Unit Eight: Issues of Race and Ethnicity

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.  The information below should help the student to better understand the social implications of race and ethnicity.

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 34% of the population and are projected to be the majority by 2042.  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

2008 2050
Non-Hispanic Whites 68% 46%
Hispanics 15% 30%
African-American 12% 15%
Asian American 5% 9%

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



Race and the Myths Associated With It

race1What is race?  If you ask a biologist, a sociologist, or a member of a separatist group, you will get different answers.   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 to 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?  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.  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.

1.  Do Races Differ?

2.    Is Race a Myth?


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.

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.

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.  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. The dominant group usually will put pressure on minority groups to give up their customs and values and to adopt those of the dominant group.  Assimilation refers to the process by which a minority group is absorbed into the dominant culture. The assimilation process can be mild or permissible.  Currently in the United States,  the minority group is given time to adopt and adapt to the dominant group’s cultural values and patterns.  Many  minority group members voluntarily adopt the dominate culture’s values and norms.


White Privilege

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 below reflect the notion of white privilege?   Go to the link below for a more detailed discussion on white privilege.

1.  White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack


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.   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.

1.   What is Racism?

2.   World Racism

institutionaldiscriminationDiscrimination 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.

1.   Discrimination Against Black Entrepreneurs?

2.   What We Know About Mortgage Lending Discrimination in America

3.  Disparity in Health  Coverage Between Whites and Blacks

4.   Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities: Testimony Before the House of Representatives


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.

1.  Prejudice Test


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.

Conflict Theory

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.

Symbolic Interactionist

racialstereotypesThis 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.  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!”
 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 information below is a very short description of the historical discrimination against some the minority groups in the United States.

1.  American Eugenics Archive

2.  A National Report Card on Discrimination in America

African Americans

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.  Economic and social equality has improved since the Civil Rights Movement, but not to the extent that they enjoy full social, economic, and political equality.  Discrimination against African Americans has not vanished from the American landscape.

1. Driving While Black (DWB)

2.  Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice

3.  Voices From the Days of Slavery:  Former Slaves Tell Their Stories


Hispanic Americans

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.  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.

With all the diversity within the Hispanic American community, a few points need to be clarified. Hispanic Americans are part of an ethnic minority group (language, food) and part of a racial group (physical characteristics).  For example, many Mexicans combine European and Native American traits, while many Puerto Ricans combine white and black ancestry. Secondly, because of the diversity, group labels are important.  The term Hispanic American may be widely accepted by a majority of the members of that group than the term Latino, but both terms could be considered offensive by the Spanish speaking group that a person is addressing.

Asian Americans

chineseexclusionactAsians 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.  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.   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“.

1.  Japanese Internment Camps

Native Americans

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.  Traditional lands were seized and entire communities forced to move.  Today, Native Americans still face problems with economic and social equality.  The last Indian war was fought in 1890.  Most Native Americans were forced to live on reservations.  Most reservations were in remote areas and so the chances for achieving economic prosperity were slim.  Because of racial prejudice and discrimination, economic opportunities were limited off the reservation as well.

1.  Map of Indian Reservations in the United States



Issues of Race and Ethnicity in the United States Today


The Immigration Debate

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.

The previous paragraph focused on legal immigration.  But the United States is also the destination of many “illegal” immigrants.  Estimates suggest net illegal immigration of around 350,000 per year in the late 1990’s (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, 2003a).   Illegal immigrants arrive in the United States in two main ways: 1) through illegal entry of one of our borders (primarily the Mexican border) or by 2) overstaying their work or educational visas.  There are many Americans who would like to see immigration, particularly the illegal form, greatly reduced. there are other Americans who believe immigration should not be reduced.

1.   Myths and Facts About American Immigrants

2.   The Immigration Debate

Affirmative Action

Since the Civil Rights Movement, there has been an effort in American society to help historically disadvantaged groups.  Affirmative action refers to achieving social goals such as economic and social equality through the use of race, ethnicity, and gender in the hiring process of businesses and in college admissions.  The government definition of affirmative action is slightly different.  It refers to programs to eliminate the current effects of past discrimination.  The majority of affirmative action plans are voluntary. The federal requirements are not particularly hard to meet.   For example, non-construction companies with fifty or more employees and at least $50,000 in contracts with the government must have an affirmative action plan, but these plans do not have to be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or any other agency.  Companies with a plan just have to make a “good faith effort” to hire whatever disadvantaged groups are in the local qualified labor pool.  The mandatory affirmative action plans fall into three categories:

1)  Federal Contractor.  Businesses that are involved with government contracts must develop an affirmative action program.  If no discrimination claims are filed, the business is considered in compliance.

2)  Conciliation Agreement- when an employer has been sued for discrimination.  A plan is then put in place to remedy whatever problem is present.

3)  Court-ordered:  When a firm has been sued and shows no willingness to make a change.  This is the only plan where quotas are legal.  An example would be the Milwaukee Police Department in the early 1990’s, where they were forced to hire one black for every white officer until racial parity was reached.

Nearly all college and universities have voluntarily adopted affirmative action programs.  These programs are designed to expand access to education for historically underrepresented groups.  Those who support affirmative action would say that affirmative action programs are necessary in education because of the existence of unequal funding of schools, unequal expectations of student achievement, biased or Eurocentric content in educational materials, and tracking. Those opposed to affirmative action in education believe that affirmative action undermines the quality of student bodies by giving positions to people other than the most qualified applicants.  In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled In Gratz v. Bollinger,  that in public higher education admissions, it is not acceptable to award a fixed number of points toward admission for applicants belonging to underrepresented minority groups.

Research has shown that the most effective ways to meet goals of hiring people who have been traditionally denied jobs is to change recruiting practices and to review exam questions for bias. When these two things are done, scores tend to even out.  Some groups in society support affirmative action because they believe it helps level the economic playing field.  Other groups are opposed to affirmative action because they believe in opportunity for all and because it allows for reverse discrimination.

1.  10 Myths About Affirmative Action


Differences in Income and Wealth

From the 1960’s through the late 1980’s the income disparity between whites and blacks shrunk.  According to a 2012 Census Bureau study,  Among the race groups, Asian households had the highest median income in 2011 ($65,129). The median income was $55,412 for non-Hispanic-White households and $32,229 for Black households. For Hispanic households it was $38,624.

The ratio of Black to non- Hispanic-White income was 0.58, and the ratio of Hispanic to non-Hispanic- White income was 0.70. Between 1972 and 2011, the change in the Black-to-non-Hispanic-White income did not change.  Over the same period, the Hispanic-to-non-Hispanic-White income ratio declined from 0.74 to 0.70.

Poverty rates for blacks are about three times higher than those for whites. The gap in poverty rates has narrowed since 1980, but it remains substantial. According to Census Bureau data, the poverty rate for white residents was 9.8 percent in 2011. It was 27.5 percent for black residents, 25.3 percent for Hispanic residents, and 12.3 percent for Asian -American residents.

Differences in Education

Schools in the United States are nearly as segregated as they were in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.  Almost half of Latino and Black students attend school where students of color make up more than 90 percent of the students body.  In contrast, the average white student goes to a school that is 80% white. Among young adults, Hispanics have the lowest levels of educational completion, whereas Whites and Asians have the highest.  According to Census Bureau figures in 2010, 87.6% of Whites attainted at least a high school diploma, and Blacks had a graduation rate of 84.2%.  but for Hispanics the rate was only 62.9%.  Minority participation in higher education has risen since the  1960’s, but there are still racial gaps in college enrollment. All of these disparities translate into economic inequalities.

Differences in Employment

Since the 1940’s, the unemployment rate has been almost twice as high for blacks as for whites, with young African American males having the highest unemployment rates. Non-Hispanic Whites made up about two-thirds of the U.S. labor force in 2011. About 15 percent of the labor force in 2011 was Hispanic or Latino. Non-Hispanic Blacks made up 11 percent of the labor force, and non-Hispanic Asians accounted for 5 percent. American Indians and Alaska Natives composed about 1 percent of the labor force, as did persons of two or more races. Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders made up less than 1 percent.  In 2011, the unemployment rate for the United States averaged 8.9 percent but varied among racial and ethnic groups. The rates were highest for non-Hispanic Blacks (15.9 percent) and for American Indians and Alaska Natives (14.6 percent). Unemployment rates were lowest for non-Hispanic Asians (7.0 percent) and non-Hispanic Whites (7.2. percent).


