Unit One: Key Concepts in Dominant and Minority Group Relations

minoritygroup1It seems difficult to watch the news today without seeing how racial, ethnic, gender, and other diversity issues dominate our social discussion.  Should we support affirmative action programs or suspend them?  Should the United States build a wall on its border with Mexico to stop the flow of illegal immigration?  Why is there still a pay gap between men and women?  Was the Americans With Disabilities Act a landmark piece of legislation, or did it add burdensome costs to business owners?   These are the types of questions this course will explore.   This unit will lay the foundation for understanding diversity issues in the United States.

In all fields of study there can be disagreement on the meaning of key concepts and terms.  Scholars in the field may give a wide variety of meanings to a particular term.  It is quite possible that not everyone in the field of race and ethnic relations will agree with the definitions I use.  I will do my best to reflect the current usage of words and terms by those who study race and ethnic relations.

How America is Becoming Increasingly Diverse

Throughout American history, the racial and ethnic makeup of its citizens has changed. this has become increasingly so in the past few decades. The vast number of immigrants that arrive each year include groups from all over the globe. The question for sociologists is can our society deal successfully with the diversity of cultural values and ethnic variation?

The United States has a very diverse population—thirty-one ancestry groups have more than a million members.  Minorities (as defined by the Census Bureau, all those beside non-Hispanic, non-multiracial whites) constitute 36% of the population and are projected to be the majority by 2040 and 56% of the population by 2060.  But there is a problem in trying to label groups. All categories are arbitrary. Two people from within a category might be as different from one another as two people from different categories.  Some people in a category might share a physical or cultural trait, but they will also vary by age, social class, religion, and many other countless ways.  People might share a race and ethnic category (Asian for example), but come from vastly different cultures (Vietnam and Japan for example). Some of our categories seem to have no place for new groups. Should Arab-Americans be placed in Africa or Asia?  Should recent immigrants from Africa be placed in the category of African-American?  And what about mixed-race individuals?  Which category can they be placed in?

The increasing diversity in the United States will change how Americans look. Non-Hispanic whites are projected to fall to less than half of the population by the middle of the century. African-American and Native American populations are projected to remain stable, while Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans will see their numbers expand dramatically. This will cause the United States to become less white, less European, and more like the rest of the world. This racial and ethnic change will be viewed as a threat to some and as an opportunity to others.



                Population Projections

2012 2060
Non-Hispanic Whites 63% 43%
Hispanics 17% 31%
African-American 13% 15%
Asian American 5% 8%

source:  U.S. Census Bureau Projections

1.  2010 Census Bureau Data on Race (categories explained, tables on racial makeup)

2.  U.S. Census Bureau: Largest Ancestries by County

3.  Mapping America:  Every City, Every Block (Interactive)

4.  2010 Census and Hispanic Population Growth

5.  Asians Outnumber Hispanics in New Immigrants

6.  White Births No Longer the Majority

7.  Recent Issues Related to Diversity



The Many Components of Race

race1What is race?  If you ask a biologist, a sociologist, or a member of a separatist group, you will get different answers.  Race contains both a biological and a social meaning. Investigations into the biological component of race have tried to create classifications for every person. For every category there are sub-categories.  If we look at the Caucasian race, it can be divided into Nordics, Mediterraneans, and Alpines.  But the limitations of trying to define race biologically should seem obvious.  How does one determine where “black” skin stops and “brown” skin begins?  What happens if you have the skin tone of one race but the hair texture of another?  For these reasons, the establishment of racial categories has been largely abandoned by the scientific community.   For the sociologist, race is understood as a group with inherited physical characteristics that distinguish it from another group.  The social significance of race is that a category of people are treated differently based on their physical traits But this might be too easy an answer.  Do we really discriminate against someone because of their skin tone or style of hair, or is because of the symbolic meaning behind race?  Regardless of physical characteristics,  society collectively defines a particular group as a race.   People are perceived to be white, black, red, yellow, or brown and treated accordingly.  To the sociologist then, race is a social construction that changes with time and is difficult to measure.

Thanks to advances in genetics and biology, we know more about what race is and what it is not.  The various fields of science have determined that our species first appeared in East Africa about 100,000 years ago.  As they were hunters and gatherers, they spent the next 90,000 years wandering the globe in search of food and other resources.  The evidence indicates that “racial” differences evolved during this period of dispersion, as our ancestors adapted to different environments.

