Sample: Recognizing Race and Ethnicity

Sampled below is the Preface and Chapter One from Recognizing Race and Ethnicity, Second Edition, by Kathleen J. Fitzgerald.

Please be aware that this is not the final manuscript—some typos and grammatical errors may be present—but we hope that this advance look will help you determine whether the content and writing style will appeal to you and your students.

This text is copyright © 2017 by WESTVIEW PRESS.

Learn more about the book
Sample Download

Download a PDF of this sample by clicking the thumbnail below:

Table of Contents

Brief Table of Contents


Part 1: Thinking About Race

1 Taking Account of Race and Privilege
2 White Privilege: The Other Side of Racism
3 Science and the Sociology of Race

Part 2: A Sociological History of US Race Relations

4 Emergence of the US Racial Hierarchy
5 Race Relations in the 19th and 20th Centuries
6 Race Relations in Flux: From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

Part 3: Institutional Inequalities

7 Education
8 Economic Inequality and the Role of the State
9 Crime and Criminal Justice
10 Race in the Cultural Imagination

Part 4: Contemporary Issues in Race/Ethnicity

11 Arenas of Racial Integration: Interracial Relationships, Multiracial Families, Biracial/Multiracial Identities, Sports, and the Military
12 A Postracial Society?


Expanded Table of Contents

Expanded Table of Contents


Part 1: Thinking About Race

1. Taking Account of Race and Privilege

Chapter Learning Outcomes
The Significance of Race
Box 1.1 Race in the Workplace: Diversity Training in Higher Education
Resisting Race
Understanding Race as a Social Construction
Box 1.2 Racial Justice Activism: Eracism
Box 1.3 Global Perspectives: The Social Construction of Race in Latin America
Demographic Shifts in the United States
Racial Identities, Racial Ideologies, and Institutional Racism
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

2. White Privilege: The Other Side of Racism

Chapter Learning Outcomes
The Social Construction of Whiteness
Box 2.1 Global Perspectives: Constructing Whiteness in Brazil
White Privilege
Box 2.2 Race in the Workplace: White Teachers Making Meaning of Whiteness
Ideologies, Identities, and Institutions
Box 2.3 Racial Justice Activism: Tim Wise on White Identity and Becoming a Racial Justice Activist
Challenging White Privilege
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

3. Science and the Sociology of Race

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Scientific Racism
The Sociology of Race
Box 3.1 Racial Justice Activism: The Activism of W. E. B. Du Bois
Current Research into the Sociology of Race
Box 3.2 Race in the Workplace: Sociologist Joe R. Feagin’s Research on Race, Racism, and Privilege
Box 3.3 Global Perspectives: Global Critical Race Feminism
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

Part 2: A Sociological History of US Race Relations

4. Emergence of the US Racial Hierarchy

Chapter Learning Outcomes
The Emergence of Race
Sociological Perspectives on Racial/Ethnic Inequality
European Contact with Native Americans
Slavery in the United States
Box 4.1 Race in the Workplace: White Slavery
Box 4.2 Racial Justice Activism: The Abolitionist Movement
The Unique Exploitation of Mexican Americans by Whites
Gender, Sexuality, and Race
Box 4.3 Global Perspectives: The Haitian Revolution
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

5. Race Relations in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Intergroup Relations
From Reconstruction to Jim Crow
Box 5.1 Racial Justice Activism: Ida B. Wells and the Antilynching Movement
Nativism and the Era of Exclusion
Box 5.2 Race in the Workplace: Sleeping Car Porters: Racial Subordination and Opportunity
Chapter Summary
Box 5.3 Global Perspectives: White Australia Policies
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

6. Race Relations in Flux: From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Social Movements
The Civil Rights Movement
Box 6.1 Racial Justice Activism: Bob Zellner
Box 6.2 Global Perspectives: Gandhi, Nonviolent Protest, and the End of British Rule in India
Box 6.3 Race in the Workplace: Community Action Programs: Race, Place, and Activism
Native American Activism
Mexican American and Chicano Activism
Asian American Activism
Late 20th- and Early 21st-Century Activism
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

Part 3: Institutional Inequalities

7. Education

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Race and Education
Box 7.1 Race in the Workplace: Investigating Whiteness in Teacher Education
A History of Race and Public Education in the United States
Box 7.2 Global Perspectives: Aboriginal Education in Australia
Contemporary Issues of Racial Inequality in Education
Box 7.3 Racial Justice Activism: Teaching Tolerance
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

8. Economic Inequality and the Role of the State

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Economic Inequalities
Box 8.1 Race in the Workplace: The Workplace Project Benefits Latinos
Race and Social Policy

Box 8.2 Racial Justice Activism: Operation HOPE: From Civil Rights to Silver Rights
Box 8.3 Global Perspectives: Whiteness in International Development Programs
Residential Segregation
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

9. Crime and Criminal Justice

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Crime
Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System
Box 9.1 Race in the Workplace: Diversity Training in Police Departments
Box 9.2 Racial Justice Activism: The Equal Justice Initiative
The Era of Mass Imprisonment
Linking Race and Crime in the Public Consciousness
Box 9.3 Global Perspectives: Postapartheid Police Accountability in South Africa
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

10. Race in the Cultural Imagination

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Race and Popular Culture
Racial Imagery in Film and Television
Box 10.1 Global Perspectives: The Effect of Television and the Dismantling of Apartheid
Box 10.2 Race in the Workplace: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Racial Imagery in New Media
Subordinate Group Resistance
Box 10.3 Racial Justice Activism: Rock Against Racism
Race and Public History
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

Part 4: Contemporary Issues in Race/Ethnicity

11. Arenas of Racial Integration: Interracial Relationships, Multiracial Families, Biracial/Multiracial Identities, Sports, and the Military

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on Racial Integration
Interracial Intimacies: Relationships, Families, and Identities
Sports and Race
Box 11.1 Global Perspectives: International Sports Boycotts of South Africa
Box 11.2 Racial Justice Activism: Athletes Against Racism
Racial Integration and the Military
Box 11.3 Race in the Workplace: Addressing Race the Army Way: Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI)
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia

12. A Postracial Society?

Chapter Learning Outcomes
Sociological Perspectives on the Future of Race
Race, Racial Inequality, and Whiteness in the Political Sphere
Immigrants and the Racialization of Anti-Immigration Sentiment
Box 12.1 Global Perspectives: Immigration Challenges in Europe: A Failure of Multiculturalism?
Box 12.2 Racial Justice Activism: Campaign to Eliminate “the I Word”
Hate Crimes and Hate Groups
Box 12.3 Race in the Workplace: Fighting Hate—The Work of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward
Chapter Summary
Key Terms and Concepts, Personal Reflections, Critical Thinking Questions, Essential Reading, Recommended Films, Recommended Multimedia




When the first African American president, Barack Obama, was elected in 2008, many political pundits erroneously declared the United States to be “postracial.” As President Obama is finishing his second and final presidential term, race remains a central cleavage in American society, and the racial divide may be starker than ever. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this are police shootings of unarmed black men. When I completed the first edition of Recognizing Race and Ethnicity in the summer of 2013, George Zimmerman had just been acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin. Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal inspired the emergence of an online campaign, #BlackLivesMatter, which became a traditional campaign the next summer after the killing of seventeen-year-old African American Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Months of protests followed that shooting. The three years since have witnessed dozens more killings of unarmed African American men by police, over a hundred in 2015 alone, many caught on cell phone video and widely shared on social media. The most recent, as of this writing, are Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Minnesota. This new edition necessarily focuses attention not only on the extrajudicial shootings of black men by police officers but also on the mobilization and activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to draw sustained attention to these killings and hold police accountable for their actions.

In addition to the widely covered shootings and protests, the Republican presidential nominee for 2016, Donald Trump, is using race/ethnicity explicitly for political leverage, specifically using the age-old tactic of xenophobia to successfully generate votes. He referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” made anti-Semitic and antiblack comments, and campaigned on building a giant wall along the US-Mexico border, deporting the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants already in the country, and banning the immigration of Muslims. Ku Klux Klan member David Duke thanked Trump for creating a climate that was welcoming to views like his when he announced his intention to run for a Louisiana Senate seat in July 2016. This new edition thus covers the racialized political rhetoric that exploded in the summer of 2015 and continues unabated.

The second edition of Recognizing Race and Ethnicity also significantly expands the global race/ethnicity discussions. In addition to the “Global Perspectives” boxes found in each chapter, this text explores France’s official policy of color-blindness; global white supremacy, specifically with an exploration of eugenics policies in Brazil; decolonization movements in the 1960s; police violence in Brazil; a global focus on the war on drugs; Dutch slave history; the globalization of hate groups; and the current racialization of immigrants and the expansion of anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly pertaining to Syrian immigration to the US.

Expanded attention to intersectionality is also a key feature of this new edition, including a look at new research on black women’s mobilization against sexual violence, which was the foundation of civil rights movement mobilizing throughout the South; new research on interracial same-sex intimacies; an expanded discussion of gender and incarceration; and a discussion of the violent victimization of LGBTQ people, with LGBTQ people of color disproportionately targeted. Additionally, the text has been thoroughly updated with the most current statistics, the latest sociological research on race/ethnicity, and an expanded discussion of C. Wright Mills’s sociological imagination and the usefulness of this perspective for studying race/ethnicity.

The second edition of Recognizing Race and Ethnicity maintains its seminal focus on white privilege, critically examining how whites historically and currently benefit from the existing racial order, and the social construction of race/ethnicity. The new edition retains the expanded theoretical discussion that includes an exploration of critical race theory, the white racial frame, color-blind racism, the diversity ideology, and intersectionality, moving beyond the more traditional functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives on race/ethnicity. Race is presented through a sociohistorical lens to facilitate students’ understanding of the social construction of race. This text shifts the discussion of social policies from a narrow focus on a few social policies that are perceived as race-related, such as affirmative action, to an understanding of the historical racialization of the US welfare state overall. Topics of interest to students, including biracial/multiracial identities, multiracial families, and the intersections of race and sports and race and popular culture continue to make this text particularly relevant to their lives and provide opportunities for thought-­provoking class discussions. Finally, each chapter contains boxed inserts that focus on racial justice activists and organizations, helping students to understand the ongoing mobilization and activism to end racial inequality.

Kathleen J. Fitzgerald
July 28, 2016

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Taking Account of Race and Privilege

Chapter Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Differentiate between race and ethnicity
  • Distinguish between different forms of racism
  • Understand what is meant by the “social construction of race”
  • Describe demographic shifts in American society along racial/ethnic lines
  • Explain race at the level of identities, ideologies, and institutions

As I write this, a breaking news announcement flashes across my screen. Caesar Goodson Jr., the sole Baltimore police officer charged with murder in the death of twenty-five-year-old African American Freddie Gray during an encounter with police on April 12, 2015, has been found not guilty. One month ago, another of the officers, Edward Nero, was found not guilty on lesser charges. Six police officers have been charged in the case, though only Goodson was charged with murder. The first trial resulted in a hung jury in December of 2015, making the Nero case the first verdict of the six and Goodson the second verdict. Nero was charged with four misdemeanors, including assault for detaining Gray without justification and reckless endangerment for failing to buckle Gray’s seat belt in the back of a police van, a violation of departmental policy that left Gray to dangerously bounce around in the van while handcuffed and unable to protect himself. But because he was the driver of the van, prosecutors argued that Goodson had primary responsibility for Freddie Gray. Gray suffered numerous critical spinal cord injuries due to the ride and died one week after the incident. The cause of death was listed as homicide and the six officers were charged, as the “rough ride” in the police van Gray was subjected to was deemed a form of police brutality (indeed, numerous other instances of spinal cord injuries, paralysis, and even death have resulted from such rides, which is why the department had implemented the policy requiring officers to buckle detainees’ seat belts).

After a string of similar incidents in which unarmed African American men were killed by police or self-proclaimed neighborhood watchmen—such as Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner—Gray’s death triggered major protests against police brutality in Baltimore. Some of the protests turned violent and involved looting and burning local businesses, and resulted in injuries to fifteen police officers. A state of emergency was declared by the governor of Maryland, and the Maryland National Guard was deployed into Baltimore.

W. E. B. Du Bois begins his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, with the prophetic statement, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (1989:1). His comment remains true today, but we would instead say the problem of the twenty-first century remains a problem associated with the racial order, the collection of beliefs, suppositions, rules, and practices that shape the way groups are arranged in a society; generally, it is a hierarchical categorization of people along the lines of certain physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features (Hochschild, Weaver, and Burch 2012). The United States has not resolved the “race problem,” as it has historically been referred to by social scientists, and part of the reason is that white people have never considered it to be their problem to solve. The term race problem implies a problem of racial minorities. Du Bois expresses this implication in his first chapter: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question . . . How does it feel to be a problem?” (1989:3). Race relations in a society, whether problematic or not, involve all racial groups, including the dominant racial group.

