Letter: Distinguishing cultural features

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The Independent Online
Sir: Although 'ethnic' is often treated as a synonym (sometimes indeed a euphemism) for 'racial', there is actually a useful distinction to be made between these two words. 'Race' is biological, and when two populations are racially distinct there are biological differences between them, in skin colour and facial features, for example. 'Ethnic' is, however, primarily a cultural term and is used only for humans, involving language, religion, social customs, and so on, true though it is that these are often also associated with racial characteristics.

Muslims, for instance, although racially indistinguishable from their Serbian and Croatian neighbours, have formed a separate ethnic minority in Bosnia for hundreds of years.

This is relevant to the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal (Law Report, 16 February), that the Rastafarians did not form a separate ethnic group for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976, explicitly on the grounds that they are not racially distinct from other Afro-Caribbeans. They have, of course, been established as a separate cult for only about 60 years, which arguably is not long enough to give them protection under the Act. But, pace the Court of Appeal, it is this, rather than the question of racial distinctness, that matters.

Whether the Race Relations Act ought to apply to groups that are only ethnically (ie, culturally) distinct, where no racial differences are involved, is, of course, another question.

Yours, etc,


Gonville & Caius College