Ethnicity, the Great Political Power-Tool

In the conclusion of her essay “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture” Joane Nagel offers her readers an ominous warning in reference to ethnicity: “While ethnic boundaries and the meanings attributed to them can be shown to be socially constructed, they must not, therefore, be underestimated as social forces” (260). Nagel’s warning stems from a fluid view of ethnicity, which emphasizes that aspects of ethnicity, such as its borders and their meanings, are created by society. More specifically, ethnic boundaries and their meanings are created by political forces. Also, the social forces, which Nagel claims result from ethnicity, are all of political natures: the unification of peoples in their attempts to overcome discrimination, like the Chicanos of East Los Angeles in the 70’s, the manipulation of the public by those seeking political power, like Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslavian conflict, and ethnic conflict in regards to the allocation of sparse government resources, like issues of undocumented immigrants in the Latino/Chicano population. This is not to deny that ethnic issues take no toll on political conflicts, which is evident in the controversy surrounding the recording of Malaysian history. In studying all of these cases, it becomes apparent that ethnicity is not some essential aspect of every person and does not unite them accordingly. In actuality, ethnicity, at its worst, is a manifestation of racism and, at its best, is a veil for political motivation.

Ethnicity is the reincarnation of racism. The demise of racism is accredited to the dismissal of any scientific information supporting the claim that some races are genetically inferior to others. But with the passing of this “traditional” racism, Walter Benn Michaels, in Our : Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, suggests a new manifestation: “The modern concept of cultureâÂ?¦ is a form of racism” (129). When society was relieved of the false beliefs that racism was supported by biological evidence the new support for discrimination became culture. Culture is one of the two basic building blocks of ethnicity (Nagel 238). All aspects of culture, such as art, music, religion and tradition, are encompassed under the idea of ethnicity. If culture is considered to be encapsulated under ethnicity this means ethnicity has become the “new racism.” Since racism’s faulty biological evidence was replaced by cultural evidence the discrimination once associated with racism has now come to be known under the new title of ethnicity. Ethnicity is flaunted the same way race was in the past. Ethnicity is thought of as a very concrete aspect of every person, which bears very real significance. But the only significance ethnicity bears is in its utilization. Ethnicity maybe used to unite groups of people with similar cultural traits, thus helping them overcome any challenges they may face as a group. But ethnicity is also used to discriminate and oppress populations. The idea of ethnicity is easily manipulated by those seeking political power and used in ways which may have very harmful repercussions on society. The only way to prevent discrimination and oppression under the name of ethnicity is to collapse any logic upholding it. Race fell with the dismissal of biological support; ethnicity will crumble with the dismissal of it as an essence belonging to every person and the acknowledgement that it is only a veil to hide both beneficial and malicious political motivation.

The creation of ethnic groups is motivated by political agendas. In his article, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” Hunter S. Thompson witnesses the uproar amongst the Mexican-American community after the “accidental” murder of Ruben Salazar, a progressive Chicano columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the news director for bilingual KMEX-TV, at the hands of a Los Angeles country sheriff in 1971 (122). He notes that Mexican-American housewives and their husbands, “the lowest and most expendable cadres in the Great Gabacho economic machine-were volunteering to testify; yes, to stand up in court, or whatever, and calling themselves Chicanos. The term ‘Mexican-American’ fell massively out of favor with all but the old and conservative-and the rich” (Thompson 122). What Thompson observed was not just the creation of a new label for a group of people, but the birth of a new ethnic group; he observed the emergence of the Chicano ethnic group from the Mexican-American community. The peculiarity in the emergence of the Chicano community was that the term Chicano included many, but not all, of the members of the Mexican-American group. The only difference between the term Chicano and Mexican-American was a difference in the economic stance and subsequent political views of each group’s members. Politically, Chicanos felt that the “accidental” murder of Ruben Salazar, one of their most educated, progressive and vigilant members, was the tipping point. Chicanos felt that action against had to be taken against the systematic oppression they faced at the hands of the police. Chicanos felt that lobbing a tear-gas grenade through the window of a bar and into the back of Salazar’s skull without warning was the final straw in years of police brutality. Financially, Chicanos were generally impoverished and lived in the barrios of East Los Angeles, which allowed them the experiences of police brutality and fostered their dissatisfaction towards the government. The individuals who remained under the title of Mexican-American were the wealthy that did not live in the barrios of East Los Angeles and, thus, did not feel the effects of regular persecution at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Politics and finances are what divided Chicanos and Mexican Americans. This is a contradiction to the apparent method of defining ethnic groups, like Mexican-American, which is according to the relationship between a group’s homeland and its present home.