The election of President Barack Obama led to immediate claims in the media that the United States is a postracial society, a society that has moved beyond race, because Obama could not have won the presidency without a significant number of white votes. However, as sociologists point out, Obama may have won the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, but most whites did not vote for him (Wingfield and Feagin 2010). While Obama won significant majorities of racial minority votes, from 62 percent of the Asian American vote and 66 percent of the Latino vote to 95 percent of the black vote, he won only 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 (Wingfield and Fea­gin 2010). The kind of opposition he has faced while governing is virulent and unlike anything past presidents have experienced. For instance, he is the only president to have his birthright questioned. Perhaps even more disturbing, the US Secret Service has reported approximately thirty death threats against Obama daily, which is four times the number made against the previous president (Feagin 2012).

While much has changed over the last century in terms of race, race remains a central organizing principle of our society, a key arena of inequality, and the subject of ongoing conflict and debate. Race also influences our identities, how we see ourselves. Ongoing evidence of the continuing significance of race manifests in both significant and obscure ways, as the following exemplify:

  • In June 2016, African American teenager Dayshen McKenzie died of an asthma attack he suffered after running in fear from a white mob shouting racial epithets and claiming to be armed (Popp 2016).
  • In 2015, there were ninety-three police shootings of unarmed men, 40 percent of whom were black. This makes black men seven times as likely as white men to die from police gunfire (Lowery 2016).
  • Rachel Dolezal ignited a nationwide debate in 2015 about racial identity when it was discovered that she, a woman born to two white parents, identified as black and had been passing as black for most of her adult life.
  • According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women earn 81.1 cents for every dollar a man earns; but for black women, that pay gap is even greater. Black women earn 66.8 cents for every dollar white men earn, even when they have the same education, skills, and experience (Rankin 2016).
  • Autism is severely underdiagnosed in African American children, who are instead misdiagnosed with ADHD or mental retardation (Martin and Vahabzadeh 2014).
  • After a sixty-two-year court battle over school integration, on May 18, 2016, the middle schools and high schools of Cleveland, Mississippi, were ordered by a judge to desegregate.
  • LGBTQ people of color face disproportionate rates of violent victimization (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 2011). The year 2015 was the most violent year on record for transgender people: twenty-two transgender people were murdered, and nineteen of those were people of color (Fitzgerald 2017; Meyer 2015).

The Significance of Race

Despite the undeniable racial progress that has been made during the twentieth century, ongoing racism exists and even harkens back to the racism of earlier eras. As the opening vignette describes, being a young black man in America can be lethal. Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Jamar Clark are just a few of the black men who have been killed at the hands of police in the last few years. In fact, some have referred to the police shootings of unarmed black men as a “blatant disregard for black and brown bodies” and an example of “modern day lynching” (Embrick 2015:836–7). After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, three African American women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, began an online campaign known as #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM). This has since grown into an international social movement, moving the hashtag from social media to the streets with, according to Garza, thirty-three chapters in the US and some abroad. Their initial goal was to draw attention to the injustices African Americans face, particularly at the hands of police. Ultimately, their objectives include celebrating blackness in a nation that denigrates it (see Chapter 6).

Image 1.1: New Orleans, LA. A July 8, 2016, protest of the police killing of unarmed black men, specifically Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Note the protest is at Lee Circle, under a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The New Orleans City Council has voted to remove this statue of Lee and four other Confederate statues (see Chapter 10). (Photo: Kathleen J. Fitzgerald)

While Black Lives Matter activism has helped focus necessary attention on police killings of unarmed black men, the killings of African American women, LGBTQ people of color, Native Americans, and Latinos have generated less media attention. Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Gynnya McMillen, and Ty Underwood are just some of the African American or LGBTQ women of color recently killed, most while in police custody. The #SayHerName movement has emerged as a gender-inclusive racial justice movement to rectify this oversight.

In addition to these examples of “modern day lynching,” which reflect the racism of earlier eras, racial symbolism of previous eras also remains, providing evidence of the existence of ongoing racism simultaneously with evidence of racial progress. Nooses, for instance—visual reminders of an era when whites lynched African Americans, as well as Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and many other racial minorities, for real or imagined offenses—are still hung today to intimidate people of color. Lynching imagery was pervasive on the Internet during President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 election campaigns as well as during his presidency (Feagin 2012). In 2007, a noose was hung on the office door of an African American professor who taught courses on race and diversity at Columbia University. That same year on the same campus, a Jewish professor found a swastika on her office door. Both are professors of psychology and education and are involved in teaching multicultural education.

What is the message being sent by this kind of racial imagery? President Obama and the professors targeted in these examples violate what Feagin et al. (1996) refer to as racialized space, space generally regarded as reserved for one race and not another. Columbia University was being defined by some students as a white space, not only a racialized space where nonwhites are perceived as intruders and unwelcome but also an institutional space where white privilege is reproduced (Moore 2008). Additionally, research on the experiences of Latino college students finds they often refer to institutions of higher education as a “white space,” thus, as an environment where they feel less than welcome (Barajas and Ronnkvist 2007).

Are these isolated incidents? According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that tracks hate crimes and hate group activity, the prevalence of nooses and other symbols of hate, such as swastikas, is not unusual (see Chapter 12). Often such incidents are explained as a practical joke, which raises the question, what exactly is funny about a noose? A noose is the ultimate symbol of terror directed primarily, but not exclusively, toward African Americans. This symbol is hard to joke about.

Lynching is generally regarded as a southern type of mob justice perpetrated by whites against blacks. Indeed, the great majority of lynchings fit this profile and thus became the focus of a major antilynching movement during the first half of the twentieth century (see Chapter 4). However, many other racial/ethnic minorities were also targeted for this type of violence. Part of the perceived “taming of the West” involved the lynching of hundreds of Chinese, Native Americans, and Latinos, particularly Mexicans, by Anglo Americans (Gonzales-Day 2006). In Atlanta in 1915, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager from Brooklyn, was lynched for the murder of a young female factory worker, despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed at someone else as the perpetrator of this crime. After Frank’s conviction, a mob broke into the jail and dragged him off to be lynched, rather than allowing his life sentence to stand. He was described as someone worthy of paying with his life for this horrendous crime, “not just some black factory sweeper, but a rich Jew from Brooklyn” (Guggenheim 1995).