Myths of Race

This symbolic meaning leads to the creation of myths.  One myth is that some people believe that some races are superior to others.  There is no evidence to support such a claim.  In our country alone, there are people from every corner of the globe who contribute to our society. Traits such as courage and intelligence, attributed to supposed superior groups, can be found in all racial groups.   The second myth is that there exists a “pure” race.  Because of global migrations, war and natural disasters, there has been inbreeding between the races for thousands of years.  The problem to society is that people act on their misconceptions concerning race.

1.  Do Races Differ?

2.  Is Race a Myth?


Racial Identity and Racial Ideology

racialidentityOne of the first things people notice when they see someone is their race. Along with the clothes someone wears and their sex, we use clues like race to figure out “who” a person is.  Most people have preconceived notions of what each race looks like and so we feel uncomfortable when we encounter people who don’t have an easily recognizable racial identity.  Race becomes a biological “shorthand” for people to describe differences that people notice in work habits, intelligence, athletic ability, or sexuality.  Attempting to fix racial markers leads to the creation of a racial ideology, where racial characteristics and features become fixed and unchangeable, to the point where they are viewed as “natural”.  To challenge these racial categories means to go against the socially accepted “common sense”.  These “common sense” racial markers become internalized by individuals, thus creating a racial identity.

The Problem With Visible Distinguishing Racial Traits

developmentofraceThe existence of visible differing racial traits leads to a convenient way for the dominant group to identify racial minority groups so that a boundary can be created and maintained. As an example let’s look at skin tone.  From a biological perspective skin tone is derived from melanin, a pigment that occurs naturally in humans.  The skin tone of each “race” is determined by the amount of melanin in the skin. The amount of melanin is thought to be a function of geography and climate, where those closest to the equator possess more melanin to shield the body from harmful ultraviolet rays that could cause skin cancer.  Those who live further from the equator have lighter skin, which also seems to assist in the production of vitamin D.   Skin tone then seems to be involved in the protection from harmful ultraviolet rays and the production of vitamin D.  Biologically, that is all there is in explaining skin tone differences.  It is the social definitions we give to differences in skin tone that become important.

1.  Race:  Are We So Different?

2.  Skin Color Distribution Graph

3.  Human Variation and the Biology of Race

4.  Race: The Power of Illusion


The Development of Race As a Concept

From a Western European perspective, race is a relatively new idea.  As Europeans explored and came in contact with people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they became more aware of the physical differences between people.  In the beginning, the Europeans viewed the differences from a position of power, “conquering vs. conquered”.   As time went on, race acquired both a biological and social dimension.  The slave trade played a role in the white community seeing itself as a race instead of an ethnic group. Whites saw the existence of a black slave class as a way of escaping indentured servitude.  Plantation owners saw race as a way of continuing their interests and profits accumulated from slavery.  The former white indentured servants aligned themselves with the slave owners rather than with the black slaves. What these historical examples demonstrate is the social construction of race.  The social construction of race the process of social interaction through which we acquire sets of attitudes, values, and beliefs about race. This “construction”  is sustained not by science, but by social, historical, and political processes.


American History and the Construction of Race

In early American history (before Bacon’s Rebellion), racial markers were not yet fixed. African slaves and European indentured servants lived together as neighbors, married each other, and liked or disliked each other based on personalities features.  Because slaves, servants and the landless might cooperate in rebellion, the ruling elite had to “teach” whites the value  of whiteness in order to divide and rule their labor force. The ruling elite used colonial legislatures to pass law and the courts to enforce them, to gradually build a racial strategy to create racial categories.

This process came in the form of restricting voting. by 1723, blacks, mulattos, and Native Americans were denied the right to vote.1  Another method was to control who one could marry. A 1691 law increased the punishment of European women who married African or Indian men. The control of women’s bodies became critical in the maintenance of whiteness.  Children were made to inherit their mother’s status, freeing European fathers from any responsibility of offspring born to slaves or servants (or to legally bestow inheritance).  White children born to black women were then designated as slaves.  Laws were also passed mandating separate living quarters for black and white laborers.  As time went on, additional laws were passed that prohibited slaves from learning how to read or learn a skilled job (skilled jobs were reserved for whites).  Fear and the use of force kept both whites and blacks from challenging the system.  Lerone Bennet, in his book, “The Shaping of Black America” states how fear was used:

“The whole system of separation and subordination rested on official state terror. The exigencies of the situation required men to kill some white people to keep them white and to kill many blacks to keep them black. In the North and South, men and women were maimed, tortured, and murdered in a comprehensive campaign of mass conditioning. The severed heads of black and white rebels were impaled on poles along the road as warnings to black people and white people, and opponents of the status quo were starved to death in chains and roasted slowly over open fires. Some rebels were branded; others castrated. This exemplary cruelty, which was carried out as a deliberate process of mass education, was an inherent part of the new system.”

To further drive a wedge between white servants and black slaves, white “privileges” were established. These privileges were designed to encourage poor whites to identify with big slaveholding planters as members of the same race. So more laws were passed. Whites could own arms or had the right of self-defense, blacks did not. Whites could own livestock. Whites were granted freedom at the end of their servitude.  White males were given the right to control “their” women, blacks as slaves were denied the right to a family at all.

Despite these privileges, many landless and poor whites did not see these white privileges making a significant difference in their lives. The right to self-defense didn’t do much to help cure hunger or landlessness.  So poor whites had to be given a “material” reason to move their solidarity to wealthy whites instead of poor Africans and Native Americans. This came in the form of the right to own land.  Since land at the time was seen as the source of upward mobility, land had to be made available.

The granting of land worked for awhile. But as the United States began to industrialize, the material benefit of owning land began to fade. Since white employers were unwilling to raise wages, they pursued a different strategy: emphasizing “whiteness” as a benefit in itself.  Newspapers, religious clerics and intellectuals in the South began to emphasize white superiority and presented “whiteness” as a natural benefit in and of itself, despite no material benefits. This sense of superiority allowed poor whites to look down their noses at slaves, and later free blacks. Poor whites then were given a “psychological wage” instead of cash.

Whiteness was also emphasized in the workplace. Blacks were restricted from skilled trades and better paying jobs.  Blacks were confined to manual labor or domestic work.  Being productive in the workplace and doing “white man’s work” became the defining characteristic of whiteness. Freedom was equated with the right to own and sell your own labor, as opposed to slavery which allowed neither.

1. White slavery in colonial times

2. A More In Depth Look at Slavery in the United States

3.  The Irish Slave Trade


“But were the whites to be bound to the black laborer by economic condition and destiny, or rather to the white planter by community of blood? …[T]he poor white clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of a war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, and not unity of poor against rich, or worker against exploiter.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction 1935, p. 130

The Legal Construction of Race

racelegalBesides the biological and social definitions of race, there is also the legal definition.  Both within our country and without, race has acquired a legal constructed definition.  This is can be seen in acts of Congress (racial redistricting) or in Supreme Court cases from Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision which said separate but equal was legal (separate public bathrooms, schools, and restaurants),  to Johnson v. California, which looks at segregating prisoners based on race.  Internationally, the United Nations and other agencies have given meaning to the concept of race through agreements such as Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987.



Measuring Race and Ethnicity

Because race and ethnicity are socially constructed and change with time, they are difficult to measure.  This difficulty can be seen in the way the U.S. Census Bureau has changed its racial categories over the past few centuries.  How does one determine which box to check?  For much of our nation’s history, the “one drop” rule was used (one drop of black blood found in your ancestry meant you were put in the black or negro category).  The changes in the 2000 Census have now allowed people of mixed backgrounds to check multiple categories.  The 2010 questionnaire lists 15 racial categories, as well as places to write in  specific races not listed on the form. The 2010 Census continues the option first introduced in the 2000 Census for respondents to choose more than one race.  Some of the historical changes to the Census Bureau definitions of race include:

*   In 1790, the first U.S. census contained the following classifications:  Free White Males, Free White Females, All Other Free Persons, and Slaves.

*  In 1870, there were five races: White, Colored (black), Mulatto (people with some black blood), Chinese, and Indian.

