The Lens of Race

April 15, 2015

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Ann Morning (New York University) is currently collaborating with Marcello Maneri (University of Milan-Bicocca) to investigate the ways that Americans and Italians assess group differences such as race and nationality. In her time in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation, she is researching how national conceptions of culture and biology shape individuals’ beliefs about what distinguish descent-based groups from one another. As non-white immigration to the U.S. increases, are Americans’ conceptions of racial difference are coming to resemble those held by Italians and other Western Europeans?

In a new interview with the Foundation, Morning discussed the changing nature of racial perceptions in both the U.S. and Italy, and how a cross-national comparative approach to thinking and talking about race could aid policy efforts to combat racial inequality.

Q. Your current research compares perceptions of race in the US and Italy and assesses the claim that racial attitudes in the US are coming to resemble those found in Western Europe. To start with, what did you find in your interviews with students in the US? How were they most likely to talk about group differences?

A. First, I want to say that the claim we are assessing is that Western Europeans believe the most important differences between descent-based groups in their societies—mostly themselves and immigrants—are “ethnic” ones that are cultural in nature, whereas Americans see the most important descent-group differences as "racial" ones that are rooted in biological difference. In my U.S. interviews with predominantly white college students, I actually found they were as likely to talk about race as a matter of cultural difference as they were to describe it as a matter of biological characteristics. But they applied these discourses differently depending on which group(s) they had in mind. When it came to Asians, whites and Latinos, my interviewees suggested these groups were culturally distinct from other races, whereas when it came to blacks, they believed that biological characteristics were what distinguished blacks from other groups.

Q. In your interviews with Italian students, you found they were hesitant to use the word “race” (“razza”) and were much more inclined to mention cultural differences between descent-based groups. Does your research show that they are, in fact, more “colorblind” than their US counterparts, or less likely to think of group differences as fixed?

A. It’s true that many Italian students found the word “race” embarrassing, unacceptable, and/or a completely obsolete concept. Moreover, race in the abstract was never considered important as a cause of social problems or inequality, except to the extent that it provoked racism. This does not mean, however, that a racial map was altogether absent from our interviewees’ mental repertoire. When presented with a statement claiming that biological human races exist, for example, roughly a third agreed. And when asked to explain why African- and European-origin athletes were disproportionately distributed across different Olympic sports, they overwhelmingly drew on highly stereotypical racial beliefs about blacks’ biological traits. In fact, they were even more likely than Americans to do so!

Q. In what ways can a cross-national comparative approach to thinking about race help policymakers craft initiatives to address ongoing problems of racial inequality (such as police brutality, poverty, health inequalities, and educational outcomes)?

A. We believe there are important reasons for North Americans and Western Europeans to be interested in how difference is conceptualized in each other’s societies. For Europeans, there is a large body of potentially useful U.S. scholarship and law that grapples with issues of descent-based inequalities. In Europe there is less to draw on because of norms and even regulations that prevent the recognition of ethnicity or race as social forces, since they are seen as fictitious and/or invidious systems of classification. We are not suggesting that European scholars or policymakers adopt U.S. policies or paradigms wholesale, but we do think these offer a useful input into thinking about difference beyond North America. As for the United States, we see the nation becoming more like Europe because its ethnoracial diversification is being driven today by voluntary inflows of immigrants, as is the case across the Atlantic. This is a meaningful departure from much of the United States’ history, when the slave trade and colonial conquest, notably of native Americans and of Mexicans, fueled much of what came to be understood as the republic’s racial diversity. Because enslaved and conquered peoples were so central to Americans’ notions of race, we suspect that beliefs about racial difference may change as they are increasingly influenced by people who are free and voluntary migrants to the U.S. In this way, Europe is ahead of us and we think it makes sense to look across the Atlantic for ideas of how beliefs about group difference are constructed in a context where immigration is the prime motor of ethnoracial diversification.

The significance for policy of people’s beliefs about difference comes in large part from what such beliefs prescribe in terms of intervention areas on which to focus, and the possibility they envision for social change. If policymakers believe that incorporating newcomers requires their cultural adaptation, they may be more likely to provide language teaching, integrated housing, and inclusive citizenship laws. If instead they believe that descent-based groups are demarcated by their inherited biological characteristics, state efforts to encourage cultural assimilation may seem unnecessary. A very closely related point is that group differences can be conceptualized as fixed or fluid, and this has extremely important consequences for policy. Not surprisingly, when a group is perceived to have certain permanent characteristics, policymakers are loath to spend public money to try to alter them. This logic was on display in 2007 when the Nobel Prize winner James Watson called for an end to Western foreign aid to African nations, because he believed their inhabitants were naturally less intelligent. Although American social scientists tend to think of cultural characteristics as malleable—after all, an immigrant can always learn to speak English, as can her children with even greater ease—and biological ones as permanent, European scholars have long been aware that “culture can also function like a nature,” as Étienne Balibar put it.

A poignant example of this comes from our Italian interviewees’ comments about Rom people (popularly known as “gypsies”). Easily at the bottom of the totem pole in the eyes of our interviewees, Rom people are so strongly associated with stigmatized behaviors like theft, begging, and child exploitation that they are perceived as people who simply cannot be integrated, regardless of whether or not they are Italian-born (as many in fact are) or made out to be biologically distinct (which they usually are not). It comes as no surprise then that Italian public officials have made much more of an effort to residentially segregate Rom people in camps on town peripheries than to integrate them in mainstream neighborhoods or schools. To sum up, we believe that beliefs about the nature of the differences between descent-based groups are deeply important because they circumscribe the set of policy instruments that are considered appropriate and feasible for addressing ethnoracial inequality.

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