Understanding Race and Ethnicity

Dominant and Subordinate Groups

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 Creation of Subordinate Group Status

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. Racist 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.