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In this discussion, we’ll examine the concepts of race and ethnicity and consider the relationship between ethnic stratification and privilege.

Please answer the following questions in your initial discussion post using concepts and examples from at least two of the required resources this week:

· In the introduction to their book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race,  Halley, Eshleman & Vijaya (2010) argue that “Often whites simply perceive themselves as ‘normal’ or ‘just human’ and fail to notice their own race” (p. 4). What do you interpret this statement? How does this relate to the idea that race is socially and culturally constructed?

· Review the Pew Research Center’s (2020) report Amid National Reckoning, Americans Divided on Whether Increased Focus on Race Will Lead to Major Policy Change. Why do you think the different groups discussed in the article have different views of the progress that has been made on equality? Which group do you most closely agree with? Why? How do the groups that you’re part of influence your perspective here? Is this an area where you might have a single story?







A white boy who is very close with one of the authors of this text has been
raised in a predominantly white, small town in the Midwest. On a family
trip to the big city in 2008, the boy, then eight years old, enjoyed playing in
an interactive water room at a children’s museum. Always a gregarious and
friendly child, the white adults who accompanied the boy—including one
of the authors of this text—enjoyed watching him play with other children
as he enjoyed the activities of the museum. Upon exiting the exhibit, in a
crowded hallway filled with a racially diverse collection of individuals, the
white boy announced proudly and loudly, “I just made an African American

The white adults accompanying the white boy were surprised by the boy’s
exclamation and by their own reactions to it. They wondered why the boy
had been so cognizant of the race of his new playmate, questioning what his
understanding of race—his own and that of others—might be. They consid-
ered where the boy had picked up the term he chose to describe the race of
the playmate, pondering how race might be addressed in the boy’s school or
in media he viewed. They wondered how often they themselves addressed
race with the boy and how they might have shaped—or failed to shape—his
understanding of race. They were also disquieted by their own sense of em-
barrassment at the loud announcement by this white boy, especially because
the bystanders who were likely to have overheard included many individuals
of color. How might the bystanders interpret the boy’s words? How did the
announcement reflect on the boy and his adult companions? How might


The Invisibility of Whiteness

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2 � Chapter One

the new friend have felt if he had overheard himself being referred to as an
“African American friend”?

The boy regularly makes friends whenever the opportunity is available,
but he had never before announced that he “just made a white friend.” He
clearly noticed and categorized this playmate based on race. We will explore
what incidents like this reveal about whiteness and about the visibility of

How Do We Come to Know Things?

In thinking about race, it is interesting to ask, how have we come to know
what we know about race? Indeed, how have we come to know anything
about anything? What does it mean to “know” something? How can we be
sure that what we “know” really is true? People in different cultures and times
sometimes understand the world in very different ways. Who is wrong and
who is right?

People also learn about the world in different ways. Diverse cultures have
different authorities that they trust and different processes to access knowl-
edge. Are they all valid?

As an example, we might consider feudal times in Europe. Most people
in feudal Europe were very poor (extremely poor by middle-class standards
in the United States today). Most people lived as farmers. They farmed land
that belonged to someone else, to the aristocracy, the kings, queens, lords,
and other nobility that ruled over the various geographic areas of Europe.
The Catholic Church existed in close connection with and strongly sup-
portive of the aristocracy. In exchange for being allowed to use the land,
peasants paid a tithe (or rent) in the food that they produced to the aristoc-
racy. Historians Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen note, “There was a vast
chasm between the material abundance of the Church and aristocracy and
the scarcity experienced by the peasantry, and this system was represented as
the immutable order of things.”1

How did the aristocracy come to own all of that land? Well, today we
know that they took it, by force. Yet in feudal times, most people believed
that the aristocracy owned everything and ruled over everyone because God
wanted it that way. People thought that “social inequality was the way of
God.”2 They believed God had chosen the aristocracy and that the aristoc-
racy was a distinct group of humans, almost a species. In this thinking, called
the “Great Chain of Being,” the peasants were also like a distinct species.
People accepted as “truth” that humans were born into the group where they
belonged according to God’s will. Sharply distinct from the pull-yourself-

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The Invisibility of Whiteness � 3

up-by-your-bootstraps and change-your-lot-in-life thinking common in the
United States today, people’s thinking in feudal times held that one should
not, indeed one could not, change one’s position in life. One was born a peas-
ant much like a cow was born a cow. As far as we know, cows do not dream
of being horses someday; and in feudal times, peasants did not dream of being
kings and queens.

So how did people in feudal times come to “know” all of these “truths”—
that the poor were meant to be poor and the aristocracy was in control
because God wanted it that way? How did people come to “know” that this
was God’s will? Who expressed God’s will in feudal times?

As you might guess, the aristocracy and the feudal Catholic Church
(supported by the aristocracy) dictated God’s will, claiming that God had
appointed them to voice His wishes. (During this time period in Europe,
the Catholic Church understood God to be decidedly male.) Who benefited
from these dictates? The aristocracy and the Church. Ewen and Ewen write
about this political and economic system:

The Bible was the Word of God, the universal law, but its interpretation was
kept in the hands of the privileged few who were sanctioned to read it. Biblical
interpretation tended to uphold the immense social and political landholding
power of the nobility and the Church. . . . Although feudal power was often
held and defended by the sword, it was justified by the Word. The monopoly
over the Word, over literacy, and over the ability to interpret what was read,
was a fundamental aspect of rule.3

So in terms of the issue of knowledge and how we come to “know”
something, we can see from the example of feudalism that different cultures
believe in different authorities. Feudal society believed in the authority of
God expressed through the aristocracy and the Church. Today, in many
places in the world, including Europe, the United States, and most western4
industrialized nations, we tend to turn to science for knowledge, instead of
religion. Instead of the aristocracy and the Church translating God’s wishes
for us, scientists using the scientific method work to gain what we understand
to be truths about our world and ourselves.