Lynching is a public act—often occurring at night, yet nevertheless drawing large crowds of supporters. Photographers in the early part of the twentieth century routinely captured such moments, and often these photographs were made into postcards for popular consumption (Gonzales-Day 2006). Sociologically speaking, the use of public execution is meant to send a message to all members of the community. Lynchings are acts of terror, not just actions meant to punish one particular individual; terrorism is designed to instill fear in more people than the individual or individuals targeted. Thus, anyone currently teaching courses that challenge white supremacy could well interpret the hanging of a noose or a swastika on a professor’s door as being directed at them as well. The presence of souvenirs and postcards complicates the picture; beyond terrorizing minority communities, the lynching becomes a morbid celebration of dominant group privilege.

Not long after the hanging of a noose at Columbia University, an African American man was elected president for the first time in US history. The success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign clearly indicates racial progress. So, what can we make of an era when nooses are still being displayed as an intimidation tactic while a black man finds tremendous support for his presidential candidacy? Such contradictions are actually part of a long history of societal contradictions surrounding the issue of race and are quite common; these may even become obvious to us if we take the time to reflect on some of the lessons we have been taught about race. According to white author and professor Helen Fox, “Everything I learned about race while growing up has been profoundly contradictory. Strong, unspoken messages about how to be racist shamefully contradict the ways I have been taught to be a good person” (2001:15). Students often note that they were taught to love everyone because “we are all children of God” while being simultaneously warned against interracial dating. Clearly, there is a fundamental, though often unrecognized, contradiction embedded in such messages.

Reflect and Connect

Can you identify any contradictory messages surrounding race that you have been exposed to through the media, at home, in school, or in church?

Defining Concepts in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

This book approaches the study of race/ethnicity through a sociological lens. Sociology refers to the academic discipline that studies group life: society, social interactions, and human social behavior. Sociologists who study race and ethnicity focus on such things as historical and current conflict between racial/ethnic groups, the emergence of racial/ethnic identities, racial/ethnic inequality and privilege, and cultural beliefs about race/ethnicity, otherwise referred to as racial ideologies. Sociologist C. Wright Mills (2000) introduced the concept of the sociological imagination to help us understand the ways history, society, and biography intersect; in other words, the sociological imagination is a perspective that encourages us to understand our lives as historically and culturally situated. Such a perspective keeps us from being overly individualistic in our thinking, which makes it an especially useful perspective for understanding race/ethnicity, which operates simultaneously at the historical, institutional, and individual levels. We live our lives as racial beings, as members of one or more racial groups that have a history that informs the present, and we constantly interact with institutions that have their own racial histories and present, which informs our experiences with those institutions. This textbook will focus on all of these angles: the US racial/ethnic history, racialized institutions, and racial identities.

Many students are uncomfortable with the discipline of sociology. It is tempting to counter every statement in sociological research about whites, blacks, or Latinos with, “Well, this is not true for all members of this group.” But sociologists take that as a given. Sociologists study groups and patterns of behavior rather than individuals. By definition, sociologists acknowledge that there are always outliers, those who do not fit the pattern. However, the emphasis in sociology is on the patterns rather than on those exceptions to the rule. This is important for understanding the sociology of race/ethnicity because there will always be exceptions to the research presented, but the presence of such exceptions does not negate the research results. In American society, where individualism reigns supreme, this is often difficult to accept, but this text will be making claims about groups of people based upon scientific research, and the research is not going to apply to every member of a particular group.

While the sociology of race/ethnicity is interested in the racial hierarchy and the positioning of all racial groups in that hierarchy, much of the empirical research is focused on blacks and whites. This is not intended to ignore the experiences of Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, or the many other racial groups in America, but instead is meant to recognize that the black-white binary is the foundation of the racial hierarchy in the United States and remains so today. Thus, if we want to understand how couples in an interracial relationship negotiate race, we can opt to study black-white couples because they are the most stigmatized and historically it is their relationships that have been the “most forcibly prohibited” (Steinbugler 2012). Research limitations can sometimes mistakenly portray racial politics as black-white and contribute to the invisibility of other racial minority groups.

We live in a culture where the meaning of race appears to be clear, yet scientists challenge our commonsense understandings about race. Race specifically refers to a group of people who share some socially defined physical characteristics, for instance, skin color, hair texture, or facial features. That definition more than likely reinforces our commonsense understanding of race. Most of us believe we can walk into a room and identify the number of different racial groups present based upon physical appearances. But is that really true? Many people are racially ambiguous in appearance, for any number of reasons, including the fact that they may be multiracial.

A term that is distinct from race yet often erroneously used interchangeably with it is ethnicity. Ethnicity refers to a group of people who share a culture, nationality, ancestry, and/or language; physical appearance is not associated with ethnicity. Both race and ethnicity are socially defined and carry significant meaning in our culture; they are not simply neutral and descriptive categories. A challenge social scientists offer is to understand race and ethnicity as social constructions rather than biological realities, despite the fact that the definition of race refers to physical appearance. The details concerning this very important distinction will be introduced later in this chapter.

While social scientists distinguish between the two categories of race and ethnicity, these are not mutually exclusive. In other words, people can identify according to their race and their ethnicity. For instance, a Nigerian American immigrant, an African American whose ancestors have been in the United States for hundreds of years, and a black Puerto Rican all have very different ethnicities, yet they are still classified as “black” in our culture. This text uses the term racial/ethnic to acknowledge that race and ethnicity overlap. In addition to using the term racial/ethnic, the term people of color will be used to collectively refer to racial/ethnic minority groups that have been the object of racism and discrimination in the United States, rather than using the term nonwhite. To use the term nonwhite reinforces white as the norm against which all other groups are defined, which is a perspective this text argues against.

Sociologists often use the terms minority group or subordinate group to express patterned inequality along group lines. From a sociological perspective, a minority group does not refer to a statistical minority (a group smaller in size). Instead, sociologists are referring to a group that is cumulatively disadvantaged in proportion to their population size. For instance, Native Americans are a minority group because they are disproportionately impoverished. Women are a minority group according to the sociological understanding of the term; however, while they qualify as a sociological minority, women are a statistical majority as they represent 51 percent of the US population. The opposite of this is also true: if there are disadvantaged groups, there are advantaged groups that sociologists refer to as a majority group or dominant group. Again, we are not referring to statistics but instead to a group’s disproportionate share of society’s power and resources. In terms of race, whites are the dominant, majority group in the United States.

This text primarily emphasizes one status hierarchy: race. However, multiple status hierarchies are significant: there is a gender hierarchy, in which men are the dominant group and women are the minority group. Another status hierarchy of significance relates to sexuality: heterosexuals are the dominant group, while nonheterosexuals (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals) comprise what we refer to as sexual minorities. Status hierarchies intersect with one another, resulting in unique experiences with discrimination and privilege: we may be members of a dominant group in one hierarchy and members of subordinate groups in others.

Sexualizing Racial/Ethnic Minorities

One of the primary areas where we can see the intersection of status hierarchies is the sexualizing of racial/ethnic minorities. As sociologist Joane Nagel states, “Sex matters in ethnic relations, and . . . sexual matters insinuate themselves into all things racial, ethnic, and national” (2003:1).


“Sex is the sometimes silent message contained in racial slurs, ethnic stereotypes, national imaginings, and international relations. . . . Ethnic and racial boundaries are also sexual boundaries” (Nagel 2003:2,3).

Racial/ethnic minority group members in the United States must negotiate their sexual identities through a maze of demeaning and sometimes contradictory sexual stereotypes that work to portray a racial/ethnic minority group as deviant, “other,” and potentially threatening to the dominant group. African American men are portrayed as hypersexual, while black women struggle with often contradictory controlling images that are sexual in nature: mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and the Jezebel (Collins 1990) (see Chapter 10). The image of black men as hypersexual, animalistic, sexually immoral, and threatening is deeply rooted in American culture. After slavery ended, American literature and folklore were flooded with images of sexually promiscuous black men as threats to white women (Staples 2006).

Latino males are stereotyped as hypersexual, aggressive, and “macho.” Another stereotype is that of the “Latin lover,” who is seen as sexually sophisticated and thus a threat to white women. Latina portrayals follow a virgin/whore dichotomy: either she is a passive, submissive virgin or she is a sexually aggressive whore (Asencio and Acosta 2010).

Asian American sexuality is socially constructed to maintain white male dominance (Chou 2012). Asian American women are stereotyped as exotic and eager to please men sexually, specifically white men, while also passive and subordinate. Instead of being stereotyped as hypersexual as African American and Latino men are today, Asian American males are portrayed as weak and effeminate; they are emasculated, hyposexual, or even asexual (Chou 2012).

Sexual stereotypes of Native Americans are in many ways similar. For many decades, whites viewed Native Americans as savages and Native women as promiscuous and sexually available to white men. This later morphed into an image of Native women as “dirty little squaws” who slept with married white men, thus threatening white women and their families (D’Emilio and Freedman 2012). The bottom line is that sexual ideologies define racial and ethnic “others” as “oversexed, undersexed, perverted, or dangerous” (Nagel 2003:9).

Racism: Past and Present

Despite undeniable racial progress, our society remains divided along racial lines and racial inequality persists. However, one can look at the previously discussed noose incidents as a sign of that progress: while they are disturbing, racist acts whose intent was to terrorize minorities, they are only symbolic. Three or more generations ago, instead of nooses we would more than likely have seen the “strange fruit” that 1940s-era African American jazz singer Billie Holiday sang of lynched bodies hanging from trees.

However, in the face of such a history, we must not underestimate the power of symbols. We live in a symbolic world, which means that we develop a shared understanding of our world through a variety of symbols; meanings are culturally conveyed and understood through symbols. Yet we do not all have equal power in defining symbols as meaningful. Part of the symbolism of a noose is recognition that, in the United States, the world is still interpreted through a racist lens, even if some people fail to recognize it as such.

The act of hanging nooses, the cultural meaning of this symbol, and any denials of the significance of such symbolism all amount to racism. Racism refers to any actions, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, that threaten, harm, or disadvantage members of one racial/ethnic group, or the group itself, over another. Thus, racism can take many forms. It can manifest as prejudice, a belief that is not based upon evidence but instead upon preconceived notions and stereotypes that are not subject to change even in the face of contrary evidence. Prejudice relegates racism to the realm of ideas and attitudes rather than actions.

The type of racism that most people envision when they hear the word racism is actually individual discrimination, which refers to discriminatory actions taken by individuals against members of a subordinate group. Not hiring people because they are black is an example of individual discrimination. The minority applicants are not given a chance to even compete for the job, their candidacy dismissed due to the racial/ethnic group to which they belong. This type of racism has declined since the civil rights era simply because it is illegal and thus many employers do not discriminate out of fear of legal retribution.

The most prominent type of racism today is also the hardest to see: institutional racism. It is hard to see because it is found not in individual actions but in everyday business practices and policies that disadvantage minorities and offer advantages to dominant group members; it is often written off as “just the way things are.” For instance, schools disproportionately rely on personal property taxes for the majority of their funding, something we will explore in great detail in Chapter 7. This type of system disadvantages schools that serve predominantly poor communities (the residents have less personal property and what they do have is valued less, thus fewer tax dollars are collected). As we will discover in the coming chapters, race and class overlap significantly, thus, this type of funding system, while possibly not intentionally racist, manifests as racism because schools that have predominantly minority populations also tend to be the most impoverished and, thus, tend to get the least funding.

Racism has changed over the generations, yet it remains a significant facet of our society; “Malcolm X used to say that racism was like a Cadillac: they make a new model every year. There is always racism, but it is not the same racism” (Lipsitz 2001:120). Today’s racism is certainly different from the racism of the post–Civil War and post-Reconstruction era of segregation known as Jim Crow; however, that does not negate the fact that racism is alive and well and is something people of color experience in their daily lives and to which white Americans are often oblivious. Race and racism are constantly changing, responding to changing social contexts, societal demands, social movements, and varying political climates, to name a few significant influences.

The Continuing Significance of Race

One of the primary arguments in this text is that all of us are required to take account of race, to recognize the operation of race in our lives. As a white woman, I have to constantly reflect on the ways my race and gender (as well as social class, age, and sexuality) influence my experiences; I have to interrogate the ways my racial privilege, for instance, operates (see Chapter 2). Many of you are taking this course because it is a requirement. That is no accident. In our rapidly changing world, employers need a workforce that is familiar with and comfortable with all kinds of diversity, including, but not limited to, racial/ethnic diversity (see Box 1.1 Race in the Workplace: Diversity Training in Higher Education). Too often we Americans have fooled ourselves into thinking we understand one another when we clearly do not. During slavery, for instance, southern slaveholders were astonished at the demands of abolitionists, insisting that they treated “their” slaves well and that it was a mutually beneficial system. Later, during the civil rights movement, many southern whites again misunderstood race relations in their own communities, repeatedly claiming that “their Negroes” were happy and that only outside agitators, primarily those who were communist influenced, were the ones fighting for civil rights. During the early to mid-1970s, as busing became the solution to segregated schools in the North, intense rioting and violent opposition occurred in many cities throughout the North, most notoriously Boston. However, individuals in northern states did not consider themselves racially prejudiced, certainly not in the way southerners were stigmatized as racist. Their reactions to busing revealed a very different picture, however.

More current examples of the continuing significance of race include the race-baiting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been accused of, specifically his claims that Mexicans are rapists and that we should build a wall to keep them out, and his promise that if he becomes president of the United States he will deport all Muslims (see Chapter 12). The implementation of strict voter ID laws, which are found in thirty-three states and require people to show a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, is also a good example of the continuing significance of race. Conservatives claim that such laws are necessary in order to protect against voter fraud. Liberals are critical of such laws for a number of reasons. First, there is no evidence of massive voter fraud that needs to be addressed. Second, such ID requirements would not stop voter fraud. Finally, liberals see this as a Republican tactic to depress voter turnout among key constituencies, primarily African Americans and other racial minorities, students, and the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic. Former senator Jim DeMint claimed that where strict voter ID laws had been enacted, “elections begin to change towards more conservative candidates” (Graham 2016).

To take account of race is to bring it out into the open—to recognize how membership in particular racial/ethnic groups advantages some while hindering others. It exposes how race remains a significant social divide in our culture and, further, how it is embedded in our identities, ideologies, and institutions. Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun used similar language in his opinion in the affirmative action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978):

A race-conscious remedy is necessary to achieve a fully integrated society, one in which the color of a person’s skin will not determine the opportunities available to him or her. . . . In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. . . . In order to treat persons equally, we must treat them differently.

In this opinion, Blackmun emphasizes that we must recognize race to get beyond it, that color consciousness is preferable to color-blindness. Many Americans, particularly white Americans, would rather avoid recognizing the issue of race. Not being victimized by racism can lead many whites to believe that racism is fading away and that any emphasis on race only revives it. Even many progressive white people believe that acknowledging race is a form of racism and that denying race means not discriminating against or holding stereotypical views about racial minorities. This color-blind ideology dominates US culture; it’s the idea that we don’t see race, that racism is a thing of the past, and that if racial inequality still exists, it must be due to other factors, such as culture or personal ineptitude. Claiming we live in a color-blind society isn’t polite; it is problematic because it fails to challenge white privilege or acknowledge ongoing racism (Bonilla-Silva 2006; Haney Lopez 2006; Omi and Winant 1994). Instead, color consciousness, recognizing race and difference rather than pretending we don’t, allows us to celebrate difference without implying difference is equivalent to inferiority.

Box 1.1. Race in the Workplace: Diversity Training in Higher Education

Diversity and multiculturalism are often words associated with educational settings—schools of education explore curricular and pedagogical approaches to teaching students from diverse backgrounds and how best to educate all students about the multiethnic and multiracial US history. Multicultural education challenges traditional historical narratives that focus narrowly on a white, male, and middle- to upper-class history.

However, diversity education reaches well beyond schools and has become an influence in the workplace as well. One reason for implementing diversity training is that the American workforce is changing demographically. Today there are more women and people of color in the paid labor force and entering professions; occupations are less segregated along racial and gender lines than they once were. Thus, there is more interaction among whites and people of color as well as among women and men in occupational settings. Additionally, employers are increasingly recognizing the need for training and promoting minority workers, as diversity in all ranks of employment works to the advantage of employers because different people bring different skills, management styles, knowledge, and approaches to problem-solving, among other things, which, if tapped, work to the advantage of employers. Beyond such benefits, due to affirmative action policies and the various civil rights acts, employers are no longer free to overlook qualified minority candidates for employment or promotion without the threat of legal action.

Institutions of higher education are workplaces as well, and while many in higher education are committed to diversity education, it turns out that most college campuses are white spaces and too often embrace diversity as a brand rather than show a real commitment to campus change (Berrey 2015). In fact, diversity agendas are generally “accompanied by the (unspoken) expectation that such minority representation should not threaten the status of white people and other dominant groups” (Berrey 2015:7).

The fall of 2015 witnessed minority student protests on numerous college campuses, including the University of Missouri, where they led to the ouster of two top-level administrators. Minority students are demanding their institutions hire more minority faculty, make a commitment to increasing racial diversity in admissions, and offer a more racially inclusive curriculum—demands that remain remarkably similar to those made in the 1960s (see Chapter 6).

What does a true institutional commitment to diversity on a college campus look like? It “permeates every aspect of the campus and is widely collaborative. It does not rest mostly on chief diversity officers, administrators in multicultural affairs and ethnic cultural centers, and faculty and staff of color. Instead, trustees, presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs, and others all across campus play meaningful roles in advancing it” (“Forum: What Does a Genuine . . . ” 2016).

Reflect and Connect

Do you claim to be color-blind? If so, what social pressures exist to encourage color-blindness? Does being color conscious make you uncomfortable? If so, why?

Resisting Race

Discussing loaded topics, such as those related to racial issues, can make some people uncomfortable or even defensive and resistant. If any part of the previous section made you uncomfortable, remain engaged and learn from your sense of discomfort rather than avoid it. White college professor Helen Fox explains, “I learned from being forced to confront my blind spots, my resistance, the points at which my emotions take over from reason” (Fox 2009:12). You may be uncomfortable with discussions of race-related issues because our society generally does not encourage open, honest, and substantive discussions about race. Thus, some discomfort with an open discussion of race is to be expected. However, it is only through such discomfort that we truly grow.


An African American undergraduate student noted, “I firmly believe that you cannot change your perceptions of people who come from unfamiliar cultures while having safe and superficial chit-chat. It is only when you get uncomfortable and passionate that the true work towards reform can begin” (Fox 2001:51).

The perspective of this text emerges out of what is known as standpoint perspective, which simply means that our understanding of the world stems from our particular location in the world (Hartstock 1987; Smith 1987). The way we view the world is influenced by our particular social statuses, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. We can only understand others by first understanding ourselves and how our social status influences our experiences in and understanding of the world.


African American W. Ralph Eubanks grew up in Mississippi during the tumultuous 1960s. Exemplifying the standpoint perspective, he describes in his memoir, Ever Is a Long Time (2003), the dramatically different reactions of the local black and white communities to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. At his all-black school, Eubanks’ teacher relayed the news to the students through tears; later the black community gathered quietly at a neighbor’s home. Their mourning was interrupted by shouts spilling from a passing white school bus filled with children cheering, “They got him! Yay! They finally got him!” (Eubanks 2003:61).

One of the goals of this text is to stimulate honest rather than superficial conversations about race. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed a new commission to study the problem of race in the United States and to conduct a national dialogue on race. Clinton declared his initiative, entitled “One America in the 21st Century,” in a commencement address at the University of California at San Diego: “Over the coming year I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race” (Franklin 2009:xi). Clinton began this process with town hall meetings across the country, while opposition to the commission mounted. Much of the media coverage of Clinton’s initiative declared the racial dialogue initiative to be racially biased rather than progressive.

Clinton was not the first president to direct attention to the issue of racial inequality or to face a backlash because of it. President Truman formed a Committee on Civil Rights in 1946; President Johnson appointed a White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966, and in 1967, he created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commission, to address urban rioting. Perhaps ironically, the nation’s first black president has barely addressed race, with the exception of one eloquent campaign speech about race given on March 18, 2008. President Obama has worked to balance embracing black America with a belief in policies that benefit everyone rather than those that target specific groups. When criticized by some prominent black Americans, such as Cornel West, for not addressing racism explicitly, he responded with, “I’m not the president of black America, I’m the president of the United States of America” (Kantor 2012).

Examining Our Own Belief Systems Surrounding Race

Conversations about race, which were the goal of the Clinton initiative, first require that we engage in a process of self-reflexivity, examining our conscious and unconscious beliefs about race. To be self-reflexive means to engage in an ongoing conversation with ourselves concerning what we are learning about race and to reflect on how it mirrors our experiences or challenges our long-held assumptions. Throughout this text, you will be asked to understand and question your preconceived notions about race, racism, and racial inequality.

Self-reflexivity allows us to recognize that we are all oppressors, not only in our society but globally as well. A poor white man, for instance, has race and gender privilege but faces inequality along class lines. It is no healthier to be an oppressor than to be oppressed, although it is fair to say that the experience of being oppressed is the more damaging of the two. There are multiple status hierarchies, for instance, based on social class, gender, sexuality, age, ability/disability, and First World / Third World citizenship. The only truly privileged person may be a wealthy, white, heterosexual man with no disabilities who claims citizenship in a wealthy First World country. And even then, should that privileged person live long enough, age becomes the great equalizer for two reasons: aging is an increasingly disabling process, and we live in a youth-oriented culture that does not value the elderly. Thus, even those who appear to have privilege on every status hierarchy can eventually face subordination when it comes to age.

Speaking “Race” Honestly

So, how do we have honest dialogues about race in a society that has taught us to avoid them without putting people off? First, honest discussions about race can emerge in classrooms in which students and faculty listen to one another respectfully. Antiracist activist and author Paul Kivel (2008) argues that the first thing we must do if we are to do antiracist work is to trust the stories told by people of color concerning their experiences with racism and discrimination rather than disregard them. This is not always easy. Many whites, for example, tend to assume people of color are exaggerating the racism they claim to have experienced or that they are placing too much emphasis on history. Some white people have faced racial discrimination that deserves to be heard and acknowledged as well. However, since “non-Hispanic whites” significantly outnumber all other racial/ethnic groups and hold the power in US society, white people do not encounter the ongoing, systemic racism that is too often experienced by people of color. White people may experience individual acts of discrimination or be prejudiced against by some people of color, but it is not systemic as the racism directed at people of color, both historically and currently.

To be self-reflexive about race forces us to acknowledge not only societal racism but the racism inevitably within us. The use of strong language (“inevitably”) is intentional. We live in a racist society; so we cannot be nonracist without actively working toward that goal. Anyone can be racist—meaning that person holds prejudicial views regarding racial/ethnic other, or discriminates against racial/ethnic others. White people in no way corner the market on racial prejudice and discrimination. However, white people’s racism gets reinforced by society—through the media, the attitudes of family members, political rhetoric, and educational institutions. This implies that racism can be understood as prejudice plus power. It may be that much harder for white people to see their racism because it is constantly being culturally reinforced, so it is the norm. Cultural norms are unquestioned practices or beliefs and thus are invisible and taken for granted. Racism manifests itself not only in attitudes but in cultural belief systems, individual actions, and institutional practices. Because people of color do not collectively hold enough positions of power, they tend not to have as much influence in creating cultural belief systems, known as racial ideologies, or institutional practices.

Because racism tends to be normalized in our color-blind society, organizations and individuals have emerged to actively fight racism (see Box 1.2 Racial Justice Activism: Eracism). This text focuses on racial justice activism, sometimes referred to as antiracist activism, which concerns groups and individuals who are actively working to eradicate racism. Each chapter will contain a special feature, “Racial Justice Activism,” by a racial justice activist or about an antiracist organization, so that you can see the work being done to counter the dominant pattern of racism within our society.

Understanding Race as a Social Construction

Have you ever questioned this concept called race? Most white people have not, because they view the world from a position of race privilege, the advantages associated with being a member of a society’s dominant race. Having race privilege allows people to rarely even think about race, much less question its validity. White (race) privilege and the ways it manifests itself will be explored in much more detail in Chapter 2. However, it is not only white people who fail to question the notion of race. For people of color, their experiences with racial prejudice and discrimination emphasize the significance of race, and such experiences cause them not to question the concept of race, either. If you experience racial discrimination, race feels very real.

Box 1.2. Racial Justice Activism: Eracism

“Eracism” is the slogan of a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization known as ERACE, which formed in New Orleans in the summer of 1993. It grew out of a series in a local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, entitled “Together Apart: The Myth of Race.” ERACE’s objectives are to facilitate conversations between people of all races, to create an atmosphere in which people feel free to explore their perceptions, assumptions, and biases about race in a nonjudgmental setting, and to ultimately help put an end to racism. The idea is that honest discussion can help eliminate stereotypes and misconceptions. ERACE sponsors monthly group discussions that are designed to foster an open, critical exchange of ideas. In addition to its monthly discussions, ERACE sponsors social gatherings and children’s play groups, and its members speak to schools, businesses, and the media. In 2010, the organization launched Eracism in Schools to connect two New Orleans schools, one with a predominantly black student population and the other with a predominantly white student population, for dialogues. For more information on ERACE, check out its website:

People who question the validity of race tend to be those who live in the racial margins—biracial and multiracial individuals, for instance. Racial categories in our society are treated as absolute, as either/or, and as biologically real. Yet biracial individuals live in a world of both/and—they are members of more than one racial group, so discrete racial categories don’t apply to them. For example, monoracial people can fill out their demographic information on standardized tests or census forms without question, while biracial and multiracial people find themselves in a predicament. They are forced to think of themselves as either black, white, Hispanic, or Native American, when they may be all or some combination of the above categories. Their very existence challenges our societal racial categorization system. Thus, their standpoint on the world and their lived experience allow them to see what for many of us is difficult not only to see but to understand: that race is not real in a biological sense.