*  In the 1890 census, racial categories reflected white people’s concern with race mixing and racial purity.  Eight races were listed, half of them applying to black or partly black populations:  White, Colored (Black), Mulatto (people with 3/8’s to 5/8’s black blood), Quadroon (people with 1/4 black blood), Octoroon (people with 1/8th black blood), Chinese, Japanese, and Indian.

*  Between 1930 and 2000, some racial classifications (such as Hindu, Eskimo, part-Hawaiian, and Mexican) appeared and disappeared.  Others ( Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian) made an appearance and have stayed ever since.

*  Starting with the 2000 census, there are now close to twenty-five categories, including “other”.

1.  Census Bureau to Consider New Approach to Asking About Race- By Not Using the Term at All



ethnicity1Ethnicity refers to a sense of identity one has based on a common ancestry and cultural heritage.  Characteristics such as language and religion help shape a common identity.   American society contains hundreds of different ethnic groups.  During the year, there are a number of ethnic festivals held, where people gather together to celebrate cultural traditions.  Most people identify themselves with their ethnicity and not their race.  There is less of an emphasis on physical traits when dealing with ethnicity.  For example, people who belong to the Jewish ethnic group have come from many corners of the globe and do not share a dominant physical trait.  Ethnicity is also easier to modify than race.  People who emigrate to the United States often modify their ethnicity through changes in language, clothing, food, and the like.  What this means is that membership in an ethnic group is more arbitrary and subjective than membership in a racial group.  Ethnic symbols (skin tone, language, etc…) are convenient markers for making “in-group-out-group” or “we-they” distinctions.

How Do Race and Ethnicity Differ?

According to research done by Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann, there are differences between the concepts of race and ethnicity. The first is that while both are used to describe some perceived difference, ethnicity does not have to be hierarchical, while race is inherently hierarchical.  Race was generally assigned by a dominant group to a less powerful one. The second difference is that ethnicity can be, and often is, assigned as a category, but frequently it is asserted by the group itself. An ethnicity can affirm a common ancestry, history band sense of community.  Ethnicity is not necessarily all about power relationships, although it can be. The table below summarizes the major aspects unique to race and that ethnicity as outlined by Cornell and Hartmann (2007).

Differences Between Race and Ethnicity
Characteristics of Race Characteristics of Ethnicity
1. Race is usually more the product of assignment than choice.


The dominant group is usually the one to categorize less powerful minorities into racial categories. Racial categories are created by people who want to assign them to someone else. Ethnicity frequently starts with assertion by members of the group themselves.

1. Assignment is not necessary to ethnicity.


Ethnicity may be assigned or chosen: the designation “Italian American” started as an ethnic category and became an ethnic group.

2. Race took on its contemporary meaning during a time of globalization:


European colonization of the Southern hemisphere. Faced with radically physically and culturally different people, Europeans established their whiteness and white privilege as the norm and non-whiteness as an inferior status.

2. Assertion of ethnicity may be related to contemporary globalization and the fear of cultural homogenization
3. The designation of races is always an assertion of power to define a social hierarchy and justify the exploitation and brutalization of the racial minorities.


The social construction of race is often used to legitimize domination. This is not necessarily the case for ethnicity.

3. Ethnicity is not as necessarily attached to power as race is.


Ethnicity can be related to power but it often starts as a group assertion unrelated to power and material interests.

4. Racial designation typically infers inferiority defined as “natural”, physical or biological.


The minorities are perceived as less intelligent and having a lower moral worth, or as being at lower stage of evolution than the dominant group.


“The history of race is the history of moral judgments, a division of the world into more or less worthy categories of persons. The ways on which some persons fail to meet the standard of worthiness may vary, but the idea of failure is usually implicit in the racial designation. The primary exception is the designation White. (…) White has been the moral opposite of non-White categories. (…) The simple fact is that in much of the world’s recent history, Whites have been more likely than others to have the power to make racial assignments, to organize social life in racial terms, and to define and value the categories as they have seen fit.” (Cornell and Hartmann, 2007:30)

4. Ethnocentrism is often a part of ethnic identity but it is not as virulent and biologically rooted as race.


Ethnicity can therefore also make assertions of moral worth but these are usually not based on “natural” assumptions.

5. The unworthiness attached to race is impossible to shed because it is seen as biologically determined.


Indigenous Peoples

In addition to racial and ethnic categories, there is another group to consider: indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples comprise the aborigines of Australia, Native American societies in North, Central and South America, most of the peoples of Africa. What makes these groups indigenous peoples? Indigenous peoples are defined by the following characteristics:

– They are native to the countries they inhabit
– They inhabited them first and claim rights to prior occupancy to the land
– They have been conquered by peoples racially or ethnically different from them
– They maintain their own language; and are marginalized or dominated by the states that claim jurisdiction over them
– They are often stigmatized for rejecting the authority of the state and rejecting the dominant culture

The cultures of indigenous peoples are often under threat of extinction because their cultural traits are at odds in the context of political, economic and cultural globalization in the world-system.

Dominant Groups and Minority Groups.

Members of racial and ethnic groups have moved around the planet for centuries and have settled in foreign lands.  This has brought them into conflict with the people who were already there.  Having traveled in small numbers, they became the minority group.   A minority group are people who have been singled out for unequal treatment and who regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.   There are five characteristics of a minority group.  They are:

1)  Members experience a pattern of disadvantage.  The discrimination a minority group faces can vary from economic exploitation to genocide.

2)  Members share a trait that distinguishes them from other groups.  The trait can be physical (skin color, facial features) or cultural (language, religion, dress).

3)  Members are a self-conscious social group.  This means that minority group members are aware of their lower status from the dominant group, and how they differ (culturally, physically) from the dominant group.

4)  Membership is usually determined at birth.  Generally speaking,  minority group membership is an ascribed status.  It is difficult to impossible to change the trait that identifies a person as belonging to a minority group.

5)  Members tend to marry within the group.  This pattern may exist because of voluntary decisions made within the minority group, or it may mandated by law or custom by the dominant group.

A group can acquire minority status in three ways: 1) expansion of political boundaries ( such as Hispanics living in the southwest before United States expansion there), 2)  migration ( such as Mexicans or Vietnamese moving to the U.S.), or 3)  changing population patterns.

It must be remembered that the term minority group does not necessarily mean that minority groups are numerically smaller than the dominant group.  There are more women than men on the planet, but they are considered a minority group because they meet the criteria mentioned above.  Being part of a minority group means you have less power (as a group-not individually) in society than members of the dominant group. The power imbalance in society is perhaps the most important determinant in understanding relations between groups.

Minority Group Identity

In every society, there are some minority members who feel a strong sense of ethnic identity, and there are others who do not.  There are reasons for this.  The smaller the group size in the society, the stronger the ethnic identity.  If the group has little power in the society this also contributes to ethnic identity.  If members of a minority look different than the dominant group, this increases the ethnic identity. How long a group has been in a society (the number of generations) influences how strong an ethnic identity exists. Finally, if they are perceived as objects of discrimination, there will also be a strong ethnic identity.


Dominant Groups

dominantgroupIf there is a minority group in a society, then there will also be a dominant group as well.  The dominant group is the group that has power, privileges, and social status.  They have the ability to discriminate against minority groups.  Dominant group members benefit from the inequalities and unequal arrangement accorded to minority group members.  Dominant groups are present in all societies.   When discussing dominant groups, the term “majority group” can also be used.  Even though the term “dominant” may be considered offensive to some, I will use it in this text precisely because it reflects the reality of the imbalance in power dominant groups have and how they can treat minority groups unfairly.  If we look at the United States,  the white community is the dominant group.  The dominant group in American society throughout our history can best be described as the WASP.  WASP stands for white, anglo-saxon protestant.  It is this group that has viewed whites from European countries as superior to all other immigrants.  The WASPS have dominated American economics, cultural, and politics for most of its history. The social pressure put out by this group made people who came from Italy, China, or Cuba to think of themselves as Americans instead of a native of their home country.  It was the WASP’s ethnocentrism that made them consider customs of other groups as inferior and to discriminate against them.

