An Introduction to Ethnicity

While the idea of race implies something fixed and biological, ethnicity is a source of identity which lies in society and culture. Ethnicity refers to a type of social identity related to ancestry (perceived or real) and cultural differences which become active in particular social contexts.

For comparative purposes you might like to read this post: an introduction to the concept of race for sociology students

The concept of ethnicity has a longer history than ‘race’ and is closely related to the concepts of ‘race’ and nation. Like nations, ethnic groups are ‘imagined communities’ whose existence depends on the self-identification of their members. Members of ethnic groups may see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups, and are seen, in turn, as different. In this sense, ethnic groups always co-exist with other ethnic groups.

Several characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups, but most usual are language, a sense of shared history or ancestry, religion and styles of dress.

dress islamic identity.jpg
clothing can be an important aspect of ethnic identity to some people

Ethnicity is learned, there is nothing innate about it, it has to be actively passed down through the generations by the process of socialisation. It follows that for some people, ethnicity is a very important source of identity, for others it means nothing at all, and for some it only becomes important at certain points in their lives – maybe when they get married or during religious festivals, or maybe during a period of conflict in a country.

Problems with the concept of ethnicity

Majority ethnic groups are still ‘ethnic groups’. However, there is often a tendency to label the majority ethnic group, e.g. the ‘white-British’ group as non-ethnic, and all other minority ethnic groups as ‘ethnic minorities’. This results in the majority group regarding themselves as ‘the norm’ from which all other minority ethnic groups diverge.

There is also a tendency to oversimplify the concept of ethnicity – a good example of this is when job application forms ask for your ethnic identity (ironically to track equality of opportunity) and offer a limited range of categories such as Asian, African, Caribbean, White and so on, which fails to recognize that there are a number of different ethnic identities within each of these broader (misleading?) categories.

Sources use to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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An Introduction to the Concept of ‘Race’ for Sociology Students

Race is one of the most complex concepts in sociology, not least because its supposedly ‘scientific’ basis has largely been rejected.

However the term ‘race’ is still widely used and many people believe we can still divide the world into biologically distinct ‘races’.

There have been numerous attempts by governments to establish categories of people based on skin colour or racial type. However these schemes have never been successful, with some identifying just four or five major categories and others as many as three dozen. Such disagreement over categorizations does not provide a reliable basis for social scientific research.

In many ancient civilizations, distinctions were often made between social groups on visible skin colour differences, usually between lighter and darker skin tones. However, before the modern period, it was more common for perceived distinctions to be based on tribal or kinship affiliations. These groups were numerous and the basis of their classification was relatively unconnected to modern ideas of face, with its biological or genetic connotations. Instead, classification rested on cultural similarity and group membership.

Theories of racial difference based on supposedly scientific methods were devised in Europe the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and used to justify the emerging social order – in which European nations came to control overseas territories through colonialism.

Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816 -82), sometimes referred to as the ‘father of modern racism’ proposed the existence of just three races – white (Caucasian), black (Negroid) and Yellow (Mongoloid).

According to Gobineau, the white race possessed superior intelligence, morality and willpower, and these properties explained their technical, economic and political superiority, while the black race were the least capable race – possessing the lowest intelligence, an animal nature, and a lack of morality, which served to justify their position in the American society as slaves.

Such wild generalizations have today been discredited, but they have been extremely influential, forming part of Nazi ideology in 1930s and 40s Germany, as well as the ideology of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the USA.

There is a link here to social action theory as the use of the concept of race illustrates W.I Thomas’ famous theorem that ‘when men define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences’. In other words, despite the fact that there is no objective basis for racial differences, because people in power have believed these differences to exist, they have perpetuated social orders which have systematically disadvantaged (in the case of European-colonial history) non-white people.

Many biologists report that there are no clear-cut races, just a range of physical variations in the human species. Differences in physical type arise from population inbreeding which varies according to the degree of contact between different groups. The genetic diversity within populations that share visible physical traits (such as skin colour) is just as great as the genetic diversity between populations.

As a result of such findings, the scientific community has virtually abandoned the concept of race. UNESCO recognized these findings in its 1978 Declaration of Race and Racial Prejudice:

‘All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity’.

Some sociologists argue that race is nothing more than an ideological construct and should therefore be abandoned, because simply using the term perpetuates the very idea that there are significant racial differences between humans

Others disagree, claiming that ‘race’ still has meaning for many people and cannot be ignored. In historical terms ‘race’ has certainly been an extremely important concept used by powerful groups as part of their strategies of domination, as with the slave system in American history, and the contemporary situation of African Americans today cannot be understood without reference to the slave trade, racial segregation and racial ideologies – thus we still need to use and ‘deal with’ the term ‘race.

Students of sociology will come across the term ‘race’ in many text books, but often in inverted commas to reflect the problems with the concept discussed below.

Racialization

The process through which understandings of race are used to classify individuals or groups of people is called ‘racialization’. Historically, some groups of people came to be labelled as distinct on the basis of naturally occurring physical features. From the fifteenth century onwards, as Europeans came into contact with people from different regions of the world, attempts were made to explain perceived differences. Non-European populations were racialized in opposition to the European ‘white race’.

In some instances, this racialization developed into institutions backed up by legal structures, such as the slave system in the United States, or the Apartheid system in South Africa.

More commonly, however, social institutions have become racialized in a de facto manner – in other words, informal white prejudice and discrimination have resulted in a situation in which institutions have come to be dominated by white people, with non-white people being under-represented.

In racialized systems, the life chances of individuals are shaped by their position in that system – in European societies, for example, you would expect white people to have greater life chances in relation to education and work (for example), while non-white people would suffer reduced life chances .

It follows that racialization (and the ideas of ‘race’ that inform the process) is an importance factor in the reproduction of power and inequality in a society.

The concept of racialization might be a powerful tool for challenging racist ideology: because it essentially names the process for what it is – a purely subjective process used by the powerful to maintain positions of privilege, rather than the social divisions being created being based on any really existing significant objective differences  between individuals.

Related Posts

What is Racism?

Sources used to write this post include:

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime

Unlike with social class, the home office does record explicit data based on the ethnic backgrounds of those stopped and searched, arrested and imprisoned. There are a lot of different official statistics on ethnicity and crime, reflecting the different stages of the criminalisation process: 

  1. Stop and search stats
  2. Arrest statistics
  3. Penalty order notices and cautions
  4. Those who are subject to court proceedings
  5. Those convicted in court
  6. Those sent to jail from court
  7. Prison statistics (those in jail) (not shown in the table below)

ethnicity-and-crime

Of course in order to be properly comparative, we need to look at the numbers from each ethnic group at each stage in proportion to the overall numbers of each ethnic group in the population as a whole, as the table above does.

Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime – The Most Obvious Differences between Ethnic Groups… 

Proportionate to the overall numbers in the adult population as a whole…

  • Black people are approximately SIX times more likely to be stopped and searched and SIX times more likely to be sent to jail;
  • Asian people are THREE times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, but have a similar chance of being sent to jail.

The rest of this post provides a little more detail on how the stats vary at different stages of the criminalisation process. 

Stop and Search Statistics by Ethnicity

According to this BBC summary (2013) The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The commission said the disproportion between different ethnic groups remained “stubbornly high”.

The highest “disproportionality” ratios were found in the following places:

  • In Dorset black people were 11.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In West Mercia, Asian people were 3.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In Warwickshire, people of mixed race were 4.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

The report also looked at the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act under which police can stop and search someone for weapons, without suspicion that the individual is involved in wrongdoing, providing that a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence had or is about to occur.

stop and search.jpg

Under section 60, In the West Midlands, black people were 29 times more likely than white people to be targeted and Asian people were six times more likely than white people to be targeted, which is what the above spoof advert mush be drawing on.

EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said “the overall disproportionality in the use of the powers against black, Asian and mixed race people remains stubbornly high.”

Prosecution and trial statistics 

The Crown Prosecution service (CPS) is responsible for deciding whether a crime or arrest should be prosecuted in court. They base it on whether there is any real chance of the prosecution succeeding and whether it is better for the public that they are prosecuted.

Ethnic minority cases are more likely to be dropped than whites, and blacks and Asians are less likely to be found guilty than whites. Bowling and Phillips (2002) argue that this is because there is never enough evidence to prosecute as it is mainly based on racist stereotyping. In 2006/7 60% of whites were found guilty, against only 52% of blacks, and 44% of Asians.

When cases go ahead members of ethnic minorities are more likely to elect for Crown Court trail rather than magistrates (even through Crown Courts can hand out more severe punishments), potentially because of a mistrust of magistrates.

Sentencing and prison statistics

Jail sentences are more likely to be given to Blacks (68%) compared to Whites (55%) or Asians (59%), whereas Whites and Asians were more likely to receive community services. But this could be due to the seriousness of some ones offence of previous convictions.

