Critically discuss Ashley Montagu's claim that ethnicity is a more 'open-ended' and 'socially-based' concept than 'race'.

Since the late eighteenth century many commentators have felt uncomfortable with the concept of race. This was exacerbated in the wake of the appalling circumstances in Nazi Germany which culminated in what has come to be known as the Holocaust. In response to such happenings, and most particularly over the last twenty or thirty years race and racism have become established areas of study within the social sciences. At the same time the issue of race has been a key feature of debates that range from policing to social and welfare policy making. Some commentators are of the opinion that ethnicity is a better term for different groups than race. Montagu (1972) contends that:

National, religious, geographic, Iinguistic, and cultural groups do not necessarily coincide with racial groups; and the cultural traits of such groups have no demonstrated genetic connection with racial traits. Because serious errors of this kind are habitually committed where the term “race” is used in popular parlance, it would be better when speaking of human races to drop the term “race” altogether and speak of ethnic groups (Montagu, 1972:69)..

Numbers of thinkers are of the opinion that policy making in the area of race, or ethnicity and inclusion is still rather hit and miss. There is a lot of government rhetoric about equality of opportunity, unfortunately this is not often matched by equality of access. It has to be said however, that there are communities across Britain where attitudes are changing and communities are learning to live together while at the same time respecting each other’s differences. Massey (1991) has argued that much of the conflict between the host community and incoming groups is a result of the hangover from colonialism and British imperialism. In many ways the immediate post-war approach to immigration was very much one of laissez-faire.

….the assumption was that everyone was equal before the law, and therefore no special policies were necessary (Massey, 1991:9).

It has since come to be recognised by both diverse ethnic groups, and by the Government that this response to policy making operated as a form of cultural imperialism that was bound to fail because of its tendency to view any culture, other than that of the white middle classes, as an inferior cultural form which evoked racism and alienation among and between groups (Parker-Jenkins et al 2005).

This paper will begin with a sketch of the historical development of the use of the term race and the ways in which it was seen as a biological and genetic fact in order to support the living standards of the white upper classes. The paper will then critically discuss Ashley Montagu’s claim that ethnicity is a more ‘open-ended and socially based concept than race, and assess whether it is a useful option, or simply an exercise in semantics.

Historical Development

Montagu is of the opinion that the term ‘race’ has become a confusing one and people speak of a race, for example the German race, when what they really mean is the German nation. Although he sees this as more understandable than the confusion of race with religion and thus he argues:

The confusion between nation and race is more understandable than the confusion between religion and race. One never hears anyone speak of the Protestant or of the Catholic race. It may be supposed that this is because most people are familiar with the fact that both whites and Negroes can be members of the same religion. The religions with which most people in the United States are familiar are the Protestant and the Catholic. The less familiar religions such as the Moslem and the Jewish are likely to provide a handle by which to misname their adherents. Thus, at one time, they may be referred to as members of the “Moslem nation” and at another as members of the “Moslem race.” “The” Jews are perhaps the most sinned against people in this respect. I emphasize the article because one always refers to -the Jews, while, in general, references to peoples of other religions will be made without the article. One doesn’t speak of “the Catholics” or “the Protestants,” but simply of “Catholics” and “Protestants (Montagu, 1997:62).

He maintains that generally speaking it is as erroneous to think that religion and race are interchangeable as it is to think that races are restricted to certain geographical regions because nowadays most nations in the world are home to people from a variety of groups. This is especially true of nations such as America or Britain. Solomos and Back (1996) maintain that:race should not be seen as a biological fact because, race and ethnic categories are ideological entities that are made and remade through struggle (Solomos and Back1996: xiv) These writers contend that in various ways and in differing social and historical circumstances race has been viewed as a form of collective social identity. Goldberg (1993) has noted that the concept of race, and the way in which it is used changes over time. The concept is also used differently in response to differing social circumstances and, furthermore, there are a great number of factors that contribute to particular racist discourses.

Racism has its foundations both in the Enlightenment and in the religious revival of the eighteenth century. It was a product of the preoccupation with a rational universe, nature, and aesthetics, as well as with the emphasis upon the eternal force of religious emotion and man’s soul. It was part, too, of the drive to define man’s place in nature and of the hope for an ordered, healthy, and happy world (Mosse, 1985a: 3).

