Introduction to Sociology/Race and Ethnicity

In Bulgaria and Guam, I am considered simply as “other.” However, in Australia, I am labeled more specifically as “non-aboriginal other.” In Canada, it is somewhat more complex; I am labeled as “non-aboriginal Southeast Asian who is not a member of an Indian Band or First Nation or a Treaty Indian or Registered Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada.” In Mexico, my non-aboriginal background is once again emphasized simply as “non-indigenous.” In Brazil, I am categorized not by my origins, but by my skin tone as “yellow.” Across the Atlantic, I am categorized as “any other Asian background” in England and as “Indian or Asian” in South Africa. In the United States today, recent attempts to be more specific have resulted in giving me the opportunity to indicate that I am a “non-Hispanic Chinese Vietnamese” person. However, in the United States in the past, I would have been forced to exclusively identify as “Chinese” from 1890 to 1970 and “Vietnamese” from 1980 to 1990.

These preceding statements are responses to actual census questions on race and ethnicity from different countries around the globe as well as across time in the United States. Why is there so much variation in my racial and ethnic identity if, in fact, race and ethnicity are assumed to be “natural” and “absolute”? The mutability of my racial and ethnic identity over time and space illustrates that race and ethnicity are very much socially-constructed concepts, and that the racial and ethnic options afforded to me are dependent on the circumstances of a particular society at a particular point in time. What about the options for my son who is mixed-race? Will his identity as half-Asian take precedence over his half-white identity in the U.S. given the legacy of the “one-drop rule,” in which the minority status will always take precedence? Take for example, President Barack Obama, who is similar to my son in that he is mixed-race. However, more often than not, President Obama is identified in public discourse simply as black. Likewise, Tiger Woods, who self-identifies as “Cablinasian” in an attempt to be recognized as Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian by others, is still nonetheless simply labeled as black in mainstream media despite his multi-racial background.

The complexity of my identity, in addition to my son’s, Obama’s, and Woods’ identities, exemplifies the need to move beyond mutually-exclusive and inflexible interpretations of race and ethnicity, especially considering that interracial marriages are observably on the rise in the United States. This chapter on race and ethnicity first illustrates the social construction of these two highly-contested concepts, and then discusses the many pitfalls, such as prejudice and discrimination, associated with them.

Barack Obama at a campaign stop in New Hampshire in 2007. Despite having a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, Barack Obama is almost universally considered "black."

Race and Ethnicity edit

A race is a human population that is believed to be distinct in some way from other humans based on real or imagined physical differences.[1] Racial classifications are rooted in the idea of biological classification of humans according to morphological features such as skin color or facial characteristics. An individual is usually externally classified (meaning someone else makes the classification) into a racial group rather than the individual choosing where they belong as part of their identity. Conceptions of race, as well as specific racial groupings, are often controversial due to their impact on social identity and how those identities influence someone's position in social hierarchies (see identity politics).

Ethnicity, while related to race, refers not to physical characteristics but social traits that are shared by a human population. Some of the social traits often used for ethnic classification include:

  • nationality
  • tribe
  • religious faith
  • shared language
  • shared culture
  • shared traditions

Unlike race, ethnicity is not usually externally assigned by other individuals. The term ethnicity focuses more upon a group's connection to a perceived shared past and culture. An example of an ethnic group in the U.S. is Hispanic or Latino.


The Changing Definitions of Race edit

The division of humanity into distinct races can be traced as far back as the Ancient Egyptian sacred text the Book of Gates, which identified four races according to the Egyptians. This early treatment merged racial and ethnic differences, combining skin-color with tribal and national identities. Ancient Greek and Roman authors also attempted to explain and categorize visible biological differences between peoples known to them. Medieval models of race mixed Classical ideas with the notion that humanity as a whole was descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three sons of Noah, producing distinct Semitic (Asian), Hamitic (African), and Japhetic (European) peoples. The first scientific attempts to categorize race date from the 17th century; these early attempts developed along with European imperialism and colonization around the world.[1]

In the 19th century a number of natural scientists wrote on race: Georges Cuvier, James Cowles Pritchard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. These scientists made three claims about race:

  1. races are objective, naturally occurring divisions of humanity
  2. there is a strong relationship between biological races and other human phenomena (such as social behavior and culture, and by extension the relative material success of cultures)
  3. race is therefore a valid scientific category that can be used to explain and predict individual and group behavior

Races were distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and size, and texture and color of hair. Races were almost universally considered to reflect group differences in moral character and intelligence.

These early understandings of race were usually both essentialist and taxonomic; essentialism refers to unchanging and inherent characteristics of individuals and taxonomic refers to classificatory (also usually hierarchical) in nature. The advent of Darwinian models of evolution and Mendelian genetics, however, called into question the scientific validity of both characteristics and required a radical reconsideration of race.[1]

The table below illustrates both how early definitions included essentialist and taxonomic elements and how definitions have changed over time.

Biological definitions of race (adapted from Long & Kittles 2003).[2]
Concept Reference Definition
Essentialist Hooton (1926)[3] "A great division of mankind, characterized as a group by the sharing of a certain combination of features, which have been derived from their common descent, and constitute a vague physical background, usually more or less obscured by individual variations, and realized best in a composite picture."
Taxonomic Mayr (1969)[4] "An aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species, inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of a species, and differing taxonomically from other populations of the species."
Population Dobzhansky (1970)[5] "Races are genetically distinct Mendelian populations. They are neither individuals nor particular genotypes, they consist of individuals who differ genetically among themselves."
Lineage Templeton (1998)[6] "A subspecies (race) is a distinct evolutionary lineage within a species. This definition requires that a subspecies be genetically differentiated due to barriers to genetic exchange that have persisted for long periods of time; that is, the subspecies must have historical continuity in addition to current genetic differentiation."

Because racial differences continue to be important issues in social and political life, racial classifications continue. The United States government has attempted its own definitions of race and ethnicity (see for example U.S. Census) for such classifications and comparisons.

Social Construct or Biological Lineage? edit

Social Construction edit

Debates continue in and among academic disciplines as to how race should be understood. Some sociologists and biologists believe race is a social construct, meaning it does not have a basis in the natural world but is simply an artificial distinction created by humans.[1] As a result of this understanding, some researchers have turned from conceptualizing and analyzing human variation by race to doing so in terms of populations, dismissing racial classifications altogether. In the face of the increasing rejection of race as a valid classification scheme, many social scientists have replaced the word race with the word ethnicity to refer to self-identifying groups based on shared religion, nationality, or culture.

The understanding of race as a social construct is well-illustrated by examining race issues in two countries, the U.S. and Brazil.

Constructing Race in the U.S. edit

Since the early days of the United States, racial classifications have varied and various groups, like Native Americans, African-Americans and European-Americans, were classified as belonging to different races. The table below details some of the different racial and ethnic classifications that have been used by the US Census.[7] The fact that these classifications have changed over time illustrates that race is socially constructed.

1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990[8]
White White White White White White White White White White White
Black Black Black Black Negro Negro Negro Negro Negro or Black Black or Negro Black or Negro
Mulatto Chinese Mulatto Mulatto Mexican Indian American Indian American Indian Indian (Amer.) Japanese Indian (Amer.)
Quadroon Japanese Chinese Chinese Indian Chinese Japanese Japanese Japanese Chinese Eskimo
Octoroon Indian Japanese Japanese Chinese Japanese Chinese Chinese Chinese Filipino Aleut
Chinese Indian Indian Japanese Filipino Filipino Filipino Filipino Korean Asian or Pacific Islander (API)
Japanese Other Other Filipino Hindu Other Hawaiian Hawaiian Vietnamese Chinese
Indian Hindu Korean Part Hawaiian Korean Indian (Amer.) Filipino
Korean Other Aleut Other Asian Indian Hawaiian
Other Eskimo Hawaiian Korean
Other, etc. Guamanian Vietnamese
Samoan Japanese
Eskimo Asian Indian
Aleut Samoan
Other Guamanian

The criteria for membership in different races have been very different. For Africans, the government considered anyone with African appearance to be purely African. Native Americans, on the other hand, were classified based on a certain percentage of Indian blood. Finally, European-Americans had to have purely white ancestry. The differing criteria for assigning membership to particular races had relatively little to do with biology; it had far more to do with maintaining a group's defined roles and position.


Some researchers and historians have proposed that the intent of the differing criteria for racial designations was to concentrate power, wealth, privilege, and land in the hands of European-Americans.[9][10] As a result, the offspring of an African slave and European master or mistress would be considered an African. Significant in terms of the economics of slavery, the mixed-race child of a slave mother also would be a slave, adding to the wealth of the slave owner.

Contrast the African criteria with that of Native Americans; a person of Native American and African parentage automatically was classified as African. But the offspring of only a few generations of Native Americans and Europeans were not considered Indian at all - at least not in a legal sense. Native Americans had treaty rights to land, but individuals with only one Indian great-grandparent were no longer classified as Native American, disenfranchising them from their claims to Native American lands. Of course, the same individuals who could be denied legal claim to Native American lands because they were too White, were still Native American enough to be considered half-breeds and were stigmatized as a result.

In an economy benefiting from slave labor, it was useful to have as many African slaves as possible. Conversely, in a nation bent on westward expansion (commonly referred to as illegal immigration or ethnic conquest today), it was advantageous to diminish the numbers of those who could claim title to Indian lands by classifying them out of existence. Both schemes benefited the third group, the racially pure whites. The point being, of course, that the classifications of race in the early U.S. were socially constructed in a fashion that benefited one race over the others.

The earliest black individuals in the U.S. were brought from Africa as slaves primarily to help in agriculture in the southern U.S. Although European immigrants to the Americas initially attempted to enslave Native people, their efforts were often subverted due to Native understandings of the land. As a result, slave labor from other parts of the world was deemed more efficient for the production of American land so European immigrants began importing African people while exporting Natives to other parts of the Americas (see Loewen's work for more of this historical record). While migration since then has substantially altered the distribution of African American individuals in the U.S., African American individuals remain concentrated in the southern U.S., as depicted in the map below.


Native Americans in the U.S. are concentrated on reservations following 200 years of relocation policies instituted by the U.S. government (see the documentary film Broken Rainbow for a detailed examination of the latest relocation phase in the 1970's), as depicted in the map below:


Constructing Race in Brazil edit


The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics classifies the Brazilian population in five categories: white, black, pardo or (brown), yellow, and Indigenous, based on skin color as given by the individual being interviewed in the census.