It is interesting to note that, in the above example, someone benefited
from the “knowledge,” the “truth” that everyone believed in. The way of
thinking in feudal Europe worked to reinforce the economic and social power
of the aristocracy and the Church. Social psychologists Don Operario and
Susan T. Fiske define power as “the disproportionate ability of some individu-
als or groups to control other people’s outcomes.”5 Economic power entails

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4 � Chapter One

control over resources such as land or water, or even symbolic resources (like
money today). In this book, we use the term social power to mean economic
power as well as the amorphous capacity of dominant groups—groups who
control economic resources—to control cultural production; in other words,
to establish their cultures and norms as the dominant ones. In this book,
because the term social power comes up repeatedly, we use the terms social
power and power interchangeably.

In reading our book, we ask that you keep the story of inequality in feudal
Europe in mind. Ideologies like the Great Chain of Being—ways of thinking
and commonly held beliefs—in feudal Europe benefited some over others.
How might our ways of thinking about race in the contemporary United
States, and in our history, also benefit some over others?

In this book, we argue that critically examining the common ways of
thinking in the United States teaches us more about social power than about
“objective facts.” (In chapter 2, we question race as an objective fact and
challenge you to consider the potential bias in science.)

(In)Visibility of Whiteness

The authors of this text challenge you to consider why the white eight-year-
old boy announced that he had made an “African American friend” when
the boy had never announced the race of a white friend. Legal scholar Bar-
bara J. Flagg argues that white people are often not conscious of being white.6
Often whites simply perceive themselves as “normal” or “just human” and
fail to notice their own race.7 While whiteness may be invisible to whites,
whites tend to be aware of the races of people of color.8

In this text, we seek to challenge readers to consider what it means for
a white person to perceive of himself or herself as “normal” while seeing
others as having a race. We challenge you to consider the extent to which
whiteness is invisible and the implications of this. We invite you to critically
examine what it means to perceive oneself as normal. In the social sciences, a
norm is a social expectation9—a description of how one is expected to act or
what one is expected to believe within a given social setting.10 Scholars who
study the experience of being white in the United States and the concept of
whiteness regularly note that whiteness is often perceived by whites, who as
a group hold more social and economic power than people of color, as norma-
tive—ordinary, typical, what is expected. To be normative is not the same
thing as being “right” or “correct.” Normative aspects of a society typically
reflect the culture and values of the groups in power.

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The Invisibility of Whiteness � 5

An Indian American woman well known to the authors of this text
shared a story that revealed normative assumptions of her white friends.11
The woman’s romantic partner, a white man, delights in eating pickled lime,
a common relish in Indian food. The woman has teased her partner about
his love of pickle because he eats it with an unusual array of foods. While
people in India would commonly eat a little bit of pickle as an accompani-
ment with some foods, her partner has paired larger than normal servings of
pickle with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack foods. When this couple was
having dinner with another couple, the Indian woman playfully teased her
partner about his use of pickle. The white man from the other couple joined
the friendly teasing, making an analogy that eating pickle with so many
foods was like putting catsup on almost everything. The white woman from
the other couple then asked, “How do you use normal pickles in India?” By
“normal pickles” the white woman was suggesting that pickled cucumbers
are “normal” and that pickled limes are not. In India, “normal pickles” are
pickled limes. The comment revealed the white woman’s expectation that
what is common in the United States is normal; here she reflected normative
white U.S. culture.

To perceive whiteness as normative is to see being white as normal.12 If
whiteness is normal, what does that communicate about the experience of
other races? Sociologist Ron Nerio, the son of a Mexican American father,
details a story that reveals the normativity of whiteness. A white woman
who was a friend of Nerio’s family once tried to compliment Nerio’s father
by telling him that she did not perceive him as Mexican, but rather saw
him as a Spaniard. For this friend, the concept of Mexican was embroiled
with racial and class stereotypes that she did not think applied to her friend,
whom she saw as being like a European, like a white person. When Nerio’s
father rejected her identification of him as like a white man, she assumed
he was being humble and continued to insist that he really “seemed white.”
She thought she was complimenting him and never realized how deeply she
had offended him.13 We invite readers to explore why a white woman would
consider “seeming European” to be a compliment for a Mexican American
man. What did she reveal about her beliefs about whiteness and about be-
ing Mexican? We encourage you to think about why the white woman did
not realize that her “compliment” was actually offensive. We argue that her
obtuse reaction revealed a lack of critical thinking about whiteness.

Social scientific research suggests that when a person gets to know an-
other individual, one stops seeing that person as a member of a category—
such as seeing a person as Mexican American or as male—and starts to see

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6 � Chapter One

the person as an individual.14 The white family friend seemed to conflate
seeing Nerio’s father as an individual with seeing him as white. Rather than
basing a compliment on his individual character, she attempted to compli-
ment him based on being similar to her concept of whiteness. This suggests
that the woman perceived whiteness as normal, as normative and as better,
and preferable to being of color.

Historically within the United States those who are considered white
rarely have been challenged to think about their own race. College cam-
puses today are places where whites are more likely to be asked to think
critically about whiteness. Sociologist Charles A. Gallagher notes that being
prompted by college courses to think about whiteness can be disconcerting
for whites because whiteness is so often invisible.15 Throughout this book, we
challenge readers to think critically about race, especially whiteness. Making
whiteness visible is a critical step in thinking critically about race and ad-
dressing systematic inequality in the United States.

