Carnegie Mellon University

Transforming Ethnicity: A History of the Concept in the Context of American Whiteness and Black Power

Author: Richard Rees
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

This dissertation traces the origins and development of the concept of "ethnicity" in the United States. The central argument is that the concept is created from the relatively obscure word "ethnic" (previously a synonym for race) in order to resolve the ambiguous conceptual position southern, central, and eastern European Americans came to occupy in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The confused status of these groups who arrived in the great waves of immigration in the late nineteenth century is a function of conflicting racial ideologies in America. 

The concept of ethnicity is created out of the developing discourses of cultural anthropology and the sociology of race relations, both of which opposed the biological determinism of race science with socially based conceptions of group identities and differences. Ironically, however, both discourses also adopted race science's assumptions about the biological foundation of the black-white color line. 

This limitation produced the theoretical conditions by which ethnicity was created explicitly and exclusively for certain European American groups.  The concept resolves their ambiguous status by transforming their racial differences from Anglo-Saxon Americans into cultural variations within the white race. This sense of ethnicity would be maintained even until the "white ethnics" had largely assimilated and had lost most of their "ethnic" differences in the post-World War Two period. The black movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and especially the discourse of black nationalism, however, would reconstruct and transform the meaning of the word in most of the ways we use it today. It is no longer exclusively white but may be used to refer to the identity of any distinct group; and it is no longer a transitional state understood as part of the process of assimilation but refers, on the contrary, to that quality which distinguishes a group from the dominant, or every other, group. This dissertation thus recommends specific ways in which the use of the concept of ethnicity should recall its complex historical development within the broader context of race and the color line.