  • White (47.7% of the population):[11] usually a Brazilian of full or predominant European ancestry or other ancestry (such as German Brazilian) who considers themself to be White.
  • Pardo or Brown (43.1%):[11] usually a Multiracial Brazilian of mixed-race features who considers themself to be "Pardo". In practice, most of the "Pardo" people are of mixed European and African (mulatos), but this category also includes people of mixed European and Amerindian (caboclos) and Amerindian and African (cafusos) genetic ancestry[12].
  • Black (7.6%):[11] usually a dark-skinned Brazilian of full or predominant Black African ancestry who considers themself to be Black.
  • Yellow: (1.1%) usually a Brazilian of East Asian descent, mostly Japanese.
  • Indigenous (0.4%):[13] usually a Brazilian of full or predominant Amerindian ancestry who considers themself to be Amerindian.

Of particular interest to the discussion of race in this chapter is the fact that there is a racial classification that falls between "white" and "black": "pardo" or "brown." That Brazilians have more racial classifications than do people in the United States illustrates the socially constructed nature of race. Additionally, racial classification in Brazil, because it is based on self-classification and there are no objective criteria for what it means to belong to one race or another, is inconsistent.[14] Because of the mixing of the races, race is not inherited but determined purely by physical characteristics (i.e., a white father and black mother could have a "white", "black," or "pardo" child). Additionally, because race is self-determined and there is discrimination based on race (white are favored),[14] Brazilians have a tendency to "self-lighten,"[15] or report their race as being lighter than an independent observer may suggest. That people can "self-lighten" illustrates that race is not a fixed construct but rather that it is socially constructed.

Biology and Genetics edit

The social constructionist approach has not completely occluded other perspectives. Some sociologists (and other researchers) still believe that race is a valid and useful measure when understood as fuzzy sets, clusters, or extended families.

Based on these beliefs as well as the development of genetic modeling software programs, some scientists argue that genetic data can be used to infer population structure and assign individuals to groups that often correspond with their self-identified geographical ancestry (e.g., African, Asian, etc.). Recent research within this tradition argues that self-described race is a very good indicator of an individual's genetic profile, at least in the United States. For example, using 326 genetic markers, Tang et al. (2005)[16] utilized a software program called Structure[17] to identify 4 genetic clusters among 3,636 individuals sampled from 15 locations in the United States, and were able to correctly assign individuals to groups that corresponded with their self-described race (white, African American, East Asian, and Hispanic) for all but 5 individuals (an error rate of 0.14%). Based on their modeling, these researchers argued that ancient ancestry/geography, which correlates highly with self-described race and not current place of residence, is the major determinant of genetic structure in the US population. While the implications of their argument have been deemed significant by some researchers and could be helpful in studies of racial disparities in health (see extended discussion below), it is important to note that their argument actually demonstrates the social construction of genetic racial categories rather than the empirical existence of such categories. Specifically, their study utilized a software program that requires researchers to first decide how many clusters or groups they want the program to produce before it can analyze the data. After the researchers have decided how many races they think or believe exist, the program then sorts all of the data into the pre-established number of genetic clusters. Thus, if the researchers decide upon 5 categories the program will sort all data into 5 categories, but if the researchers decide on 26 categories the program will sort all data into 26 categories; the program does this without any concern for whether or not these "clusters" or the "number of clusters" are in any way empirically real. Rather than demonstrating the genetic foundations of race, then, such studies merely demonstrate that a computer program may be used to confirm the existing beliefs of researchers about how many racial clusters there may or could be. Other researchers, using the same data, found a different number of clusters from the same genetic data.[18][17] While some researchers ignore the role of the researcher in the creation of genetic clusters, other researchers point to these studies as the latest examples of an ongoing historical pattern of scientific racism.[19] In short, a very strong argument can be made that what clustering studies do is verify the socially constructed nature of even biological and genetic explanations of race, racism, and racial similarity and difference rather than illustrate that race is "real."

Even within the aforementioned studies, genetic research reveals that genetic variation within racial groups is generally greater than genetic variation between them.[1] However, the existence of genetic differences among races is well accepted by some and heavily debated by others across scientific fields. Those who believe in genetic differences will point to the genetic clusters created in the aforementioned types of studies, which correspond tightly to the census definition of race and to self-identified ancestry, to support their claims. On the other hand, non-believers in genetic racial difference (and/or significance) will point to the socially constructed nature of these genetic studies to support their claims. Researchers across disciplines regularly find certain genetic conditions are more common among certain races. For example, approximately 1 in 29 individuals of Northern European descent are carriers of a mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, whereas only about 1 in 65 African Americans is a carrier (source). There is a subset of conditions for which individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at increased risk (see here). Based on this knowledge individuals can be offered genetic testing based on their race, which can determine whether they are at increased risk to have a child with one of these conditions. While these associations are important areas of analysis, these associations - between race and genetics - often break down for some groups, such as Hispanic individuals, who exhibit a pattern of geographical stratification of ancestry.

There is an active debate among biomedical researchers about the meaning and importance of race in their research. Proponents of using race in biomedical research argue that ignoring race will be detrimental to the health of minority groups. They argue that disease risk factors differ substantially between racial groups, that relying only on genotypical classes - differences in genes - ignores non-genetic racial factors that impact health (e.g., poverty rates and robust neighborhood and environmental effects) and that minorities would be poorly represented in clinical trials if race were ignored. However, some fear that the use of racial labels in biomedical research runs the risk of unintentionally exacerbating health disparities (as happened throughout the history of Western medical science[20]), so they suggest alternatives to the use of racial taxonomies.

The primary impetus for considering race in biomedical research is the possibility of improving the prevention and treatment of diseases by predicting hard-to-ascertain factors on the basis of more easily ascertained characteristics. The first medication marketed for a specific racial group, BiDil was recently approved by the U.S. FDA. A large study of African American males showed a 43% reduction in deaths and a 39% decrease in hospitalizations compared to a placebo. Interestingly, this drug would never have been approved if the researchers had not taken note of racial groups and realized that although the medication was not effective in previous clinical trials, it appeared to be effective for the small proportion of African-Americans males who were part of the study (source). Despite the controversy, it is clear that race is associated with differential disease susceptibility. Examples of some of these differences are illustrated in the table below. The challenge is in developing clinical and public health interventions capable of using racial patterns to alleviate disease while remaining vigilant against the scientific and medical racism of the past.

Diseases that differ in frequency by race or ethnicity (adapted from Halder & Shriver, 2003).[21]
Disease High-risk groups Low-risk groups Reference(s)
Obesity African women, Native Americans South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians Europeans McKeigue, et al. (1991)[22]; Hodge & Zimmet (1994)[23]
Non-insulin dependent diabetes South Asians, West Africans, Peninsular Arabs, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans Europeans Songer & Zimmet (1995)[24]; Martinez (1993)[25]
Hypertension African Americans, West Africans Europeans Douglas et al. (1996);[26] Gaines & Burke (1995)[27]
Coronary heart disease South Asians West African men McKeigue, et al. (1989)[28]; Zoratti (1998)[29]
End-stage renal disease Native Americans and African populations Europeans Ferguson & Morrissey (1993)[30]
Dementia Europeans African Americans, Hispanic Americans Hargrave, et al. (2000)[31]
Systemic lupus erythematosus West Africans, Native Americans Europeans Molokhia & McKeigue (2000)[32]
Skin cancer Europeans   Boni, et al. (2002)[33]
Lung cancer Africans, European Americans(Caucasians) Chinese, Japanese Schwartz & Swanson (1997)[34]; Shimizu, et al. (1985)[35]
Prostate cancer Africans and African Americans   Hoffman, et al. (2001)[36]
Multiple sclerosis Europeans Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Native Siberians, New Zealand Maoris Rosati (2001)[37]
Osteoporosis European Americans African Americans Bohannon (1999)[38]

Combining Approaches edit

Perhaps the best way to understand race is to recognize that the socially constructed boundaries and biological/genetic elements overlap. There are clearly biological differences between races, though they are small and, as noted above, there is greater variation within races than between races. But the actual criteria used for racial classifications are artificial and socially constructed, as was shown in the cases of the U.S. and Brazil.

By recognizing the overlap between the two, we are presented with a better understanding of race. However, distinctions between racial groups are declining due to intermarriage and have been for years. For instance, self-described African Americans tend to have a mix of West African and European ancestry. Shriver et al. (2003)[39] found that on average African Americans have ~80% African ancestry. Likewise, many white Americans have mixed European and African ancestry; ~30% of whites have less than 90% European ancestry. If intermarrying of races and ethnicities continues, the biological and genetic distinctions will grow increasingly minute and undetectable. If a completely heterogeneous population ultimately develops, any racial classifications in that population would be nothing more than a social construct.

Controversies surrounding the definition of race will likely continue for some time. But there are important considerations that go beyond the definition of race. Race and race-related issues continue to impact society. Racial discrimination in employment and housing still occurs.[40] Because race remains a significant factor in social life, sociologists feel compelled to study its effects at multiple levels.

Prejudice, Bias, and Discrimination edit

Prejudice is, as the name implies, the pre-judging of something. Prejudice involves coming to a judgment on a subject before learning where the preponderance of evidence actually lies. Alternatively, prejudice can refer to the formation of a judgment without direct or actual experience. Prejudice generally refers to negative views of an individual or group of individuals, often based on social stereotypes. At its most extreme, prejudicial attitudes advocate denying groups benefits and rights without warrant and based solely on the unfounded views of the individual. It should be kept in mind that prejudice is a belief and may not translate into discrimination, which is the actual mistreatment of a group or individual based upon some criteria or characteristic. Although prejudice can lead to discrimination, the two are separate concepts.

Technically, prejudice should be differentiated from viewpoints accumulated through direct life experience. Such viewpoints or beliefs are not pre-judgments but post-judgments. If the assertion is made that no amount of experience ever entitles a person to a viewpoint then this precipitates a logical absurdity since anyone who opposes strongly-held views must, by their own definition, also be prejudiced, invalidating their own proposition on the grounds of... prejudice. Post-judgments or beliefs and viewpoints derived from experience that maintain unfair or stereotypical perspectives on a group of people is more accurately referred to as bias. Prejudice can be taught, socialized, or conveyed through other means, like mass media. Bias can develop through pronounced negative interactions with the stereotyped groups.

