Module 7 Racial and Ethnic Stratification

DOWNLOAD>> Overview of Race and Ethnic Stratification

According to the U.S. Census Bureau,

The concept of race… reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature. Furthermore, the race categories [used by the Census Bureau] include both racial and national-origin groups… data on race in Census 2000 are not directly comparable to those collected in previous censuses.

Race is not a biological or genetic fact, but a socially constructed myth (Thio 2007; 234). There is no statistically significant difference in the genetic makeup between racial groups, thus it is often said that race is socially constructed. These classifications are assigned to people on the basis of often arbitrary differences like the shape of the nose, the degree of pigmentation in the skin, and the texture of the hair. There is in fact more genetic variation within a particular racial group than between racial groups. Nonetheless, the perception of racial differences is a powerful social force.

While we understand that race is a social classification and not a biological one, it is still a very meaningful concept to most people in America. As we gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau quote, even the U.S. federal government acknowledges the lack of a scientific basis of racial categories, yet continues to create distinctions between peoples. The salience of race to individual identity, to group affiliation, to legal code, economics, and almost all areas of social life is clear. The question arises then that if these terms we use like white, black, Asian, and Hispanic, are social constructs, and are not reflected in any great biological differences, then why are they still embedded in our institutional structures and everyday interaction? Why is race so important to how we define ourselves and our relationships in American life?

Race, Class, and Power

From early in human history we see a move to classify and categorize people on the basis of their perceived differences. In the 17th century, with European expansion to new parts of the world, we see a rise of the ideology of racial stratification with Europeans placing themselves at the top of the scheme. Following Darwin’s biological theories of natural selection, the concept of Social Darwinism arose in the 1800s arguing that certain social or racial groups were more successful and thus superior than others. As Audrey Smedley notes in Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (2007), ” the idea of race differences was seized upon to divide, separate, and rank . . . and to justify the dominance of certain class groups or ethnic elements.”

Minority & Dominant Groups

The distinction must be made that an ethnic or racial minority group is not necessarily the group with the least number of individuals, but people who lack power within the stratified social order. A minority is thus a group “that is subjected to prejudice and discrimination” (Thio 2007; 234) while the dominant group holds greater power, privilege, and prestige within the society. Interestingly, ethnic group identity increases when the group has fewer members, has little relative power, and experiences higher levels of prejudice and discrimination.

Prejudicial attitudes and the belief in stereotypes clearly influence people’s willingness to be open to those who are different from themselves. Often underlying this prejudice is a feeling that one’s own group is somehow superior; a concept known as ethnocentrism. Most damaging is when prejudice leads to discriminatory practices or treating people inequitably on the basis of their race or ethnicity (aka racism). This unfair treatment can be systemic or individual. Individual discrimination occurs when one person treats another unfavorably. Yet, an entire social system or institution may establish practices that favor one racial or ethnic group above others. Racial stratification has become institutionalized in law, criminal justice, education, the economy, healthcare, politics, and even where we may choose to live.

Race and Education Achievement

Institutional or structural disparity in education is evident in the achievement gap in standardized testing. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, which has documented the achievement gap over decades, reveals that during the 1970s and 1980s, African-American and Hispanic students attained increased achievement levels; however, performance on the mathematics and reading tests declined between 1988 and 1992 and has since leveled off, revealing no narrowing of the achievement gap among the races. Early accounts questioned the ability of the child of color, for various genetic, biological, or environmental reasons. All seemed to place the minority child as deficient and inferior to white children. With the quest for equality the differences in educational opportunities between students of color and white students became of greater importance. Beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a new focus emerged on the lack of educational opportunities for children of color. Attention was turned from the child to the academic environment that was created by segregation. This differentiated system created by segregation was supposed to be rectified by desegregation efforts. Yet, the association between school racial composition, school quality, and student achievement continues to fuel the segregation vs. desegregation debate.

Segregation and Housing Discrimination

Yet another example of structural inequality is seen in residential racial segregation. It is noted that segregation levels were lower in 1900 then than they are now. Yet, neighborhood associations, restrictive covenants, racial zoning and urban planning, and municipal ordinances (examples of de jure discrimination) all played a role in the early 1900s of establishing the segregation that we see today. Sociologists and urban historians have detailed the ways in which the federal government actually instituted practices that contributed to racial discrimination of American housing patterns. Today, we find that while numerous laws are in place to ensure fair housing opportunities, minority mortgage applicants are less likely to be approved for a loan than white applicants. This is an example of de facto discrimination.

Challenging the Social Construct

Immigration and the diversification of the U.S. in recent years have come to challenge the Black-White dichotomy of race in America. The concept of ethnicity, or “a collection of people who share a distinctive cultural heritage” (Thio 2007; 234), is in some ways replacing the idea of race as a biological construct. Ethnicity applies to cultural and social characteristics of a group as opposed to their phenotypical differences. Immigration has also raised the issues of nationality (the relationship between a person and their country) and citizenship (the rights that are inferred by legal recognition within a country). Moreover, greater openness and diversity among ethnic groups has also lead to the questioning of concept of race on the basis of the growing number of individuals identifying as multiracial, multiethnic, or even multinational. Your text notes that Tiger Woods considers himself to be Cabinasian (Caucasian, African-American, Thai, Chinese, and Native American) transcending racial categorization. Finally, the ideology of cultural pluralism requires that we acknowledge our own assumptions, misconceptions, biases, and ethnocentrism while working to be inclusive and open to those of differing ethnic ancestry.