Ethnocentrism can be defined as a belief of ideology that upholds the superiority on one’s own culture or viewing it as superior to any other culture. Racism and ethnocentrism in America or any other modern Western society was never simply based on individual prejudices, attitudes and emotions, but was always structural and institutional, especially toward blacks in housing, jobs, education and the criminal justice system (LeVine & Campbell 1971). Blacks in the U.S. face severe economic and social discrimination, which dates back to the era of slavery and segregation. In the past, Jews, Asians and other immigrants who were considered ‘non-Nordic’ also faced prejudice and discrimination. Colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America also created racial caste system in which the native populations were segregated and treated as a cheap labor force. In the past, anthropology, biology and sociology generally assumed that there was a racial hierarchy in the world in which whites or ‘Aryans’ were genetically superior to other groups. Only after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the rise of anti-colonial and civil rights movements were this racist and ethnocentric ideologies really challenged for the first time.
How Ethnocentrism Can be both Positive and Negative for a Culture
Ethnocentrism can have positive aspect, such as in Asian countries like Japan, China and Korea where it has been combined with nationalism and used to channel popular energies into economic development. Individuals not only have a better understanding and appreciation of their own culture and feel like their ethnicity links them with a long cultural and racial past (LeVine & Campbell, 1971). On the whole, though, it also leads to contempt for other cultures as well as attempts to segregate, enslave or oppress them. In extreme cases such as that of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II, it had led to genocide against other cultures. More than ever before, the U.S. has become a multicultural society, and such diversity can also be a great source of strength and national power (LeVine & Campbell, 1971).
Racism and ethnocentrism have always been related to other social and economic problems, especially poverty, police brutality, social class and lack of economic and educational opportunities. From the early-1970s, poverty and inequality in wealth and incomes have also increased, and this affected blacks more than any other group. By 2000, 1% of the population had almost half of the wealth in the United States. Police abuse and violence in the segregated ghettos increased and was “disproportionately used against poor communities of color” (West, 1993, p. viii). Nearly 10% of young black men were in prison and 40% of black children lived in poverty, but this was hardly part of the national political agenda (West, p. 4). Blacks consumed about 12% of the drugs in the U.S. but were 70% of those convicted on drug charges (West, p. xii). They were also imprisoned all out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population.
How Ethnocentrism Can be Combated or Stopped.
For most of history, ethnocentrism was the norm and people simply assumed that their culture and ethic group were superior. In the U.S., Native Americans were exterminated or placed on reservations, and slavery existed until 1865 while blacks and other minorities were denied basic civil rights until the 1960s. Racist and ethnocentric ideas about the superiority of ‘Nordics’ or ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were common, at least before the crimes of the Third Reich were reveled after 1945 (Winant, 2000). One of the major factors that led to the decline of racism and ethnocentrism in the West was the anti-colonial movement that led to the independence of African and Asian nations (Blumer, 1999). In the U.S., the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s challenged racist and ethnocentric assumptions far more successfully than ever before, although they certainly were not eliminated from society. Ethnocentrism can be combatted by recognizing and controlling it, which will enable us to have a more balanced and valid understanding of other people’s experiences. It is vital to change our ethnocentric views and perceptions, especially living in a society such as the U.S where there is diverse cultures and religion, and cultural education is the main tool in such a situation. Educators must incorporate cultural education in the school system and such cultural literacy should aim at overriding the ethnocentric perceptions taught to children from birth (LeVine & Campbell, 1971).
In the United States over 75% of blacks still live in segregated neighborhoods that are often crowded, dangerous, lacking in social services, employment and educational opportunities. In fact, these segregated areas are racially profiled and redlined, not only by law enforcement but by banks, insurance companies and other businesses and government agencies. Police do not enforce civil rights and open housing laws in this country, nor do they protect blacks from violence and discrimination if they attempt to move into white areas. Segregation in residential and economic life “makes it difficult to solve other problems connected to poor communities, such as crime, violence, poor health, high mortality, and abandonment of houses” all of which have worsen greatly in the current recession (Ihewulezi, 2008, p. 47). Unless these extreme social and economic inequalities are combatted, racism and ethnocentrism are likely to continue indefinitely.
My Culturally Biased Assumptions
I have my share of personal prejudices and ethnocentric assumptions, some of which I have come to recognize, although I like to imagine that I am free of the more extreme ideas of this kind that have been common in history. I have seen people who will not hire blacks and members of other minority groups, or who do not want to live near them because they tend to think of them as more violent, criminal or more likely to be drug addicts. Even I have some of these fears of other groups, although I try to recognize that they also have had historical disadvantages in this society. Even though we have a black president, blacks are 12% of the general population but over 40% of the prison population because of biased enforcement of the drug laws and the fact that they are at least 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. Black children are over nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than whites, and three times more likely to live in single-parent families, and the high number of these is one of the major reasons about half of them live in poverty (Ihewulezi, p. 43). All of these factors together lead to higher levels of poverty among blacks, and a higher likelihood of being racially profiled by to police, and thus the cycle of poverty and crime continues. Much of this is caused not only by personal prejudices and by structural racism and economic inequality, so simply trying to be less prejudiced and ethnocentric on the individual level will not change this.
Blumer, H. (1999). “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position” in Rethinking the Color Line. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, pp. 99-105.
Ihewulezi, C.N. (2008). The History of Poverty in a Rich and Blessed America. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
LeVine, R., A. & Campbell, D., T. (1971). Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior. New York: John Wiley
West, C. (1993, 2001). Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press.
Winant, H. (2000). “Race and Race Theory”, Annual Review of Sociology (Vol. 26), pp. 169-85.