Research has indicated that in the ancient societies of Egypt and the Indus valley difference was seen in terms of things like skin colour. The whole basis of the Hindu caste system is skin colour, with the highest, Brahmin or priestly caste being the lighter colour. In the West it wasn’t until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that real distinctions, according to people’s physical characteristics came to be made. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ideologies of race had reached their zenith and in some quarters the colour of a person’s skin was the deciding feature in whether or not they could be considered fully human (Solomos and Back, 1996).

Weber maintained that all groups operate a system which distinguishes the ‘in’ members from outsiders. Such systems might include speech, dress and group boundaries and these are used to prevent unwelcome members from joining the group. These practices allow the group to maintain a form of group closure. According to Montagu (1997) racism is a result of group closure and the effects of such closure are most evident in the Nazi’s dehumanizing of Jewish people. Montagu argues that:

Every group sets up its own personal ideals for both personality and character. These ideals appear to be largely or wholly culturally determined, and most individuals in a given culture are trained to conform to them. Such ideals or standards and the training in them have nothing, so far as we know, to do with inborn determinants (p.105).

However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scientists went to enormous lengths to prove that this was not so and that certain characteristics were genetically determined, resulting in some races being viewed as superior to others.

Scientific Theories of Race

In the wake of the Enlightenment, and the growing need for cheap labour to service large farms and plantations scientific theories of race began to emerge. The theory of monogenism held that all were descended from Adam and that racial differences were a result of God’s work and of the different environments in which people lived. Some believed that marked physical differences separated the races (polygenism) and that there were distinct racial types. These biological theories or phenotypes were connected to genetic differences, genotypes. The result was that some people were seen to be of a lesser race than others and were therefore to be exploited. Williams (1944) was of the opinion that slavery was the result of an economy that was based on the exploitation of labour through coercion. Racism was thus the consequence rather than the cause of slavery. It has been argued however, that this is an overly simplistic view and tends to the position that racist ideologies are a justification for the exploitation of labour (Solomos and Back, 1996). In the case of Jews, it is arguably the case that racist ideologies only became overt in Hitler’s ranting after he had stirred up public opinion in a variety of other ways. Jordan’s (1968) work demonstrates that while notions of race were altered by the experience of slavery the concept was also transformed by numbers of other social and cultural changes. Along with the denigrating of other human beings in terms of race, this was also a period when, particularly in Britain, a sense of unified national identity began to emerge and that this produces, along with racism, a form of cultural imperialism (Colley, 1992).

Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, who is sometimes known as the father of modern racism surmised that there were three races, white black and yellow. He maintained that the white race was intellectually superior to other races and also possessed greater moral fibre. Montagu argues that this method of defining race (particularly for ordinary people) is erroneous and the use of the term ethnic group would be more appropriate because it is non-commital. What he says next however, tends to contradict the general tone of his argument in that it reverts back to nineteenth century ideology. He argues that it is difficult to be precise when speaking of ethnic groups:

One may use itas equivalent to the definition of race in the biological sense, but one can use italso of groups which isless clearly defined, which may or may not be races and hence which should not be called races in the absence of the necessary scientific demonstration. All that we say when we use the term ethnic group is that here is a group of people who physically, and perhaps. in other additional ways, may be regarded as a more or less distinct group. Until we know what they really are, and until we understand thoroughly what we are talking about with respect to this and all other groups, let us call all such groups ethnic groups Montagu (1997:69).

In the above excerpt Montagu speaks of scientific demonstrations of race and this suggests a reversion to the supposed racial differences as outlined by Gobineau, which were used to justify the British and European power in other countries. It was this view of the superior powers of the white race that such thinkers believed led to the spread of their influence across the world (Giddens, 2001). In Gobineau’s view, what he called the Aryan races were the creators of civilisation, this had a great deal of influence on later racialised thinking and his ideas were key features of the later persecution of Jews by the Nazis (Solomos and Back, 1996). Montagu claims that the Germans and the French cannot be seen as races because they are white. In this sense it could be said that Montagu himself is descending into racialised discourse where race actually refers to the colour of a person’s skin and ‘whiteness’ is thereby excluded from all the talk about race and ethnic groupings.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Darwinist theories and arguments over natural selection and the survival of the fittest were rife and became integrated into certain kinds of racist thinking (Solomos and Back, 1996). Montagu (1997) tends to dismiss certain perceptions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection but then espouses others. He maintains that Darwin’s concept of co-operation is what separates the successful groups in society from the non-successful, his is very much a functionalist understanding in the sense of co-operation within groups being equated with group norms, or with Parson’s (1951) notion of pattern maintenance. In this respect Montagu comes very close to self-contradiction, although he wants to do away with the concept of race and replace it with ethnicity, his notion of groups maintains the sense of uncrossable boundaries that have become associated with racist arguments and discourses. At the same time Montagu is not always clear what he himself understands as an ethnic group but maintains that it is a preferable category for the layman than race which implies a fixed understanding. Montagu wants to make a distinction between what he refers to as the ‘biological facts of race’ and the social conception of race which he describes as a myth. Giddens (2001) argues that race can be:

…understood as a set of social relationships which allow individuals and groups to be located, and various attributes or competencies assigned, on the basis of biologically grounded features…. they are also important factors in the reproduction of patterns of power and inequality within society (Giddens, 2001:246).