Differences in Health

Health care is another issue that negatively affects minority groups.  In the United States today, the racial or ethnic group to which one belongs partially determines how long one will live.  It also affects additional health issues such as incidence of illnesses and cancers, as well as infant mortality rates.

On average African Americans live about five and a half years less than whites.  The life expectancy was 71.7 compared with 77.4 for whites (National Center for Health Statistics, 2002b, p. 33)  Life expectancy for Native Americans was 70.6, which is about six year less than for whites.   Infant mortality rates are also higher among minority groups than among whites.  The infant mortality rate (the number of deaths per year of infants under one year old per thousand live births) was 5.7 for whites in 2000, but 14.1 – almost two and a half times as high- for blacks (National Center for Health Statistics, 2002b, p. 100).  The rate for Native Americans, 8.3 per thousand, is nearly 50% higher than for whites.  For Hispanics, the infant mortality rates were about the same as for whites (  National Center for Health Statistics, 2003, table 598).  In 2011, the rate of uninsured for whites was 11.1%, for blacks 19.5%, and for Hispanics it was 30.1%.

1.  Center for Disease Control’s Health Inequity Report 2011



Differences in the Criminal Justice System

A serious examination of the American criminal justice system is necessary to understanding majority- minority relations.  In the United States,  African Americans are about seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, and about one of every four African American men in their twenties is somewhere in the criminal justice system, either in jail, on probation, on parole, or awaiting trial. 1  Imprisonment is an area where racial inequality has gotten worse since the 1980’s.  The proportion of minorities among the prison population has been rising.  This seems to be due in part to the fact that whites and minorities commit different types of crimes, and that these crimes are treated differently in the criminal justice system.

The national statistics on prison admissions and prison populations acquired data that revealed that the incarceration rates for African Americans and Hispanics are much higher than the rate for whites. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners in  2010 research,  for example, 3,059 of every 100,000 African American men, 1,252 of every 100,000 Hispanic men, and 456 of every 100,000 white men were incarcerated in a state or federal prison or local jail. The incarceration rates for women, although much lower than the rates for men, revealed a similar pattern: 133 of 100,000 for African Americans, 77 of 100,000 for Hispanics, and 47 of 100,000 for whites. Between 6.6% and 7.5% of all black males ages 25 to 39 were imprisoned in 2011, which were the highest imprisonment rates among the measured sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age groups. 18  African American and Hispanic offenders who are sentenced to prison receive longer terms than whites do. “From 1988 to 1994, some 38 states and the District of Columbia reported an increase in the racial disparity in their rates of incarceration. Nationally, the black rate of incarceration in state prisons increased from 6.88 times that of whites to 7.66. One in 523 whites in the state will spend some time in prison, while for blacks the number grows to one in 53 ”2




   actionSocial Problems in Film

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

1.  To Kill a Mockingbird   A lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice.

2.  Do the Right Thing.  This movie contains an enormous amount of information pertaining to issues of race.

3.  Guess Whose Coming to Dinner   An early look at issues of race through an interracial marriage.

4.  The Killing Fields.  Academy award winning field which looks at the Cambodian genocide.

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

6.  Hoop Dreams.  Documentary on two high school students from Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA.

7.  A Day Without a Mexican.  This movie looks at what happens to the state of California when all of the Mexican people disappear overnight.



books03Social Problems in Books

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

1. The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander

2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,  Dee Brown

3.  War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War  by John W. Dower

4.  Not Out of Africa:  How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History  by Mary Lefkowitz

5.  White Privilege   by Paula S. Rothenberg

6.  Out of America  Keith B. Richburg






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca
2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

1  Tonry, Michael  1995   “Malign Neglect:  Race, Crime, and Punishment in America”  New York: Oxford University Press, p. 4.

2   Brazaitis, T. (1997). Racial Disparity in Sentencing.



Copyright ©2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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