The recent selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as Democrat Al Gores running mate is truly a revolutionary step in multicultural America. It is a celebration of democracy not only for ethnic minorities and foreign-born immigrants in the United States, but also for all Americans.
In connection with this important political and social event, many of my students at Alyeska Central School, the state correspondence school based in Juneau, have asked me two essential sociological questions: (1) How to define ethnicity and race, and (2) How do the two concepts differ?
(1) Ethnicity is a social, communal category we use to identify our heritage based on religion, geographic location or culture. It comes from shared values, shared upbringing. Race is very much like ethnicity in that way; it is based also on shared beliefs and shared experiences. We tend to think of race as biological, but race is also a social phenomenon.
(2) Ethnicity is usually more difficult to trace because when we look at someone, we cant immediately categorize them in a certain ethnic group. I had students who thought that, because they are not African-American or Latino or Asian, they have no ethnic identity.
Ethnicity allows for more inclusion, and race for more exclusion. A classic example is Israel, where there are Ethiopian Jews, German Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, and all kinds of Jews. The issue there is ethnicity more than it is race. Ethnicity is the glue holding that society together.
The glue that holds us together in the United States is that we all perceive ourselves as Americans, though that may mean different things to different people. There is no longer a need to feel as though everyone has got to go into this big stew and become one big mush. Now its OK to taste the individual flavors of the potatoes, the carrots and the peas. But there is a new taste, too.
Alexander B. Dolitsky
Director, Alaska-Siberia Research Center