteenth century, physical traits were widely understood to be inherited, and the Enlightenment's broad racial categories were accepted as biological facts that formed the basis for racial science. Scientific racists in Europe and North America elaborated theories that justified white supremacy, slavery, and colonialism. Influential racial theorists such as Gustave Le Bon and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau viewed the "mongrel" races of Latin America with especial horror. Promiscuous racial mixture in the tropical zones, they believed, had caused racial "degeneration." Latin American intellectuals, such as the Brazilian Nina Rodrigues, made use of these theories, adapting them to their national context. Rodrigues drew on Cesare Lombroso's racial theories of criminality to recommend different criminal penalties for individuals of different races. Racial science culminated toward the end of the century with the emergence of eugenics, the science of racial improvement, founded by Francis Galton.

Eugenicists split between "hard" eugenics that emphasized the immutability of races (especially popular in North America and Britain) and "soft" or "Neo-Lamarckian" eugenics (more popular in Latin America and parts of Continental Europe), that posited the "inheritance of acquired characteristics." According to the latter school of thought, environmental influences (such as climate, hygiene, nutrition, and education) could "improve" a race from one generation to the next. The hard eugenicists, drawing on the early genetic theories of Gregor Mendel, believed that races were immutable. The boundaries between hard and soft eugenics were themselves permeable, with many theorists borrowing freely from both. Eugenics peaked in the 1930s and then declined, largely discredited by the extremes to which the Nazis took it in World War II. Neo-Lamarckian theories regarding acquired characteristics were invalidated by Darwinian evolution and the modern science of genetics. The assumptions behind eugenics did not, however, disappear from popular thought or even entirely from scientific practice.

Enlightenment racial typologies persist in the early 2000s, and are used by doctors, demographers, bureaucrats, and rights activists—not to mention ordinary people in daily life—although scholars increasingly agree that "biologically speaking, races do not exist" (Wade, p. 13). Contemporary geneticists have found that genetic inheritance patterns are far more complex than simple overarching divisions according to continental origin would imply.

Despite the predominance of the Enlightenment five-race scheme, additional usages and definitions of race have continued to operate in Latin America and elsewhere. In the mid-1850s, intellectuals from several Latin American republics started using the terms "Latin race" (raza latina) and "Latin America." Concerned with nineteenth-century U.S. expansionism and filibusterism, the Colombian writer José María Torres Caicedo defined the Latin race in explicit opposition to the "Saxon race." In a poem of 1856 he wrote: "The race of Latin America / Finds itself confronted by the Saxon Race" (Aims McGuinness, in Appelbaum, et al., p. 99). His Panamanian contemporary Justo Arosemena, angry about U.S. actions on the Isthmus of Panamá, referred to his northern neighbors as la raza Yankee, which he described as a conquering and materialistic race. Spanish Americans commonly refer to October 12 as "The Day of the Race" (el día de la raza). Race has also been used with reference to much smaller geographical entities: to denote the people of a particular republic (e.g. la raza chilena, of Chile), region (la raza antioqueña, of the Colombian province of Antioquia), town, or even neighborhood.

In these various usages, race has encompassed ideas about biology, blood, culture, nation, morality, phenotype, or even spirituality. It has sometimes referred to skin color, although Latin Americans have often conceptually separated race from color (thus, the "Brazilian race" is made up of many colors). Underlying the various Latin American definitions of race has been a reference to geography and an assumption that "essential" traits, whether physical or moral, are passed on from one generation to the next.

"Ethnic" is a closely related concept which has often been used as a synonym for racial type. Ethnography emerged as a field of research on "primitive" or "uncivilized" peoples in the nineteenth century (ethnicity was thus a foundational component of the emerging social science of anthropology). The use of "ethnic groups" to refer to minority identities within a given country, however, dates largely to the mid-twentieth century. This usage gained in popularity with the discrediting of racial science after World War II and the codification of minority rights in international treaties. In Latin America, ethnicity (etnia in Spanish, etnicidade in Portuguese) is most often used to refer to the multitude of groups that maintain an "indigenous" (Indian) cultural identity, or sometimes to differentiate among peoples of African or European origin, or to refer to immigrants from Asia or the Middle East. In recent decades, Afro-Latin American activists have sometimes referred to themselves as an "etnia," because ethnicity has fewer negative historical connotations than race.

Scholars have, since the latter part of the twentieth century, emphasized the creative and innovative aspects of ethnicity formation, showing how individuals and groups reshape and revise their identities rather than simply passing them along unchanged from generation to generation. The final decades of the twentieth century saw a renaissance of indigenous identities in Latin America, such as the pan-Mayan movement in Mesoamerica. Indigenous communities that had long stopped identifying as "Indian" have reconstituted themselves throughout the Americas, putting forth land claims and grappling with complex issues over who should or should not be considered truly indigenous.

The boundaries between different races and ethnicities vary from one country to the next. For example, many Latin Americans who have viewed themselves as white have traveled to the United States or Europe only to discover themselves labeled "black," "Indian," or "of color." A pardo ("brown" or of mixed ancestry) in Brazil might be "black" in the United States. The traditional U.S. "one-drop rule," whereby anyone with any trace of African ancestry is considered black, is exceptional in the larger context of the Americas; likewise the "blood quantum" used to measure "percentage" of Indian, black, or other "blood" is more common in the United States. In most of the Americas, whiteness tends to be a more inclusive category, though just how inclusive varies widely; in areas that experienced a significant influx of European immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (such as southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay) whiteness tends to be a prerogative of people who consider themselves to be of exclusively European lineage. Whiteness can be more inclusive in a country such as the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica, which did not experience such large-scale immigration.

Even within one country, such definitions can vary from one region to the next. A person considered in his native highland Andean community to be mestizo (mixed), might be viewed as Indian when he migrates to Lima, by virtue of his sierra origins, mother tongue, clothing, and other cultural habits. Anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, a native of Lima, reported in the 1990s that her young informants in the highland Peruvian city of Cuzco viewed her as white and themselves as indigenous, despite her observation that her phenotype was very similar to theirs. The Cuzco informants differentiated themselves from her in part because she did not practice indigenous cultural rituals. Also important in the differentiation of de la Cadena from her informants was the fact that she was from Lima, not the highlands, illustrating that race and region in Latin America are often conflated. Even more intriguingly, the cuzqueños viewed themselves as simultaneously indigenous and mestizo, because as urban students they were more cultured and educated than poor rural Indians from surrounding villages.

What constitutes a distinct race or ethnicity in Latin America is a hotly contested political and cultural question. It is a very personal issue for many individuals grappling with how best to define themselves in rapidly changing societies that value both tradition and modernity. Definitions of race and ethnicity have varied over time and space and have been fluid and contested. Yet an examination of Latin American history demonstrates that, regardless of such fluidity, beliefs about racial hierarchy and ethnic identity have had a profound impact on people's lives.


At the time of the Iberian conquest, the Americas were inhabited by a plethora of peoples with their own languages and collective identities. Although the traditional view of pre-Columbian America has been one of stasis, more recent scholarship has shown that the political and cultural landscape was quite dynamic. Sophisticated imperial states such as the Inca and Mexica empires had emerged during the century before the Conquest, absorbing the technological innovations of previous empires and conquering their neighbors. As political entities rose and fell, and as peoples migrated from one region to another, new identities emerged and others disappeared.

The Conquest brought Old-World pathogens, which, in combination with violence and exploitation, triggered a catastrophic demographic decline in the New World. Many of the indigenous identities that had existed in 1500 were gone by the mid-sixteenth century. New communities and new identities emerged out of the mixture and relocation of survivors of older communities. Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz have referred to this process of mixture as "intra-indigenous mestizaje" (p. 460) and to the emergence of new ethnicities as "ethno genesis" (p. 443).

Sedentary indigenous groups in core areas of Spanish America, mainly in the Andes and Mesoamerica, reconstituted their identities and cultural practices in local communities, blending pre-Columbian institutions with Iberian ones, while providing labor to their conquerors. Many of them were accustomed to providing labor for pre-Columbian empires. Over the centuries, their communal lands, villages, and communal councils—institutions created by the Spanish state to facilitate evangelization and tribute collection—became integral elements of "traditional" indigenous culture that indigenous communities would struggle to conserve.

Brazil lacked these sedentary indigenous societies. Much of its indigenous population was semisedentary, living in relatively small autonomous units rather than large kingdoms or empires. In contrast to Spanish America, the state did not seriously attempt to segregate the Indian population from settlers. Portugal was even less effective than Spain in prohibiting Indian slavery, and until about 1600, Portuguese settlers relied heavily on the enslavement of Indians for their labor force.

Nonsedentary indigenous groups in peripheral regions of both the Spanish and Portuguese empires remained relatively autonomous, but most of them also experienced dramatic changes. They selectively adapted some European technology for their own purposes. In some cases, Europeans raided these communities for slaves. Indigenous groups that successfully resisted colonization attracted new members, including members of other Indian communities as well as runaway African and Indian slaves, forming new ethnic identities in the process. Some of these new entities, such as the Miskito nation of Central America, survived in part by taking advantage of the territorial competition between European colonial powers, allying with one or the other as circumstances dictated (the Miskitos, for example, allied with the British).

"White" was not commonly used to identify people of European extraction until the late colonial period, but "Indian" and "black" provided central organizing concepts for the organization of colonial labor regimes from the outset (historians nonetheless often translate the terms español and portugués in colonial documents as "white"). Beginning with Columbus, Iberian colonizers collapsed the diverse indigenous identities into the category of indio, which, according to Salomon and Schwartz "quickly evolved from a cursory overgeneralization to an innovative juridical category … and then, more slowly and ambivalently, to a sign by which peoples identified themselves" (p. 446). Even as they increasingly identified as Indian, many indigenous peoples maintained strong ethnic identities of their own.

A similar process of ethnic homogenization was imposed upon the Africans forcibly brought to the New World. The diverse peoples of Africa were lumped together as "black," a term often used as synonymous with "slave." Africans were torn from their communities of origin by African slavers, sold to Europeans, and imported to the New World in notoriously inhumane conditions. The survivors of this ordeal were scattered throughout the plantations, mines, and cities of the Americas. Ethnic divisions between groups from different regions of Africa persisted, especially in areas with large concentrations of slaves from specific areas, but the boundaries were also often blurred by dispersal and intermixture. Throughout the African Diaspora, Africans and their descendants reconstituted and reinvented African cultural practices, combining elements from various regions of Africa with European customs. As was also the case for Indians, Africans blended their original religious beliefs and rituals with Christianity.

In Spanish America, colonial administrators sought to keep Indians separate from Europeans and newly imported African slaves, but to little avail: From the beginning the conquerors had children with indigenous and African women. Such mixing was likely even more widespread in Brazil. New categories emerged to describe the results: In Spanish America, "mestizo" initially referred to the child of an Indian and a European, mulato to the child of a European and African, zambo to the child of an Indian and African. Castizo, which had originally suggested purity, came to mean the child of a mestizo and an español. The Portuguese adapted an Ottoman military term to call the children of Portuguese-Indian unions mamelucos. Additional "castes" proliferated to denote the offspring of people of mixed background, and colloquial terms particular to various regions also took hold. The term ladino, for example, came to refer to mestizos and later to all non-Indians in parts of Central America; the term cholo was used for a kind of mestizo in parts of the Andes.

This process of mestizaje, which resulted in proliferating caste categories, was diagrammed with some apparent irony by eighteenth-century Spanish-American artists in a genre known as casta. Casta paintings, originating mainly in Mexico City but also in the Andes, consisted of series of captioned images, each showing a family unit of a father and mother, each of a different caste, and a child of another caste resulting from that mixture. The family groups were usually placed in a local context of home or work, and usually organized in sets of sixteen. Each set of images would begin with an image such as "Spaniard and Indian beget Mestizo" and then go on to document a series of mixtures, which by the end would degenerate into absurdities: "from a Spaniard and an Albino comes a Black Turn-Backwards."


Over generations, casta paintings notwithstanding, the intermediate casta categories tended to collapse into mestizo and mulato. The term "pardo," in Brazil and many regions of Spanish America, was widely used by the late colonial period to denote some degree of African ancestry. Creoles struggled to maintain their own privilege and control over this demographically complex society; they emphasized their own "pure" ancestry as separating themselves from the subordinate castas. Colonists had imported the ideal of purity of bloodlines from Iberia. In the Indies, "limpieza de sangre" came to include the absence of African or Indian "blood." But the Creoles' purity was suspect in European eyes. Some Peninsula-born Iberian bureaucrats and commentators derided Creole elites as polluted by the climate, unacknowledged non-European ancestors, and even "bad milk" (because many Creoles had been suckled by indigenous or African wet nurses; "milk" was also a metaphor for nurture).

The notion of clean bloodlines was closely related to the Iberian concept of honor. Honor was used to justify and explain colonial hierarchies; individuals and families insisted that their honor be publicly recognized and thus their place in the colonial hierarchy assured. The elite, in particular, associated honor with birth status and limpieza de sangre. Families sought to preserve their honor by policing the sexuality and marital choices of their members. Parents especially tried to guard the virginity of their daughters. Male offspring were generally allowed greater latitude to mix with and sexually exploit women of the lower orders, as long as such informal unions did not end in marriage. The state, and more ambiguously the church, colluded with parents in guarding family honor. In the 1770s, the Spanish state promulgated the Royal Pragmatic on marriage, which allowed white parents (and later those of other castes) to prevent their children from choosing marital partners deemed socially or racially inferior, in an effort to preserve a hierarchical social order.

People born into lower castes often emphasized their own honorable behavior in an effort to claim honor for themselves, but elites and officials tended to assume that people of higher birth status behaved more honorably. Thus, as historians have shown, an elite unmarried Creole woman was assumed to be a virgin unless she flagrantly and publicly flouted the norms of sexual modesty. A poor market woman or a slave woman, meanwhile, was generally assumed not to be virtuous; her station in life was assumed to leave her unprotected from sexual assault and seduction and her "nature," if she were not white, predisposed her to dishonorable acts. Such assumptions were manifest in legal rulings that discriminated by caste. The transcript of a 1688 Mexico City Inquisition case, studied by the historian R. Douglas Cope, epitomizes this tendency. A poor mulata named Josefa and her roommate, an española named Mariana, were accused of harassing another woman. Although the accused were of similar economic means, one inquisitor placed full blame on "the sad mulata, Josefa," whom he found "gravely suspect because of her status, her way of life, and her nature and caste; and although a similar presumption could be made of Mariana … because Mariana is married and is an española, such a presumption would not have much force" (Cope, p. 40). Josefa was assumed to be guilty because of her intrinsic nature as a member of a subordinate caste, in addition to the fact that she was an unattached female without a male authority figure to protect and control her.

The colonial legal order determined different privileges, duties, and legal sanctions for each caste, ranging from allowable clothing to admission to educational institutions, suitable occupations, taxes owed, and appropriate punishments for crimes. "Clean blood" was a requirement for admittance to universities, honorable professions, most government positions, religious orders, and the secular priesthood. The military was off-limits to nonwhites, with the exception of segregated militias. Yet, despite seemingly rigid legal discrimination and caste labeling, the caste hierarchy was nonetheless somewhat fluid. Individuals of mixed heritage did enter prohibited institutions and professions, either by obtaining royal dispensation for their ancestral "defect" or by circumventing the law. Exceptionally intrepid and fortunate individuals and families could ascend the hierarchy by migrating out of their birth communities, becoming wealthier, dressing differently, and obtaining higher-status marital partners. Such ascension was usually incremental: A black might become a mulatto, a mulatto might become a white. The same individual might be labeled "india" on her baptismal record and "mestiza" in her marriage document. Escaping from the category of Indian or mulatto could be a way of escaping the burden of tribute imposed on those castes. Economic class affected caste affiliation; money whitened. Public recognition of one's caste status mattered more than actual ancestry. The state tried to visibly mark off one group from another through sumptuary laws, but numerous court cases attest to the difficulty with which these laws were enforced; likewise, numerous court cases in which individuals' caste identities were the subject of competing sworn depositions also demonstrate the fluid and contested nature of caste. Mestizaje was as much a cultural and socioeconomic process as a genetic one.

"Whitening" was not the only tendency. A mestizo might redefine himself as indio and thus gain access to Indian lands. One way to do this was through marriage. For example, in 1664 some indigenous officials in the Puna area in the southern Andes denounced their cacique (chief or leader), Francisco Castillo, an originally non-Indian man who had married into the community (Salomon and Schwartz, p. 485). The great eighteenth-century indigenous rebel leader Tupac Amaru II, according to some historians, was a mestizo before he assumed the identity of heir to the Inca Empire.

At the top of the hierarchy, Creole elites in Brazil and Spanish America selectively allowed wealthy individuals of mixed ancestry into their midst. But they did not tend to look favorably on upwardly mobile subordinate groups. Spanish American elites disdained pardo militiamen. The colonial state antagonized some Creole leaders when it offered meritorious pardos the option of purchasing exemptions from their subordinate caste status—effectively of purchasing whiteness. Although very few pardos throughout the empire took advantage of this opportunity, it was controversial, especially in a city such as Caracas, where pardos had come to dominate several key sectors of the urban economy, much to the chagrin of the elite. In a famous 1796 letter to the crown, Creole councilmen complained that pardo impudence threatened the social hierarchies upon which the colonial economy was based. Even the Caracas leaders implied, however, that an occasional exceptional person of mixed ancestry might receive dispensation. The councilmen suggested that they, not royal officials, should decide who merited such an honor.

Within a few decades, the colonial order would crumble and the caste hierarchy would come under attack by a new generation of leaders. The colonial order had been characterized by tension between institutional caste rigidity and discrimination, on the one hand, and mestizaje and individual mobility on the other. Subsequently, the national era would be characterized by racial tensions of its own.


In the early nineteenth century, a radical liberal republican ideal of racial equality and unity among all male citizens gained adherents across Spanish America and even in imperial Brazil. The egalitarianism of this ideology was in constant tension, however, with panicky fears of "race war" and elite desires to safeguard privilege. Despite the rhetoric of republican citizenship, racial division and discrimination remained part of everyday life.

In stark contrast to the United States, the other newly independent American nations abolished caste distinctions and enshrined equality in their constitutions for all free and native-born men, regardless of color or ancestry. This about-face on the part of the Creole elite had several causes. Enlightenment liberal philosophy played a part, as did the Spanish Americans' efforts to increase their political representation in the liberal Spanish parliament of 1812 in Cádiz, by claiming political rights for men of African descent. If men of African descent were granted political representation, the Spanish American representatives would vastly outnumber peninsular Spaniards. Spanish intransigence in Cádiz allowed the Creoles to claim that they, not the Spaniards, were the true champions of racial equality.

Possibly the most important factor contributing to identify patriotism with racial equality was the crucial military role played by the subordinate castes in the independence wars. Without the participation of Indians, free castas, and even slaves, independence would have been impossible. In South America, the Creole patriot leaders Simón Bolívar, in the north, and José de San Martín, in the south, needed the mixed-race expert horsemen of their respective interior grasslands to fight on their side in the military struggles for independence. In Mexico, meanwhile, the first movement for independence, the Hidalgo Revolt in 1810, was largely composed of Indians, mestizos, and mulattos, inspiring more revulsion than support among the creole population. Mexico waited a decade for the creole military commander of the Spanish forces to ally with the patriot guerrilla leader Vicente Guerrero to push for independence. A few nonwhite men who had emerged from humble beginnings, such as Guerrero, became presidents and power brokers in the new republics.

The independence wars eroded the institution of slavery. The plantation sectors of war-torn regions were devastated and many slaves gained freedom in the conflict, which they did not want to give up when the fighting ended. Yet, despite the racially egalitarian, anticolonial ideology of the independence movements and the "free-womb" laws that several new republics enacted, slavery did linger on for several more decades. In some areas, the gradual termination of slavery included transitional forms of bondage, referred to with euphemistic terms such as "apprenticeship." Even with such setbacks, within a generation slavery disappeared from the Spanish-American republics, in part because of pressure from below by the slaves themselves, who took every opportunity to extricate themselves from bondage. Slavery lasted until the last quarter of the century, however, in the remaining Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico and in the Brazilian Empire, which did not experience the disruptions of the early nineteenth-century independence wars. The continuation of slavery in these areas was accompanied by institutionalized segregation, discrimination, and repression targeted at free people of color as well as at slaves.

Throughout Latin America, a discourse of racial harmony was adopted, yet racial discrimination remained part of everyday life. Any efforts by members of subordinate groups to demand real equality sparked accusations of racism and sedition against the individuals who brought the complaints. Recent research on early nineteenth-century Colombia suggests that individuals of African descent who protested discrimination were more likely to be punished by the courts than vindicated. Rumors of Haitian-style "race war" proliferated. As long as slavery persisted, moreover, any plots or rumored plots of slave rebellion were brutally repressed.

As national politics divided along Liberal-Conservative lines, Liberal leaders viewed former slaves and other free blacks and mulattos as potential constituents. Thus, in some regions, midcentury Liberals actively promoted manumission and emancipation, making sure to portray themselves publicly as the champions of freedom and equality, in contrast to Conservatives. In these regions, blacks and mulattos flocked to the Liberal cause. In the province of Cauca, Colombia, for example, blacks and mulattos were heavily recruited into radical Liberal political clubs known as Democratic Societies in the 1850s and 1860s; they participated avidly in civil strife and wars against Conservative landowners who had tried to prolong slavery. These "popular" Liberals of Cauca reframed Liberal ideals of equality and citizenship to suit their own needs, pressuring for access to land and the end of hated taxes and government monopolies on liquor production. Ultimately, by the 1870s, many upper-class Liberals recoiled in horror at the assertiveness and violence of the popular Liberals and allied with Conservatives to bring an end to the era of Afro-Colombian Liberal mobilization. Universal male suffrage, which Colombian men had enjoyed since the 1850s, was revoked in 1886, at a time when Latin American governments were generally becoming more authoritarian and distancing themselves from the egalitarian ideals of radical Liberalism. Economic restrictions on suffrage effectively excluded most blacks and Indians from the full rights of male citizenship in many countries.

Regarding Indians, the republican elite was also ambivalent. The ideologues of national progress drew on the legacy of pre-Columbian empires as a source of national pride, while disparaging the contemporary Indian descendants of the people who created those empires. With the end of the colonial caste system, Indians were rechristened with the less derogatory label "indigenous" (indígena), but in several countries they continued to pay a special Indian tribute well into the nineteenth century. Republican leaders, particularly those who believed in liberal ideals of individualism and private property, argued that indígenas should be educated and assimilated into the modern national citizenry and labor force. Liberals sought to privatize Indian landholdings, as part of a larger assault on corporate privileges and colonial institutions. As a result, many Indians lost their communal lands and self-governing institutions. With these losses, they often lost their identities as indigenous; the members of many former communities and their descendents became known as mestizos, even if other citizens continued to refer them pejoratively as indios. Some community members benefited from the partition of their communal lands and formed rural middle classes, others lost their land and became laborers or poor tenant farmers. This process of land privatization and concomitant cultural mestizaje intensified during the late nineteenth-century export boom.

Some indigenous communities protected the integrity of their communal landholdings by allying with Conservative or Liberal elites in the factional strife that roiled Spanish America. Conservative elites, who were less critical of colonial hierarchies than were Liberals, often looked more favorably on communal indigenous land holdings than did Liberals, but ideology was mitigated by expediency. Generally, both Liberal and Conservative leaders sought to privatize and alienate indigenous lands whenever they deemed it in their best economic interests, for example when Indian lands were coveted for coffee or other export crops. Leaders in both parties, meanwhile, were more willing to protect communal lands when they needed indigenous military or electoral support. Moreover, impoverished indigenous communities were sometimes useful to the elite; poor Indian villages provided nearby elite-owned haciendas and mines (often located on former communal lands) with a convenient seasonal labor force. When Indians resisted working for private enterprises or on public works projects such as roads and railroads, moreover, the state would respond with forced labor drafts and harsh vagrancy laws. Thus, the integration of nineteenth-century Latin American republics into the capitalist world economy was facilitated in part by coerced labor organized along racial lines as well as the privatization of communal lands.

Nineteenth-century elite intellectuals in the fragile new republics associated human diversity with a frightening disunity. They hoped that their motley populations would be replaced by unitary national races. Colombian liberal intellectual and diplomat Manuel Ancízar, writing in the early 1850s (when Colombia was called New Granada) predicted optimistically that "when the absorption of the indigenous race by the European has been completed … a homogenous, vigorous and well formed race will be left, the character of which will be half way between the impetuousness of the Spaniard and the calm and patience of the Chibcha Indian" (Ancízar, p. 120). While he clearly viewed race as the product of inherited stereotypical traits, he also stated "today the indigenous race is being substituted by the Granadan race, diverse from the first in character, in intelligence, and in moral necessities, and, moreover, galvanized by democratic institutions and modified in its way of life by liberty of industry and of movement" (p. 121). Thus, race was not only inherited, it was also shaped by the social and political environment. This dualism echoed the debates of the Early Modern era and foreshadowed the twentieth-century discourse of mestizo nationalism (discussed below) whereby mestizaje and social improvements were supposed to produce a superior national race. Ancízar and his contemporaries construed the existence of Indians and Afro-Latin Americans as a problem that would be overcome in the process of national progress and unification.

That Ancízar wrote these lines while reporting on his travels as part of a national mapping commission underscores the extent to which the goal of racial unification was identified with the goal of territorial integration. Nineteenth-century writers, geographers, naturalists, and illustrators—both Creole and foreign—explored, mapped, and illustrated the flora and fauna of the national landscapes. Their expeditions chronicled the diversity of national populations and topographies. By identifying particular races of humans with particular environmental niches, geographers organized each nation conceptually into discrete regions with particular racial characteristics. Ancízar briefly joined Colombia's Chorographic Commission, which in the 1850s produced maps, paintings, and texts that portrayed particular regional and racial "types"—the blacks, whites, Indians, mestizos, and mulattos particular to each area of the country—with their particular modes of dress, occupation, and complexion. He was also part of the costumbrista literary movement that produced stories and travel narratives that highlighted the customs and racial characteristics of each locality. The new technology of photography and the new science of anthropology contributed to the proliferation of images of regional racial types linked to particular places.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the conflation of regional and racial identities was firmly entrenched in national imaginaries. Argentine Liberals such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento portrayed their interior plains as a place of racial savagery, inhabited by "barbarous" Indians and mixed-race gauchos. But the pampa was also, these writers hoped, the future home for waves of "civilized" European immigrants who would bring progress to their nation. The Colombian and Venezuelan frontier plains known as the llanos occupied a similar symbolic place in the aspirations of elite writers in those countries. In Brazil, the northeastern "backlands" region was described as populated by mixed-race hordes, most notably in Euclides da Cunha's 1902 classic Os sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands).

Over the nineteenth century, the elites had to grapple with European and North American racial theories that emphasized white supremacy. By the last quarter of the century, as Latin American elites became wealthy through the export of primary commodities to industrialized countries, they increasingly disdained their mixed-race populations; the elites associated modernity with whiteness. Policymakers viewed European immigration as the panacea for a host of racial and social ills. European immigrants, it was hoped, would not only bring their reputedly superior work ethic and educational level; they would intermarry with the native population and thus supposedly improve it. European traits would predominate over African and indigenous in this intermixture, intellectuals argued, and thus the population would whiten.

European immigration accelerated rapidly in fast-growing late nineteenth-century economies on the Atlantic seaboard, such as Argentina, southern Brazil, and Cuba. European immigrants were accompanied by less-celebrated and more controversial immigrant waves from the Caribbean, the Middle East, and East Asia that further complicated Latin America's racial and ethnic landscape. But most Latin American countries, even as their export economies grew, were not successful in attracting European immigrants. The leaders of these countries had to turn to alternative means—coerced labor drafts, for example, or non-European immigration—to generate a low-cost labor force for their growing export sectors and infrastructures. They also turned to alternative theories for "improving" their national races, such as neo-Lamarckism.

As eugenics swept the Atlantic world around the turn of the twentieth century, Latin Americans tended to embrace the neo-Lamarckian school of eugenics that assumed the inheritability of acquired characteristics. Echoing Ancízar's emphasis on institutions, this "optimistic" or "soft" eugenics allowed for the promise of racial improvement through societal improvements—education, nutrition, hygiene, urban planning—as well as beneficial breeding. As in Europe and North America, eugenics constituted both a science and a social movement. Eugenics proliferated through scholarly conferences and local eugenics clubs. It influenced jurists, legislators, educators, doctors, and social reformers on both right and left. Social reformers targeted poor women, in particular, for reform and surveillance. Reformers sought to promote motherhood, improve maternal and child health and nutrition, and stop the spread of venereal disease in order to improve the national race.


In the first half of the twentieth century, the oligarchic "white republic" of "progress and order" gave way to mestizo nationalism and "racial democracy." In much of Latin America, revolutionaries and reformists swept out the old oligarchic orders of the late nineteenth century. Populist leaders tapped into the newly emerging sectors of the urban working and middle classes to build more inclusive (though not necessarily democratic) political movements. Leading intellectuals, ranging from Gilberto Freyre in Brazil to José Vasconcelos in Mexico, viewed cultural and genetic melding as the basis of national identity. The national race, the pueblo, was a mestizo race. This putatively inclusive ideology had exclusive aspects. It was usually predicated on uniformity and the bleaching out of unwanted racial stains rather than a full acceptance of ethnic or racial diversity.

The role of Indians in the mestizo nation remained ambivalent. In Mexico, the new bureaucracy produced by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) justified the revolution as having redeemed the Indians. A new agency was staffed by Indian advocates, mainly anthropologists, who were known as indigenistas. These official indigenists promoted various projects to benefit Indian communities, such as bilingual education, at the same time that the Mexican state was redistributing massive amounts of land into communal landholdings. The first international indigenist congress was held in Mexico City in 1940 and indigenista organizations sprang up around the Latin America. But a strong paternalist strain ran through the indigenistas' agenda of Indian redemption; despite a conscious effort on the part of indigenists to reject racism, they still tended to view Indians as culturally (and even physically) deficient, in need of improvement and tutelage.

Indigenous ethnicity was increasingly celebrated by non-Indians in the Andes and Mesoamerica, but, at the same time, Indian cultural practices were relegated to the realm of folklore, outside of the national cultural mainstream. Indian markets, crafts, and rituals became tourist attractions, but most indigenous communities remained mired in poverty, with precarious access to land. In the Amazon basin, in particular, development and deforestation eroded the resource base of Amazonian indigenous groups. In Brazil the ideology of racial democracy and the imperatives of national integration precluded any concerted national effort to fully include remaining Indian groups or to protect their environmental niche. As the state built roads and cities in the Amazon in the mid-twentieth century, several remaining Amazonian indigenous groups were displaced; some disappeared altogether or saw their numbers tragically reduced. The government agency charged with protecting Indians collaborated in their displacement. Indians were largely ignored, and in fact the census—which categorized Brazilians as black, brown, and white—had no category for "indigenous" during most of the twentieth century. Until 1991, Indians were simply lumped into the "pardo" category.

The place of blacks and black identity in the nation was even more problematic. The ideologues of racial democracy such as Freyre acknowledged and even celebrated African contributions to the cultural heritage and gene pool of their nations. This was a radical change from the nineteenth century, but elite proponents of racial democracy still tended to see the presence of blacks as a problem that would be overcome through interracial whitening; white traits would prevail over black and Indian in the formation of the mestizo nation. Afro-Latin American cultural and religious practices, moreover, were often viewed, even by successful mulattos and blacks, as barbaric and uncivilized, with little place in the modern nation outside of anthropology museum exhibits. This was true even in Cuba, where the writings of celebrated Cuban nationalist José Martí, among others, had identified Cuban patriotism with racial fraternity and inclusion. Afro-Cubans had participated notably in the late-nineteenth-century independence struggles; Antonio Maceo, the great independence military leader, was remembered as a national hero even though he was mulatto. Nonetheless, the upper and middle classes in early twentieth-century Cuba were uncomfortable with Cuba's vibrant Afro-Cuban cultural practices; they feared and persecuted black "witchcraft" practiced by believers in Afro-Cuban religions. Cubans of noticeable African descent were often excluded from restaurants, hotels, schools, beaches, clubs, and parks, as they had been under the Spanish Empire, even though the new constitution provided for full equality and universal male suffrage.

By the 1920s and 1930s, sanitized and Europeanized versions of Afro-Latin American music, dance, and celebrations were incorporated into the national imaginaries of countries with significant populations of African descent. Populist politicians promoted popular cultural manifestations such as Carnival; avant-garde literary figures looked to African and indigenous culture for inspiration. The emerging recording industry, radio, and traveling bands popularized African-influenced dance music, which the middle classes embraced and made respectable. Yet, to emphasize one's black identity in a country such as Brazil or Cuba, or to organize an ethnic- or race-based autonomous social movement anywhere in Latin America, was still to open oneself to accusations of antipatriotism and even racism.

Mestizo nationalism and racial democracy had a violent side. Ironically, some of the worst episodes of large-scale, racially motivated or racially tinged violence occurred in the early twentieth century, the era of mestizo nationalism: the massacre of black Cubans in 1912; the massacres and expulsions of Chinese immigrants from post-Revolutionary Mexico; the 1932 matanza of indigenous peasants in El Salvador; and the massacre of ethnic Haitians along the Dominican-Haitian border in 1937. Violence against Indians continued in frontier areas of countries such as Brazil and Colombia. These atrocities claimed thousands of lives. Buenos Aires even saw pogromlike violence against its Jewish inhabitants. The perpetrators of such violence were not only immune to prosecution, they were celebrated, in some cases, for carrying out their patriotic duty by helping to purge their nations of unwanted, putatively unassimilated racial elements. Nonetheless, forced sterilization as a means of racial improvement never caught on in Latin America.

Despite the continent-wide celebration of mestizaje, some nations have continued to identify as white. In a country such as Argentina, this white identity is largely based on the massive European immigration it experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The image of the white nation obscures the continued existence of Afro-Argentines, Indians, and mestizos. A population's whiteness can also be a relational concept; Costa Ricans and Dominicans tend to define themselves as white in contrast to the inhabitants of neighboring countries. And within countries, inhabitants of some regions—such as Antioquia and Santander in Colombia, Sonora in Mexico, or São Paulo in Brazil, to name a few—pride themselves on their whiteness in comparison to neighboring regions. Whether on a regional or national level, however, the notion of a homogeneous people elides internal diversity.


The last three decades of the twentieth century brought both gains and suffering to people of African and indigenous heritage. National myths of racial homogeneity were questioned. National identities were redefined. New racial and ethnic-rights movements emerged, but Indians and blacks suffered disproportionately from political violence and social strife.

Guerrilla warfare and brutal counterinsurgency campaigns profoundly affected indigenous and rural black communities. Marxist guerrilla movements often proclaimed themselves the champions of oppressed indigenous peasants, among whom they recruited. But the guerrillas were largely unable to protect these communities from devastating scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaigns. In Guatemala and Peru, in particular, tens of thousands of Indians died in the 1980s; in Guatemala, most of the deaths were at the hands of state forces, while in Peru, both the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the state brutalized indigenous communities. Such violence was both political and racially tinged; the Guatemalan and Peruvian elites disdained and feared the indigenous masses, and they indoctrinated their troops—many of whom had been born in Indian communities—with this disdain. In Colombia, indigenous leaders have been salient among the thousands of political leaders assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries; neither the Colombian Marxist guerrillas nor the anticommunist paramilitaries have much respect for the Indians' insistence on their own political autonomy. Thousands of black Colombians from isolated coastal regions, meanwhile, have fled the violence and flooded into dismal refugee camps and urban slums.

The last several decades have seen the emergence of national and continent-wide ethnic-rights movements proudly espousing black and indigenous identities. The contemporary indigenous movement, which emerged in the 1970s and mushroomed in the 1980s and 1990s, has been particularly successful. In alliance with leftists, international nonprofit organizations, celebrities, and activist academics, indigenous activists have achieved considerable political gains. They have lobbied successfully for constitutional reform. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, most Latin American countries had enacted constitutional reforms that recognized the existence of indigenous ethnicities and the rights of Indian communities to their own lands, culture, and institutions. New constitutions have redefined nations such as Colombia or Bolivia as "multiethnic."

Indians have become powerful political forces in several countries, most notably Bolivia and Ecuador, where they have succeeded in making or breaking presidencies. Indians have become mayors, congressional representatives, provincial governors, and presidents, most notably Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who became president of Bolivia in 2006. In Guatemala, after bearing the brunt of the atrocious counterinsurgency repression of the early 1980s, indigenous Mayans have formed a pan-Mayan movement.

The black movement has been somewhat less successful, even in countries such as Colombia or Brazil where people of African descent far outnumber people who identify as Indian. In part, this has to do with the lack of any unifying racial or ethnic identity among most people with African heritage; they tend to identify with their region, their social class, their neighborhood, or their political party. For decades, black Brazilian activist leaders have explicitly decried Brazil's vaunted racial democracy, and the idealization of mestiçagem, as a facade for the continued racial discrimination that has been amply documented at every level of Brazilian society. Brazilian black activists have campaigned to convince more Brazilians to identify as black on the national census, but little more than 5 percent of Brazilians do so; most prefer to mark "pardo." Affirmative action is a subject of much controversy in Brazil in the early twenty-first century.

Throughout Latin America, the new state-endorsed multiculturalism has been resisted by those who fear that national unity will be fragmented. Local political bosses do not tend to look favorably on autonomous indigenous governing institutions that threaten entrenched patronage networks. The recognition of indigenous landholdings is resisted by private property owners and impeded by social strife. Official multiculturalism has also been criticized of glossing over class inequalities and of conceptually dividing national populations into overly discrete, reified ethnic components.

Social scientists have since the 1950s consistently demonstrated that, to an alarming degree, race continues to correlate roughly with social class. The correlation is of course not complete: Numerous individuals defy the odds and challenge the prevailing stereotypes by obtaining professional success. Nonetheless, disproportionate numbers of people who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be indigenous or black live in abject poverty. They tend to be overrepresented in the lowest paid sectors of the economy: domestic service and agricultural labor. For example, half the Afro-Brazilian (preto or pardo) workforce in 1987 worked in agriculture or the service industry, mainly domestic service; at that time, one fourth of Afro-Brazilian workers "earned monthly incomes of US$20 or less; another one-quarter earned between $20 and $40"; 60 percent of Afro-Brazilian women worked in agriculture or domestic service (Andrews, p. 173). As this last statistic reflects, the situation is especially dire for women, and thus for their children.

In 1997 a study showed that half of Afro-Uruguayan women surveyed worked as domestic servants, while a 1980 study in Brazil showed that black male earnings exceeded black female earnings by 70 percent or more (Andrews, p. 176). Interpretation of such numbers must be contextualized, however, by the blurriness of racial categories and, moreover, the general association of blackness and Indianness with poverty. When successful individuals and families do succeed in rising out of poverty, they are less likely to be counted as black or Indian and more likely to be labeled "brown"; money tends to whiten. Nonetheless, it is often these rising middle classes of color that feel the sting of racism most explicitly, when they come up against racial discrimination on the part of lighter-complexioned compatriots who habitually deem darker-looking people—or people who hail from a particular province or who speak an indigenous language—inappropriate for professional promotion. Limpieza de sangre, or the cleanliness of the blood, has long ceased serving as a prerequisite for entry into high-status professions, but light complexions are often still favored.

Race and ethnicity are thus variable social constructs with enormous social impact. Historically emerging out of imperialism, beliefs about race and ethnicity have structured Latin American labor systems, social hierarchies, and political alliances ever since the Conquest. Racial and ethnic discrimination have at times been institutionalized through the legal system, but even during those periods when discriminatory regimes were overthrown and equality was embraced, informal discrimination and prejudice continued. Racial and ethnic boundaries can be blurry; they have been drawn differently from one nation to the next, and even from one neighborhood to the next. Despite (or perhaps because of) their fluidity and flexibility, race and ethnicity are tenacious in their persistence. Although the lines of demarcation continually shift, race and ethnicity continue to shape people's lives in profound ways.

See alsoAfrican Brazilians, Color Terminology; Africans in Hispanic America; Arosemena, Justo; Caste and Class Structure in Colonial Spanish America; Creole; Family; Freyre, Gilberto (de Mello); Gaucho; Indigenous Peoples; Liberalism; Martí y Pérez, José Julián; Mestizo; Morales, Evo; Pardo; Slavery: Brazil; Slavery: Spanish America; Vasconcelos Calderón, José.


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                                  Nancy P. Appelbaum

Race and Ethnicity

views updated May 11 2018

Race and Ethnicity



Race and ethnicity are social constructions—"scripts" for human actions and experiences—that have serious consequences. Though there is no scientific basis for racial distinctions, the discredited idea of "biological determinism," or a hierarchical taxonomy based on physical differentiation continues to influence discourses about human classification and racial characteristics. Categories of race and ethnicity have been fluid over time and across groups, so that in some cases a person's ethnic or racial affiliation can change based on location, historical moment, personal presentation, or situational context. Nevertheless, and importantly, racial characteristics are considered legally and biologically immutable from birth.

The concept of ethnicity is especially ambiguous, referring to a group that may or may not share ancestry but that has a sense of common identity based on nationality, religious affiliation, race, or culture—there is no precise agreement on what characteristics constitute ethnicity. Werner Sollors, tracing the etymology of the Greek word ethnikos (meaning "heathen" or "others"), describes "the conflict between contractual and hereditary, self-made and ancestral definitions of American identity—between consent and descent in American culture" (Beyond Ethnicity, pp. 5–6). Debates about the nature and effects of race and ethnicity continue to map the terrain of self-invention versus social compulsion, cultural performance versus heritable physical traits.

Unlike ethnicity, race is almost never a matter of individual choice, and because the idea of race emerged in the context of colonization and systems of oppression, race cannot be separated from racism. Yet like ethnicity, race is an unstable social category. For example, in the United States the definition of African American racial identity that emerged historically from the Jim Crow South depended upon a "one-drop" rule—any African American ancestor, or any fraction of "black blood," made one black. This method classifies as many people as possible as black, thus ensuring the continuation of a system of labor exploitation. On the other hand, Native American identity has been determined through a system of minimum "blood quantum," so that a person must have a certain percentage of documented tribal ancestry to be considered Native American. Through intermarriage with other tribes and other ethnic groups, fewer and fewer people can claim Native American identity and qualify for special rights to lands and services guaranteed by treaty. Unlike any other group in the United States, many Native American people carry government-issued "Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood," often called CDIB cards, or "white cards," which are required for certain scholarships, art markets and fairs, and other programs.

In other parts of the world, race and ethnicity are imagined quite differently. Though the focus here is primarily on representations in American cinema, the national cinemas and "oppositional" cinemas of countries such as Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom—to name a few of many possible examples—present viewers with equally complex and specific racial and ethnic discourses. Cinemas that cross or do not cross national boundaries also highlight the intersections of race and ethnicity with national identities. Due to the power of American distribution systems, Hollywood exported the Indiana Jones films in the 1980s, a series that privileges a white explorer hero over exoticized Arab characters, while Arab American and other spectators in the United States rarely saw commercial releases of films by Arab filmmakers such as the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Other filmmakers trace the transnational movements of peoples in diaspora in films such as Gregory Nava's drama El Norte (1983), Deanne Borshay's autobiographical documentary First Person Plural (2000), and Ousmane Sembene's La Noire de … (Black Girl, 1966), drawing attention to the shifting experiences of race and ethnicity in global contexts.


The visual medium of film produces and reproduces the complex tension between individual agency and social categories—between looking at oneself and being looked at by others. The development of visual technologies such as photography and cinema have intersected powerfully with the social construction of race as both a scientific discourse and a form of cultural fantasy and social control. Studies of human motion by Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Félix-Louis Regnault, using chronophotography (a proto-cinematic technology of rapid photography), contributed to established pseudosciences of racial characteristics, such as craniology, while emphasizing the visual spectacle of racialized bodies as a form of scientific evidence. In this and other ways—including elaborate discourses of "miscegenation" on screen, discussed below—the new medium of film taught viewers to translate the scientific and legal discourses of race into a system of visible codes and stereotypes, a phenomenon that impacted social relations more broadly.

Representations of racial "primitivism" in the earliest nonfiction films also extended to dramatic genres as filmmakers turned to narratives in melodramatic and fantastic modes. Georges Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) centers on an encounter between scientists and exotic primitives (the "selenites") on the moon, whose costumes, shields, and spears are meant to resemble an African display. The trope of the encounter between a European explorer and awed—or hostile—"natives" continues to have a powerful presence in films such as Black Robe (1991), The Mission (1986), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), and in the many cinematic depictions of Columbus and even the confrontation between the rebel heroes and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983). Merian C. Cooper famously translated the narrative of the explorer encountering primitive peoples in an exotic land—a subject that had introduced him to filmmaking in the first place, with Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925), made with Ernest B. Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison—in the spectacular drama of King Kong (1933).

In the nascent field of anthropology and documentary cinema, films such as Edward S. Curtis's (1898–1970) In the Land of the Headhunters (1914) and Robert J. Flaherty's (1884–1951) Nanook of the North (1922) actively suppressed signs of contemporary Native American modernity—such as rifles, wristwatches, blue jeans, and signs of written language—in order to present images of precontact, ahistorical indigenous primitives. In Nanook of the North, for example, Nanook (the Inuit actor Allakariallak) is amazed by a trader's gramophone and actually bites the record three times—a gesture that reinforces the pretense that the Inuit were antimodern, both childlike and bestial. The fact that Allakariallak is not listed in the credits as an actor, but rather conflated with the character "Nanook" that he and Flaherty created, presents the image of Nanook's inability to understand Western technology as a document of Inuit life rather than an artistic representation. In fact, as has been documented in the film Nanook Revisited (Clause Massot, 1990), the Inuit cast and film crew were so adept at manipulating Flaherty's machinery that they could take apart and fix his camera in the field. Nearly eighty years after Nanook of the North was released, the Inuit company Isuma Productions released Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001) to international acclaim. The film, while emphasizing precontact Inuit life, explodes the illusion of the "Eskimo primitive" through its production footage during the credits, which presents the Inuit in Western clothes wielding the tools of film production and controlling the creation of their own images.

The pervasive trope of colonial encounter, with its European focal characters and masses of silenced "others" who signify the unknown, reveals an underlying Eurocentrism in cinema. Eurocentrism is an ideology that privileges European and Euro-American history and culture as the central, dominant, and superior measure of human accomplishment. Films that draw on the mystique of travel, colonial encounters, and the spectacle of cultural difference as primitivism convey powerful racializing tropes that bring the cinematic construction of race in the social sciences to the popular imagination through dramatic narratives and cinematic spectacle.


The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPA) Production Code of 1930 (enforced after 1934) dealt explicitly with interracial romance, stating that "miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden." This wording was taken from the pre-Code industry restrictions of 1927, called "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls," but the cultural fascination with—and social prohibition of—interracial romance begins with the hierarchical relations established by European colonizers. Film theorist Ella Shohat argues that even when films do not appear to address race or ethnicity in their content, the constitutive role of race in American society means that issues of racial and ethnic hierarchy are always present. She calls for analyses of "ethnicities-in-relation" rather than isolated minority and mainstream histories (p. 220).

The word "miscegenation" (from the Latin miscere, "to mix," and genus, meaning "race" or "type") first appeared in a pamphlet in 1863, authored by the conservative Democratic reporters George Wakeman and David Goodman Croly as part of an attempt to polarize voters around the issue in the 1864 presidential election. After the turn of the twentieth century, when many of the rights secured for African Americans in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution had been dismantled through Jim Crow laws, outspoken proponents of white supremacy produced intellectual arguments for eugenic control of racial mixing, as in Madison Grant's book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). At the same time, a competing discourse of cultural relativism emerged in the writing of anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), asserting the primacy of cultural training and linguistic models rather than biological "race" in determining human differences.

The prominence of miscegenation themes in film history reveals not only anxieties about racial mixture but also the profoundly gendered nature of cultural and racial representations onscreen. Prohibited interracial sexual contact underlies the visual joke in an early narrative film, Edwin S. Porter's What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), in which a white man flirts with a white woman on a train, but when he tries to kiss her as the train goes through a tunnel, the woman changes seats with her African American maid, who receives the kiss. This early film models a different kind of "encounter" narrative from the colonial scenario imagined by Mélièsin ATripto the Moon, but its construction of hierarchical, sexualized relations between whites and "others" was similarly foundational and indicative of future narratives, ranging from the horror of interracial mixture in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) to the titillating films of Dorothy Dandridge in the 1950s. Films such as Pinky (1949), Imitation of Life (1934, 1959), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) challenged the Production Code's strictures with their representations of interracial dating and light-skinned African American women "passing" for white. Shortly after the Code was replaced by the Classification and Rating System Administration in 1968, the loosening of both racial and sexual prohibitions led to an explosion of independent African American filmmaking.

While the Production Code and its enforcement through the Hays Office effectively kept representations of "miscegenation" off of Hollywood screens, little objection was raised to the (usually doomed) interracial romances between white and Indian characters in films such as The Last of the Mohicans (1936) and Broken Arrow (1950). The cycle of "pro-Indian" westerns in the 1950s used sympathetic Indian characters to signify other minorities, especially African Americans during the Civil Rights movement and Jews in the wake of radical anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, while at the same time commenting politically upon Native American assimilation and changes in the way the US government handled Indian policy. Non-Native writers, actors, and directors have consistently appropriated images of Indians for the purposes of both nationalist and counterculture messages. That Indian characters onscreen appear to function as metaphors for other ethnic groups is unsurprising, given the variety of non-Native actors who have "played Indian" (in redface), including Italian American actors (Sylvester Stallone), African American actors (Noble Johnson), Jewish actors (Jeff Chandler), and Asian actors (Sessue Hayakawa), yet this practice also suggests the centrality of Native American representations to Hollywood's construction of America on film. John Ford's now-classic western, The Searchers (1956), wavers between condemning and furthering the destructive racism of its main character, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Another character—the mixed-blood Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), adopted and raised by white settlers—becomes the focal character for viewers. The trope of rescue in which the men search for a niece captured by Comanches becomes an indictment of racism and destructive patriarchy as Ethan himself vacillates between rescuing Debbie (Natalie Wood) and killing her.

While the word "miscegenation" has roots in a specific US context, the Spanish word mestizaje refers more broadly to the cultural and racial mixing of indigenous, European, and African peoples in Latin America. It represents highly symbolic female figures of cultural syncretism, such as the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche, the indigenous concubine who is also a translator, have been depicted on film (as in Emilio Fernández's María Candelaria, 1944). Cinematic representations of cross-racial romance such as Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Nelson Pereira Dos Santos's Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, 1971), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), Stephen Frear and Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) resist racial and sexual categorizations with visual and narrative dramas that at once blur and call attention to racial boundaries and social intolerance.


Many films that do not seem to address issues of race or ethnicity are in fact doing the work of defining and fortifying such categories. Richard Dyer has argued that "whiteness" is a category that seems invisible because it gives the impression of being nothing; the power and domination of images of whiteness on screen are in the appearance of pervasive normality. Scholars studying these representations ask what has to be suppressed and what has to be controlled in production in order to make such images seem effortless and natural. Dyer has argued that if "blackness" in Hollywood studio films represents physical expressiveness, emotion, sexuality, and proximity to nature, then "whiteness" signifies the opposite through controlled, cerebral, even deathlike images. Jezebel (1938), for example, was one of a series of plantation films from the 1930s—including Gone with the Wind (1939), Dixiana (1930), and Mississippi (1935)—that simultaneously masked and displayed the capitalist exploitation of African American labor through images of lavish plantations and dazzlingly wealthy white Southern families. In these films, the rigidity of whiteness is maintained through interracial relations—whites dominate but are dependent upon blacks, to the point that the actions of African American characters onscreen function to express the emotions of white characters, so as to preserve the restrained vision of whiteness.

Blackface minstrelsy—both the visual practice of "blacking up" and the musical work of sound and song—was one of the most important American popular culture forms of the nineteenth century. The term "Jim Crow" as a description of the segregation laws of the South originated with the name of a popular early-nineteenth-century blackface character performed by the white actor Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808–1860). In the twentieth century, popular forms such as vaudeville and cinema drew heavily from this tradition of racial masquerade. In the midst of prohibitions regulating the representation of miscegenation on screen and the segregated viewing spaces and practices in the South and elsewhere, the extraordinary

James Young Deer, b. Dakota City, Nebraska, date unknown, d. April 1946
Lillian St. Cyr, b. Winnebago Reservation, Nebraska, 13 February 1873, d. 13 March 1974

This husband-and-wife team, both of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe, became an influential force in the production of silent one-reel westerns between 1908 and 1913. Though their American film careers were short-lived, they intervened in the industry at a particularly crucial moment in the formation of a genre that would dominate Hollywood production for decades.

Princess Red Wing (the stage name for Lillian St. Cyr) was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and a professional actress. A recognizable presence in cinema, she starred in the first feature-length film—Cecil B. DeMille's western, The Squaw Man (1914)—and over thirty-five other films between 1909 and 1921, including Donald Crisp's Ramona (1916) and an early Tom Mix picture, In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914). When James Young Deer took over the West Coast studio operations for the French-owned film company Pathé Frères, he was already a veteran entertainer. He had performed with the Barnum and Bailey circus and the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show and had acted, directed, and written scenarios for several film companies including Kalem, Lubin, Vitagraph, and Biograph. He also worked at one of the first independent film companies, the New York Motion Picture Company, under the Bison trademark.

With trade journals calling for more authenticity in westerns and Native American and other moviegoers protesting the inaccuracies and negative stereotypes of Indians onscreen and threatening industrywide censorship, Young Deer and St. Cyr were able to leverage their cultural identity and industry experience. From about 1909 to 1913 they used the early flexibility of the industry to exert unprecedented control over popular images of Indians. Both behind the camera and in front of it, Young Deer and St. Cyr rewrote the racial scripts of the western, commenting on racism, assimilation, racial mixture, and cultural contact. Many of their films revisited and revised the wildly popular "squaw man" plot involving a crossracial romance between an Indian woman and white man. Young Deer and Lillian St. Cyr systematically undermined the "vanishing Indian" trope by giving the plots a new political center of gravity. In films such as For the Papoose (1912) and White Fawn's Devotion (1910), mixed-race families answer to the tribe's justice systems and mixedblood children remain part of their Indian communities rather than being taken away to be raised in adoptive white families or in boarding schools.

As Young Deer and St. Cyr became more successful, the mass production of movies became more established, and the studios more wary of potentially objectionable subject matter, the couple's films became less distinctive. The details of Young Deer's later career are sketchy. After leaving California because of legal troubles in 1913, he worked in France and elsewhere, but little is known about his film work in Europe. Lillian St. Cyr continued to draw on her theatrical experience in vaudeville, was a college lecturer, and served as an activist in Indian affairs.


The Falling Arrow (1909), Red Wing's Gratitude (1909), The Mended Lute (1909), White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America (1910), The Red Girl and the Child (1910), A Cheyenne Brave (1910), The Yaqui Girl (1910), Little Dove's Romance (1911), For the Papoose (1912), The Prospector and the Indian (1912), The Squaw Man's Sweetheart (1912), The Squaw Man (1914), In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914), Ramona (1916)


Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Hearne, Joanna. "'The Cross-Heart People': Race and Inheritance in the Silent Western." Journal of Popular Film and Television 30 (Winter 2003): 181–196.

Simmon, Scott. The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half-Century. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Smith, Andrew Brodie. Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Western Films, American Culture, and the Birth of Hollywood. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003.

Joanna Hearne

popularity of racial cross-dressing in the form of blackface minstrelsy became an engine that drove the film industry's transition to the sound era. Blackface has marked crucial moments in film history, from The Birth of a Nation to the first sound film and first musical, Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927). In The Birth of a Nation, the figure of Gus, a white actor in blackface, performs "black" desire for white women that, in the South, became the pretext for lynching. By contrast, in The Jazz Singer the drama of the transformation of the Jewish protagonist Jake Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) into Jack Robin through his performance of blackness suggests, as Michael Rogin has argued, that the assimilation and eliding of complex, multiple ethnicities into a consolidated American "white" identity happened through the process of racial caricature that maintained boundaries between black and white. Thus, according to Rogin, Jewish blackface performers modeled Americanization through the ritual of defining themselves as white by playing with blackface performance, redrawing the boundaries of social exclusion along racial rather than ethnic lines, and representing America as polarized by racial dichotomy rather than ethnic pluralism.

Blackface minstrelsy and its translation from stage to cinema at the turn of the twentieth century is only one example of the powerful deployment of stereotypes and their devastating effects. The word "stereotype" originally referred to methods of making identical copies in the printing industry; this idea of an endlessly replicated image of an "other" remains important to the work of stereotypes in shaping expectations. Stereotypes are not simply accidental departures from realism; rather, they function systematically as a form of broad social control, influencing collective perceptions and public memory as well as colonizing individual self-perceptions through internalized racism. Character-based stereotypes seem stable, but in fact they develop and change over time—not as an evolution or development towards more consistently positive representations but rather in response to specific historical situations. Whether stereotypes are "positive" or "negative," they present limited options for action.

Famous examples of stereotypes abound, and minority actors within the parameters of such roles have often given extraordinary performances. Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) won an Oscar® for her role as a loyal servant or "mammy" in Gone with the Wind (1939). Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949) played a version of "Uncle Tom" opposite Shirley Temple in the 1930s (The Littlest Rebel, 1935; The Little Colonel, 1935; and Just Around the Corner, 1938) and Stepin Fetchit (1902–1985) became a Hollywood star playing "coon" characters, such as his "Jeff Poindexter" in Judge Priest (1934). Indian stereotypes given greater depth by Native American actors include noble savages and savage reactionaries (Eric Schweig as Uncas and Wes Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, 1992), Indian princesses (Irene Bedard voicing the animated Pocahontas in Disney's Pocahontas, 1995), and wise sages (Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, 1970). Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (1932–2005) played cryptic, wise, and servile Asian characters on television in Happy Days (1975–1976, 1982–1983) and in films such as The Karate Kid (1984), while images of decadent, seductive, dangerous Asian men and women have appeared in films such as The Cheat (1915), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and more recently in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). Certain directors, such as Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, have become associated with films that explore ethnic identities and issues of assimilation and difference. Italian American and Irish American gangster figures have been humanized on screen in films such as The Godfather (1972) and On the Waterfront (1954), and drawing on the tradition of "social problem" genres, such films have effectively rendered experiences of immigration, although in some cases ethnicity is posited as part of the "problem" documented in the film.

Just as important as identifying stereotypes is thinking through the conditions of their production and reception. Within the restrictions of Hollywood genres and character stereotypes, minority performances can provide a venue resistance both onscreen and offscreen. Actors such as Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973), Louise Beavers (1902–1962), Dolores del Rio (1905–1983), Princess Red Wing, Jay Silverheels, and many others, though they sometimes played stereotyped roles onscreen, were able to use their position within the industry in a variety of ways—including creating opportunities for other minority actors; providing offscreen role models of professional success for minority youth; advocating for legal and social change; and, within their performances themselves, offering subtle signs of agency and potential for self-representation beyond the scripted lines they were assigned to deliver.

This potential for subversive performance and for off-screen interventions is not possible with the conventions of racial masquerade in which minority presence is rendered only as a caricature. Blackface minstrelsy—and other forms of racial ventriloquism in casting—also excluded African American and other minority performers from the stage and screen, making the "presence" of stereotyped characters in films an indicator of absence. In the "redface" of the western, for example, the common practice of having white actors (such as Rock Hudson, Debra Paget, Charles Bronson, and many others) embody Indian characters contributes, at the level of performance, to the visual trope of the "vanishing Indian." These actors—whose "whiteness" is consolidated through their performance of a racialized Other—provide a point of identification for white viewers but not for people of color. Similarly, many films that explicitly address issues of cultural difference—such as Dances with Wolves (1990)—provide a white protagonist as a focal character whose point of view anchors and guides white viewers. Frequently, no such focal character is available for minority viewers in mainstream Hollywood films.

"Image studies," or the practice of examining stereotypes, is an important form of analysis but it has limitations. Film scholars Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have described the difficulty of comparing stereotypes to an external reality (which is impossible to define without resorting to essentialist notions of the typical) as well as the need to consider broader politics of film style; race-based casting; genre conventions other than realism (such as parody or other modes of address); historical, cultural, and production contexts; and other mediating issues. They suggest considering race and ethnicity as discourse-based, in the sense of competing voices in specific historical and cultural contexts. This "relational" model reveals the functions of race and ethnicity even in films that suppress the constitutive role of race in American culture. Further, it opens our analytic horizons beyond the singular, character-based stereotype, allowing us to study a range of issues related to hybridity and syncretism in film marketing, distribution, exhibition, and spectatorship.


For more than a half century, segregated theaters pro-foundly affected the participation of African Americans in the film industry as both producers and viewers. The US Supreme Court ruled to allow state-legislated segregation in theaters in 1883, and the earliest nickelodeons inherited the practice of segregation by race from vaudeville theaters. Theaters enforced segregation by time (showing films for African American audiences late at night), by section, entrance (seating African American viewers in the balcony), and by neighborhood, with black-only theaters serving patrons in African American neighborhoods, especially in northern cities. As early as 1909, some theaters were already serving African American patrons only, but overall these viewers remained underserved—for example, there were about one hundred blackonly theaters nationally in that decade, compared to ten thousand theaters for whites. Black-only theaters were more run down than white theaters and usually showed

b. New York, New York, 22 October 1952

A major voice in independent filmmaking, Julie Dash was the first African American woman to direct a feature film with national theatrical release, namely Daughters of the Dust (1991). Her films—especially Illusions (1982) and Daughters of the Dust—have remained important texts in the study of American independent film. Her work consistently intervenes in and redirects Hollywood images of African American women, offering aesthetically complex and compelling characters and returning to specific historical moments to recover and revalue the nuances of black women's lives and professional contributions.

Dash's final project for her American Film Institute program, the thirty-four-minute, black-and-white film Illusions, tells the story of two African American women in the Hollywood film industry during World War II. Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee) is a light-skinned African American studio executive, "passing" for white in the all-white production offices of a major studio; Esther Jeeter (Roseann Katon) is a talented black singer brought in to dub a song for a white screen star. Through its focus on sound, the film comments on the voices of black women that have been hidden, covered over, or gone unseen and unheard.

Dash's best-known film, Daughters of the Dust, isa lyrical, visually lush story of a turn-of-the-century Gullah family from the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. Gullah is a Creole dialect and culture based on both West African grammatical patterns and Elizabethan English vocabulary. Dash herself is descended from a Gullah family on her father's side and spent time on the Sea Islands as a child. Based on ten years of meticulous research, her film evokes West African oral storytelling through two voiceover narrators—an elderly matriarch and a girl not yet born. Dash struggled enormously to acquire funding for the film, and by piecing together small grants and selling distribution rights, she raised $1 million to finance it. Her artistic control and commitment to Afrocentric storytelling extended to details of production—she cast the film using actors from other black independent films. The film won awards and made a profit, drawing an African American middle-class audience, especially women—a population of viewers often overlooked by Hollywood studios and distributors. This financial success surprised even its distributor, Kino International, which had marketed Daughters as "a foreign film made in America."

Despite the success of Daughters of the Dust, Dash continued to encounter difficulties in financing her projects. In the mid-1990s, she turned to television as a venue, directing programs for Black Entertainment Television and MTV. At Angela Bassett's request, she directed The Rosa Parks Story (2002), about the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. The production benefited from Dash's habit of careful historical research as well as her interest in the human, emotional aspects of Park's story.


Diary of an African Nun (1977), Illusions (1982), Daughters of the Dust (1991), The Rosa Parks Story (TV, 2002)


Bambara, Toni Cade. "Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement." Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara, 118–144. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Brouwer, Joel. R. "Repositioning: Center and Margin in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust." African American Review 29:1 (1995): 5–16.

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust. New York: Dutton, 1997.

——Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New York: New Press, 1992.

Mellencamp, Patricia. "Making History: Julie Dash." In Redirecting the Gaze: Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World, edited by Diana Robin and Ira Jaffe, 99–126. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Joanna Hearne

final runs of films that had played months earlier in white theaters. When sound came to the movies in the late 1920s, black-only theaters did not always have the where-withal to upgrade their equipment, and some continued to play silent films for several more years. Largely excluded from Hollywood production, distribution, and exhibition, African American viewers saw fewer movies and often turned to other media, such as radio, and alternative venues for social recreation, such as churches and clubs.

Because of the lack of humanizing representations of African Americans onscreen and segregated viewing practices, there emerged in the late 1910s a separate film industry, much of it black-owned, that produced "race films" with all-black casts for African American communities. Through the 1940s, these film companies provided opportunities for African American actors to perform in roles beyond the "mammy" and "Tom" caricatures in Hollywood. The productions were often versions of mainstream genre films, such as the black-cast westerns of singing cowboy Herb Jeffries (b. 1911) (The Bronze Buckaroo, 1939). Though many of the producers and directors of race films were white, prominent African American directors such as Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) and Spencer Williams (1893–1969) established an independent alternative to the Hollywood studio systems and produced a significant oeuvre. (Micheaux directed thirty five films in addition to writing seven novels.) Their films explored issues such as class divisions within African American communities, mixed-race romance, and interracial relations, including narratives of assimilation and "passing." Williams's work included genre films as well as religious epics, and later in his career, a role as Andy Brown in the television show Amos 'n' Andy (1951–1953). His 1941 film, The Blood of Jesus, has been included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. More rarely, the term "race films" is used to refer to Yiddish-language films, which, like films for African American audiences, were produced independently outside of the Hollywood studio system.

In 1953, seventy years after the 1883 decision to allow theaters to exclude or separate African American patrons, the Supreme Court reversed that trajectory and outlawed segregation in Washington, DC, theaters. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy, in the process of presenting civil rights legislation to Congress, pressured studio executives and theater-chain owners to desegregate in order to avoid violence and picketing from civil rights activists. But another kind of segregation was already in place, and accelerating. As more African Americans came to northern cities, other ethnic groups moved to the suburbs, emptying Italian, German, Polish, and Jewish neighborhoods and the theaters that had catered to these groups. By the early 1970s the downtown movie palaces that had once served white city dwellers were operating at a loss. Then the early examples of what would become the "blaxploitation" film movement drew urban, working-class African American audiences to these theaters, showing films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), and Shaft (1971). The opening sequence of Shaft comments tellingly on this situation: in a high angle shot, the camera pans across a series of downtown marquees, showing biker and other genre films, and after the last marquee, the title "SHAFT" appears, inserting itself into the line of titles. This announcement of a new black-oriented presence and mobility in the urban film lineup is followed by the protagonist's emergence from the "underground railroad" of the subway station at Broadway and 42nd Street. Thus both the film and its hero modeled for African American audiences a new presence in multiple social and racialized spaces in the studio industry and in the urban geography of New York. Shaft, which grossed $12 million at the box office, virtually saved the financially troubled MGM, and although white directors and studios produced many of the later blaxploitation films, the profitability of many early, independent blaxploitation films paved the way for the renaissance of independent minority productions of the 1980s (including those by directors such as Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, and Julie Dash).

bell hooks has used the term "oppositional gaze" to describe the way African American women engage cinematic images critically both as spectators and as filmmakers in their own right. Other minority groups have also developed oppositional film practices, working both within the established Hollywood industry and independently to produce films that both counter mainstream stereotypes and convey specific cultural forms and visual styles as part of an alternative aesthetic. These filmmakers face problematic issues of authenticity and hybridity as they work against the essentialist stereotypes perpetuated in the media while striving to maintain political solidarity based in common racial and cultural identity. Contemporary Chicano and Chicana filmmakers (Luis Valdez, Edward James Olmos, Lourdes Portillo), Asian American filmmakers (Wayne Wang, Ang Lee), and indigenous filmmakers (Chris Eyre, Victor Masayesva, Alanis Obomsawin) have spoken both as individual artists and as members of their communities in their films. These filmmakers revisit and revise colonialist history, integrating political and aesthetic strategies for the purposes of decolonization. In representing experiences of displacement, filmmakers must also navigate complex issues of race and nation in the wake of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Although space does not allow for a more detailed discussion of specific minority cinema traditions, Third World cinemas, television and radio media, and avant-garde and documentary traditions, representations of race and ethnicity remain central to the study of these areas as well.

SEE ALSO African American Cinema;Arab Cinema;Asian American Cinema;Colonialism and Postcolonialism;Diasporic Cinema;Exhibition;Ideology;National Cinema;Native Americans and Cinema;Spectatorship and Audiences


Bernardi, Daniel, ed. The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

——, ed. Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Courtney, Susan. Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903–1967. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Dyer, Richard. White. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Friedman, Lester D., ed. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." Framework 36 (1989): 68–81.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992.

Prats, Armando José. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Joanna Hearne

Race and Ethnicity

views updated May 23 2018

Race and Ethnicity

The United States of the twenty-first century is a result of five hundred years of immigration combined with the surviving Native American populations. The first European settlements along the Atlantic coastline in the early seventeenth century began a three-century forced relocation of hundreds of established Native American societies.

Waves of immigrants came to the United States after the early European settlers and continued into the twenty-first century. Some came by choice, others by force. Most early immigration was from Great Britain and northern Europe. Before long, black slaves were brought in from western Africa. By the late nineteenth century, east European, Asian, and Hispanic populations had arrived.

White Anglo-Saxons dominated the settlements at the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), though this steadily gave way to a greater mix of people. By the 2000 census, about one-third of all Americans considered themselves minorities. This increasing diversity of the U.S. population raised difficult issues in the criminal justice system.

The terms race and ethnicity are most commonly used to describe the diversity of the American population. Ethnicity refers to a group of people who share a common culture often through language, custom, and religion. Race is based on physical appearances, such as skin color, hair texture, and eye shape. Historically in the United States, people considered "white" dominated the justice system; there were white judges, white lawyers, and white prosecutors. It was not until the twentieth century that more minorities were represented in the legal process.

Regardless of how many decades or centuries different populations have resided in the United States, ethnic background and countries of origin have remained an important aspect of a person's identity. Though race is not a scientific term, it remains a powerful social influence regarding education, income, politics, and criminal investigations. A person's race is listed on various government documents such as birth certificates, driver's licenses, school enrollments, and crime statistics. Though this information can be useful it is not accurate since many Americans are a mix of nationalities.

Race in U.S. legal history

In the United States as in other countries, recent immigrants are always suspected of the latest crime waves. In the early twentieth century white ethnic immigrants from Italy and Ireland were the focus of concern including Irish, Italian, and Polish youth gangs. As more Hispanics migrated from Mexico, the emphasis shifted to people of color in the 1930s and 1940s. Then with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, fears shifted toward black Americans in the 1950s and beyond. Throughout this time white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, often referred to as WASPs, dominated the criminal justice system and determined targets for crime fighting.

Race has also always been central to American laws. Prior to the Civil War most blacks were slaves. In legal terms they were considered property, not humans. Slaves could not bring lawsuits, marry, vote, enter into business contracts, or testify in court except against another slave. Immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1866, Southern states quickly adopted Black Codes to limit the rights of the newly freed slaves.

The Black Codes were followed by Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century strictly enforcing public racial segregation (keeping the races separate in public places). By the late twentieth century numerous laws and court rulings had guaranteed the rights of minorities to equal access of opportunities, equal protection under the law, and due process (given fair treatment) in criminal justice systems.

Native Americans

Though a relatively small portion of U.S. society, Native Americans are a fast rising population increasing from two million in 1990 to around four million in 2000. American Indian communities on reservations are establishing their own tribal criminal justice systems. Some 135 tribal law enforcement agencies and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents police Native American lands. For this reason, statistics involving Native Americans and crime are split between the different systems. Depending on the crime, where it occurred, and against whom, American Indians may be prosecuted in tribal, state, or federal courts.

Crime is a major issue in Indian Country as tribal communities face poverty, high unemployment, isolation in remote areas, suicide, and alcoholism. Some 5 percent of Native Americans eighteens year old and older is involved in the U.S. criminal justice system, twice the rate of white Americans but half the rate of black Americans. American Indians, however, experience violent crime at over twice the rate of blacks and whites. Some 124 Indians per 1,000 residents over twelve years of age experienced violent crimes including sexual assault, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The homicide rates in particular are triple the general population. By the late 1990s, youth gangs were reportedly forming in the remote reservations.

Black Americans and crime

Throughout much of American history, black Americans were the most populated minority in the United States. In 2000, however, Hispanics slightly outnumbered blacks. The 2000 census counted thirty-five million black Americans or about 12 percent of the U.S. population, an increase from thirty million in 1990. Black Americans have played a particularly central role in the issue of race and criminal justice.

Black Americans and other advocates of civil rights claim the black segment of U.S. society is the most policed and least protected group. Black Americans were much more likely than whites to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, sent to prison, sentenced to death, and executed. Though blacks comprised just 12 percent of the population in 2002, over 34 percent of those arrested for aggravated assault, 34 percent for forcible rape, 50 percent for homicide, and over 54 percent for robbery were black. In addition, almost 48 percent of murder victims in the nation were black in 2002.

Black Americans were not only more likely to be a crime suspect, but the victim as well. Street criminals tend to victimize those in their own neighborhoods. Since the United States still had mostly segregated communities, blacks suffered at the hands of other blacks. Violent crime is a major public health concern among black Americans. Blacks in poor areas are seven times more likely than whites to be murdered.

Already a major problem, violence in the black community escalated in the mid-1980s as drug trafficking in crack cocaine and the occurrence of armed gangs increased. Law authorities estimated that twenty-six thousand gangs existed in the United States by the late twentieth century. One-third of their membership was black, though less than the 47 percent Hispanic composition. Only 13 percent of members were white.

Policing and minorities

Relations between minorities and police organizations have always been controversial in U.S. history. Accusations of police brutality and harassment were recurrent. Many consider slave patrols prior to the American Civil War as the first form of organized policing in the United States. Following the war local police were charged with enforcing the Black Codes followed by Jim Crow laws instituting racial segregation in public places. Police often failed to respond to the lynchings of black Americans through the early decades of the twentieth century. In these cases, there were rarely arrests or prosecutions by the white-dominated criminal justice systems of the South.

Similarly, race riots of the early twentieth century were usually assaults by crowds of whites on blacks with little reaction from police. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought open violent conflict between police and black Americans using civil disobedience tactics to protest racial discrimination. Once again police stood by on numerous occasions while blacks were assaulted by angry whites. The FBI even monitored the activities of black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968).

By 1978 police departments began hiring black Americans, and by the 1990s some of the larger cities had black police chiefs. Overall, police treatment of minorities improved as accusations of racial harassment declined. Nonetheless, major incidents continued. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers during a routine traffic stop, captured on videotape, shocked the nation. Acquittal of the police officers who assaulted King led to rioting in Los Angeles and an outpouring of anger against the criminal justice system by blacks.

Other incidents followed with the torture of Abner Louima in a New York City police station and the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson of murder in 1995 revealed great differences in perceptions of the criminal justice system between blacks and whites.

Racial profiling

Racial profiling occurs when police stop a motorist or pedestrian based on his or her race or ethnicity. At one time, profiling was a policing practice focusing on certain suspicious behavior or circumstances likely to have criminal connections or fit into past crime patterns. Statistics found that males, especially youths, were more commonly associated with crime and this led police to focus more on this particular segment of society. While profiling is said to increase the efficiency of the police as well as the safety of the officers, it has clearly been abused.

A tendency to patrol high crime areas, many of which are in or near minority residential areas, led some to believe the police were "profiling" people of color. Additionally, a disproportionate or unusually large number of young black males were pulled over by police, leading to accusations of "driving while black" or racial profiling. Black Americans believed a majority of these young men were pulled over simply because of the color of their skin, not for any violation of the law. Such cases of racial profiling and harassment escalated throughout the 1990s.

Racial profiling became a greater public concern following the beginning of the War on Drugs. New drug laws introduced sweeping forfeiture laws allowing police to seize and keep cash or valuable property related to drug convictions. This was a major new opportunity for revenue and led to more aggressive policing in drug enforcement, particularly aimed at drug trafficking on the streets.

A focus on black youth developed as well. Police adopted new practices such as following a vehicle whose driver or passengers seemed suspicious until a driving violation was observed. The officers then searched the vehicle during the traffic stop, but only if given the driver's permission. If a driver did not give consent, he or she could be arrested. In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this type of profiling and policing was illegal.

Studies affirmed that minorities, particularly black Americans, were more likely to be stopped out of suspicion and searched than whites during routine traffic stops. Though race made a significant difference in making stops and searching vehicles, additional data indicated that race had little impact in arrests or citations.

Sentencing and minorities

Judges often have considerable flexibility in sentencing convicted offenders. People who commit the same crimes do not necessarily receive the same sentences upon conviction. Sentencing decisions are often based on the seriousness of the crime, the offender's past criminal record, and information provided by prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, and probation officers. Other factors outside the immediate nature of the case sometimes influence sentencing as well, such as employment record and family stability.

Like criminal laws, sentencing practices were racially discriminatory in the nineteenth century. Just prior to the Civil War, an 1861 Georgia law specified a mandatory death sentence for rape of a white woman by a black man. A white man raping a white woman could receive a sentence of two to twenty years. Rape of a black woman had no mandatory sentence.

Black rape offenders were executed at a much higher rate than white offenders, and this trend continued well into the twentieth century. Execution rates far exceeded arrest rates. Various efforts were made to take the racial factor out of sentencing decisions. For example, in 1987 U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines were issued prohibiting the reference or consideration of race or ethnicity during sentencing.

Sentencing rates for black Americans, however, still exceeded their 12 percent proportion of the general U.S. population. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed distinct patterns in sentencing regarding racial categories. For most felonies minorities had a higher incarceration rate, especially those with prior arrest records. They also received harsher sentences for lesser crimes. Whites would often receive probation and blacks incarceration. In 1998 black Americans represented 35 percent of the adults on probation, 49 percent of the adults in prison, and 44 percent of the adults on parole.

A minority youth had a six times greater chance as a white youth for being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to jail or prison. A study in California showed that whites charged with a felony were more likely than blacks or Hispanics to have charges reduced or dismissed. Of the first-time offenders in San Francisco, the courts sentenced 4 percent of the white offenders to state prisons, 7 percent of black offenders, and 11 percent of Hispanic offenders.

Efforts to make sentencing more consistent through stricter sentencing guidelines produced little change. Black offenders who murder a white victim are still more likely to be given the death penalty than for murdering a black victim. Prosecutors can still greatly influence sentencing outcomes by deciding what charges to bring against an offender. In the mid-1990s blacks were still eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In 1994 there were 1,432 blacks incarcerated per every 100,000 black residents compared to 203 whites per 100,000 white residents.

The death penalty

The segment of the criminal justice system that has drawn the most attention in regard to minorities is the death penalty. Nationwide over half, 55 percent, of those executed between 1930 and 1991 were black. Executions of black Americans occurred at such a high rate compared to other racial categories that in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily prohibited death penalty sentences when a black defendant successfully argued the death penalty was applied to black offenders at a much greater rate than others for the same kind of offenses.

The disparity between white and black executions was found predominately in the South. Later studies showed blacks had a 22 percent chance of receiving the death penalty for murdering a white, compared to a white offender having only an 8 percent chance. The death penalty was applied in only 1 percent of cases involving a black murdering a black, and in 3 percent of cases involving a white murdering a black. A death sentence was four times more likely to be imposed if the victim was white. Between 1976 and 1995 only two whites were executed for murdering a black.

Further differences were discovered in the rate of offenders having their death sentences commuted (reduced) to life sentences. Some 20 percent of white death row offenders had their sentences commuted, compared to only 11 percent of blacks between 1914 and 1958 in Pennsylvania. At the end of the twentieth century some 40 percent of death row inmates were black.

Incarceration and minorities

The first inmate of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829 was an eighteen-year-old black American. So began a long legacy of higher rates of incarceration for black Americans. In 1989 the number of black prisoners surpassed the number of whites; by 2003 some 832,400 black Americans were in the nation's prison and jail system compared to 665,100 whites and 363,900 Hispanics.

In 2003 4,834 out of every 100,000 black males were sentenced to prison compared to 681 per every 100,000 white males and 1,778 per 100,000 Hispanic males. Though the rate of black males going to prison was high, the fastest rising segment of prison population by the late twentieth century was minority females.

Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Americans come from many national origins that are culturally and economically diverse. Most Hispanics in the United States come from Mexico. Overall, Hispanics are poorer and less educated than the U.S. population. The language barrier between Hispanics and police contribute to rougher treatment during arrests. Illegal immigration has caused much fear in the U.S. population. In 1990 just over 10 percent of Hispanic men were either in prison or on parole or probation. Just over 3.7 percent of Hispanic men between ages of twenty and twenty-nine were in prison in 2003 compared to 1.6 percent of whites.

As with blacks, drug offenses were a major element of prison terms. Youth gangs have been an ongoing and violent problem involving drugs and guns. Organized crime has established strong ties with Hispanics involving drug trafficking of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana from Latin America. In the late 1990s it was estimated that some three thousand Colombian drug trafficking groups were operating in the United States.

As in the United States, proportionately large numbers of people considered minorities in other countries are incarcerated as well including in France and England. U.S. studies showed that blacks were commonly sent to prison at higher rates and for longer prison terms than whites for the same crimes. Though blacks were always overrepresented in prisons, the differences from white population rates increased dramatically in the 1990s. The incarceration rate for blacks rose 63 percent during the decade; in contrast, the white rate rose 36 percent and the Hispanic rate 35 percent. Increases for the period were due in large part to the War on Drugs proclaimed in the mid-1980s.

Over half of those sentenced for drug offenses were black in 1998. In the late 1990s about 9 percent of the total black adult population in the United States was under correctional supervision compared to 2 percent of the white adult population. The percentage of younger adults was much higher. Some 33 percent of the black American male population between twenty and twenty-nine years of age were either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

Blacks were much more likely to be sent to prison than placed on probation. As a result, black men were locked up at a rate of nine times that of whites. Blacks comprised over 40 percent of the prison population, almost 44 percent in 2003, on any given day. In addition, almost as many blacks were on death row (1,514) in 1999 as whites (1,948).

The experience of black Americans in the U.S. prison system is considered by some as a modern-day version of the slavery plantations in the South. Following the Civil War, the newly developing Southern prison systems held predominately black populations. Inmates worked in cotton fields, much as slaves had before the Civil War. Southern prisoners were worked in the fields for profit, often for private companies, and occasionally for the federal government's Federal Prison Industries program.

The War on Drugs and imprisonment

Overall crime statistics suggest a key reason minorities experience a higher rate of incarceration is because they commit more crimes. The one clear exception, however, has been drug cases. The War on Drugs began with passage of the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which had a major impact on arrests, court cases, and prison population. Minorities, especially blacks, had higher rates for both arrests and incarcerations. In a 1999 report the ACLU argued that even though blacks comprised just 13 percent of drug users, blacks comprised 37 percent of drug-related arrests, 55 percent of drug convictions, and 74 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison. These statistics indicated a strong difference within the criminal justice system regarding the treatment of minorities.

Asian Americans

As with Hispanics, the term Asian American refers to a broad range of national and cultural identities. Asians were subjected to considerable racial prejudice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Congress passed immigration laws as late as the 1920s prohibiting further entry of Asians into the country and blocking requests for U.S. citizenship. During World War II some 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned for up to three years out of suspicion of potential wartime criminal activity based solely on their ethnicity.

The Asian American population rose from over seven million in 1990 to about twelve million in 2000. Despite a strong history of discrimination, some Asian American groups such as the Japanese have been very successful in U.S. society while others such as the Chinese have not. The Asian American population is concentrated in California, Washington, New York, and Nevada.

Many Chinese Americans live in urban Chinatowns located within large cities. Chinatowns often have very high poverty rates, and youth gangs have been an outcome of this poverty and isolation. More recently, young immigrants from Hong Kong have formed gangs. Asian organized crime has also penetrated the United States, becoming a major force in drug trafficking.

A major factor in this disparity was the appearance of crack cocaine as a major drug of choice in the 1980s. Its low cost and high potency compared to regular powder cocaine made it very attractive in impoverished inner-city areas. The new federal drug laws set penalties for the sale or possession of five grams of crack cocaine, the same as five hundred grams of powder cocaine—a felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years of prison.

In contrast, possession of five grams of powder cocaine remained a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in prison. One study estimated that 75 percent of cocaine users were white, were middle class, and held white-collar jobs. Several states passed laws targeting crack cocaine with stiffer penalties similar to the federal law. With police targeting inner-city areas for crack rather than the suburbs where cocaine was the drug of choice, the resulting drug arrest rates were five times higher for minorities than whites.

The overall prison population increased 84 percent in the ten-year period from 1985 to 1995 with drug offenders comprising half of the increase. Some 80 percent of drug offenders convicted and sentenced under the stiffer laws were black. Incarceration of blacks for drug offenses increased 465 percent in contrast to 111 percent for whites. The number of black women incarcerated in state prisons increased 828 percent. Over 85 percent of those convicted of crack cocaine sales or possession were black. A number of federal court districts prosecuted only crack cocaine cases involving minorities. In addition to those convicted, blacks were six times more likely to be sentenced to mandatory prison terms than white offenders.

In Minnesota, a state court ruled the state antidrug law was racially discriminatory after statistics showed the incarceration rate for blacks between 1988 and 1994 was 100 percent compared to 75 percent for whites.

Violence in minority communities

Minorities are involved in more violent crimes than whites, both as offenders and victims. Young black American males are eight times more likely to commit homicides than young white males and eleven times more likely to be arrested for robbery. Homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between fifteen and twenty-four years of age. For Hispanics of the same age range, it is the second leading cause of death.

The impact of crime on minority communities is major, both economically and psychologically. Researchers believe high crime rates come from anger and aggression, with residents often feeling trapped in poverty with no way out. Unemployment rates are generally higher, as are crime rates. These factors contribute to what has been labeled the "subculture of violence" in poor communities.

Hate Crimes

Hate crime is a crime committed against a person simply because he or she represents a certain group or lifestyle different from the offender. Most commonly hate crimes focus on race and ethnicity, but also can include religion, sexual orientation, gender, and age. In 2002 almost 49 percent of hate crimes were based on race and another 15 percent based on ethnicity or national origin. Some 67 percent of victims attacked based on race were black Americans.

The term "hate crime" came into use in the mid-1980s in the media and by politicians. The term quickly caught on in the criminal justice systems. In 1990 the FBI began gathering hate crime data, which is probably much lower than the actual number of hate crimes that have occurred. Many jurisdictions, however, did not provide statistics to the FBI until the 1990s progressed. Other factors affecting statistics include under reportage of crimes due to victims who fear retaliation and distrust law enforcement.

"Three Strikes" Laws

Following a rise in crime rates through the 1980s and early 1990s twenty-four states and the federal government passed legislation known as "three-strikes" laws between 1993 and 1995. The purpose was to get tough on repeat or habitual offenders. Lengthy prison sentences were required on the third felony conviction of an offender. One major effect of the laws was a substantial increase in the incarceration of minorities.

California was one of the first states to pass a three-strikes law. Some 26,000 offenders were incarcerated under the law in its first three years. Black Americans comprised 43 percent of those incarcerated even though they represented only 20 percent of felony arrests and only 7 percent of the state's population. The incarceration rate was thirteen times higher than for whites. In Georgia 98 percent of offenders serving life sentences under their law were black. National studies showed that prosecutors were 50 percent more likely to file charges under the three-strikes laws for black offenders than for white.

Hate crimes involve criminal behavior already prohibited by law, such as assault, murder, and vandalism. Hate crimes can also be against property, such as destruction or vandalism. By the early twenty-first century, over forty states had

passed some form of hate crime legislation. Some states make hate crimes separate from other crimes, while other states passed hate crime bills that influence only the penalty phase of cases.

Hate crimes can be vicious and brutal since the crime comes from intense anger or rage. Victims of hate crimes are three times more likely to need hospital treatment. Many consider hate crimes as a form of domestic terrorism since they are commonly intended to send a message to a larger social group for whom the offender has deep hostilities. They are usually unprovoked by the victim and often appear random.

Hate crime victims are usually selected because of who they are, not something they have done. Attacks are generally based on personal characteristics of which victims have no control, such as skin color or gender. Studies show such crimes lead to tremendous emotional distress for the victims, as well as their communities and society as a whole.

The causes of hate crime can vary. Sometimes the offender suffers from severe mental illness. Other times, hate crimes are "thrill" crimes for youthful offenders, perhaps to gain acceptance among peers or as a gang initiation, or for revenge or retaliation. Organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation engaged in hate crimes for years. In the 1990s white supremacist groups had an estimated membership of 50,000, and had developed a strong presence in prisons.

Reasons for high minority crime rates

In 2002 black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all arrests, including both person and property crimes. Various factors have been cited for the relatively large presence of blacks in America's criminal justice system. Part is certainly due to the racial discrimination that permeates all aspects of American society. Studies showed police officers were more likely to shoot and use excessive force against black suspects, though this tendency had declined by the early twenty-first century.

It is also true policing occurs at higher levels in minority communities, and that black Americans are targeted much more frequently in racial profiling. Judges and parole officers are also influenced by the race of offenders. Many believe these patterns have declined through the late twentieth century as more minorities have become employed in the criminal justice system, from policing to sitting on the bench in judge positions.

For More Information


Benjamin, William P. African Americans in the Criminal Justice System. New York: Vantage Press, 1996.

Collins, Catherine F. The Imprisonment of African American Women: Causes,Conditions, and Future Implications. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997.

Jones-Brown, Delores. Race, Crime, and Punishment. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2000.

Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Levin, Jack. The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, andOther Forms of Bigotry. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Russell, Katheryn. The Color of Crime. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Web Site

"Arrest the Racism: Racial Profiling in America." American Civil LibertiesUnion (ACLU).http://www.aclu.org/profiling (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Race and Ethnicity

views updated May 23 2018


Within public health, there is disagreement about the meaning and use of the term "race." Often, public health scientists and the general public alike mistakenly base their notions of race on the idea that the human species can be separated into distinct human races identifiable through differences in physical traits (e.g., skin color, hair texture, facial features). Furthermore these ideas frequently carry with them the notion that these physical or other distinguishing traits have a basis in a homogeneous set of genes that differentiate races from one another. These ideas originated in the fifteenth century when the ability to support such ideas using sound scientific methods was not possible. Now, scientists from many disciplines (e.g., genetics, anthropology, sociology, biology) agree that there are no distinct human races as was previously claimed.

A more recently developed concept about race is ethnicity. This concept, which emerged in the late eighteenth century, is usually conceptualized as membership in a group defined by a shared geographical origin or cultural history, including common language, religion, art, and other cultural factors. Ethnicity is distinguished from race in public health studies. In North America, the most common ethnic group designation is Hispanic, or Latino/Latina.

Historically, there are examples of extreme human rights violations justified through the notion of biologically homogeneous race and ethnic groups. Eugenics has been used to target members of racial and ethnic groups with oppressive and genocidal societal policies and actions. Just before World War II, eugenics formed the basis of Nazi genocidal policies toward Jews, and in the early twentieth century it resulted in landholding and job exclusionary policies toward European immigrants to the United States. Race as a social construction and social fact continues to figure prominently in political and ideological relations and systems of contemporary societies worldwide.

Starting in the 1970s, scientific evidence began to accumulate to support the idea that races, as distinct biologically or genetically homogeneous groups of humans, do not exist. Geneticists have shown that only a very small proportion (6% or less) of human genetic variability occurs between so-called races. Furthermore scientists within other disciplines, such as biology and anthropology, have discarded such definitions of race based upon notions of biologic or genetic homogeneity. Rather, scientists recognize that the concept of race has been socially constructedinitially in the sixteenth century to justify economic exploitation and political domination of certain populations distinguishable by physical features such as skin colorand that race is a set of economic, political, and cultural relations that result in health and social inequalities.

Public health scientists continue to use various categories of race in research. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), setting standards for the nation, recently recommended using the categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. The OMB recognizes that these categories represent a "sociopolitical construct" and "are not anthropologically or scientifically based."

In public health research, racial categories are often used to demonstrate inequalities in health status and other health-related factors such as access to and quality of health care. Unfortunately, some public health studies still interpret such inequalities as having a biologic or genetic basis. Thus, subtle and blatant forms of "scientific racism" and biological determinism are seen within the field of public health today. Public health scientists should be encouraged to use theories of race informed by current scientific evidence that so-called races are social constructs and social facts. Fortunately, public health studies have begun to identify and measure the social mechanisms (e.g., institutional and individual racism) that contribute to racial gaps rather than using race as a proxy for these exposures.

Patricia O'Campo

(see also: Economics of Health; Ethnicity and Health; Ethnocentrism; Eugenics; Social Determinants )


American Association of Anthropologists (1999). "Statement on Race." American Anthropologist 100(3): 712713.

Banton, M. (1998). Racial Theories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bonilla, S. E. (1999). "The Essential Social Fact of Race." American Sociological Review 64:899906.

Cavilis-Sforza, L. L. (2000). Peoples and Languages, trans. M. Seielstad. New York: North Point Press.

Lewontin, R. L.; Rose, S.; and Kamin, L. J. (1984). Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books.

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