The inclusion of new criteria, like political views and financial status, into the composition of ethnic groups can be explained by the constructionist view of ethnicity. The constructionist view of ethnicity claims that “Ethnicity is created and recreated as various groups and interests put forth competing visions of the ethnic composition of society and argue over which rewards or sanctions should be attached to which ethnicities” (Nagel 239). The process of putting forth competing views results in the shifting of ethnic boundaries, or the “shaping and reshaping ethnic groups according to strategic calculations of interest” (Nagel 246). The “calculations of interest” in East Los Angeles in 1971 were numerous. As aforementioned, former members of the Mexican-American community sought to put an end to the racial discrimination they were feeling at the hands of the police, which motivated them to create the new Chicano group. The Chicano ethnic group helped unite any Mexican-Americans who wanted to protest their oppression and fight for change. Individuals who remained under the Mexican-American title, mostly upper-class individuals who probably did not feel the effects of racism as intensely as their underprivileged kin, wanted to distance themselves from this new uprising and stick to their old conservative views, perhaps to stay out of trouble with the law, government, or white population in general (Thompson 122). The motivation that led to this schism in the Mexican-American community indicates that thinking of ethnicity solely in terms of land of emigration and current homeland leaves an incomplete and, ultimately, incorrect picture of ethnicity. To achieve a greater understanding of ethnicity is to acknowledge that the creation of ethnic groups and the definition of their members are underscored by political motivation.

Not only are the creation of ethnic groups and the boundaries which define inclusion and exclusion politically motivated, but the implementation of ethnicity may also be prompted by politics. The theory of ethnopolitical conflict explains the relationship between ethnicity and politics. In the essay, “Words Before the War: Milosevic’s Use of Mass Media and Rhetoric to Provoke Ethnopolitical Conflict in Former Yugoslavia,” Agneza Bozic-Roberson explains that the theory of ethnopolitical conflict argues that “inter-ethnic conflicts are the result of politics deliberately using ethnicity in the struggle for power and the resources of certain states.” An easy way to gain the upper hand in any political situation is to appeal to any one side of a conflict. By this method, any political individual or group can gain great support from one of the groups involved in the conflict. The major pitfall of this strategy is that by taking advantage of tension between two groups, the antagonism between the groups is emphasized and possibly intensified. This is not very apparent in the Chicano’s plight against discrimination in East Los Angeles because there were no individuals or groups, besides the Chicanos themselves, who could reap the benefits of the Chicanos unifying or protesting against the police department. The motivation to unify was a feeling shared through out the Chicano population and they came together in an effort to rid themselves of persecution.

The Yugoslavian conflict between its Serbian and Albanian populations is a different story. Inter-ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo during the 1970’s increased as both groups tried to claim rights to the land. In situations of antagonism between ethnic groups, it is common for each group to set its sights on controlling either the central government or territory (Nagel 247). Government and territory are, perhaps, the greatest prizes sought because it is through control in the government or claims to land that an ethnic group can unquestionably achieve the power to assert their own political views, religion, language, and traditions, or, simply, have control of their own lives. In an effort to gain political support from Kosovo’s Serbian population, Slobodan Milosevic perpetuated their fears of an Albanian takeover and promoted Serbian nationalism by contesting any Albanian claims to Kosovo (Bozic-Roberson). Milosevic saw an opportunity in the midst of the Yugoslavian crisis and embraced it, manipulating the situation in his best interest. Through appealing to Serbian nationalism, Milosevic won the support of the Serbian population and, at the same time, Serbians felt secure with their perceived control in government (Bozic-Roberson). Milosevic’s manipulation and perpetuation of the antagonism between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is an instance in which an ethnic crisis was utilized, and subsequently dramatized by an individual seeking political power. Perhaps the worst aspect of the situation is that no resolution came from this process. Rather, the heightened sense of antagonism only resulted in further clashes between Serbs and Albanians in their struggle for power. Instead of laboring through a careful process of reconciliation and compromise, individuals and groups can exploit, in turn aggravate, issues of ethnicity and utilize them to achieve their own selfish political agendas.

