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Race and Ethnic Relations
Darryl Hall
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno

Understanding Race and Ethnicity

Dominant and Subordinate Groups

Subordinate or Minority Group – a group that is singled out for unequal treatment and who regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination. Minority groups experience a narrowing of life opportunities—for success, education, wealth, the pursuit of happiness—that goes beyond any personal shortcomings. A minority group does not share in proportion to its numbers in what a given society defines as valuable.

Characteristics of Minority Groups:
• Membership in a minority group is an ascribed status
• Physical or cultural traits that distinguish minorities are held in low esteem by the dominant group
• Minorities are unequally treated by the dominant group
• Minorities tend to marry within their own group
• Minorities possess a strong sense of solidarity and share a distinct identity
• Minority status is based on subordination rather than size

Dominant or Majority Group – the group with the most power, the greatest privileges, and the highest social status.

White America - The racial group that has within its power the ability to exploit and control other groups, even in the face of resistance; those in a place of social advantage

White privilege - Whites, by virtue of their racial identity, receive special consideration in almost all facets of social life. Peggy McIntosh identifies a number of distinct advantages associated with being White, including:

1) Being considered financially reliable when using checks, credit cards, or cash
2) Taking a job without having co-workers suspect it came because of one’s race
3) Never having to speak for all the people of one’s race
4) Speaking effectively in a large group without being called a credit to one’s race
5) Assuming that if legal or medical help is needed that one’s race will not work against oneself
6) Watching television or reading a newspaper and seeing people of one’s own race widely represented

- Race – a category of people who share biologically transmitted traits (e.g., skin color, hair texture) that members of a society deem socially significant.

- Racial groups are classified according to obvious physical differences, but what is “obvious” varies from one society to another. For example, in the United States, people are classified according to skin color as “Black” or “White”; there is no in-between except for people identified as Native Americans or Asians. In contrast, Brazil uses a more elaborate system of racial classification with a variety of terms such as cafuso, mazombo, preto, escuro to describe various combinations of skin color, facial features, and hair texture.

Biological and Social Meaning of Race

• The idea of biological race is based on the mistaken notion of a genetically isolated human group. Applying pure racial types to humans is problematic because of interbreeding; despite continuing prejudice about Black-White marriages, a large number of Whites have African American ancestry. Due to people’s frequent migration, exploration, and invasions, pure genetic types have not existed for some time, if they ever did.
• Skin color among African Americans varies tremendously, as it does among White Americans.
• If we grouped people by genetic resistance to malaria and by fingerprint patterns, Norwegians and many Africans groups would be of the same race.
• If we grouped people by some digestive capacities, some Africans, Asians, and southern Europeans would be of one group and West Africans and northern Europeans of another.

• Although race does not distinguish humans from one another biologically, it is an important concept because of the social meaning people have attached to it. Race is a socially constructed concept; the concept is significant only insofar as people define it as such.
• It is in the social setting that race is decisive. For example, Adolph Hitler expressed concern over the “Jewish race” and translated this concern into NAZI death camps. Winston Churchill spoke proudly of the “British race” and used that pride to spur a nation to fight.

• Michael Omi and Howard Winant use the term racial formation to refer to the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, transformed and destroyed. For example:

– Some groups once defined as racial groups—and as physically and mentally inferior—are no longer defined that way. For example, Irish and Italian immigrants were once defined as inferior “races” by native born Anglo-Protestant Americans.
– Other groups have come to be recognized as racial groups, such as the Mestizos who have both Mexican and Native American ancestry.
– Still other groups are seeking recognition as a distinctive racial group, such as the Miami tribe of Native Americans.


Ethnicity refers to the characteristics of a group based on shared cultural identity and derived from a common language, nationality, religion, or ancestry.

• Ethnic groups in the United States include a grouping that we refer to collectively as Hispanics or Latinos, including Chicanos (Mexican Americans), Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Latin Americans in the United States. White ethnics (e.g., Irish Americans, Polish Americans, and Norwegian Americans) are also included in this category.

• The cultural traits that make groups distinctive usually originate from the “homeland” or, for Jews, from a long history of being segregated and prohibited from becoming a part of the host society. Once in the United States, an ethnic group may maintain distinctive cultural practices through associations and clubs, as well as establishing ethnic enclaves such as Little Italy in urban areas.

The Creation of Subordinate Group Status

• Three situations are likely to lead to the formation of a subordinate group-dominant group relationship. Subordinate groups emerge through migration, annexation, and colonialism.

1) Migration is the general term used to describe any transfer of population. Migrants are people who change their place of residence (e.g., moving from your dorm to an apartment). In terms of movement from country to country, migration takes two forms:

a) Immigration occurs when someone enters one country from another country.
b) Emigration is very similar to immigration except that the perspective is reversed; an emigrant is someone who leaves one country for another.