In this light Montagu’s distinction might seem to be redundant as Giddens notes that these biological aspects are an intrinsic part of the social concept of race. Thus it might be argued that Montagu’s understanding leans towards ideas of supremacy (not only in his notion of ethnic groups but in his distinction between ‘scientist’s’ and lay understanding) and tends towards supporting the inequalities that exist within Western society. This is exacerbated by his adoption of Enlightenment notions of equality. In asserting both difference and the equality of rights of all men Montagu harks back to the post-war policies of laissex-faire that still contained echoes of British imperialism.

By biological endowment and by social opportunities for cultural development men differ from one another, but these differences from the point of view of ethics, have no relation to human equality. No matter how much they may diifer in endowment, whether genetic or social or both, all men are equal, in dignity and in their rights (1972:122).

In some respects it might be said that Montagu’s conception of ethnic groups is closer to existing concepts of race than anything else. Perhaps the clearest definition of what constitutes ethnic groups is that of Max Weber who defined them in the following way:

…those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization or migration (Weber, 1968:38 originally published 1922).

Weber however, did not subscribe to the view that shared ethnicity necessarily leads to group formation, but may facilitate this in a political sense. Central to Weber’s concept of ethnic groups was shared political action. Thus in 1960s America, those who struggled for black civil rights would, in Weber’s view constitute an ethnic group. Guibernau and Rex (1997) point out that a distinction needs to be made between ethnicity that is ascribed to a group and how people perceive themselves because both of these are subjective impersonations.

The geneticist Steve Jones (1994) has argued that all though there are some genetic differences between groups human beings are, by and large, a homogeneous group and therefore there is no clear dividing line separating the races. Yet people still refer to race as the defining feature of a person’s identity as Hill-Collins’ (1990) work demonstrates. In Jones’s thought race is a social definition and has no genetic basis. Such definitions do linger however and even though some writers no longer speak of race but of ethnicity, such ideas still inform racialised thinking in the contemporary world. Montagu believes that race is far too narrow a definition, particularly when used in reference to Jews, and even, it might be extrapolated, to black people. Both of these groups are to be found in every nation in the world. While they might display physical characteristics that mark them out as having Near Eastern or African ancestors, they are clearly not members of those nations. The concept of ethnicity is preferable to that of race because it does not imply biological or genetic differences but refers to a common ancestral and cultural heritage. However, it is not always clear what is being referred to with ethnicity, some people, for example Jews, might be Jewish in the religious sense, but in all other respects may see themselves as American, or British. In some respects the concept of ethnicity can still be as problematic as race, Kreisberg (1988) points out that:

Some analysts speak of ethnicity as a primordial phenomenon, relatively permanent and unchanging. Others stress that it is socially constructed, with people choosing a history and common ancestry and creating, as much as discovering, differences from others (Kreisberg, 1988:60).

Henze et al (2000) found that both race and ethnicity were problematic concepts when referring to a person’s identity. Race/ethnicity neglects factors such as class, gender and place of birth, it is, therefore just one component of a complicated mix that goes to make up an individual’s identity. Identities shift depending on the context that a person finds themselves in and therefore race/ethnicity should not in any sense be seen as defining features.