Hood (1992) found that even when the seriousness of an offence and previous convictions were taken into account Black men were 5x more likely to be jailed and given a sentence which is 3 months (Asians 9 months) longer than whites.

The current actual prison statistics broken down by ethnicity look something like this:

ethnicity-prison-uk

Victim surveys

The British Crime Survey indicated that 44 per cent of victims were able to say something about the offender who was involved in offences against them. Among these, 85 per cent of offenders were said by victims to be ‘white’, 5 per cent ‘black’, 3 per cent ‘Asian’ and 4 per cent ‘mixed’. However, these stats are only for the minority of ‘contact’ offences and very few people have any idea who was involved in the most common offences such as vehicle crime and burglary. Therefore, in the vast majority of offences no reliable information is available from victims about the ethnicity of the criminal.

Self-report studies

Though not ‘official statistics’ because they’re not done by the government routinely, it’s interesting to contrast the above stats to this alternative way of measuring crime. Self-report studies ask people to disclose details of crimes they committed but not necessarily been caught doing or convicted of. Graham and Bowling (1995) Found that blacks (43%) and whites (44%) had similar and almost identical rates of crime, but Asians actually had lower rates (Indians- 30%, Pakistanis-28% and Bangladeshi-13%).

Sharp and Budd (2005) noted that the 2003 offending, crime and justice survey of 12,000 people found that whites and mixed ethnicity were more likely to say they had committed a crime, followed by blacks (28%) and Asians (21%).

Songs about Race and Injustice – Top Ten

Racial inequality and injustice are core themes within A level and degree-level Sociology, and there are a huge variety of songs across many genres which deal with such themes. The selection below deal with issues and concepts such as prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, Islamophobia, and many are critical of the nation state in perpetuating racial injustice through violence and moral panics.

The amount of such songs probably reflects the fact that their authors’ really aren’t being heard through regular channels, hence the musical outlet. Below are my top ten songs about race and injustice which can be used to illustrate various sociological themes. If you have any alternative suggestions about other songs which should be included please provide them in the comments.

10 – “War”, Bob Marley and the Wailers (Rastaman Vibration, 1976)

‘One Love’ and happy-spliff posters only represent a slither of Bob Marley’s philosophy – take a closer look at the lyrics of many of his songs and you’ll find a more serious political side to them  – the opening verse of ‘War’ illustrates this perfectly..

‘Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Inferior
Is finally
And permanently
Discredited
And abandoned –
Everywhere is war –
Me say war’

(Complete lyrics to Bob Marley’s War)

In later verses there’s a vision of globalisation based on human rights and international morality, and there seems to be a critique of the role which various nation states have played in preventing this from happening, a theme which you’ll find in some of his other songs such as ‘No Woman, No Cry”, which has precious little to do with romance btw.

9 – “Columbus”, Burning Spear (Hail H.I.M., 1980)

There’s not a great deal of sociological/ political content in ‘Columbus’ compared to some of the other songs on the list, but it does provide us with an unambiguous criticism of colonialism and reminds us that much of our history comes from a Eurocentric perspective.

‘Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Yes Jah

He’s saying that, he is the first one
Who discover Jamaica
I and I say that,
What about the Arawak Indians and the few Black man
Who were around here, before him’

8 – “Beds Are Burning”, Midnight Oil (Diesel and Dust, 1987)

This song protests the forcible removal of the Australian Aboriginal people, the Pintupi, from their western desert homeland, to the Northern Territories. During the 1950’s, the western desert was used for missile testing so the government forcibly relocated the Pintupi. Their land was not purchased from them and they received no compensation for their troubles.
The relocation didn’t just remove a people from their land; it also forcibly removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents, who were dispersed into separate government and religious institutions and foster care. They became known as “The Stolen Generation”.
‘The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back’
Midnight Oil performed this song at the close of the 2000 Sydney Olympic games to a world audience of billions of people, including Prime Minister John Howard. The entire band was dressed in black with the word “sorry” printed on their clothing because the Prime Minister refused to apologise on behalf of Australia to the Aboriginal Australians for how they were treated in the past 200 years.
 –

7 – Fuck Tha Police, NWA (Straight Outa Compton, 1988)

A good candidate for the angriest of the songs on the list – but it is none the less an authentic account of perceived police racism in LA in the 1980s.

Selected Lyrics

‘Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics
You’d rather see, me in the pen
Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o’

There’s not really too much to say about this one, other than it’s a useful, and classic, illustration of NWA applying labelling theory – there’s also some interesting mosh-pit action going on the 2014 live version above.

