The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions

The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions

The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions

The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions


Race is a known fiction-there is no genetic marker that indicates someone's race-yet the social stigma of race endures. In the United States, ethnicity is often positioned as a counterweight to race, and we celebrate our various hyphenated-American identities. But Vilna Bashi Treitler argues that we do so at a high cost: ethnic thinking simply perpetuates an underlying racism.

In The Ethnic Project, Bashi Treitler considers the ethnic history of the United States from the arrival of the English in North America through to the present day. Tracing the histories of immigrant and indigenous groups-Irish, Chinese, Italians, Jews, Native Americans, Mexicans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African Americans-she shows how each negotiates America's racial hierarchy, aiming to distance themselves from the bottom and align with the groups already at the top. But in pursuing these "ethnic projects" these groups implicitly accept and perpetuate a racial hierarchy, shoring up rather than dismantling race and racism. Ultimately, The Ethnic Project shows how dangerous ethnic thinking can be in a society that has not let go of racial thinking.


Racial beliefs and practices harm large segments of our population.
Yet few of us see society’s current state as unnatural or unjust;
most deny that race or other structural forces limit the life chances
of individuals and groups. We do not believe that our attitudes
or actions are based on racial considerations. Instead, race has
become commonsense: accepted but barely noticed, there though
not important, an established fact that we lack the responsibility,
let alone the power, to change. The color line has come to seem a
fiction, so little do we apprehend its daily mayhem.

Ian F. Haney López, Racism on Trial

The United States has a fabled history of immigration, culturally signified in the sonnet by Emma Lazarus, who implores foreign nations to send “your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” in a “world-wide welcome” to them all. The sonnet is inscribed on the interior of the pedestal of the “Mother of Exiles” (as the verse names the Statue of Liberty). This iconic sonnet encapsulates the mythos that the United States is a nation built on the labor of immigrants and still welcomes immigrants from around the world. Histories that look at the travails of nonwhites since the inception of the first Thirteen Colonies and on until today could testify that the reality has never quite lived up to the words that Lazarus issued from the Statue of Liberty’s “silent lips.” Those histories . . .

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