1.  Stephen Colbert:  Neutral Man’s Burden

2.  Daily Show: White Minority?


Privilege in Human Society

Privilege is often defined as the set of advantages an individual has, simply as a result of being a member of a specific group.   The advantages exist because of possessing a positive trait that the dominant group values. Not possessing such a trait increases the chances of being treated unfairly. A wealthy, heterosexual, white, male in the United States is likely to experience privilege by factors such as the neighborhood he is raised in, access to good schools, a decreased likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment, and being raised by a two parent household where education is emphasized compared to his low privilege counterparts. In comparison, an African-American lesbian raised in a single-parent household has a lower relative privilege (i.e., being nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-traditional family structure). Privilege then becomes a useful concept in understanding issues of stratification and inequality in the United States because it cuts across gender, race, ethnic, and class lines. What is missing for dominant group members is an awareness that life is different for others. Not having to think about the experiences of people in subordinate groups is another form of privilege. In contrast, women and people of color usually see that those above them in the social hierarchy receive unearned benefits. At the least, they must, for their own protection, pay attention to what members of more powerful groups think and do. This is why women often know more about men than men know about themselves, why the black community knows more about whites than whites know about the black community and how foreign students, especially those from Third World countries, often know more about the U.S. than most American students do. As our society becomes more diverse, it will be necessary for people to interact with other people from a variety of backgrounds (racial, gender, age, sexual orientation) in their schools, communities, and workplaces. Because of the existence of privilege, all forms of discrimination will likely continue and that there is no guarantee that discrimination will decline any time soon. Privileged groups hold power and thus can create society’s framework of laws, values and institutions. These constructions will continue to benefit the group in power, with the needs of other, non-privileged (oppressed) groups seen as secondary. Minority groups that are oppressed and that fight for social change aren’t looking for a role-reversal; they’re just looking for equal treatment.

The concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin-color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities that others may not have. For example:

Citizenship: Simply being born in this country affords you certain privileges that non-citizens will never access.

Class: Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities.

Sexual orientation: If you were born straight, every state in this country affords you privileges that non-straight folks have to fight the Supreme Court for.

Sex: If you were born male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying that you’ll be raped and then have to deal with a defense attorney blaming it on what you were wearing.

Ability: If you were born able-bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around handicap access, braille, or other special needs.

Gender identity: If you were born cisgender (that is, your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth), you don’t have to worry that using the restroom or locker room will invoke public outrage.

The concept of intersectionality can not be understood without discussing the role “power” plays in a society.  Those students who have taken an Introduction to Sociology course will know that the central basis of understanding “conflict theory” is how “power” defines human interactions. Those with “more” power attempt to organize society to their benefit.  Those with “less” power are oppressed and taken advantage of by those with more power. African anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon reflecting on how black African leaders failed to serve the interests of the black masses in Africa following World War II, wrote in his book “Black Skin, White Masks that:  “What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” In other words, the ruling elite, those who occupy the top position in society, can still get people from traditional oppressed groups (blacks, women, the LGBTQ community) to serve their interests instead of the interests of the masses.


For this unit, we will examine the issue of white privilege in American society. In subsequent units, privilege related to gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability status will be discussed.

White Privilege

MVC-017SIf we look at the United States,  the white community is the dominant group.  To best understand relations between the various racial and ethnic groups in the United States,  a brief discussion of white privilege is needed.   White privilege refers to how white people in the United States have benefits accorded to them based on their whiteness,  while conversely, withholding benefits from those in American society who are not white.   This means that the values of the white community become the “norm” for American society.   White privilege is often invisible to those who benefit from it the most.   This makes it especially difficult for those who are white in American society to accept the idea of white privilege existing as a powerful force because most white people do not feel privileged.   To understand the invisible nature of white privilege, think of it in this way.  Most minorities, for example African-Americans and Hispanics,  can tell you their first painful memory of when they discovered they belonged to a “race”.   When whites are asked the same question, they generally draw a blank, because from an early age,  white people are taught that  “race” is about everyone else.  Whiteness is the norm, and “difference” is understood in relation to it.  Understanding the concept of white privilege means for the white community in the United States to recognize that racism and discrimination are not just about seeing how minority groups are disadvantaged, but how being white brings advantages.  White privilege is invisible only until it is looked for.  How does the message on the billboard in the picture above reflect the notion of white privilege?

