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Sociology: The Core, 6/e
Michael Hughes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Carolyn J. Kroehler
James W. Vander Zanden, The Ohio State University (Emeritus)

Inequalities of Race and Ethnicity

Chapter Summary

Some U.S. racial and ethnic groups continue to be the victims of prejudice and discrimination. Sociologists address these questions: Where do race and ethnicity come from? Why and how are they associated with the distribution of society's rewards? How and why do racial and ethnic stratification change?

Racial and Ethnic Stratification

Stratification represents institutionalized inequality in the distribution of social rewards and burdens. In this chapter we examined a system of stratification based on race and/or ethnicity.

  • Races.  The use of the concept of race for sociologists is as a social construct; a race is a group of people who see themselves—and are seen by others—as having hereditary traits that set them apart. An important concept based on race is racism, the belief that some racial groups are naturally superior and others are inferior.

  • Ethnic Groups.  Groups that we identify chiefly on cultural grounds—language, folk practices, dress, gestures, mannerisms, or religion—are called ethnic groups. Ethnic groups often have a sense of peoplehood, and to one degree or another many of them deem themselves to be a nation.

  • Minority Groups.  Racial and ethnic groups are often minority groups. Five properties characterize a minority. The critical characteristic that distinguishes minority groups from other groups is that they lack power.

  • The Potential for Conflict and Separation.  Although racial and ethnic stratification is similar to other systems of stratification in its essential features, there is one overriding difference. Racial and ethnic groups have the potential to carve their own independent nation from the existing state. The question is whether the racial or ethnic segments of the society will be willing to participate within the existing nation-state arrangement.

Prejudice and Discrimination

  • Prejudice.  Prejudice refers to attitudes of aversion and hostility toward the members of a group simply because they belong to it and hence are presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to it. A new form of prejudice against African Americans that appears among affluent, suburban whites has been labeled symbolic racism by sociologists.

  • Discrimination.  Discrimination is action, what people actually do in their daily activities, and involves the arbitrary denial of privilege, prestige, and power to members of a minority group. Since World War II whites have shifted from more blatant forms of discrimination to more subtle forms.

  • Institutional Discrimination.  In their daily operation, the institutions of society may function in such a way that they produce unequal outcomes for different groups. This is called institutional discrimination. Gatekeeping and environmental racism are mechanisms by which institutional discrimination occurs.

  • Patterns of Intergroup Relations: Assimilation and Pluralism

    In multiethnic societies, ethnic groups may either lose their distinctiveness through a process of assimilation or retain their identity and integrity through pluralism.

  • Assimilation.  Assimilation refers to those processes whereby groups with distinctive identities become culturally and socially fused. Two views toward assimilation have dominated within the United States, the "melting pot" view and the Anglo-conformity view.

  • Pluralism.  In U.S. society, Jews, African Americans, Chinese Americans, and numerous other groups have retained their identities and distinctiveness for many years, an example of pluralism, a situation in which diverse groups coexist and boundaries between them are maintained. In equalitarian pluralism, ethnic group members participate freely and equally in political and economic institutions. In inequalitarian pluralism, economic and political participation of minority groups is severely limited by the dominant group and may even entail genocide.

Racial and Ethnic Groups in the United States

The United States is undergoing a transition from a predominately white society rooted in Western European culture to a global society composed of diverse racial and ethnic groups. By the year 2050 today's minorities will comprise a much larger proportion of the U.S. population than they do today.

  • African Americans.  African Americans remain disadvantaged. The expected lifetime earnings of African-American men are significantly lower than those of white men, and housing segregation remains substantial. The full integration of African Americans is unlikely in the foreseeable future, primarily because of continuing social and economic barriers and low rates of interracial marriage.

  • Hispanics.  The nation's Hispanic population is not a consolidated minority. Hispanic groups have different histories, distinct concentrations in different areas of the United States, and substantially different demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Hispanics are twice as likely as blacks and whites to drop out of school and typically earn less than non-Hispanics.

  • Native Americans.  Native-American peoples vary substantially in their history, lifestyles, kin systems, language, political arrangements, religion, economy, current circumstances, and identities. They are the most severely disadvantaged of any population within the United States. Forty-one percent of those on reservations live below the poverty level, and unemployment among males 20 to 64 years old is about 60 percent.

  • Asian Americans.  The average family income of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans in the second and subsequent generations is almost one-and-a-half times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. But Asian Americans are a varied group, with considerable contrasts and diversity. The earnings of Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese are generally low, especially among recent refugees who typically have come from rural areas and who possess few marketable skills.

  • White Ethnics.  Most white Americans, including those of northwestern European background, know and identify with their ethnic ancestry, but white ethnicity is neither deep nor stable. "Symbolic ethnicity" is an ethnicity that contributes to individual identity and perhaps to family communion, but does not create or sustain strong ethnic group ties.

Sociological Perspectives on Inequalities of Race and Ethnicity

  • The Functionalist Perspective.
    Functionalists say that ethnic differentiation reduces consensus, increases the chances of conflict, and threatens the equilibrium of a society, but it also promotes group formation and cohesion, functions as a safety valve through scapegoating, and helps maintain a democratic order.

  • The Conflict Perspective.  Conflict theorists contend that prejudice and discrimination can best be understood in terms of tension or conflict among competing groups. At least three different conflict theories exist, and they are related to ethnocentrism, Marxism, and the split labor market.

  • The Interactionist Perspective.  
    Interactionists say that the world we experience is socially constructed. In this view, ethnic groups are seen as products of social interaction. Ethnicity arises when communication channels between groups are limited and the different groups develop different systems of meanings.

The Future of Ethnic and Minority Group Relations

Ethnic status for Americans with African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native-American roots is not "symbolic," is not a matter of choice, and remains heavily ascriptive.

  • Intergroup Relations.  Functionalists believe that there are long-run social trends that are eliminating ascription and other irrational features from modern, industrial, socially differentiated, societies. The conflict perspective, on the other hand, predicts that ethnic stratification will remain as long as it is in the interests of powerful dominant groups to keep it in place. Interactionists would predict that as long as segregation and isolation of minority groups persist, ethnocentrism will continue and probably worsen.

  • Ethnicity.  If ethnic stratification persists, then ethnicity will persist as well; if it diminishes significantly, perhaps ethnicity for all groups will become increasingly "symbolic."