Race, Discrimination and Inequality

Racism is not an unchanging phenomenon, rather it takes different forms at different historical points and in differing social relations. The relationship between racism and different forms of discriminating and unequal practices is however, not a straightforward one (Solomos and Back, 1996). Goldberg (1993) contends that a distinction needs to be maintained between racism and racial discrimination while discriminatory acts may be an expression of racism, racism is often an inherent tendency that is felt and expressed for its own sake. Exploitation and discrimination, on the other hand, may not always be racially based. Solomos and Back (1996) contend that racism interacts with various social relationships and political processes to produce inequalities. The Macpherson report (1999) referred to institutional racism in its enquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case but the notion of institutional racism is contested by some commentators. However, some institutions do disadvantage minorities but it is difficult to assess whether or not it is conscious discrimination Kenze et al’s (2000) study in American schools demonstrated that some school practices i.e. streaming by ability acted as a form of segregation because the higher ability groups tended to be largely white youngsters while the middle and lower ranges consisted of youngsters from non-dominant ethnic groups. Thus a process that was not intended to discriminate in this way resulted in the appearance of racial/ethnic discrimination. Just as in Britain, those whose background might be minority ethnic grouping did less well and this was largely due to other factors such as where they lived and their home financial circumstances. Such factors complicate Montagu’s argument that concepts of race be replaced with concepts of ethnicity because it ignores a host of other factors that contribute to social exclusion and marginalization.

It could well be the case that Montagu’s analysis is an over simplification, as his argument over Nazism tends in that direction. The Holocaust must forever stand as an icon of shame in human history, nevertheless Nazi persecution of Jews was not just racially motivated. Hitler used the fact that many German people were living in poverty when German Jews were prospering, it was this rather than racial stereotyping that led to the events of the infamous Crystal Nacht when the doors and windows of shops and houses belonging to Jews were vandalized. Hitler stirred up other emotions of envy and greed before he really stepped up the racist angle. Hitler used the media, in the same way that it is used now. The press can report news in such a way that it generates racial discrimination and unrest in the general population. A British example is the media hype over mugging in the late 1970s. Reports in the press suggested that all muggings were perpetrated by young black males and thus the public were convinced that the problems of society were the fault of immigrants rather than of public policy (Hall, et al. 1979). The press also played its part in the 1980s reporting of the miner’s strike, the reports suggested that the miners, rather than Tory policy was the problem in Britain. More recently, since 9/11 and the destruction of the twin towers in America, there has been considerable media hype over the extent of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, such that ordinary Islamics have been attacked on the street.

Solomos and Back (1996) assert that racist imagery has been, and continues to be a part of British culture. Imperial propaganda used the John Bull image to portray the British as civilising the world. As we have already seen the number of immigrants has also been portrayed as a problem, in the 1960s black people were portrayed in the media as work-shy, welfare scroungers and of course the riots of the early 1980s has also been associated with black people. Montagu (1997) maintains that we should consider character and personality as being raceless because in every racial or ethnic group a wide variety of character and personality traits will be found and these traits are what make human persons individuals. At the same time however, Montagu wishes to hold to the view that race is a matter of scientific fact i.e. skin colour. While some progress has been made Solomos and Back (1996) contend that these elements remain in British culture and that black people particularly, are portrayed in terms of attractiveness rather than achievement. This perpetuates the view that certain physical attributes define who we are, rather than being seen as an aspect of who a particular individual is. This is also an attitude that regards certain groups as outside the mainstream of society and hinders the integration of those who immigrate to another part of the world. Montagu appears to substantiate this view when he refers to differences in endowment. Although he maintains that such differences should not be used as the basis for inequality of treatment it nevertheless suggests that some biological/physical/cultural endowments are superior to other forms of endowment. Thus he writes The physical differences between men are all equal to the functions they were adaptively developed to meet (1972:123). While Montagu might be arguing for equality some of what he has to say suggests an intrenched view of differences between races and ethnic groups and harks back to nineteenth century ideas of biological and psychological supremacy. Montagu then goes on to speak of group co-operation and how some groups will co-operate in society while others will not. Those groups which operate in a healthy way also want to fit into the wider community. Montagu contends that:

It is a common observation that the happiest persons are those who most strongly feel a sense of connection with the whole community. They are happiest because they are giving fullest play to their innermost tendencies (1972:135).

Here it might be argued Montagu takes the same view as Park did in 1930s America and may thus attract the same criticisms.

Migration and Ethnic Groups

In the 1930s Robert Park of the Chicago School advocated an approach that asserted there was a process of interracial adjustment that followed migration and that initial conflict between different groups would dissolve into accommodation whereby groups learn to live together, and assimilation where different racial groups merge and blend with the majority group (Giddens, 2001). This theory has been criticised for its lack of practical application and the fact that it ignores the existence of racism. It is also refuted by the fact that by and large cultural groups seek to maintain a sense of their cultural identity and that this results in a plurality of cultures in many places (Castles and Miller, 1993).

