October 20, 2005

Race v. Ethnicity

Much of the confusion in modern American intellectual discourse would be cleared up if pundits would adapt by definitions of race and ethnicity, which I've designed to fit the way the U.S. Census Bureau uses the terms.

- A racial group is a partly inbred extended biological family.

- An ethnic groups is one defined by shared traits that are often passed down within biological families -- e.g., language, surname, religion, cuisine, accent, self-identification, historical or mythological heroes, musical styles, etc. -- but that don't have to be.

The difference is perhaps easiest to see with adopted children. For example, if, say, an Armenian baby is adopted by Icelanders, his ethnicity would be Icelandic, at least until he became a teen and decided to rebel against his parents by searching out and espousing his Armenian heritage. But racially, he'd always be Armenian.

One amusing example of ethnicity in action was the invention of rock and roll in the 1950s. To the teenage John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the Liverpool in the late 1950s, their heroes -- Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly -- weren't black or white. To John and Paul, the relevant fact was that they were American, Southern American. That's ethnicity in action.

There's a tendency today, with PBS documentarian Ken Burns being most notorious for this (see the Old Negro Space Program parody), to attribute all past creativity in American pop culture to blacks (for instance, the Irish-American contribution to tap-dancing has disappeared down the Memory Hole). But it's important to note that African-Americans weren't building on African musical models, which, other than their emphasis on rhythm, don't sound at all like rock and roll.

On the other hand, the races have diverged musically since then, even though blacks can still make money if they deign to play rock music. Nobody ever said Hootie and the Blowfish were particularly talented, but they made a lot of money in the 1990s because there was a real hunger among white fans for a band that would feature white electric guitar rock fronted by a lead singer with a resonant black voice.

This kind of de-assimilation along racial lines is a subject deserving of more study that it has received.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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