Ethnic consciousness and nativism

When Jim Webb’s co-ethnics call themselves simply “American,” that doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to their ethnicity. It just shows how limited a definition they have of “American.”

Matt Yglesias is one of my favorite bloggers, but at long intervals he says something so jaw-droppingly wrong-headed as to remind me that he majored in philosophy at Harvard. Of course not everyone can have the benefit of a UCLA education, and Yglesias is to be praised for overcoming his handicaps, but still …

Recently the Census Bureau started asking people about ethnicity and ancestry. So you might say you were “Irish” or “Italian” or “German” or “Chinese” or “Cuban” instead of just white or Asian or whatever. But about seven percent of people identified themselves as “American.” And as you can see, that “American” bloc is really concentrated in Appalachia and the southern highlands. Webb’s favorite ethnic group, in short, seems to be the ethnic group with the least ethnic consciousness.

That’s like saying that the habit of fundamentalists as identifying themselves simply as “Christians” means that they’re the most ecumenical group, when what it really means is that they’re the most bigoted. When some of the Scots-Irish of Appalachia call themselves simply “Americans,” what they mean is that people like them are really Americans while people like Matt and me, and those who identify as “Irish” or “Italian” or “German,” to say nothing of “Chinese” or “Cuban,” aren’t.

That’s not to say that the Mountaineers don’t have genuine grievances, or that they deserve all the crap they get from people like Dick Cheney. But their tendency to insularity is a fact to be reckoned with, not ignored.

Footnote This is the same sort of mistake as interpreting the original Israelite religion as monotheist, when all they meant was “Our God is worth worshipping and yours isn’t.”

Update Of course you don’t have to be from Appalachia to think that “American” names an ethnicity rather than a nationality or an ideal. But if you’re not, it’s fun to project your own racism onto Appalachian whites, the way Kathleen Parker does. That gives you plausible deniability while also claiming working-class cred.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: