Race is a concept that means different things to different people. For sociologists, race and ethnicity are ascribed characteristics that define categories of people in society. Throughout history, each has been used to stratify a society, as well as to justify a system of inequality. 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. The information below should help the student to better understand the social implications of race and ethnicity.
The Many Components of Race
What 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.
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.
Ethnicity 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
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
2) members share a trait that distinguishes them from other groups.
3) members are a self-conscious social group
4) membership is usually determined at birth
5) members tend to marry within the 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.
If 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.
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.
If 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. 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? Go to the link below for a more detailed discussion on 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.
Prejudice and Discrimination
Because people act on misperceptions, the dominate group will often have prejudicial beliefs and discriminate against minority groups. Prejudice is an attitude, a prejudging, usually in a negative way. Prejudice is irrational, where people hold attitudes that are inflexible and with no supporting evidence. Prejudice is in opposition to objective observations on the differences between groups. It is not a prejudicial belief to state that African-Americans have a higher unemployment rate than whites. It would be, however, prejudicial to state that African-Americans have a higher unemployment rate because they are black, or because they are lazy. Prejudice and discrimination often go hand in hand together. Discrimination is the unfair treatment directed against someone based on a prejudicial belief. It is an action. Racism is the discrimination based on race. Prejudice and discrimination often go hand in hand together.
2. World Racism
Discrimination can be practiced in two ways. The first is individually. Individual discrimination is discrimination practiced by one person to another. The second form is institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination is woven into the fabric of society. It is found in the institutions of society, such as law, banking, and education. Governments at all levels play in active role in maintaining discrimination. Discrimination exists in the traditions and laws of societies throughout history. Attempts to end institutional discrimination are often met with resistance. The dominant group does not want to lose their position of advantage. Attempts to assist and help current or past discrimination through the use of quota programs are met with resistance and labeled reverse discrimination.
Has the United States Gone Post Racial?
There has been a recent movement in the United States to describe modern American society as “post-racial”. What does this mean? The term “post-racial” means that there are some in American society who believe that race is no longer a factor in human affairs because racial equality has been achieved. This is demonstrated by the achievement of having elected a black president (President Obama) in 2008. In addition, other minorities have achieved high positions in society (Supreme Court justice, Attorney General, Secretary of State). This means we have entered into a new era where people succeed based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Many of the supporters of the concept of America living in a “post-racial” society come from the white community, where there is a desire to get past discussions of race.
Others in American society believe that the concept of “post-racial” is premature. Race still matters. Evidence can be found in all of our social institutions, from health care to prison incarceration rates, to unemployment rates, where minorities still face a disparity in discrimination.
Why are people prejudice?
There are probably as many answers as there are prejudice individuals. But there are some general reasons. Prejudice is often the result of ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior to others. People can also become frustrated with something in their lives, for example unemployment, and look for a scapegoat, for example an racial or ethnic group, to blame for their situation. The three major sociological perspectives have their views on why people are prejudice. They are explained below.
From the structural-functionalist view, prejudice is functional. Prejudice allows the dominant group to maintain positions of authority, as well as maintain group solidarity. For example, Southern whites justified slavery, and then the period of Jim Crow laws, by believing that African-Americans were physically and spiritually inferior to whites. Furthermore, Southern society had sanctions for whites who sympathized with the black community, which added to group solidarity.
This perspective would argue that prejudice exists because capitalism pits one group against another. From a conflict perspective, racism keeps minorities in low-paying jobs, thereby supplying the capitalist ruling class, which is predominately white, with cheap labor. Workers of the dominant group who demand higher wages known that they can always be replaced by minorities who will work for less. Whether it was restrictions on Chinese immigration in the 1800’s, or Mexican immigration in the world of today, workers in the dominant group have an economic incentive to be hostile towards minority workers.
This perspective focuses on the labels which produce prejudice. These labels lead us to selective perception, or the ability to see certain things and be blind to other things. For example, if we are told that a certain racial group has a negative trait, we will only notice that negative trait and fail to notice either good traits, or the same negative trait in another racial group. Selective perception then, leads to the creation of stereotypes, which are prejudicial views towards a category of people. Stereotypes stress a few traits and assume that these characteristics apply to all member of the group, regardless of individual characteristics. Highly prejudicial people will maintain their stereotypes even in the face of massive evidence that their views are wrong. For the prejudicial person, any challenge to the stereotype is dismissed as exceptional or situational. Symbolic interactionists claim that we learn our prejudices from interaction with others. If an individual associates with the Klu Klux Klan, it is likely that that person will pick up prejudicial beliefs towards minority groups. One of the reasons the original Star Trek series was popular was how it broke down racial stereotypes. What racial stereotypes were addressed with the cast pictured above? Comedians have long made a career of poking fun at stereotypes. The quotation below is from a Chris Rock sketch:
“You know the world’s gone mad when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America’s Cup, France is accusing the USA of arrogance and the Germans don’t want to go to war!”
Stereotypes as Social Constructions
It is possible to develop legitimate cultural generalizations that are based on careful scientific study and not have them be labeled as a stereotype. But most people rely on the stereotypes that their society has socially constructed for them. These socially constructed stereotypes reflect the power relations that exist within a culture. Stereotypes are also used to reinforce group and individual subordination. So when men in a culture tell a stereotyped joke about women, they are reinforcing women as second class citizens. In terms of in and out group behavior, stereotypes can be used to designate the “out” group.
Characteristics of a Stereotype
Stereotypes tend to possess the following characteristics:
1. They are categorical and general, suggesting the traits apply to all group members
2. They are inflexible or rigid, thus not easily corrected.
3. They are simplistic.
4. They are pre-judgments not based on experience (although they could be reinforced by negative personal experiences).
5. They can be conscious or unconscious.
6. Within a sentence structure, stereotypes take the form of “all X’s are Y”. In other words, all Jews are (fill in the blank), all women are (fill in the blank), all blacks are (fill in the blank).
Global Patterns of Intergroup Relations
Sociologists have noticed in societies around the world that contain minorities there exists basic patterns between the dominant culture and the various minority subcultures. The methods discussed below range from rejecting minority representation in society and the conducting of inhumane practices, to accepting minority representation and practicing humane relations with minority groups. The treatment of minority groups improves as you move from the worst possible treatment (genocide) to the best possible treatment (multiculturalism).
Genocide is the systematic slaughter of a minority group of people by the dominant group in society. Genocide occurs because the dominant group is able to label the minority group as subhuman. The acceptance of the label allows ordinary citizens to participate in the slaughter of the minority group. Hitler was able to convince Germans that Jews and other groups in society were evil and that they should be destroyed. White settlers were able to convince other settlers and the government that Native Americans were savages and could be systematically killed. The Hutus’ attempt to destroy all Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Serbs attempt to kill Muslims and Croats in Yugoslavia, are recent examples of the dominant group attempt to rid their society of a minority group. There is some disagreement between different academic organizations (sociologists, historians) over which mass murders throughout history constitute a genocide. Sometimes the disagreement rests on the numbers killed (how many people have to die for it to be labeled a genocide). Sometimes the disagreement is the reason for the killing (was the killing part of a larger war between nations? Was the killing part of a civil war?) The definition of genocide above is for the field of sociology. But other organizations have their own unique meanings.
Motives Behind Genocide
There are a number of motives behind why genocides occur. One reason is that the group in power wants to destroy another group that is perceived to threaten their power. Examples would be political groups vying for power in Pakistan in 1971, and Stalin’s forced collectivization in the Ukraine in 1932.
A second reason is when a group is perceived to be hated, envied, or distrusted. Jews for these reasons have been persecuted throughout history, culminating in the Holocaust. Christian Armenians in Turkey from 1915 – 1918 suffered the same fate.
The pursuit of an ideological transformation of society has been a major cause for the deaths of millions during the twentieth century. This motive has been common in communist nations- kulaks in the Soviet Union, counterrevolutionaries in Cambodia, and nationalists in China.
A fourth motive for genocide is a quest for purification. Here there is an attempt to remove beliefs, cultural practices, and ethnic groups that are perceived to be contaminating society. Examples would be “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, capitalists under communist regimes, and the elimination of Christian groups and Moslem “blasphemers” in many current Islamic countries such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The final motive is economic gain. Individuals and groups of people see the possibility of economically improving their lives if they can kill a group of people and confiscate their land and possessions. This can be seen in the killings of Native Americans in the Americas, to the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda.
Population transfer occurs when the dominant culture attempts to expel a minority group. Population transfer can take place indirectly, by making life unbearable, such as with Czarist Russia and Jews, or directly, by forcing people to relocate, as with the United States placing Native Americans on reservations. Sometimes it can be done by allowing large amounts of immigrants into the country, thereby making the once dominant group a minority group. This is currently taking place in Tibet, where China has relocated millions of Chinese into Tibet, making native Tibetans a minority. Some social scientists in the beginning of the twentieth century l argued that population transfer is a more humanistic approach to the problems of ethnic conflict. Under genocide, the out-group is slaughtered. With population transfer, they are at least given a chance at survival. Population transfer accelerated in the twentieth century due to transportation improvements such as railroads and highways. However, after the forced expulsions by the Nazi’s of different groups such as the Jews during World War II, population transfer is now being viewed as a war crime.
This perspective focuses on how dominant groups will allow minority groups to live with the dominant group, but only so that the dominant group can economically exploit the minority group. The dominant group can exploit the minority group because of arrangements in the social structure of the society. Examples would be the South African system of Apartheid, and the exploitation of migrant workers in the United States. The dominant group pursues policies that constrain, transform or destroys the culture of the minority group. Members of the minority group are administered by members of the dominant group in such a way as to be managed and manipulated.
Segregation is the formal separation of racial and ethnic groups. The dominant group is able to exploit the labor of the minority group through control of the various social institutions. An example would be Southern society in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Movement. This is a time when “Jim Crow” laws were in effect. Neighborhoods, schools, medical facilities, and restaurants are all separate. In addition, many workers are forced into jobs that don’t pay well and where their labor can be exploited, such as cooks, cleaners, housekeepers, factory workers, etc…
In segregated societies, separate and unequal in the norm. For minorities, the housing they live in is outdated and overcrowded, the schools under funded, and public services inadequate to meet the needs of the population. Informal (a black man moving off a sidewalk to let a white man pass) or formal laws (no intermarriage between whites and blacks) are established to ensure separation and to signify social rank. The political and criminal justice systems are used to maintain social inequality between the dominant and minority groups. There is distrust of the minority group by the dominant group, so there is an emphasis on having the minority group live in segregated residences. Palestinians (minority group) who work inside Israel (dominant group) need to carry passes and go through armed checkpoints in the morning, and the same process to return to their segregated neighborhoods in the evening.
Assimilation refers to the process by which a minority group is absorbed into the dominant culture. The process of assimilation can occur in two ways. The first is forced assimilation. This is where the dominant group forces its values and customs on the minority group and refuses to allow the minority group to practice cultural customs or to speak their language. An example would be the former Soviet Union and its treatment of minority groups such as the Lithuanians, where they were forced to celebrate Russian holidays and speak Russian. Sometimes the assimilation process can be mild or permissible. Under permissible assimilation, the minority group is given time to adopt and adapt to the dominant group’s cultural values and patterns. Currently in the United States, many minority group members voluntarily adopt the dominate culture’s values and norms.
Pluralism is when the dominant culture encourages racial and ethnic variation. If successful, there will no longer be a dominant culture. Minority groups are able to participate freely in the social institutions of a society. There is a common culture and set of institutions throughout society. Yet each group will maintain a distinct subculture. Under pluralism, society is made up of a number of distinct parts- a mosaic. Pluralism emphasizes the preservation of the distinct cultural characteristics of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups. An example would be modern day Switzerland. The three main groups in Switzerland are the Germans, Italians, and French. Each group has kept its own language and live peacefully with political and economic equality. Pluralism has been so successful in Switzerland that none of the three groups consider themselves to be a minority group.
Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States
The United States has had a long history of discriminating against minority groups. Yet, despite this horrible chapter of our history, the United States has made huge strides to improve relations amongst the numerous minority groups within its boundaries. This sections will look at the history of discrimination in American society and attempts to redress the affects of that discrimination.
If the United States has a long history of discrimination against minority groups, then who was doing the discriminating? 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. The white community in the United States has a difficult time thinking of itself as a distinct race. And yet, if you look around the United States today, it would be difficult to argue that something called “whiteness” does not exist. Members of white supremacy groups have long held the belief that a white race exists. But most mainstream white people have chosen not to view the white community as a distinct race or ethnic group. As was mentioned in the first unit, the white community is the dominant group in the United States. This means they have the ability to discriminate against minority groups, as well as to gain benefits from the existence of prejudice and discrimination of minority groups. Not all white people have benefited from being part of the dominant group. Many poor whites have through the centuries have experienced the same hardships as minority groups. The promotion of white identity has been used by the ruling class to build a cross-class alliance and use poor whites to enforce an economic order to the detriment of Black slaves and poor whites. The social, political, and economic dominance of white Americans means that it can be challenging to separate what it means to be American from what it means to be white. The information below is a very short description of the historical discrimination against some the minority groups in the United States.
The plight of African Americans began with their importation from Africa as slaves. This condition lasted until the Civil War. After the Civil War slavery was ended. But a new, repressive system replaced slavery. The period of Jim Crow laws established African Americans as second class citizens. Access to schools, restaurants, voting booths, hotels, and other public places were denied. With the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, these rights were finally realized. The strategy begun at the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Martin Luther King Jr., non-violent direct action, would be used throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Paralleling the Civil Rights Movement was the Black Power Movement. The Black Power Movement was a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that emphasized racial pride, African heritage, and black nationalism. Instead of working towards assimilation into white society as the Civil Rights Movement had, the Black Power Movement instead focused on increasing African American control over schools, neighborhoods, police departments, and other public services. Economic and social equality has improved since the Civil Rights Movement, but not to the extent that African-Americans enjoy full social, economic, and political equality. Discrimination against African Americans has not vanished from the American landscape. The state of African Americans in the United States today contains both good news and bad news. The good news is that the formal, by law Jim Crow segregation has been dismantled. The bad news is that prejudice, discrimination, and racism have not gone away. There are still issues that negatively impact the African American community today ( deindustrialization, housing segregation, the War on Drugs, and police brutality).
There was a sizable Hispanic population in what is now the United States before settlement by the English and French. Much of the Southwestern part of the United States was won through war with Mexico. Discrimination against Hispanics began with the new territorial additions. Hispanics contain many different ethnic groups, which in some respects makes it difficult to classify them as a distinctive group. Many groups of Hispanics have been discriminated against through exploitation of their labor, particularly migrant farm workers. Hispanic Americans share a common language and some cultural traits, but they generally don’t think of themselves as a single social group. Most Hispanics identify with their national origin group (Mexican, Cuban) rather than with a more broad term like Hispanic or Latino. Hispanics have made strides over the last few decades for social and economic equality, but much remains to be done. They are projected to big the largest minority group in America in the next century.
Members of the Asian American community are as different in physical appearance and culture as our members of the Hispanic American community. Each group has experienced prejudice and discrimination upon their arrival. Members of the various Asian ethnic groups are more likely to identify with their ethnic group (Chinese, Japanese) than with the term Asian American. Asians began arriving in the United States in large numbers beginning around 1850. Most of the new arrivals found themselves working at jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many Asians, most notably the Chinese, helped construct our railroad system. Shortly after their arrival, they were perceived by the white community as taking their jobs away. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to exclude Chinese immigration for ten years. The Japanese were also discriminated against, most notably with the Japanese internment during World War II. Many Asians have over time been able to assimilate into American culture and become successful. This has given rise to the perception that Asians are “model minorities“.
Native Americans comprise a diverse group. Numbering perhaps 5 million when the Europeans arrived, their numbers are now around 2 million. Many Native American populations were decimated from war and disease. The competition over land began with the arrival of white colonists. Traditional lands were seized and entire communities forced to move. Through out the 1800’s there were pressures that pushed white citizens to expand westward into conflict with Native American tribes. The reservation system was created not for the benefit of the native peoples but for the benefit of the government and the white community. Many of the reservations were formed in undesirable territory such as Oklahoma. There are still a number of issues facing Native Americans today. Native peoples suffer from high rates of poverty and unemployment. Seventeen percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and 27 percent of all self-identified Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. There are also environmental, land and natural resource issues. Throughout 2016 Native Peoples were in the media spotlight for their protest against the Dakota Pipeline Project, where thousands of protestors from all around the country came to Standing Rock South Dakota to stop the construction of a pipeline that could put the water supply of Native peoples in jeopardy.