This text will reveal that whiteness is a shifting category that has been
created by historical, political, social, and economic events. Within the
United States, the first people considered white were Anglo-Saxon Prot-
estants (an ethnic group with ties to England) and individuals from north-
western Europe. In chapter 3, we explore specifically how Irish Catholics
were once considered non-white and how they became white. The history
of Italians and Ashkenazi Jews also reveal whiteness as a changing category.
These groups, similar to the Irish, became white based on historical, political,
social, and economic shifts.

What Is Race?

Before you continue to read, we invite you to consider this question: What
is race? How have you understood race? If asked to define race, how would
you put the concept into words?

Using evidence from anthropology and biology, we will explain that
human physical traits such as skin color and facial features vary on a con-
tinuum—slight gradations from one individual to another—rather than
differing in distinctly separate groups. As we explore in chapter 2, from a
biological standpoint, one cannot definitively group individuals into distinct
races that clearly differ from each other.

If race does not exist as biological category, you might be wondering why
we have dedicated an entire book to the subject. Although race is not an
aspect of our genes, race is critically important in the United States. Race
exists as a social and political understanding of humans that attempts to

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The Invisibility of Whiteness � 7

assign individuals into distinct groups in a way that systematically benefits
some—whites—while limiting opportunities for others—people of color.

Historian Nell Irvin Painter argues, “Race is an idea, not a fact.”16
Throughout this book, we explore how powerful this idea has been in shap-
ing human lives. Following influential physical anthropologists such as
George J. Armelagos and Alan H. Goodman, we argue that while race is not
a biological category, the important social implications of race and of racism
make this socially constructed concept a vital issue for careful study.17 Oper-
ario and Fiske argue, “Racial categories exist because people and societies be-
lieve them to be true; they derive from psychological and societal processes,
rather than from biological or evolutionary processes.”18

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has distinguished race from ethnicity.
As we will see in chapter 2, race has traditionally been a category assigned
to a group in a way that justifies the subordination of groups of color by the
group in power. Alternatively, ethnicity is a social and cultural category.19
Ethnicity tends to be viewed as a subgroup of race; all members of a given
ethnicity will be viewed as belonging to the same race. As sociologists
Michael Omi and Howard Winant identify, social and cultural aspects of
ethnicity encompass “such diverse factors as religion, language, ‘customs,’
nationality, and political identification.”20 We will explore ethnicities that
have been included in whiteness, have moved into whiteness, and have been
excluded from whiteness.

The Modern World System

One of the authors of this text, Jean Halley, grew up in rural Wyoming in the
1970s believing that there was something biologically distinct about differ-
ent racial groups. This was why, it was commonly “known,” Black and white
people should not intermarry. In her childhood, this was a basic, accepted
“truth” that people around Halley believed much like they believed women
were naturally better, more loving parents than men; men were naturally
more rational than women; and the “Reds,” as one of her social science
teachers called people living in communist nations, were going to march on
the United States at any moment.

Where did this idea about race come from? Why did people believe that
different racial groups are actually biologically different from one another?
Was this thinking merely because the different groups do seem to look dif-
ferent, at least somewhat different, some of the time?

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8 � Chapter One

For a moment let us move back in time to the period when feudalism
slowly came undone and a new system began to replace it. This new system,
the “Modern World System,” came into being in the mid-fifteenth century as
people from different geographic locations increasingly began to encounter
one another. Africa, Asia, and the Americas had been “discovered” by Eu-
ropeans.21 These “new” worlds held new (to Europeans) resources as well as
human beings who looked and behaved in strikingly different ways.

Imagine being one of the first of your racial group to see another racial
group. How might you have made sense of the visual differences you wit-
nessed? How might you have explained cultures seemingly completely dis-
tinct from your own?

In Europe at this time, the beginnings of a system that we live with today
called capitalism began taking hold with a new class of people, the merchant
class, who traded in increasingly available luxury goods supplied by the new
lands, including “gold, silver, precious gems, silk, sugar, coffee, tea, spices,
and tobacco.”22 As trade grew, “the merchant class, whose wealth was built
on such exchanges, followed the social lead of aristocrats and emerged as a
prime consumer of luxury items.”23 In Europe, being a peasant, a priest, or a
king were no longer the only options. Slowly, the various parts of the world
became interconnected as never before. The story of race is inextricably
bound with this newly interconnected world.

In this interconnection, Europe began to develop as a powerful region
by making use of the labor and resources of other places. Not all global lo-
cations and peoples fared as well as Europe in the Modern World System.
Indeed, as sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein notes, the development of this
new and global community was deeply and fundamentally unequal. Today,
springing from this history, we continue to live in a deeply unequal global
system. While some places gained great power and wealth in the Modern
World System, others lost power over their land, labor, and other resources.
Through brutally imposed structures of slavery and forced labor, some even
lost claim to their own persons. Indeed, the development of Western Europe
depended on the oppression, labor, and resources of peoples in Africa, Asia,
and the Americas. As Ewen and Ewen make clear,

For West Europe to triumph as a global center of commerce and industry, it
was necessary for other regions of the world to be maintained in a subservient
position, their economies stunted to serve the needs of others. Even within
Europe, for certain sectors to emerge as masters of the universe, it was neces-
sary that others live in varying states of immiseration. For “progress” to come
into being, it was also seen as necessary for certain indigenous populations to

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The Invisibility of Whiteness � 9

be subjugated or extinguished. Others were systematically dislocated, enlisted
into slavery, governed by the lash.24

Much like in feudal times in Europe, people worked to explain this in-
equality. Yet now, Europeans had a new “religion” from which they claimed
to study, understand, and know the world; that is, science.

A Brief Introduction to Cultural Materialism

This text offers a criticism of science and challenges readers to consider other
perspectives as well. Cultural materialism is a way of thinking about the world
often used by both anthropologists and sociologists.25 Cultural materialists
believe that the ways we think about things—and what we “know” about
the world—spring from the ways we produce our lives.26 What does it mean
to produce our lives? Well, it can happen in a variety of ways. We humans
need food and shelter and to reproduce, bringing new humans into the world
as the older ones die. We can get and do these things in many different
ways. Some people in some time periods have lived, and many still do live,
by farming. Others live by fishing for their food. Some people build tempo-
rary shelters because they live nomadic lives, moving from place to place as
seasons change or as the animals they herd need new land to graze. Others
build permanent structures that last for hundreds of years. Cultural material-
ists believe that the way a given people lives births, so to speak, the ways that
people think about the world and themselves. The culture, knowledge, and
beliefs these people develop and refer to spring from their ways of producing
and reproducing, their ways of surviving, in life.

We have already seen an example of cultural materialism in our brief ex-
ploration of feudalism. In feudal times, peasants farmed to make their living,
and they gave a portion of their produce to the aristocracy in exchange for
being allowed to live on the land. As best we can tell, most people did not
explain this as we might today; that is, that a brutal and violent ruling class
suppressed the poor majority. Instead, people understood that situation as
one desired by God. People believed in the “Great Chain of Being,” where
the powerful ruled because God wanted it this way.

Cultural materialism helps us to understand our own, more recent history
in terms of race. In the United States, our historical thinking about race
springs from our ways of living—during slavery and during other important
periods in the United States, such as reconstruction after the Civil War, the
early twentieth century when enormous numbers of people immigrated from
eastern and southern Europe, Jim Crow27 and legalized segregation, and the

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10 � Chapter One

civil rights movement. How might our contemporary thinking about race in
the United States and Europe spring from the ways we build our lives and
survive—our material reality—today?

Whiteness and White Privilege

In chapter 3 we investigate the social construction of whiteness. The very
concept of whiteness was developed to include people from different ethnic
backgrounds in a common category that excluded other ethnicities. As we
will see in our exploration of Irish Catholics becoming white in chapter 3,
ethnic groups who were accepted into whiteness were granted higher status
and privileges. As we examine in chapter 8, U.S. law such as the Immigration
Act of 1924 systematically privileged whites. This immigration law specified
that only white immigrants were eligible to apply for citizenship. Before the
concept of white as a race was created, certain ethnic groups held greater
social power than others—the most powerful of these ethnic groups were the
first to be perceived as white when the concept of white as a race developed.
Teutonic peoples (descendants of Germanic tribes), especially the Anglo-
Saxons (composed of two Teutonic tribes who invaded Britain during the
Roman Empire and became the English), were the first to be categorized as
white. As we explore in chapter 3, working-class and impoverished peoples
of European descent joined Anglo-Saxons with strong economic resources
and social power. Across socioeconomic class, a common identity as white
emerged, creating a powerful ingroup—a shared identity with a feeling of
belongingness to the group and connection to other members of the group.28
The concept of whiteness helped to solidify the social power of the economic
elite by encouraging poor and working-class people who became white to see
themselves as part of an ingroup with the elite, a group that excluded and
subordinated people of color.29

Education scholar Zeus Leonardo identified that the concept of whiteness
“depends on the racial other for its own identity.”30 Whiteness only exists
as an ingroup because it is contrasted with outgroups—groups with which
members of the ingroup do not identify, do not feel a sense of connection,
and might classify as “the other.”31

Often when one thinks in terms of “us” compared to “them,” one en-
gages in binary thinking—perceiving a matter as having two opposing sides.
Whiteness is often perceived in contrast to groups of color, as though people
come in one of two distinct forms—white or of color. Whiteness is one side
of a false binary. In other words, today in the mainstream United States, we
tend to think about white people in contrast to the other position on this

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The Invisibility of Whiteness � 11

false binary, people of color. Our book focuses on this binary way of thinking
about race because it is so powerful in our society, not because it is real in
any biological sense.

Dualism is another term for a binary—suggesting there are two distinct,
and only two, positions on an issue. Historically and today in the United
States, being white is juxtaposed with being not white. This juxtaposition
means that whiteness, as a frame for understanding human beings, dictates
and necessitates a dualism, a false dualism. As we explain in chapter 2, careful
analysis of race reveals that humans cannot be clearly separated into whites
or any other distinct group based on race. Human genetic diversity varies on
a continuum, not as a binary. Further, while we will use “people of color”
throughout this book to reveal the false dualism often used to think about
race, we encourage you to think critically about the great diversity among
individuals classified as “of color.”

We, the authors of this text, do not support the false dualism of race. In-
deed, we mean to challenge it as a way of thinking that is both wrongheaded
and deeply damaging. However, to some extent in our challenge, we will seek
to reveal the binary framework by contrasting whites with people of color
because that is the racial framework we live with in the mainstream United
States today.

Through critical analysis of the false dualism and insight into whiteness as
it relates to social power, scholars such as Peggy McIntosh, who was inspired
by her work in feminist studies, have identified ways that whites are system-
atically privileged over people of color. McIntosh notes that some of these
white privileges—such as not having to fear that one’s race may contribute
to one being stopped and frisked by police—are advantages that would be
ideal to share across all people. We challenge you to consider how social ac-
tion might widen the number of people who can share such privileges. Other
white privileges—such as assuming that whites are more deserving of admis-
sion to colleges and universities than students of color—are unfair and biased
against people of color. We further explore college admission as it relates to
white privilege in chapter 8.32

White antiracist activist Tim Wise argues that being white in the United
States means “defining ourselves by a negative, providing ourselves with an
identity that [is] rooted in the external—rooted in the relative oppression of
others. . . . Inequality and privilege [are] the only real components of white-
ness. . . . Without racial privilege there is no whiteness, and without white-
ness, there is no racial privilege. Being white only means to be advantaged.”33
Revealing white privilege challenge



Shown here is a multicultural box of Crayola crayons that depict skin color ranging from black to white with six other

shades in between.






























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AN: 1099295 ; Tim Delaney.; Connecting Sociology to Our Lives : An Introduction to Sociology
Account: s4264928.main.edsebook


Chapter 8
Introductory Story

The Social Construction of Race and

Racial and Ethnic Stratification in the
United States

The We-They Character of Race and

Causes and Effects of Prejudice and

Patterns of Interracial and Interethnic

Summary, Glossary, Discussion
Questions, and Web Links


Finally, it was Friday. A great buzz filled the halls of Ridgemont High School.
The Ridgemont Panthers were hosting the visiting Alcorn High School Indians
in the annual contest between these two bitter crosstown rivals. Players, coaches,
students, faculty and staff, and most of the Ridgemont community were looking
forward to the big game. As was customary at Ridgemont High, a huge pep rally
was scheduled for the last period of the school day. Pep rallies are designed to
inspire young players to play hard and to remind them that the community backs
them. Pep rallies also ignite fans into a near frenzy of anticipation as the student

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body is encouraged to yell and scream in support of the team. Yes, everyone was
stoked for the pep rally.

Well, not everyone. A couple of students, Naomi and Kevin, were feeling
uneasy. Having attended many pep rallies in the past, they knew what to expect.
The marching band and cheerleaders did not make them feel uneasy; nor did the
players. It was the bonfire and burning effigy of an “Indian,” as well as the posters
around campus that sported such slogans as “Scalp the Indians” and “Redmen
Are Deadmen,” that bothered Naomi and Kevin. For you see, these two students
were Native Americans. To them it was deeply offensive to reduce the Alcorn
High Indians to caricatures and celebrate acts of violence against indigenous

The use of so-called Indian imagery in sports has come under criticism
throughout the United States during the past few decades. Native American advo-
cacy groups point out that Indian imagery (team nicknames, mascots, and logos)
is based on negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. As this chap-
ter shows, the use of such imagery exemplifies some of the issues that sociology
addresses when examining the subject of race and ethnicity.


As people interact with one another, especially strangers, they tend to examine
each other based initially on physical characteristics. They may wonder, for exam-
ple, Does the person who is approaching me pose a bodily threat? Or is this per-
son a potential friend or maybe a future dating partner? If I were in trouble, would
this stranger help me or take advantage of me?

Why do people judge others based on their outward appearance? Well, quite
simply, it is the first thing we see, and we generally do not learn what is “inside”
the vast majority of people we see in a given day. How, then, do we ascertain
whether a stranger is a threat, a potential friend and ally, or something else? Most
people rely on past experiences, trial and error, and stereotypes that accompany
certain characteristics of people. For example, a stranger to a “tough” neighbor-
hood may fear that a group of young adolescent males hanging out in front of the
convenience store is a threat because the youths look like gang members. But how
does the stranger reach the conclusion that the young people are gang members?
What if they happen to be members of a local volunteer group meeting to do char-
ity work and are simply cooling off by having a soda or sports drink?

When people make judgments about others based on limited information, they
are generally using mental shortcuts rooted in stereotypes—and stereotypes are

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sometimes dead wrong (i.e., all groups of juveniles hanging out are not delin-
quents or gang members). However, at times individuals make judgments about
strangers based solely on their visible behavior and appearance, and they are cor-
rect (e.g., law enforcement officers are trained to identify behavioral characteristics
common to drunk drivers).

Among the many physical characteristics by which people judge one another
is skin color. Indeed, races have traditionally been classified solely on the basis
of their most easily observable anatomical trait: skin color (Marger 2006). Many
Americans are described as white or black. But most humans are neither very fair
nor very dark but some shade of brown (M. Harris 2004). A simple test can illus-
trate this point. If a “white” person holds a sheet of white paper next to her skin,
and a “black” person holds a sheet of black paper next to hers, they are both likely
to find that their skin color is some shade in between white and black. It is worth
noting that Crayola, the manufacturer of crayons and other markers, has a line
of “multicultural” crayons described as an assortment of realistic skin tones that
range from white to black with six other shades in between. These crayons will
reveal that most “white” people’s skin is closer in color to peach than to white.

Skin color itself—in most animals, not just humans—results from the presence
of an amino acid derivative known as melanin. While melanin protects the upper
levels of the skin from being damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays (M. Harris
2004), it also decreases the body’s ability to produce Vitamin D in response to
sun exposure. In general, the closer to the equator ancestral groups are from, the
darker their skin, and the farther from the equator, the lighter the skin. However,
there are significant individual differences in skin color; moreover, a genetic varia-
tion known as albinism, in which the person has very little melanin, can and does
occur in all racial groups.

Typically, a race is defined as a group of people who share some socially rec-
ognized physical characteristic (such as skin color or shared hereditary traits) that
distinguishes them from other groups of people. This definition uses a biological
aspect to determine racial categories but acknowledges that such a classification
scheme is socially constructed. Increasingly, the social sciences, including sociol-

ogy, have come to reject biological notions of race in favor of
an approach that regards race as a social concept (Omi and
Winant 2004).


Although, as we have seen, race is largely a social construct,
that is not to say it is not a scientifically valid way of dis-

What Do You Think?

Why is skin color used to determine races

of people? Why not use some other physical

characteristic, such as eye color, hair color,

or height? What do you think?

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tinguishing people. A number of academic disciplines utilize classification sys-
tems for race. In biology, race refers to a population of humans based on certain
hereditary characteristics that differentiate them from other human groups (Mar-
ger 2006). Physical anthropologists distinguish racial groups either by pheno-
type—visible anatomical features such as skin color, hair texture, and body and
facial shape—or by genotype—genetic specifications inherited from one’s parents
(Marger 2006).

The sociological origin of socially constructing the concept of race dates
back (at least) to the nineteenth century, when Max Weber discounted bio-
logical explanations for racial conflict and pointed instead to the social and
political factors that helped to foster it (Omi and Winant 2004; Ernst 1947).
During his 1904 visit to the United States, Weber correctly observed that
African Americans were not fully assimilated socially and politically, and he
predicted a rise in racial tensions between white and black America (Delaney
2004; Weber [1926] 1975). Considering that African Americans had not been
fully assimilated in the United States prior to Weber’s visit, such a prediction
was not an example of foresight out of the clear blue. After all, blacks were
subjected to slavery in the South and generally unequal status in the rest of
society, even during the post–Civil War decades, which consisted of the for-
mation of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and the Jim Crow era. The discussion
of Weber’s view of race in the United States is interesting from a sociological
perspective because it reveals how sociologists from different nations became
aware of race relations as a sociological area of interest. Weber’s views on race
relations were developed in Germany and reinforced during his only trip to the
United States in 1904.

And just a few years after Weber’s visit, on the night of July 4, 1910, the ten-
sions between blacks and whites erupted in massive race riots around the country
as a reaction to the heavyweight championship fight in which the African Ameri-
can boxer Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries (popularly known as the “Great
White Hope”) (New York Tribune, 7/5/10).

Racial riots continued sporadically throughout the twentieth century. African
Americans, however, were not the only racial group to experience discrimina-
tion by the white majority in the United States. As we see in the next section of
this chapter, discrimination has also been practiced against European immigrants
(especially those from non-English-speaking countries), Hispanic and Latino
Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

As the twenty-first century progresses, sociologists have increasingly placed
the concept of race in a sociohistorical context (Omi and Winant 2004). Further-
more, a number of sociologists, along with a growing number of citizens, have

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attempted to downplay classifying people by race altogether. Nonetheless, and
despite the limitations of doing so, most social institutions (e.g., the media, poli-
tics, and economics) and people themselves acknowledge racial categories based
on skin color.


An ethnicity is a category of people recognized as distinct based on social or
cultural factors. An ethnic group shares cultural characteristics: nationality, reli-
gion, language, geographic residence, values, and so on. Ethnic groups have a
shared sense of history and fate that connects members together in a meaningful
manner, and many ethnic groups take great pride in their cultural history. Ethnic
groups have traditionally been described as subgroups of racial groups (Marger
2006). For example, the French, Irish, English, and Germans are ethnic groups
under the Caucasian racial umbrella, while the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipi-
nos are examples of ethnic groups found within the Asian race. The classifica-
tion in recent U.S. censuses of Hispanics/Latinos as an ethnic rather than a racial
group (consisting of such ancestral groups such as Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto
Ricans) has clouded this idea of an ethnic group as a subgroup of a larger racial
group. Ethnic groupings further illustrate the socially constructed aspect of race—
albeit on a smaller level.

Racism and Other Terms

When an individual is judged solely on the basis of his or her race, that individual
may fall victim to racism. The most commonly described form of racism is interra-
cism, which occurs between different categories of races. When describing inter-
racism, most people simply use the term “racism.” Racism involves any attitude,
belief, behavior, or social arrangement that has the intent, or the ultimate effect,
of favoring one racial category of people over another. Racism involves denying
equal access to goods and services to all racial groups in society. A racist perspec-
tive denies the idea of equality among all people and promotes an ideology that
one racial group is superior to another (Doob 1999). Marger (2006) concurs and
states that racism is “the belief that humans are subdivided into distinct hereditary
groups that are innately different in their social behavior and mental capacities
and that can therefore be ranked as superior or inferior. The presumed superi-
ority of some groups and inferiority of others is subsequently used to legitimate
the unequal distribution of the society’s resources, specifically, various forms of
wealth, prestige, and power” (p. 25).

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The sociological perspective dictates that racism, in any form, is the result of
learned behavior; that is, no one is born a racist. People become racist because
they are exposed to significant others who display racist attitudes, beliefs, and
behaviors and thereby pass them on to others. The sociological perspective of rac-
ism as learned behavior is further exhibited by the realization that a less described
from of racism, known as intraracism, also exists. Intraracism (sometimes referred
to as colorism) occurs between members of the same race who condemn those
with darker or lighter skin tones than their own. For example, very dark-skinned
African Americans may be discriminated against by lighter-skinned blacks for
being so dark; conversely, darker-skinned blacks may view lighter-skinned blacks
as not “black-looking” enough. In its acknowledgment of the existence of intra-
racism, the National Association for the Advancement of Black People (2011),
founded in 2003, proclaims on its home page that “Black/African Americans w/
Negroid features are welcome to join” but that “intraracism . . . will not be toler-
ated, practiced, or allowed.”

As shown below in this chapter’s section titled “The We-They Character of
Race and Ethnicity,” racism can be further distinguished via analysis of racism at
the institutional versus the individual level. For now, we turn to a discussion of

The word “prejudice” literally means a judgment formed without knowledge.
Prejudice involves a mind-set whereby an individual or group accepts negative
social definitions of others (LeMay 2005). Thus, prejudice can be defined as
negative beliefs and overgeneralizations concerning a group of people involving
a judgment against an individual based on a rigid and fixed mental image applied
to all individuals of that group. Ethnic and racial prejudices are characterized by
several features, including categorical or generalized thoughts, negative assump-
tions about an individual based on group membership, and inflexible thinking.
The ideas that all Polish people are stupid and all French people are arrogant are
examples of prejudicial thinking.

A common type of prejudice is the stereotype. Stereotypes are oversimplified
and exaggerated beliefs about a group of people. A stereotype presumes that any
one person within a group possesses specific characteristics regarded as embody-
ing that group. The beliefs that all black people make good athletes and all Japa-
nese people make good scientists are examples of stereotypes. As Marger (2006)
explains, “Once we learn the stereotypes attached to particular groups, we tend
to subsequently perceive individual members according to those generalized
images” (p. 63).

Bigots often employ stereotypes with their flawed reasoning. A bigot is a per-
son who identifies strongly with his or her own group, religion, race, or political

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view and is intolerant of those who are different. Bigotry refers to a person’s use of
a set of interrelated attitudes and beliefs to define an entire group of people in an
inferior way. Archie Bunker, the main character of the 1970s television show All
in the Family, expertly portrayed a bigot. (Note: All in the Family is still on the air
via television syndication and YouTube.)

Another key term related to the analysis of racism is discrimination. Discrimi-
nation refers to behavior that treats people unequally on the basis of an ascribed
status, such as race or gender. Discrimination can be viewed as applied prejudice
(LeMay 2005). That is, while prejudice refers to a negative belief about someone,
discrimination refers to actual behavior that involves treating someone unequally.
Thus, someone may be guilty of prejudice but not discrimination, whereas some-
one who discriminates is by definition also prejudicial.

Racial profiling is connected to discrimination. As defined by the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (2005), racial profiling refers to “the discrimina-
tory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of
crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” In this
context, law enforcement officials include all those “acting in a policing capacity
in public or private settings, such as security guards at department stores, air-
port security agents, police officers, and, more recently, airline pilots who have
ordered passengers to disembark from flights because the passengers’ ethnicity
aroused the pilots’ suspicions” (ACLU 2005). Racial profiling examples include
using race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations (com-
monly referred to as “driving while black or brown”) and the use of race to deter-
mine which pedestrians to search for illegal contraband. It is important to note,
however, that “racial profiling does not refer to the act of a law enforcement agent
pursuing a suspect in which the specific description of the suspect includes race
or ethnicity in combination with other identifying factors” (ACLU 2005).

Proving instances of racial profiling by law enforcement is often problematic.
Law enforcement agencies defend the inclusion of race as one of several factors in
suspect profiling, arguing that criminal profiling based on any characteristic is a
time-tested and universal police tool and that excluding race as a variable is illogi-
cal. Thus, if a call goes out to patrol cars that a suspected burglary is in progress,
police officers will benefit if they are given information about the suspected bur-
glars. Information would include the number of suspects, gender, race, height and
weight, age, clothing worn, and so on. The responding officers certainly cannot
interrogate all citizens in the area of the burglary in their attempt to protect and
serve the community. On the other hand, critics of racial profiling argue that all
too often, responding officers are more likely to view minorities as suspects for the
crime in question (see “Connecting Sociology and Popular Culture” Box 8.1 for a
highly publicized incident that involved an allegation of racial profiling).

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Connecting Sociology and Popular Culture

Box 8.1 The Beer Summit: Deconstructing Racial Profiling

An allegation of racial profiling from July 2009 became

such a huge part of popular and academic discourse

that it gained a pop-culture reference as “The Beer

Summit.” The summit came about after an incident

near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Based on a Cambridge Police Department incident

report (#9005127), an African American man named

Henry Louis Gates was placed under arrest at a

Ware Street residential location “after being observed

exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public

place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was

present investigating a report of a crime in progress.

These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legiti-

mate purpose and caused citizens by this location to

stop and take notice while appearing surprised and

alarmed.” Sergeant James Crowley and Officer James

Figueroa were responding to a report by Gates’s neigh-

bor Lucia Whalen that two

men were forcing their way

into the home. When the 911

dispatcher asked Whalen

whether the two men were

black, white, or Hispanic,

she replied, “One looked

kind of Hispanic, but I’m not

really sure” (Goodnough


As it turned out, the fif-

ty-eight-year-old Gates—a

highly renowned scholar

and Harvard professor—was

returning home from a trip to

China and had simply been

trying, with the help of his driver, to enter his own

house, whose front door was stuck. Unaware that a

neighbor suspected foul play, the two eventually suc-

ceeded in pushing their way into Gates’s home. When

Crowley arrived at the residence, he asked Gates

to come outside and speak with him and show his

identification. Gates yelled at Crowley, “Why, because

I’m a black man in America?” Gates reportedly contin-

ued, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!” Gates’s

agitated state, apparently caused by the belief that he

was a victim of racial profiling, led Crowley to arrest,

handcuff, and transport him to police headquarters,

where he was held for hours (Goodnough 2009b).

A short time later, when asked about the incident,

President Barack Obama replied that the police had act-

ed “stupidly.” This upset many folks in law enforcement,

including Crowley. Crowley, a police academy expert on

racial profiling, insisted that he had “acted appropriately.”

While conducting an interview with WBZTV, Crowley

claimed, “Mr. Gates was given plenty of opportunities

to stop what he was doing. He didn’t. He acted very ir-

rational, he controlled the outcome of that event. . . . There

was a lot of yelling, there was references to my mother,

something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should

be grateful that you were there investigating a report of a

crime in progress, let alone a Harvard professor” (WBZTV

.com 2009). Gates accused Crowley of entering his home

without permission. He also asked for the sergeant’s

name and badge number

because he was unhappy

about his treatment (WBZTV

.com 2009).

Although the charges

against Gates were sub-

sequently dropped, news

programs and outlets of all

sorts, including blogs, of-

fered emotionally charged

opinions about the incident.

In an attempt to defuse the

situation, President Obama

invited both Gates and

Crowley to join him at the

White House to sit down,

have a beer, and discuss things. On July 30, 2009,

Gates, Crowley, and Obama met and shared a beer.

(Vice President Joe Biden joined the group but did not

have a beer as he does not drink alcohol.) When Obama

learned that both Gates and Crowley had already spent

time talking to each other, he praised them for doing so.

In the end, Gates and Crowley “agreed to disagree”

about the confrontation that had led to Gates’s arrest.

Obama reported that the Beer Summit conversation

centered on moving forward and not reliving the events

of the previous two weeks.

What Do You Think?

Was Gates’s arrest the result of racial

profiling? Did Crowley act appropriately or

inappropriately? How might events have been

different if Gates had been white? Should race

be taken out of the criminal profiling formula

used by law enforcement? A 911 dispatcher’s

asking for a description that entailed race

might be considered profiling on the part of

the public, but it may also reveal that this is

standard police procedure What do you think?

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As “Connecting Sociology and Popular Culture”
Box 8.1 concludes, Gates, Crowley, and Obama felt
it best to move on and “agree to disagree” about past
events. In essence, the Gates-Crowley incident may
have been defused, but the greater issue of racial profil-
ing remained unresolved. This prompts us to ask, What
can be done to lessen the animosity that exists between
many members of diverse racial and ethnic groups?
After all, it would appear that many people in society
are intent on focusing on the differences rather than
the similarities among people. This is problematic, to
say the least. Perhaps if people focused on similarities,
we would all come to see each other as members of the
same race: the human race.

After all, we are all much more closely related than
we might think. For example, genealogists have docu-

mented links between otherwise dissimilar individuals. President Barack Obama is
a distant cousin of former vice president Dick Cheney, British prime minister Win-
ston Churchill, and Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Obama is also a distant cousin
of actor Brad Pitt. Pitt’s girlfriend, Angelina Jolie, is a distant cousin of Hillary Clin-
ton (Lavoie 2008). As for First Lady Michelle Obama, genealogical research pub-
lished in 2009 indicates that she had at least one great-great-great-grandfather who
was white and another ancestor believed to be Native American (Swarns and Kantor
2009). Indeed, genetic studies indicate that many people who look like they may
belong to one particular race might actually have a significant proportion of genes of
another race. Furthermore, DNA evidence reveals a genetic link between Jews and
Palestinians, two groups who have been locked in a bitter struggle for more than a
century yet share a common ancestry dating back 4,000 years (Kraft 2000).

You may be asking yourself, Why do diverse people not concentrate more on
their social and genetic similarities than on their cultural differences? Part of the
answer lies with our discussion in Chapter 4 of the power of culture. It is also
partly explained by the “we-they” mentality that most people possess. (Note: The
“we-they” distinction is discussed later in this chapter.)


Chapter 7 explored stratification primarily from a social class perspective. Stratifi-
cation also exists among racial and ethnic groups. Nearly all multiethnic societies

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden

meet with Sgt. James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates

to discuss racial profiling while drinking a beer in the Rose

Garden outside of the Oval Office.

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have a hierarchical arrangement of ethnic groups wherein one establishes itself as
the dominant group with the power to shape the course of ethnic relations. Other,
subordinate ethnic groups possess less power and take a correspondingly subor-
dinate position in the hierarchy, with the least powerful groups finding themselves
at the bottom of this ranking system (Marger 2006). In this fashion, a system of
ethnic stratification takes hold in society. Ethnic stratification, then, is a system
of ranking ethnic groups with the dominant group on top and the less power-
ful groups taking positions lower in the hierarchy. Using this system of ethnic
stratification, sociologists are able to distinguish majority-minority and dominant-
subordinate social systems.

In order to best understand the ethnic-stratification system in the United
States, it is necessary to identify the major racial and ethnic groups that popu-
late the nation. Typically, the following categories of people are recognized in the
United States: white non-Hispanic, Hispanic, African American, Asian, American
Indian, and “other” (e.g., Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander). The U.S. govern-
ment modified these categories slightly on its Census 2010 form. Question 8 of the
census asked respondents, “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”
Respondents indicating yes to this question were given four suboptions: Mexican,

Angelina Jolie and Hilary Clinton are distant cousins.

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Mexican American, Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; and “Other,” with directions
to specify, for example Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salva-
doran, and so on. Census respondents were asked in Question 9, “What is Per-
son 1’s race?” Respondents could check one or more boxes. The first option was
“white” with no elaboration; that is, no suboptions were made available for ances-
try. The other options for Question 9 were black, African American, or Negro;
American Indian or Alaska Native (identify tribe); Asian Indian; Chinese; Fili-
pino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Other Asian (with multiple options); Native
American; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; and Other Pacific Islander (with
multiple options provided).

Five hundred years ago, the geographical area that is now the United States was
populated almost entirely by indigenous peoples. As more and more people emi-
grated from Europe, the population shifted toward a white majority, displacing
the Native Americans. The Europeans also brought with them slaves from Africa,
making blacks the largest minority group. Because of slavery, African Americans
had consistently represented the largest minority group, until the early 2000s,
when Hispanics became the largest minority group.

As the majority and dominant group throughout U.S. history, white non-His-
panics have represented the power group among Americans. Demographic data
from the 2005 census reveals that whites represent 68 percent of the population;
Hispanics (a term used for people with ethnic backgrounds in Spanish-speaking
countries), 14.5 percent; African Americans, 12.8 percent; Asians and others, 4