If you are a white person living in the United States the concept of “white privilege” may be difficult to embrace. You may be poor and think that your poverty prevents you from experiencing privilege. You may see members of minority groups who are successful and think that is evidence that privilege doesn’t exist. This is where the concept of intersectionality described above become important.   Discussing the role of white privilege in American society is not about making white people feel guilty.  It is about awareness. It is foremost about the role of “power” in society.  The connection of “power” to white privilege should be seen at the “institutional” level, not the individual level.  Institutionalized power allows for the exercise of oppression. This is why white people can experience prejudice in the United States, but not racism.  People of other races can mistreat white people through acts of prejudice, but they do not have the power to practice racism.

White privilege throughout American history has not been a benefit enjoyed by all white groups upon arrival to the United States.  Jews, Italians, Irish and other Southern and Eastern European immigrants were not initially considered white. This demonstrates the fiction of biological whiteness, for “whites” are the historical result of  political power and not an immutable fact of a biologically distinguishable people. A book recommended below, “How the Irish Became White” describes this process.

Go to the links below for a more detailed discussion on white privilege.

1.  White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

2.  White Privilege: Imagine if the Tea Party Were Black

3.  Louis CK on the Advantages of Being White (some foul language)

4.  White Privilege and Debt Rhetoric

5.  White Privilege and the Clive Bundy Standoff

6.  White Privilege and the Police Response to Brandishing Guns in Public

7.  Contrast in How the Media Describe Black Protests and White Riots  (video)

8.  Poetry Slamoff Crystal Valentine on “Black Privilege”

9.  White Privilege and the Waco Biker Gang Shootout

10.  Social Experiment: Black Man v. White Man Open Carrying an AR-15 in Public (video)

11.  White Privilege II:  Macklamore

12.  Steven Colbert on White Privilege

13.  Is There Such a Thing as Black Privilege?


What Does It Mean To Live In a Colorblind Society?

Since the civil rights movement, the official stance of our society is “color-blindness”–we’re going to treat everyone the same.  What does it mean when people – whites in particular –  say (and believe), “I don’t see color when I look at people.”  For those who are white and part of the dominant group, this is an attempt to say that as a white person they are not racist.  But how is this statement/position viewed by someone who is not white and part of the dominant group?  Someone from a minority group might say that claiming to be “colorblind” is a way of ignoring the role of race in society.  They would say that white people “should” see color, and that pretending we don’t see color actually perpetuates racism instead of eliminating it.  Pretending not to see race does not make the problems of race go away.  Instead, colorblindness maintains these problems because they do not get addressed as “racial” problems.  If we ignore race- particularly the history of race and racism and its long term effects- we bring the wrong tools to the task of solving problems.

Whites are advantaged by the colorblind ideology because it serves as a justification for their success in life. By attributing their successes to hard work, good networking, or even luck, whites deny that white privilege has benefited them throughout their lives in complex ways.  The flipside of this is that- assuming (incorrectly) that racial  barriers to success have been removed- people who are not successful are to blame (not racism).  The belief in “colorblindness” means a person with such a belief can ignore the role that one’s race can play in determining who can own a Jaguar, live in an exclusive neighborhood, gain entrance to a prestigious university, be pulled over by police on suspicion of drug use or be denied the ability to vote.

1.  Colorblind: The Spoken Word

2.  Colorblind:  Rethinking Race


actionMovies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Color of Fear.  A group of middle aged men meet for the weekend to talk about race.


 books03Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Evolution of Race: Human Differences and the Use and Misuse of Science  by Pat Shipman

2.  Race:  A History of an Idea in the West  by Ivan Hannaford

3.  How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

4.  Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Become White. The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs by David R. Roediger

5.  The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America by Theodore W. Allen


Farley, John E.
     2005   Majority-Minority Relations  (5th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:   Pearson Education

Healey, Joseph F.
     1998   Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class  (2nd Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:   Pine Forge Press

Rothenberg, Paula  S.       2004   Race, Class and Gender in the United States  (6th Edition)  New York, New York:   Worth Publishers

1 Theodore Allen Invention of the White Race, Volume II (New York: Verso, 1997) p. 241

Cornell, Stephen and Douglas Hartmann. 2007. Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.


Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

2 comments on “Unit One: Key Concepts in Dominant and Minority Group Relations
  1. Michael Cooper says:

    Never knew the difference between race and enthnicity,as explained herein.

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