Both bias and prejudice are generally viewed as negative. However, some sociologists have argued that prejudices and biases can be seen as necessary human adaptations facilitating survival. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that humans have an innate or basic preference for people who are like them, specifically when it comes to race.[41] Humans express more empathy when members of their own racial group experience pain compared to when individuals of other racial groups experience pain. This suggests prejudice and biases may have a biological component, but this line of research has been heavily critiqued by racial scholars that point out that there is no way to establish a baseline, biological system of beliefs or prejudices, and thus such studies may merely reveal early childhood socialization, which has been shown to contain racial training prior to pre-school age.[42] Since humans do not always have sufficient time to form personal views on every other group of people, particularly people in opposition to one's own group(s), however, prejudices and biases (regardless of their source) may facilitate interactions. Prejudice may also be detrimental to the individual personally by pre-judging a potential ally (e.g. refusing to patronize the only doctor in a town because they are black). Despite some arguments about the existence of innate preferences towards individuals who look like we do, there is substantial evidence that suggests most prejudicial attitudes and biases are learned and can be unlearned.

Racism edit

Racism can refer to any or all of the following beliefs and behaviors:

  • race is the primary determinant of human capacities (prejudice or bias)
  • a certain race is inherently superior or inferior to others (prejudice or bias)
  • individuals should be treated differently according to their racial classification (prejudice or bias)
  • the actual treating of individuals differently based on their racial classification (discrimination)
An African-American drinks out of a water cooler designated for use by colored patrons in 1939 at a streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City.

Racism is recognized by many as an affront to basic human dignity and a violation of human rights. Racism is opposed by almost all mainstream voices in the United States. A number of international treaties have sought to end racism. The United Nations uses a definition of racist discrimination laid out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and adopted in 1965:

...any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life (source).

Expressions of Racism edit

Racism may be expressed individually and consciously, through explicit thoughts, feelings, or acts, or socially and unconsciously, through institutions that promote inequalities among races.

Individual-Level Racism edit

Individual-level racism is prejudice, bias, or discrimination displayed in an interaction between two or more people. Examples of individual-level racism could include:

  • a person believing people of other races/ethnicities are intellectually inferior and that the inferiority is a characteristic of the race
  • a person holding the belief that all young African males are dangerous
  • an employer firing someone because of his/her race

Children develop an awareness of race and racial stereotypes quite young[43] and these racial stereotypes affect behavior.[44] For instance, children who identify with a racial minority that is stereotyped as not doing well in school tend to not do well in school once they learn about the stereotype associated with their race.[44] Another illustration of individual-level racism in society is the resistance of Americans to classify mixed-race individuals as white if they have even "one-drop" of black ancestry.[45] While most Americans may believe the "one-drop rule" is no longer relevant in society today, recent research suggests that it persists in racial classifications, even if they are informal.

Structural Racism edit

Structural racism refers to inequalities built into an organization or system. An example of structural racism can be seen in recent research on workplace discrimination.[46] There is widespread discrimination against job applicants whose names were merely perceived as "sounding black." These applicants were 50% less likely than candidates perceived as having "white-sounding names" to receive callbacks for interviews, no matter their level of previous experience. The researchers view these results as strong evidence of unconscious biases rooted in the country's long history of discrimination. This is an example of structural racism as it shows a widespread established belief system that treats people differently based upon their race. Additional examples of structural racism include apartheid in South Africa, the system of Jim Crow laws in the U.S., and the inequitable lending practices of banks (i.e., redlining). The figure below illustrates structural racism by illustrating how black and Hispanic individuals, even when they have the same income as white individuals, are less likely to be approved for home mortgages (as a result of practices like redlining).


Another example of structural racism is the discrimination faced by Asian Americans in attaining leadership positions in corporations. While Asian Americans are over-represented in professional occupations in the US, they are under-represented among corporate elite. Approximately 5% of the US population is Asian American, but just .3% of corporate officers are Asian American.[47] The under-representation of Asian Americans is particularly surprising considering they are perceived to be highly capable, particularly in technical occupations. But they are also perceived to be less capable leaders due to a perception that they lack charisma. The result is structural racism: corporate advancement is structured such that Asian Americans are over-looked for leadership positions.

Cultural Racism edit

Cultural racial discrimination, a variation of structural racism, occurs when the assumption of inferiority of one or more races is built into the culture of a society. In this perspective, racism is an expression of culture and is also passed on through the transmission of culture (i.e., socialization). An interesting twist on this type of prejudice can be seen in how high achieving secondary school students are treated. African American and Native American students with high GPAs are rejected by their peers while Asian American and white students with high GPAs experience greater social acceptance.[48] This suggests that different racial and ethnic groups are rewarded for academic achievement while others are punished, potentially leading members of those groups to pursue academic success while others are discouraged from doing so.

Historical Racism edit

Historical economic or social disparity is a form of inequality caused by past racism, affecting the present generation through deficits in the formal education and other kinds of preparation in the parents' generation, and, through primarily unconscious racist attitudes and actions on members of the general population. This perspective argues that African-Americans, in particular, in the U.S. have had their opportunities in life adversely affected due to the mistreatment of their ancestors (see slavery, Sundown Towns, Jim Crow, and The War on Drugs). Disparities in wealth, net worth and education lend credence to this idea.[49][50] The figure below illustrates how historical racism has resulted in lower odds of inter-generational transmission of wealth, which, in turn, reduces net worth for racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S.