In Britain, by the mid-50s, it was recognised that the idea that immigrants would just be absorbed into, and subsumed by, the host culture was a mistake. Cashmore (1989) has argued that there was an increased racial tension and by the closing years of the 1950s immigrants were subjected to unprovoked racist attacks. This resulted in the notion that immigration and race relations were politically controversial issues and there was a growing campaign to introduce immigration controls. Skellington and Morris (1992) have argued that the term immigrant is often used to refer to people of a different colour, when in truth the vast majority of migration is found in white groups hailing from Europe, Canada and Ireland etc. Much of this is the result of current Government policy making. Policy making is important because it can determine the amount of representation (or lack of it) that diverse ethnicities receive in the press and on television. Unfortunately, as Hall (1978) has pointed out Governments often use race to further their own political agenda. Rather than being used to generate public paranoia, as happened with mugging, race tends to have a more positive focus in recent Government discourse. Stanford (2001) contends that:

…contemporary practice is to lay purchase to the currency of race and/or blacks, and to cash in on what they can offer without addressing their concerns. Labour seems committed to keeping up appearances with respect to race whilst it actively supplants it, and in educational discourses at least, effectively removes it from the policy agenda (Stanford, 2001:90)..

Braham et al (1992) argue that in order to be successful anti-racist strategies need to be multi-faceted and aimed at subjective, institutional, and structural racism. Past policies have been badly focussed and piecemeal because there is no clear consensus in Britain what equal opportunity and multiculturalism mean either in ideological or practical terms (Solomos and Back, 1996). Reports produced by the social exclusion unit may be aimed at reducing marginalization but often result in the labelling of minority groups, and specifically diverse minority ethnic groups, as a drain on the resources of society. Policies that target specific areas such as getting the population back into full employment tend to leave minority ethnic groups as particularly vulnerable to this type of labelling. There are often instances where local politics can serve to exclude minority cultures while promoting the values of the dominant white culture. Montagu’s insistence that ethnic groups need to be co-operative implies that they need to ‘fit’ in with the dominant culture, it ignores the differences that exist both between and within groups and thus it runs the risk of excluding those who may be in the minority.

Clearly there are problems in the classification of diverse ethnic groups, particularly as the word ethnic tends to be interchangeable with race, and also in present policy making. Policies sometimes further exclude such groups rather than contribute to greater social inclusion. Ballard’s (1990) research demonstrates that there needs to be a clear understanding and examination of cultural differences and structural forces before applying encompassing terms to diverse ethnic groupings. There tends to be a general agreement among social theorists that existing classifications of the diverse groupings that go to make up the modern UK context are problematic and that this has implications for policy making. Rattansi (1994) has argued that with the globalization process clear cut distinctions between groups may be undermined by the formation of new forms of ethnic identities. Solomos et al (1982) argue that minority groups need to struggle in order to gain power in society and to pursue a policy of anti-racism whereby the racism that exists in society and its institutions is exposed as there are some problems that cannot be resolved through the pursuit of cultural tolerance.

Conclusion

Some of the things that Montagu has to say with regard to using the term ethnic group rather than race may be of value, but this is often obscured by the fact that many of his sentiments remain rooted in Enlightenment discourses of the human subject. As subsequent research, particularly feminist research, has shown, the human subject referred to was white, middle class and male. Thus what Montagu has to say is still reminiscent imperialism and power structures which excluded everything that did not fit the expected norm. Thus his subjects are constituted through discourses of white imperialist power. Gillborn and Youdell (2000) maintain that what is needed is a particular understanding of the power structures through which subject identities are created. This work demonstrates how subjectivities are constructed through constant reinforcement and reiteration. This is pertinent to what Montagu has to say because much of it appears to support existing constructions of race both biological and social. Although Montagu wants to be rid of the social conception of race his statement is not convincing and he fails to analyse how this might be achieved. His conclusion rests on the idea of group co-operation and cohesion, he says nothing about the power structures that are prevalent in white society and which tend to perpetuate racism. It might therefore be argued that Montagu has taken one socially contested word and replaced it with another his statement in this case is, arguably, an exercise in semantics. If he had made a clearer argument and not fallen back on Enlightenment discourses then perhaps it might be said that ethnic groupings could be a preferable concept to that of race. However, some research indicates that it is used interchangeably with race and is thus also the basis of discrimination. Most people tend to identify with a variety of social groups and should not thus be defined purely on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group. In Britain ethnic group is used to describe those minority groups who differ from the host society and in this sense it may be as divisive a concept as race has become. My own view is that if ethnicity were used to encompass all groups, including the dominant host community then it might cease to be racially construed and be a preferable concept to that of race.

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