• Although people may migrate because they want to, leaving the home country is not always voluntary. Conflict or war has displaced people throughout human history. In the twentieth century, huge population movements were caused by two world wars; revolutions in Spain, Hungary, and Cuba; the partition of British India; conflicts in Southeast Asia, Korea, and Central America; and the confrontation between Arabs and Israelis.

• Much of the population transfer that has occurred in the world has been involuntary. Although enslavement has a long history, all industrialized societies today prohibit such practices.

• There are numerous “push” factors that encourage people to emigrate, as well as many “pull” factors that make immigration into certain areas more desirable. Most groups of people migrate due to economic hardship, political tyranny, or religious persecution.

2) Annexation is the process where nations, particularly during wars or as a result of war, incorporate or attach land. This new land is contiguous to the nation, as in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

• The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War in 1848 gave the United States California, Utah, Nevada, most of New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. Although the indigenous people in some of this large territory were dominant in their society one day, they became minority group members the next.

• When annexation occurs, the dominant power generally suppresses the language and culture of the minority, while minorities try to maintain their cultural integrity despite annexation.

3) Colonialism has been the most common way for one group to dominate another. Colonialism is the maintenance of political, social, economic, and cultural dominance over people by a foreign power for an extended period. Colonialism is rule by outsiders but, unlike annexation, does not involve actual incorporation into a dominant people’s nation. The long control exercised by the British Empire over much of North America, parts of Africa, and India is an example of colonial domination.

• Societies gain power over a foreign land through military strength, sophisticated political organization, and investment capital. Relations between the colonial nation and the colonized people are similar to those between a dominant group and exploited subordinate groups. The colonial subjects generally are limited to menial jobs and the wages from their labor. The natural resources of their land benefit the members of the ruling class.

Sociological Perspectives

1) The Functionalist Perspective

• In the view of the functionalist, a society is like a living organism in which each part contributes to the survival of the whole. This perspective emphasizes how the parts of society are structured to maintain its stability. If an aspect of social life does not contribute to a society’s stability or survival, it will not be passed from one generation to the next.

• The functionalist would point out that, although racial hostility is hardly to be admired, it serves some positive functions:

1) Racist ideologies provide a moral justification for maintaining a society that routinely deprives a group of its rights and privileges.

2) Racist beliefs discourage subordinate people from attempting to question their lowly status; to do so is to question the very foundations of society.

3) Racists ideologies not only justify existing practices but serve as a rallying point for social movements.

4) Racist beliefs relieve the dominant group of the responsibility to address the economic, educational, and other social problems faced by subordinate groups.

Dysfunctions are elements of society that may disrupt a social system or decrease its stability. There are a variety of ways in which racism is dysfunctional to a society, including to its dominant group:

1) A society that practices discrimination fails to use the resources of all individuals. Discrimination limits the search for talent and leadership to the dominant group.
2) Discrimination aggravates social problems such as poverty, delinquency, and crime.
3) Racial prejudice and discrimination undercut goodwill and friendly diplomatic relations between nations.
4) Social change is inhibited because change may assist a subordinate group.
5) Discrimination undercuts the peaceful resolution of disputes.

2) The Conflict Perspective

• The conflict perspective argues that social structure is best understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Specifically, society is a struggle between the privileged (the dominant group) and the exploited (the subordinate groups). Such conflicts may not be physically violent and may take the form of immigration restrictions, real estate practices, or disputes over cuts in the federal budget.

• The conflict perspective is viewed as more radical and activist than functionalism because conflict theorists emphasize social change and the redistribution of resources.

Social Stratification refers to the unequal manner in which scarce resources and social rewards are distributed among different social categories and groups.

Social Classes are categories of people who have similar access to resources and opportunities.

Life Chances refer to the likelihood of realizing a certain standard of living or quality of life, including health and well-being.

3) The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

• The symbolic interactionist perspective examines reality as a socially constructed and negotiated process.

• One symbolic interactionist perspective, labeling theory, is an attempt to explain why certain people are viewed as deviant and others engaging in the same behavior are not. Howard Becker, a proponent of labeling theory, points out that one can commit deviant behaviors without being labeled, while others can be incorrectly labeled (falsely accused) for presumed wrongdoing.

• For example, youths who misbehave may be considered and treated as “delinquent” if they come from lower class families; however, other youths who commit similar actions but come from middle class or upper class backgrounds may be referred to as “good kids sowing their wild oats.”

• The labeling perspective directs our attention to the role negative stereotypes play in race and ethnicity. Stereotypes are unreliable generalizations about all members of a group that do not take individual differences into account.

• The labeling approach points out that stereotypes, when applied by people in power, can have very negative consequences for people or groups identified falsely. American sociologist William I. Thomas observed that the “definition of the situation” could mold the personality of the individual. In other words, Thomas held that people not only respond to the objective features of a situation (or person), but also to the meaning these features have for them.

• The construction of reality via labeling can be observed in the case of Tiger Woods, a professional golfer who is frequently referred to as “African American.” Woods calls himself a “Cablinasian,” an acronym for CAucasian, BLack, INdian, and ASIAN.