The Immigration Debate
The United States has long had a history of opening its doors to immigrants. Correspondingly, there have also always been calls to close our borders to new immigrants. There has persisted a belief by native born Americans that new immigrants will subvert the democratic process towards communism or that they will take away jobs. The nation’s policy towards immigration has always had racial and ethnic overtones, and as such, has made it controversial. Americans have over the decades been opposed to new immigrants for two main reasons: the belief that immigrants depress wages and take jobs from those who arrived here before them, and the ethnocentric belief that some Americans do not want to admit people who are “different from us”. Because of changes to immigration policy the vast number of the one million or so legal immigrants that arrive each year to the United States are from non-European countries. Immigration policy in the United States has been influenced by Xenophobia (the fear or hatred of foreigners) which led to nativism (beliefs and policies that favor native-born citizens over immigrants).
Although numerically a majority, women in many parts of the world fit the description of a subordinate minority. Throughout history, gender has been a master status that has cut across all aspects of social life. Different expectations of males and females result in their having different life chances. This section examines the structural social inequalities that exist for the female members of society.
All human societies, in the past as well as in the present, have been patriarchies. Patriarchy refers to the male domination of society. How did societies become patriarchal? Why haven’t there been matriarchal societies? The answer to these questions may be lost to history. But the prevailing belief among sociologists is that females became a minority group in their societies because of the physical limitations of childbirth. Because an infant needs a nursing mother, childbirth and childcare limits the ability of females to engage in other societal tasks such as hunting and warfare. These activities also gave men the opportunity to be around weapons and to become skillful in their use. These opportunities were not available to women. In addition, men were also physically better suited for these tasks. Is this theory correct? Perhaps in the future sociologists will come up with other views that will in some degree contradict this theory. However, it is hard to ignore the influence of biology altogether. There have also been societal changes that have contributed to gender inequality. If you recall from unit 3, hunting and gathering societies had a high degree of equality. With the invention of the plow, and the move to agricultural societies, gender inequality increased dramatically. With more resources, there was more to fight over. Female fertility gods gave way to male warrior gods. Many of these new male religions carried a dogma that stated that men should rule over women. The move to industrialization around the world was another social event that facilitated gender inequality. Men left the family farm to work in public settings such as factories and offices. This moved economic production outside of the household. Men earned their wages away from home, and therefore assumed larger roles in economic decision making. Women’s work was regulated to the private domain of the home. It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism beginning in the 1960’s, that women entered the public sphere in large numbers.
As mentioned above, the existence of patriarchy creates a society in which privileges are awarded to males that are withheld from females. This system of automatic privileges, which are often unnoticed by males leading to a different set of daily experiences is known as male privilege. This system has manifested itself throughout history (royal succession, lack of voting rights) and can be seen around the world today (not having the right to drive a car, unequal pay, and not being able to walk down the street without being “catcalled”). Because males control government and religious institutions, rights for females (for example reproductive rights) are determined by males in positions of power.
Pointing out that men are privileged in no way denies that bad things happen to men. Being privileged does not mean men are given everything in life for free; being privileged does not mean that men do not work hard, do not suffer. In many cases – from a boy being bullied in school, to soldiers selecting male civilians to be executed, to male workers dying of exposure to unsafe chemicals – the sexist society that maintains male privilege also immeasurably harms boys and men. But the first step in overcoming male privilege is in acknowledging that it exists.
The Development of Feminism
Not all females have been happy with the arrangement of a patriarchal society. Women have for a long time expressed their dissatisfaction with such a system. Beginning in the nineteenth century, women began to question in public their second class citizenship. Feminism is the political movement that tries to rid society of inequalities based on gender. There have been two waves of feminism in the United States. The first wave began in the 1840’s and peaked in the early 1900’s. Here the emphasis was on obtaining the right to vote for women. After this right was achieved around 1920, the movement lost steam. The second wave of feminism began in the 1960’s. This wave focused on gender inequalities in the workplace, at home, in marriage, and in education. This second wave of feminism was in part inspired by the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Many women today have held demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and formed women’s organizations in an attempt to eliminate gender inequality.