Not only do politics have a bearing on ethnicity, but ethnicity can also take a toll on politics. One grave issue in which ethnicity can affect politics is national history. In the work “Ethnicity, Politics, and History Textbook Controversies in Malaysia” author Cheah Boon Kheng claims that in a multi-ethnic society with a dominant ethnic group, the process of writing a national history can leave smaller, yet prevalent ethnic groups marginalized. Because of their status as minorities, the historical roles of smaller ethnic groups can be distorted or even dissolved. Such is the debate over textbooks in . Malaysian history textbooks focus on the Malays, the dominant ethnic group, with “superficial coverageâÂ?¦ given to the historical background and socio-cultural aspects of non-indigenous groups” (Kheng). Besides trying to eliminate the spread of negative stereotypes and allowing students to attain the full scope of history, ethnic groups have another vested claim in reaffirming their place in history and an interest in maintaining a respectable historical representation of their ancestors. Besides being composed of a group’s culture, ethnicity is also comprised of a group’s history (Nagel 250). In securing their desired places in history, ethnic groups reaffirm their identities and place in society. Also, bias textbooks may leave students with an incorrect or incomplete perspective on history and may even instill negative stereotypes, which students may carry with them into the future. The process of writing a nation’s history in a multi-ethnic society, thus, translates into a bidding war for the past, present, and even the future in which each group puts forth resources in an attempt to attain what they believe to be their deserved position in the textbooks.[1] Thus, in particular issues of political nature, such as the recording of national history, the theory of ethnopolitical conflict does not apply. In these instances of political quarrel issues of ethnicity can actually further inflame conflicts.

The theory of ethnopolitical conflict may not apply to recording national history, but that does not mean it is restricted to ethnic groups competing for government or territory. Author E.A. Hammel, in his essay “Ethnicity and Politics,” points out that ethnic conflict may also arise through competition for social and economic resources. Different ethnic groups often compete for limited resources allocated by the government. Most governments allocate resources along ethnic boundaries in an attempt to aid impoverished ethnic populations. The amount of resources offered to each ethnic population is often calculated according to census reports taken by the government, which include ethnic categories (Nagel 224). Since the boundaries which determine inclusion to different ethnic groups are socially constructed, the availability of government resources plays a major factor in constructing ethnic boundaries and ethnic conflict may arise from the process of drawing these boundaries.

The allocation of government resources along ethnic boundaries became an issue of particular importance to the Latino/Chicano ethnic population. The question proposed to the Latino community, which is investigated by author Katsuyuki Murata in his work “The (re)shaping of Latino/Chicano ethnicity through the inclusion/exclusion of undocumented workers: the case of LULAC’s ethno-politics,” was whether or not the Latin community should embrace the population of illegal immigrants from Mexico in the United States and consider them part of their ethnic group. To the organization representing Latin Americans, the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), embracing the illegal immigrants of Mexican heritage meant spreading the already sparse resources allotted to the Latino population by the even thinner to accommodate these new members. Because of the Mexican immigrants’ status as undocumented and illegal, the government would not afford the Latino population much additional resources if they were to welcome illegal Mexican immigrants amongst their ranks. Taking this into consideration, LULAC was reluctant to accept undocumented immigrants regardless of their perceived Latino heritage (Murata). The members of LULAC believed that there was an ethnic boundary that divided those of Latino heritage from the illegal immigrants. But upon close inspection of the Latin ethnic, it is apparent that there are not many cultural traits which bound the group together. The Latino ethnic group is comprised of members who descend from the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The nations in each of these locations have very distinct traditions and their own unique histories. It was perhaps through understanding the diverse nature of their membership that the leaders of LULAC eventually abandoned their first perspective on rejecting Mexican immigrants and eventually came to embrace them as part of the Latino community. LULAC even began campaigning to reform immigration laws in an attempt to allow the immigrant population to become proper citizens (Murata). LULAC displayed the socially constructed nature of ethnicity by understanding that even though their members were classified under the same ethnicity by society and themselves, their membership was actually not united by culture. Rather, they were brought together by an intangible sense of unity, which had no real evidence except in the mind of its members and society. The ethnic issue at hand was resolved through the understanding that ethnicity has very little to do with the similarities between individuals and more to do with society’s collected impression of what it means to be of any particular ethnic group. Through the understanding of ethnicity’s fluid nature and the political power it holds, ethnic groups, like LULAC, can use ethnicity to come together and achieve social progress.

Ethnicity may have the ability to bring people together under the guise of common culture, but that does not change the fact that it is used as a means of discrimination or flaunted by the politically motivated to achieve their goals. It must be realized that ethnicity is not an essential aspect of every person and does not unite people accordingly. Rather, it is an illusion created by society which may be used for both good and ill. The fact that the boundaries which designate members within ethnic communities are socially constructed alludes to ethnicity’s nature as a socially constructed illusion. As an idea, ethnicity is no more than a stereotype placed upon groups, either designated by themselves and outsiders, according to the nation of emigration or perceived cultural similarities. But as a tool, ethnicity can be easily manipulated by any individual or group seeking political power. Sometimes individuals and groups utilize the farce of ethnicity to bring about social progress and correct injustice. But this tool can also be underhandedly employed to create feelings of superiority, gain political power and even oppress populations, and for these reasons it must be dismissed.

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[1] By these means, recording national history is a process very similar to, if not a part of, constructing ethnicity. Both processes involve different groups putting forth competing views of, essentially, the same thing in attempts to further define it through compromise.

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