Some U.S. racial and ethnic groups continue to be the victims of prejudice
and discrimination. Sociologists address these questions: Where do race and
ethnicity come from? Why and how are they associated with the distribution of
society's rewards? How and why do racial and ethnic stratification change?
Racial and Ethnic Stratification
Stratification represents institutionalized inequality in the distribution
of social rewards and burdens. In this chapter we examined a system of stratification
based on race and/or ethnicity.
Races. The use of the concept of race for sociologists
is as a social construct; a race is a group of people who see themselvesand
are seen by othersas having hereditary traits that set them apart.
An important concept based on race is racism, the belief that some
racial groups are naturally superior and others are inferior.
Ethnic Groups. Groups that we identify chiefly
on cultural groundslanguage, folk practices, dress, gestures, mannerisms,
or religionare called ethnic groups. Ethnic groups often have
a sense of peoplehood, and to one degree or another many of them deem themselves
to be a nation.
Minority Groups. Racial and ethnic groups are
often minority groups. Five properties characterize a minority. The critical
characteristic that distinguishes minority groups from other groups is that
they lack power.
The Potential for Conflict and Separation. Although
racial and ethnic stratification is similar to other systems of stratification
in its essential features, there is one overriding difference. Racial and
ethnic groups have the potential to carve their own independent nation from
the existing state. The question is whether the racial or ethnic segments
of the society will be willing to participate within the existing nation-state
Prejudice and Discrimination
Prejudice. Prejudice refers to attitudes of aversion
and hostility toward the members of a group simply because they belong to it
and hence are presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to it. A
new form of prejudice against African Americans that appears among affluent,
suburban whites has been labeled symbolic racism by sociologists.
Discrimination. Discrimination is action, what
people actually do in their daily activities, and involves the arbitrary denial
of privilege, prestige, and power to members of a minority group. Since World
War II whites have shifted from more blatant forms of discrimination to more
Institutional Discrimination. In their daily
operation, the institutions of society may function in such a way that they
produce unequal outcomes for different groups. This is called institutional
discrimination. Gatekeeping and environmental racism are mechanisms
by which institutional discrimination occurs.
Patterns of Intergroup Relations: Assimilation and Pluralism
In multiethnic societies, ethnic groups may either lose their distinctiveness
through a process of assimilation or retain their identity and integrity through
Assimilation. Assimilation refers to those processes
whereby groups with distinctive identities become culturally and socially fused.
Two views toward assimilation have dominated within the United States, the "melting
pot" view and the Anglo-conformity view.
Pluralism. In U.S. society, Jews, African Americans,
Chinese Americans, and numerous other groups have retained their identities
and distinctiveness for many years, an example of pluralism, a situation
in which diverse groups coexist and boundaries between them are maintained.
In equalitarian pluralism, ethnic group members participate freely and
equally in political and economic institutions. In inequalitarian pluralism,
economic and political participation of minority groups is severely limited
by the dominant group and may even entail genocide.
Racial and Ethnic Groups in the United States
The United States is undergoing a transition from a predominately white society
rooted in Western European culture to a global society composed of diverse racial
and ethnic groups. By the year 2050 today's minorities will comprise a much
larger proportion of the U.S. population than they do today.
African Americans. African Americans remain disadvantaged.
The expected lifetime earnings of African-American men are significantly lower
than those of white men, and housing segregation remains substantial. The full
integration of African Americans is unlikely in the foreseeable future, primarily
because of continuing social and economic barriers and low rates of interracial
Hispanics. The nation's Hispanic population is
not a consolidated minority. Hispanic groups have different histories, distinct
concentrations in different areas of the United States, and substantially different
demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Hispanics are twice as likely
as blacks and whites to drop out of school and typically earn less than non-Hispanics.
Native Americans. Native-American peoples vary
substantially in their history, lifestyles, kin systems, language, political
arrangements, religion, economy, current circumstances, and identities. They
are the most severely disadvantaged of any population within the United States.
Forty-one percent of those on reservations live below the poverty level, and
unemployment among males 20 to 64 years old is about 60 percent.
Asian Americans. The average family income of
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans in the second and subsequent generations
is almost one-and-a-half times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. But
Asian Americans are a varied group, with considerable contrasts and diversity.
The earnings of Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese are generally low, especially
among recent refugees who typically have come from rural areas and who possess
few marketable skills.
White Ethnics. Most white Americans, including
those of northwestern European background, know and identify with their ethnic
ancestry, but white ethnicity is neither deep nor stable. "Symbolic ethnicity"
is an ethnicity that contributes to individual identity and perhaps to family
communion, but does not create or sustain strong ethnic group ties.
Sociological Perspectives on Inequalities of Race and Ethnicity
The Functionalist Perspective.
Functionalists say that ethnic differentiation reduces consensus, increases
the chances of conflict, and threatens the equilibrium of a society, but it
also promotes group formation and cohesion, functions as a safety valve through
scapegoating, and helps maintain a democratic order.
The Conflict Perspective. Conflict theorists
contend that prejudice and discrimination can best be understood in terms of
tension or conflict among competing groups. At least three different conflict
theories exist, and they are related to ethnocentrism, Marxism, and the split
The Interactionist Perspective.
Interactionists say that the world we experience is socially constructed.
In this view, ethnic groups are seen as products of social interaction. Ethnicity
arises when communication channels between groups are limited and the different
groups develop different systems of meanings.
The Future of Ethnic and Minority Group Relations
Ethnic status for Americans with African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native-American
roots is not "symbolic," is not a matter of choice, and remains heavily
Intergroup Relations. Functionalists believe
that there are long-run social trends that are eliminating ascription and other
irrational features from modern, industrial, socially differentiated, societies.
The conflict perspective, on the other hand, predicts that ethnic stratification
will remain as long as it is in the interests of powerful dominant groups to
keep it in place. Interactionists would predict that as long as segregation
and isolation of minority groups persist, ethnocentrism will continue and probably
Ethnicity. If ethnic stratification persists,
then ethnicity will persist as well; if it diminishes significantly, perhaps
ethnicity for all groups will become increasingly "symbolic."