Historical racism also relies upon the ongoing "whitening" of social history by educational, political, and economic elites.[51][52] American history textbooks offer an illustrative example of this process. In these textbooks, students are generally provided with heroic tales (often fictionalized) of white American founders free from deficit and their racial transgressions are typically either ignored or justified. Notable examples include the omission of Christopher Columbus as the founder of the slave trade, the racial basis of early American governmental decisions to support or oppose Independence and Freedom movements in other countries (e.g., anti-slavery administrations like that of John Adams that supported independence attempts by other colonies while pro-slavery administrations like that of Thomas Jefferson that opposed these attempts and provided support to colonial powers in these contests), and the re-segregation of the federal government that paved the way for many Jim Crow laws and Sundown Towns by Woodrow Wilson. Further, textbooks generally leave out of the American origin story anti-racist speakers and activists like Marie Stewart in the 1830's or Ida Wells Barnett in the 1890's and facts that demonstrate that American history has not been a steady movement toward racial progress, like the existence of African American major league baseball players in the 1800's well before Jackie Robinson or the existence of African-American political and economic institutions dating back to the late 1800's. These omissions give the impression that past racism occurred without opposition and always got better instead of different over time. This allows white individuals to avoid taking responsibility for historical racism. Elites construct an American story line that absolves contemporary white citizens from the ongoing historical construction and maintenance of racial disparities embedded within American history, culture, and structure.


One response to racial disparity in the U.S. has been Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action is the practice of favoring or benefiting members of a particular race in areas such as college admissions and workplace advancement, in an attempt to create atmospheres of racial diversity and racial equality. Though lauded by many as a boon to society, giving the less privileged a chance at success and working to overcome historical social disparity, the practice is condemned as racially discriminatory by others.

Racial Profiling edit

Another type of racism is racial profiling. Racial profiling involves the singling out of individuals based upon their race for differential treatment, usually harsher treatment. Two examples of racial profiling in the United States are often discussed. The disparate treatment of minorities by law enforcement officials is a common example of racial profiling. Another example is the disparate treatment of young, male Arabs in airports who are more likely to be subjected to extensive screening. Many critics of racial profiling claim that it is an unconstitutional practice because it amounts to questioning individuals on the basis of what crimes they might commit or could possibly commit, instead of what crimes they have actually committed. A clear example of racial profiling can be seen in media depictions of Muslim and Hispanic individuals. One study found that major news programs in the US (including: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Univision) described 81% of domestic terrorists - individuals committing acts of terror in the US - as Muslims. Yet, actual crime data suggest only 6% of domestic terrorists were Muslims; the majority are white supremacists or white fundamentalist Christians. Similarly, of immigrants accused of committing crimes on news shows, 97% were identified as Hispanic even though only 47% of immigrants who commit crimes are Hispanic.[53]

Color-Blind Racism edit

In the US, the avoidance of racial language by European-Americans has been used to suggest that racism is no longer an issue. However, the continued prevalence of institutional racism has led some scholars like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to argue a "new racism" exists, that has arisen during the post-Civil Rights era. Bonilla-Silva suggests that a "color-blind racism" ideology supports racism while avoiding any reference to race. He outlines four frameworks of color-blind racism:

  • Abstract Liberalism - using liberal language divorced from context and history to deny racism exists (e.g., all Americans are free now so they can be whatever they want)
  • Naturalization - arguing that racial disparities, segregation patterns, and other racial phenomena are natural occurrences divorced from historical and structural socialization processes between races (e.g., whites just like to be around whites)
  • Cultural Racism - drawing on culture-based beliefs and arguments to explain racial inequalities in contemporary society (e.g., blacks have too many babies or Mexicans are just like that)
  • Minimization - arguing that discrimination is no longer prevalent in society (e.g., its not a big deal now like it was back then)[54]

A powerful tool in our current age of color-blind racism involves the depiction of racial minorities via media outlets. As Patricia Hill Collins notes, much of our contemporary media offerings (e.g., music videos, songs, films, television shows, magazine and newspaper materials, and online materials) rely upon and reproduce historical patterns of racial inequality, and derogatory depictions of racial minorities in relation to their white counterparts. Take, for example, magazine covers and videos that position African American athletes and singers in "jungle" themed decorations, costumes, and settings that mirror colonial depictions of African and Native American slaves long used to justify scientific, religious, and economic exploitation of racial minorities. While these depictions may be argued to be nothing more than creativity removed from the historical context, they continue a long line of images (see, for example, the experiences of Sarah Baartman) that depict racial minorities as "wild," "savage," and "more nature-oriented" than whites (for similar examples in relation to Hispanic people see Latinos Beyond the Reel and for similar examples in relation to Asian people see The Slanted Screen). Expanding on this theme, sociologists have begun to explore "cinethetic racism," which is defined as the portrayal of racial minorities in ways that appeal to white expectations of "good" racial minorities while reproducing the subordination of racial minorities to white needs, desire, and leadership.[55] The quintessential example of cinethetic racism occurs in what has been termed Magical Negro Films - like The Matrix, Bruce Almighty, and The Legend of Bagger Vance among many others - where a racial minority character (often echoing historical racism conceptions of racial minorities as magically inclined or deeply tied to nature) exists for the sole purpose of helping a white male accomplish and recognize his inner greatness. While such films are improvements over more explicitly white supremacist classic films (see, for example, still highly celebrated classic films promoting explicit racism like The Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind), they echo these films by casting racial minorities as the "servants," "assistants," and "natural guides" for white victory and celebration. These are manifestations of color-blind racism.[56][57]

Genocide edit

While not exclusively the result of racial or ethnic tension, genocide, the attempt to completely destroy a group of people based on a characteristic they share by another group of people who do not share that characteristic, is often the result of racism.[58] One technique that is often used by individuals engaged in genocide and even in war is racial epithets that dehumanize the enemy, making it easier to kill them.[58]

Minorities edit

Racism is usually directed against a minority population, but may also be directed against a majority population. The definition of a minority group can vary, depending on specific context, but generally refers to either a sub-group that does not form either a majority or a plurality of the total population, or a group that, while not necessarily a numerical minority, is disadvantaged or otherwise has less power (whether political or economic) than a dominant group. A majority is that segment of the population that outnumbers all others combined or one that is dominant.

The issue of establishing minority groups, and determining the extent of privileges they might derive from their status, is controversial. There are some who argue that minorities are owed special recognition and rights, while others feel that minorities are unjustified in demanding special rights, as this amounts to preferential discrimination and could hamper the ability of the minority to integrate itself into mainstream society (i.e. they may have difficulty finding work if they do not speak the predominant language for their geographic area).

The assimilation of minority groups into majority groups can be seen as a form of racism. In this process, the minority group sheds its distinctive traits and is absorbed into the dominant group. This presumes a loss of all characteristics which make the newcomers different. Assimilation can be voluntary or forced. Voluntary assimilation is usually the case with immigrants, who often adopt the dominant culture established earlier. Reasons that have been postulated for voluntary assimilation include:

  1. it is seen as an avenue to upward social mobility
  2. it is a way to escape prejudice and discrimination

Socially pressured to adapt, the immigrant is generally the one who takes the steps to integrate into the new environment, such as learning the language of the country or region, making new friends, new contacts, finding a job or going to school. The adaptation is made more difficult when the immigrant does not speak the language of their new home.

Assimilation can have negative implications for national minorities or aboriginal cultures, in that, after assimilation, the distinctive features of the original culture will be minimized and may disappear altogether. This is especially true in situations where the institutions of the dominant culture initiate programs to assimilate or integrate minority cultures. Many indigenous peoples, such as First Nations of Canada, Native Americans of the US, Taiwanese aborigines, and Australian Aborigines have mostly lost their traditional culture (most evidently language) and replaced it with the dominant new culture.

An example of a minority population discriminating against a majority population is seen in the racial apartheid that existed until the 1990s in South Africa. South Africans of European descent (the numerical minority) discriminated against the numerical majority indigenous African population. Additional examples of minorities discriminating against majorities include two instances of colonial rule:

Racial discrimination is and has been official government policy in many countries. In the 1970s, Uganda expelled tens of thousands of ethnic Indians. Until 2003, Malaysia enforced discriminatory policies limiting access to university education for ethnic Chinese and Indian students who are citizens by birth of Malaysia. Today, many other policies explicitly favoring bumiputras (Malays) remain in force. Russia launched anti-Semitic pogroms against Jews in 1905 and at later dates. During the 1930s and 1940s, attempts were made to prevent Jews from immigrating to the Middle East. Following the creation of Israel, land-ownership in many Israeli towns was limited to Jews, and many Muslim countries expelled Jewish residents, and continue to refuse entry to Jews.

Racial Stratification edit

While race itself is a social construction, race continues to play a prominent role in societies around the world. Race is often the basis for different types of stratification. Following are some of the ways society is stratified by race.

Race and Pollution edit

Pollution and polluting facilities are not evenly distributed in the U.S. Communities made up predominantly of racial minorities are significantly more likely to be polluted and to house factories and business that pollute extensively.[59] While it might seem that this is inadvertent and not intentionally racist, the evidence suggest otherwise: these communities are systematically targeted as locations for situating polluting businesses.[59]

Interracial Marriage edit

Not until 1967 were laws outlawing interracial marriage abolished in the United States. Prior to that time, an individual from one race who married an individual from another could be jailed and fined. These laws were referred to as miscegenation laws (miscegenation means "mixing races"). This was the experience of Mildred and Richard Loving, who married in 1958 in Washington D.C., a district in the US that no longer had a law against interracial marriage.[60] Mildred was black; Richard was white. When they moved to Virginia shortly after their wedding, law enforcement decided to prosecute them, breaking into their home in the middle of the night and carrying them off to jail.[60] Both Mildred and Richard were from Virginia, where their extended family still lived. The judge who heard their case, Leon M. Bazile, told the Lovings during their trial for miscegenation that, 'if God had meant for whites and blacks to mix, he would have not placed them on different continents.'[60] He also seemed to take pride in telling the Lovings, "as long as you live you will be known as a felon."[60] The Lovings eventually contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, who took their case to the Supreme Court in 1967, resulting in Loving v. Virginia, which abolished miscegenation laws in the U.S. Even so, as the diagram to the right indicates, attitudes toward interracial marriage did not immediately improve. Still as late as 2002, close to 10% of people in the U.S. favored a law prohibiting interracial marriage.


A Research Example edit

Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian[61] compared employers' responses on questions involving race-related hiring practices to their actual hiring practices by sending matched pairs of young men to apply for jobs, either both of European descent or both of African descent, but one of the men had a criminal record. Pager and Quillian found that employers claimed they would be much more willing to hire an ex-offender than they were. Additionally, while the survey results showed no difference in hiring preferences between African-Americans and European-Americans, employers were more than three times as likely to call job applicants with a European lineage back in comparison to Americans with an African lineage. In short, Pager and Quillian found that employers, in their survey responses, were more open to the idea of hiring both African-Americans and ex-offenders than they were to the actual practice.

Conclusion edit

After the establishment of European colonialism, the ever-increasing contact between different societies around the globe eventually led to the burgeoning of academic scholarship on race and ethnicity. There were many attempts by scholars to understand the origins of societal differences. Were these perceived differences biological or social in origin? In the 1700s, a Swedish scientist by the name of Carolus Linnaeus was the first to publish on the human divisions of race. From there, scholars continued to use various physical differences, such as cranial size and body type, to classify individuals into discrete races and make assumptions regarding intelligence and other capacities based on those physical differences. Those perceived differences were a fertile breeding ground in manufacturing and maintaining racism across the globe and even attempted to justify the ill treatment of certain groups of people such as those enslaved. Despite more recent studies providing evidence for the social construction of race and ethnicity across time and space, racism in all its various forms is still prevalent today in the inequalities found in numerous aspects of society that continue to exist along racial lines.

Notes edit

  • The word race was introduced to English from the French in the late 16th century.
  • It is worth noting that many historical scientists, philosophers, and statesmen appear racist by late-20th century standards. Contextualizing these people, their views and opinions in the cultural milieu of their day should allow the astute reader to avoid the pitfall of judging historic figures from present moral standards (i.e., whiggish historicism).

Additional Reading edit

  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2009. Racism without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1990’s. New York: Routledge.
  • Masi de Casanova, Erynn. 2004. “No Ugly Women”: Concepts of Race and Beauty among Adolescent Women in Ecuador. Gender & Society 18(3): 287-303.
  • Hanser,Amy. 2005. The Gendered Rice Bowl: The Sexual Politics of Service Work in Urban China. Gender & Society 19(5): 581-600.
  • Harvey Wingfield, Adia. 2009. Racializing the Glass Escalator: Reconsidering Men’s Experiences with Women’s Work. Gender & Society 23(1): 5-26.
  • Marshall, Gul Aldikacti. 2005. Ideology, progress, and dialogue: A comparison of feminist and Islamist women’s approaches to the issues of head covering and work in Turkey. Gender & Society 19(1): 104-120.
  • Richards, Patricia. 2005. The politics of gender, human rights, and being Indigenous in Chile. Gender & Society 19(2): 199-220.
  • Feagin, Joe R. 1991. “The Continuing Significance of Race: Anti-Black Discrimination in Public Places.” American Sociological Review 56: 101-116.
  • Quadagno, Jill, 1994. The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Blee, Kathleen. 2002. Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Einwohner, Rachel. 2006. "Identity work and collective action in a repressive context: Jewish Resistance on the "Aryan side" of the Warsaw ghetto." Social Problems 53:38-56.
  • Bennett, Pamela R. and Amy Lutz. 2009. “How African American Is the Net Black Advantage? Differences in College Attendance Among Immigrant Blacks, Native Blacks, and Whites.” Sociology of Education 82(1): 70-99.
  • Carter, Prudence L. 2003. “‘Black’ cultural capital, status positioning, and schooling conflicts for low-income African American youth.” Social Problems 50(1): 136-155.
  • Foster, Gigi. 2008. “Names will never hurt me: Racially distinct names and identity in the undergraduate classroom.” Social Science Research 37(3): 934-952.
  • Goldsmith, PA. 2004. “Schools’ racial mix, students’ optimism, and the black-white and Latino-white achievement gaps.” Sociology of Education 77(2): 121-147.
  • Herman, Melissa R. 2009. “The Black-White-Other Achievement Gap: Testing Theories of Academic Performance Among Multiracial and Monoracial Adolescents.” Sociology of Education 82(1): 20-46.
  • Kao, Grace and Jennifer S. Thompson. 2003. “Racial and Ethnic Stratification in Educational Achievement and Attainment.” Annual Review of Sociology 29:417-42.

Discussion Questions edit

  • Do races actually exist?
  • Who determines someone's race?
  • Is there a way to verify someone's race?
  • Why are there differences in income and wealth by race?

References edit

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Recommended Readings for Students edit

  • Dugger, Celia W. 2009. “Apartheid Legacy’s in South African Schools.” The New York Times, September 20 (Accessed September 20, 2009).
    • This article discusses the continuing legacy of racial discrimination in South Africa. The school system under apartheid favored whites, but even since the end of apartheid, the school system continues to favor whites and the few blacks who make it into the formerly white-only schools. As a result, blacks in South Africa who attend the formerly all-black schools remain poorly educated and unable to find good work.

External links edit

Stratification · Gender