What is the feminist movement struggling against? Sexism. Sexism is the belief that one sex is innately superior to the other. It is the ideological basis of patriarchy. It justifies the unequal treatment of women by men. Sexism is a burden to society. It opens doors to men, while closing those same doors to women. Sexism offers more opportunities and access to more resources for men than for women. An example of the effect of sexism can be seen in the following quote. In 1985 Microsoft hired its first two female executives to win a government contract. Bill Gates, the President of Microsoft, gave the following statement as to why, “Well, let’s hire two women because we can pay them half as much as we will have to pay a man, and we can give them all this other ‘crap’ work to do because they are women.” 1
Gender and Power
Like race and class, gender is a multilevel system of differences and disadvantages. gender inequality is tied to other inequalities. These inequalities also work together to produce differences among women. Some women derive benefits from their race, their class, or their sexuality while they are simultaneously restricted by gender. Sociologists classify women as minorities in human society because even though they outnumber men, they do not have equal access to power.
One area where male dominance can be reinforced is language. Language perpetuates male dominance in many ways. One is the use of the pronoun “he” when the sex of the person is unspecified. Another is the use of “mankind” when referring to humanity. Women, more than men, are commonly referred to in terms that have sexual connotations. Terms referring to men (studs, player) have sexual meanings that imply power and success, whereas terms applied to women (slut, bimbo, ho) imply promiscuity and lower status.
Gender Inequality in Education
Historically, women have been denied access to many fields of study. Today, more women than men enroll in U.S. colleges and universities and they earn more post-secondary degrees. While progress has been made, a closer look reveals that there are still areas of concern. Women still earn 90% of the nursing degrees while men still earn 85% of the engineering degrees. The progress that women have made in the past few decades has caused a division amongst some feminists. Should they rejoice in their success, or push on for more? The links below offer information for you to make your own determination.
Gender Inequality in Health Care
Women have also experienced discrimination in administering of health care. Sometimes it takes the form of recommending unnecessary surgeries, such as hysterectomies, or in the lack of research, as in bypass surgery or breast cancer research. The links below offer opinions on the gender inequalities in health care.
Gender Inequality in the Workplace
Women have historically faced discrimination in the workplace. Although this situation has improved recently in the United States, there are still areas of concern. In the United States it is culturally acceptable for women to work outside of the home. The trend of women entering the labor force has created a need to change workplace attitudes. There still exists a pay gap between male and female workers. In the United States, full time female workers still make only two-thirds the pay that full time male employees do. Full time working women today make about 80 cents for every dollar a full time man earns. Sociologist say there are a number of reasons for this. Some of that 20 cent gap can be explained by gender discrimination. The above quote from Bill Gates demonstrates the effect discrimination can have on wages. For the top positions in our society, there also exists what is called the glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that keeps women from reaching the top executive positions. In the United States as of 2015 women make up only 4.2% of the CEO’s of the S & P 500 Companies. The statistics for the other side of the pay scale are not much better. About two-thirds of minimum-wage workers across the country are female, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Another reason for the pay gap is the heavy domestic burden shouldered by women. Because of the interruptions from work due to pregnancies and the responsibilities of being a parent, women devote fewer hours to paid work than men. Many women take part time jobs when they begin a family, further reducing their wages compared to men. The most important reason to explain the pay gap between men and women, according to sociologists, is the choice of careers. Women are still clustered in areas of employment such as clerical and teaching, that do not pay the high wages found in career clusters dominated by men. This factor probably explains the greatest amount of the 20 cent disparity in wages between men and women.
Finally, there is also the problem of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment refers to the unwanted sexual attention that affects a person’s job performance or creates a hostile work environment. In the past decade or so sexual harassment has become an issue of national importance which has changed the way the different sexes interact at work. Most victims are women, and most perpetrators are men in positions of power.
Promises of promotion or other benefits made to an employee by an upper-echelon employer or manager in return for sexual favors is sexual harassment, as are threats of job loss if the favors are not granted. Although recent statistics seem to indicate a decrease in sexual harassment cases, the publicized cases of the actor Bill Cosby, movie producer Harvey Weinstein and former head of Fox News Roger Ailes suggest that it may take the charges of multiple women to bring court cases against powerful men.
Gender Inequality in Politics
It has only been in the previous century that women around the globe began obtaining the right to vote in democratic elections. Along with voting, came running for political office. If one looks at the number of women worldwide who hold elected office, a good argument could be made that human society is still a patriarchy. There exists a gender gap in the United States government. Congress has two classes of personal staff employees: highly paid men who hold most of the power and lower paid women who are relegated to clerical and support staff.
Violence Against Females In the United States
There exists, even in the application of violence, an existence of gender inequality. In the United States, as with the rest of the world, women are on the receiving end of more violence than men. Some of the different forms of violence against women are listed below.
Rape. The fear of rape is present in women around the world. In the United States, the rate of rape, for 2013 according to the FBI’s Crime Report was 25.2 per 100,000 females. There is also the modern problem of date rape, where females are forced into unwanted sexual intercourse by men that they know. Many rapes are never reported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study that offers some insight on the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses. During the 2014 to 2015 school year alone, the study found that 10.3 percent of female undergraduates had been the victim of a sexual assault, which they defined as rape or sexual violence.
Murder. In the United States, when a woman is murdered, nine out of ten times the killer is a male.
Violence in the Home. Women are often the victims of family violence. Family violence may take the form of assault and battery, marital rape, or incest.
In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not there was a “war on women”. Please click on the link below to view a graph that compares the number of women killed in the United States from 2001 – 2012 to the number of US troops killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
1. War on Women
Gendered Violence is a form of violence that is culturally based and may even have the participation of other women. Gender based crimes are predominately against women and perpetrated by men. Gender violence is understood to be a violation of human rights. Gender-based violence undermines the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. Victims of violence can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and even death. Examples would be female genital mutilation and dowry deaths. International agencies have produced documents that have tried to define, as well as, ban gendered violence.
Life Cycle of Gendered Violence Around the World
Prenatal: Violence towards women can start in the womb. In countries with overpopulation problems, there exists an effort to control the number of births. China had a One Child policy from 1979 until 2015. India is moving towards a two-child policy. In these societies that try to limit the number of children, there exists a desire to have a son over a daughter. One of the consequences has been that many female fetuses get aborted. It is estimated that every year, the world lose 3.5 million women and girls to gendercide. That’s 400 females per hour.
Infancy: Female infanticide is the deliberate killing of a newborn female child. Reasons are poverty, the dowry system, deformed children, or birth to unmarried women. In some countries like South Africa it is believed that having sex with a virgin gets rid of AIDS. This has led to an alarming rate of cases of baby rape.
Childhood: Young girls are subjected to a number of forms of violence, from female genital mutilation, to incest and sexual abuse, to Chinese foot binding, where the bones in the feet of young girls were intentionally broken.
Adolescence: During this stage of life girls are economically coerced into sex, forced into prostitution, sexually abused in the workplace, and various forms of dating and courtship violence such as honor killings and acid attacks. Many young girls are also forced into early marriages before the age of fifteen, often to older men.
Reproductive Stage: Here women are abused by their intimate partners through things such as marital rape and dowry deaths.
Old Age: Elderly women are exposed to various forms of abuse such as the Indian custom of Sati, where elderly women are expected to voluntarily jump on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Although not limited to old age, many elderly women are burned as witches.
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
Do the Right Thing. This movie contains an enormous amount of information pertaining to issues of race.
Guess Whose Coming to Dinner An early look at issues of race through an interracial marriage.
The Killing Fields. Academy award winning field which looks at the Cambodian genocide.
The Color of Fear. A group of middle aged men meet for the weekend to talk about race.
Hoop Dreams. Documentary on two high school students from Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA.
A Day Without a Mexican. This movie looks at what happens to the state of California when all of the Mexican people disappear overnight.
Yentl. There are many sociology themes here, but the most important would be the prohibition against females studying religious texts.
Doloras Claiborne. A story that looks at domestic abuse.
The Color Purple. This movie touches on many sociological subjects, but the main focus is on the struggles of African-American women.
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
2. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War by John W. Dower
3. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History by Mary Lefkowitz
4. White Privilege by Paula S. Rothenberg
5. Out of America Keith B. Richburg
6. The Feminist Mystique by Betty Friedan
9. When God Was a Woman Merlin Stone
10. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Become White by David R. Roediger
Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning
2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning
Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon
Macionis, John J.
1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Macionis, John J.
2006 Society: The Basics (6th Edition) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
1(James Wallace and Jim Erickson Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992] p. 291).
Copyright ©2009, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved