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Race and Ethnicity

Let’s get started by defining some key terms.

  • Race: A group of people with inherited physical characteristics that distinguish them from another group.
  • Ethnicity: Cultural characteristics that distinguish individuals.
  • Minority Group: People who are singled out for unequal treatment and are objects of collective discrimination.  Those who have less power, prestige, and wealth in a given society.
  • Dominant Group: Those who have greater power, prestige, privileges, wealth and social status in a given society.
  • Prejudice: Prejudging a group as inferior, an attitude.
  • Discrimination: Unfair treatment directed against someone usually based on age, sex, height or weight, skin color, sexual orientation, disability, etc.; an action.

(Henslin, 2011)

The Social Construction of Race

Race is socially constructed.  That is, race has no meaning, there is no biological meaning of race.  The given society determines the meaning of race.  Each society states what each physical characteristic means and often this results in privileges and advantages or disadvantages and discrimination.  Throughout history we have seen that in all societies in various times different groups have been deemed inferior and have been the subject of prejudice and discrimination.  Often those who are discriminated against it is due to some type of physical characteristic.  Some may say that this is just an easy/lazy way to categorize people and place some groups in higher positions (advantages, privileges) and others in lower positions (disadvantages, privileges denied).

Myth of Race

The myth of race states that it is a myth that any race is biologically superior to another and that it is a myth that a pure race exists.


It seems as though children begin to categorize others quite early.  Usually they start with gender differences and go from there.  My son, around his third birthday, began stating who were boys and who were girls, and I mean out in public, pointing at people and stating their gender.  Shortly thereafter he began to note what were considered girl toys and what were considered boy toys, “girl colors” and “boy colors”.   Now, I specifically tried to not have him categorize so I did not categorize, he clearly learned to categorize from others and the greater society.

Another example involves my stepson (now in his thirties).  At the time my husband and I were not married yet and he was about five years old.  We were in the car driving and out of the blue he said to me, “what are you?”  I had no idea what he was asking me so I asked for clarification.  He kept repeating the question.  Finally, I figured out he wanted to know who I was in relation to him so I said, “oh, I’m your dad’s girlfriend.”  He then said, “I know that, but what are you?”  Now I was stumped and my face must have indicated so.  He then said, “Dad is Hispanic and I am Hispanic and Black.  So what are you?”  Then I was even more shocked but I had to respond so I said, “Oh, I’m white.”  He said, in a very disappointed tone, “I thought so.”  I wish I would have asked him why he was disappointed.  Maybe he thought I must be boring and I probably can’t dance :o)…well, he is right about the dancing part.  But the main idea is that if he was disappointed then he must have already learned about differences between racial groups.  Perhaps he had had bad experiences with those that are white? 

How Do We Learn Prejudice?

Prejudice is learned.  People are not born prejudice.  One learns prejudice from the people around them (agents of socialization).  Have you ever heard a member of the Klu Klux clan’s child speak?  Years ago there was a documentary on this.   It is the most disturbing thing I have ever heard in my life!

Another Personal Example

As previously noted my stepson is Hispanic and Black.  My husband is Hispanic and I am White; therefore, our other children are also bi-racial, Hispanic and White.  Our other son appears White, while our daughter appears Hispanic.  We like to say that our children are the color of the rainbow :o) 

It is interesting (for lack of a better word) observe how each of their experiences have beeb different merely based on their appearance.  Needless to say my stepson has experienced prejudice and discrimination.  Our daughter (and a couple of her friends) were told to “go back to Mexico” the day after the 2016 presidential election.  Our other son has not experienced any prejudice/discrimination.

Social Theories and Race/Ethnicity

Symbolic Interactionism

  • Identity formation is developed
  • Stereotypes and labeling
  • Media’s representation of race/ethnicity (reflection hypothesis – the media shapes our norms and perceptions)
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Prejudice is socially learned

Structural Functionalism

  • Stratification and the division of labor as functional, all positions filled
  • Ethnocentrism – in-group bonds and group cohesion as functional
  • Dysfunction – Discrimination

 Conflict Theory

  • Formal means of discrimination has been outlawed; however, racial minorities continue to experience discrimination (economic, health, education)
  • Inequalities due to race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexual orientation
  • Individual discrimination: one person by another person (for example: hiring or poor service)
  • Institutional discrimination: built into society/opportunities and access (institutions): home loans, education – unequal funding, education – bias in standardized testing, medicine – preventative care; subjects of research, criminal justice system (Crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine: penalty for possession of crack cocaine is more severe than for possession of powdered cocaine)

Minority Groups

In terms of the concept minority group there are several groups of individuals who fall under this category.  Certainly specific racial groups but also religious groups, women, the elderly, children, the disabled, the poor, and LGBTQI individuals are considered part of minority groups.  Remember, the concept refers to status not the size of the group.  Belonging to a minority group is part of our playing field.  Our group status position within each of these categories affects our experiences and opportunities throughout our lives. 

Again, we may ask, why are people prejudiced against these minority groups?  Think about the social climate (what is going on in society at the time) and why certain groups are targets of prejudice and discrimination.  Depending on what is happing in society at the time certain groups are the target of discrimination.  For example, after 9-11 those of Middle Eastern decent (or those perceived to be) were the target of discrimination.  When the topic of immigration is heated those of Hispanic/Latino(a) decent are the target of discrimination.  And the list (unfortunately) goes on…

Individual Discrimination and Institutional Discrimination

Individual Discrimination

When one person discriminates against another person

Institutional Discrimination

Discrimination that is built into society in terms of opportunities and access.  When discrimination is built into the institutions in our society.

  • Housing discrimination and racial steering
  • Education – unequal funding, unequal curriculum, unequal opportunities, bias in standardized testing
  • Medicine – unequal preventative care, medical research on diseases that impact majority group, unequal access to medical care, Whites more likely to receive preventative care
  • Criminal Justice System – there has been a long history of inequality in the criminal justice system, unequal sentencing, racial profiling, racial minorities are more likely to be arrested/charged/convicted

Housing Discrimination

It has been noted that housing discrimination may be the most impactful type of discrimination as where we live affects all other aspects of our life.  Housing discrimination includes being denied a mortgage or being charged higher interest rates.  The data on housing discrimination in 2014 were as follows:

Those who have been denied a mortgage (each above median income)

  • 11% white
  • 26% Latinos
  • 30% African Americans

Those who have been charged higher interest rates

  • 14% Whites
  • 36% Latinos
  • 43% African Americans

There were 28,843 housing discrimination complaints in 2017.  The most common forms of housing complaints were based on disability (57%), race (19%), and family status (9%). 

Source: National Fair Housing Alliance

Hate Crime Data

The following are percentages of victims of hate crimes in the United States:

  • 3% Race
  • 20% Religion
  • 3% Sexual Orientation
  • 8% Ethnicity/National Origin
  • .6% Disability

Crimes against person or property

  • Crimes against persons (typically assault) is the most common form of hate crimes (over 60% of the hate crimes)
  • Crimes against property (vandalism, damage)
  • Crimes against society

The social climate dictates who is more likely to be the target of hate crimes at a given time. For example, there have been higher rates of hate crimes against certain groups after 9-11, Immigration reform, Prop 8, etc.  It is also important to note that we have seen a significant increase in hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election.  As you know, recently there has been an increase in hate crimes against Asian American people due to ignorance and blaming them for the Coronavirus.  The research data suggests that over 3,800 reported hate crimes against Asian Americans were reported from March 2020 to March 2021.  Stop AAPI Hate ( is an organization that is bringing awareness to this issue.

FBI 2017 Hate Crime Information

On average there are over 8,000 victims of hate crimes each year.  Of the known offenders of hate crimes about 51% were White.

White Privilege

You will read in the textbook about the concept of white privilege which is defined as the “benefits people receive simply by being part of the dominant group” (OpenStax).  It is also noted that the “dominant groups accept their experience as the normative experience” (OpenStax).  This topic has been researched and the findings are consistent, those that are white enjoy privileges that they do not realize.  This is not an opinion, the materialCover of Tim Wise film is based on research.  Tim Wise is one of the leading speakers on this topic.  I have posted materials and a film on this.

“Any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy.” – Tim Wise

Film: Tim Wise: On White Privilege (Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality)

Since I am white I have the benefit of enjoying white privileges, and I do not deny this (as I am aware of the research data on this issue).  I am also very aware of the privileges my husband and two of our children may not experience in some instances (which is difficult to stomach for me).  It is important that we are aware of this issue and the data.

PEW Research has completed some studies on this topic and have found the following:

  • 75% of Blacks stated racism is a big problem in our country
  • 58-61% of Hispanics stated racism is a big problem in our country
  • 44% of whites stated that it is a big problem
  • 76% of Whites stated that Blacks are treated equally in local communities
  • 49% of Blacks stated they are treated equally in their local community

The key idea is that if you do not experience racism/discrimination you are less likely to believe it exists or that it exists in large numbers/is a social problem.  We often have to experience something first hand (or have family members or friends that experience it) in order to understand the magnitude of the social problem.


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