6 – Sonny’s Lettah, Linton Kwesi Johnson (Forces of Victory, 1979)

Sonny’s Lettah was written in protest of the so-called ‘Sus law’, which allowed police to detain people suspected of having “intent to commit an arrestable offence,” in England.  The story of Sonny is a condensation of various experiences gathered by Johnson into this one song.

The ‘lettah’ is written from a man to his mother explaining that he’s in prison – for defending a friend who was detained and beaten by the police for no apparent good reason.

‘Me and Jim stand up waiting pon a bus
not causing no fuss
when all on a sudden a police man
pull up
out jump 3 police man
De ‘ole a dem carrying baton

Ma Maa, meck a tell yu weh dem do to Jim
Ma Maa , meck a tell yu we dem do to him
Dem tump ‘im in ‘im belly
an’ it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im back
an ‘im rib get pop
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im head
but it tuff like lead
Dem kick ‘im in ‘im seed
an it started to bleed

Ma Maa I just couldn’t just stan’ up
deh a no do nutten…’

In contrast to NWA, this is the most depressing song on the list, testimony maybe to the power of the narrative voice: the fact that it’s just one personalised (albeit hypothetically mish-mashed) case somehow has more of an emotional impact than many of the other songs which are more generalised and abstract.

5 – “Talk That”, Rival (Lord Rivz EP, 2011)

Written on the back of the London Riots, grime artist rival reminds us that there are literally hundreds of thousands of marginalised young people living in London who don’t identify with The City, the Olympic Park or Buckingham Palace – theirs is a life of blocked opportunity, crime and violence.

“A lot of people ask me why I speak so much violence, so much pain, so much rage,

That’s all I know”

4 – “Fortress Europe”, Asian Dub Foundation (Enemy of the Enemy, 2003)

A song dealing with asylum seekers – Asian Dub Foundation believe Britain’s boarders should remain open because Britain needs immigrants, with even illegal immigrants generating wealth. They also believe that the media making the link between asylum seekers and terrorism does not reflect the reality of most asylum seekers, i.e. most of them (near enough all of them in fact) are not terrorists.

‘Safe european homes built on wars
You don’t like the effect don’t produce the cause
The chip is in your head not on my shoulder
Total control just around the corner
Open up the floodgates time’s nearly up
Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe
Keep banging
Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe’

3. “Rong Radio Station”, Benjamin Zephaniah (Naked, 2006)

Deals with the role of the media in maintaining ideological control/ hegemony/ false consciousness. You have to watch it with the video – it adds another dimension!

‘For years I’ve been sedated
Now I think I’m educated
I’ve been listening to the rong radio station
and every time I felt ill, I took the same little white pill
I’ve been listening to the rong radio station,
When I started I was curious but then it got so serious
I was cool when I began but now I really hate Iran
And look at me now I wanna make friends with Pakistan
I wanna bomb Afghanistan’

2 “Terrorist”, Lowkey (Soundtrack to The Struggle, 2011)

Serves to remind us that while ‘terrorism’ is almost exclusively associated with Islamic Fundamentalism these days,  there are in fact many violent, politically motivated actions which maybe should be regarded as terrorism, but aren’t labelled as such.

Selected Lyrics

Tell me, what’s the bigger threat to human society
BAE Systems or home made IED’s
Remote controlled drones, killing off human lives
Or man with home made bomb committing suicide

If you look back over the past century, there are dozens of cases of western governments using violence to pursue their political goals – but when powerful organisations use smart-weapons to kill innocent people thousands of miles away, this is ‘legitimate force and collateral damage’, but when some Muslims do the same in the West, but with cruder home made weapons, they get labelled ‘terrorists’.

In versus two and three we get a nice historical overview of recent democratic regimes in developing countries which the West overthrew using military force, and in verse three a broader account of non-Islamic forms of terrorism.

1 – “Freestyle”, Akala (Fire in the Booth, 2011)

Eight minutes of freestyling by Akala, covering numerous sociological issues. Common themes in Akala’s songs  include war and conflict, racism, social injustice, and false consciousness – nicely illustrating many of the concepts developed by Marxist and Interactionist thought.

Selected Lyrics…

‘We can all fight our brothers over crumbs,

Harder to fight the one who makes guns’

NB Akala is very knowledgeable about the history of class and race relations in the UK – you should look at some of the videos with him talking/ being interviewed for an accessible introduction to this area of sociology.