June 24, 2020 - 11:22am

Perhaps we should start looking at America the way an anthropologist would a strange, conflict-ridden society, superficially similar to our own, and yet operating under its own cultural logic, with obscure moral codes and taboos that seem perfectly reasonable to them, but utterly alien to us.  What, for example, would an anthropologist make of the recent drive to capitalise the word “black,” as in this recent claim by the influential Columbia Journalism Review that:

At CJR, we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to racial groups. Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries?
- Columbia Journalism Review

The tabloid USA Today and AP have followed in much the same vein, claiming that “Black is an ethnoracial identifier that is inclusive of the collective experiences of the Black U.S. population, including recent immigrants” and conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.”

Already, we see that Americans have moved beyond the language of racial discrimination into one of ethnic difference. According to this model, black and white Americans are no longer members of the same society, divided by the meaningless attribute of skin colour, but members of different ethnic groups entirely, sharing deeper essential bonds with people on continents thousands of miles away than with each other.

We can leave aside the question of why, say, African-Americans, Somalis, and Yoruba Nigerians are to be considered the same ethnic group — it’s long been noted by academics working on ethnic difference that Americans have a poor folk understanding of the term as a category distinct from race, compared to the rest of the world where ethnic divisions — those between French and Germans, say, or English and Welsh — have historically been far more salient than racial ones. The real question here is whether suddenly dividing Americans into ethnic groups based on supposed essential and immutable characteristics is a wise course of action.

Doing so immediately changes America’s political crisis from one based on racial discrimination (which can, through hard work, be ameliorated) into one based on ethnic conflict (which is a far more intractable problem, as the rest of the world knows all too well). After all, if black Americans are now a Black ethnic group, are white Americans then members of an inherently distinct White ethnic group?

The CJR decided not to capitalise white, arguing that “White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.”

The CSSP thinktank takes the opposite tack, claiming:

 We will do this when referring to people who are racialized as White in the United States, including those who identify with ethnicities and nationalities that can be traced back to Europe. To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard…While we condemn those who capitalize “W” for the sake of evoking violence, we intentionally capitalize “White” in part to invite people, and ourselves, to think deeply about the ways Whiteness survives—and is supported both explicitly and implicitly.
- Center for the Study of Social Policy

It’s very rare for anthropologists to witness the process of ethnogenesis — the creation of an ethnic group as a corporate, political identity — in action, and it’s alarming that in America it’s being pushed by journalists as the result of a moral panic. In turning black Americans into a new Black ethnic group, defined by their oppression by “Whiteness,” and therefore political opposition to a “White” ethnic group suddenly brought into being, American journalists are re-enacting, in a strange and garbled form, the birth of nationalism in Europe.

After all, the rise of nationalism in Europe was itself largely driven by crusading intellectuals seeking to overturn what they saw as systemic oppression by a cruel and domineering Other, where suddenly-perceived ethnic difference came loaded with moral hierarchies. The outcome, it is fair to say, was very much mixed for all involved. There is a very real risk that in trying to solve one social evil, campaigning American journalists are blithely summoning up a far more dangerous one.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.