Box 1.3. Global Perspectives: The Social Construction of Race in Latin America

To say that race is a social construction is to recognize that definitions of race change across time and place. In Latin America, for instance, race is understood differently than in the United States. A common theme of Latin American race relations is the notion of mestizaje, cultural and racial mixing that involves a progression toward whiteness. This is a concept generally applied to indigenous peoples, however, rather than to Latin Americans of African descent. In Peru, for instance, questions of race tend to refer to Indians rather than Afro-Peruvians (Golash-Boza 2012). For indigenous people in Peru, their racial status is determined by their educational attainment, social class, and certain cultural markers; thus, they hold the possibility of changing their racial status by changing these markers. However, for black Peruvians, their racial status strictly refers to skin color; thus, changing their racial status is not possible (Golash­Boza 2012).

In Brazil, race is defined differently than in the United States and is closer to that of Peru. Brazilians have never defined race in biological terms and instead embrace a form of colorism, whereby lighter-skinned citizens hold a higher social status. This is not defined as racism because these are not distinctions made upon biological-group membership. Mulattos hold a special status in Brazil that is unheard of in the United States, one that is neither “black nor white” (Deg­er 1971). Historically, in the United States, the “one-drop rule” has applied, by which anyone with any African ancestry was considered to be black.

What is important about this is that throughout Latin America, there is considerable racial mixing and understandings of race are different than those of the United States. However, the presence of extensive race mixing does not challenge white supremacy in these countries or the racial hierarchy, where racial minorities are disadvantaged compared to those designated as whites or those who are lighter-skinned (Bonilla-­Silva 2010).

Race is a socially constructed phenomenon. In other words, race is not biologically or genetically determined; racial categories, groups of people differentiated by their physical characteristics, are given particular meanings by particular societies. Beyond the existence of biracial and multiracial people, there is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Dislodging the notion that race is real in a biological sense is often difficult, particularly if this is your first encounter with this idea (after all, our genes determine what we look like, right?). Next time you walk into a room, see whether you can identify how many racial groups are present. While this may make you uncomfortable, as some people are racially ambiguous and you might hate to be wrong, most people assume that this task is possible. However, scientists know otherwise. Despite the lack of biological validity, race and ethnicity are important socially, which is why a critical investigation of race, racism, and race privilege is so important. While it may be difficult to dislodge our misconceptions surrounding the biological validity of race, it is important to recognize that there is power in the notion of race as a social construction (see Box 1.3 Global Perspectives: The Social Construction of Race in Latin America). Anything that is constructed can be deconstructed. In other words, there is nothing inevitable about race, racism, and racial inequality. We could have a society without these problematic divisions, a society without a racial hierarchy.

Race changes across time and place. If race were biologically real, this would not be true. But despite the lack of biological validity, race is a significant delineator in American society because we attach particularly salient meanings to specific physical characteristics and these meanings result in some very real consequences.

The racial category “white” has always been in flux. Groups that were once considered nonwhite include Irish Americans, Greek Americans, Italian Americans, and Jewish Americans. Their physical appearance never changed, but their social status did, which offers more evidence that race is a socially constructed category. Prior to “becoming white,” members of these groups were discriminated against, assumed to be of inferior intelligence, and faced some of the same obstacles that black Americans have faced. For example, when Irish Americans were considered to be nonwhite, they were not considered qualified for certain jobs and their housing choices were limited (Ignatiev 1995). Over time, all of these groups came to be considered white, and with that changing racial/ethnic status came advantages that they could use every day (the social construction of whiteness is discussed in detail in Chapter 2).

From a biological science standpoint, it is not hard to recognize that racial categories are social constructions. Quite simply, their argument is that if two animals (and humans are animals) can breed, they are of the same species. Any further breakdown in the species “human being,” then, is socially generated rather than biologically determined. Additionally, after mapping the human genome, geneticists have not identified a gene that is found strictly in one racial group and not in another. Thus, there is no genetic marker for race.

There is also more genetic variation within a so-called racial group than between groups. Think about this last statement for a moment and challenge how you have been taught to think about race and the world. We all encounter very light-skinned African Americans who are identified and classified as black (in personal interactions or on official documents, for instance) and very dark-skinned individuals who are similarly identified and classified as white. We see these physical variations every day; however, we tend not to let them challenge our assumptions about race. The idea of the social construction of race forces us to recognize that if such glaring contradictions exist, we must challenge our racial categorization system.

Consider a seemingly objective document: the census. Census data have been collected every ten years by the federal government since the first census of 1790, which was overseen by Thomas Jefferson. The census is supposed to provide us with a demographic snapshot of the United States: data on educational level, age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and much more illustrate the US population at a particular time (see Image 1.3 ). The census is assumed to contain objective and unbiased information. Social scientists use census data regularly in scientific research, thus affirming the validity of the document and the data collected.

Image 1.3: The social construction of race is exemplified by the changing racial categories on the census. This image is of the racial category question on the 2010 census. Currently, “Hispanic” is not a racial category, according to the US census; however, the Census Bureau is considering adding it as a racial category on the
2020 census. (US Census Bureau, 2010 census questionnaire)

However, racial categories on the census are always changing, which confirms the social construction of race as a reflection of sociohistorical eras (see Recommended Multimedia at the end of this chapter). For instance, the first census documented “whites” and “nonwhites,” with instructions to not count Native Americans at all. Prior to and following the Civil War, the census had multiple categories for blacks. For instance in 1840, 1850, and 1860, census takers were provided with a racial category called mulatto, a person of mixed African and white ancestry, although this category was not explicitly defined at the time. In the 1870 and 1880 censuses, the category “mulatto” was defined and differentiated into two subgroups, quadroons (children of a white person and a mulatto) and octoroons (children of a white person and a quadroon, thus, someone having one black great-grandparent), as well as a category referring to “people having any perceptible trace of African blood.” By 1890, census takers were asked to record the exact proportion of African blood, based upon physical appearance and the opinion of the census taker (the census did not begin using racial self-definitions until 1960).

Reflect and Connect

Speculate as to why such differentiations and subgroupings of blacks were considered necessary during the decades leading up to and immediately after the Civil War, yet have been considered unnecessary since 1890. Can you explain why such racial categorizations of African Americans were politically advantageous in some eras but not others?

Over the years, such groups as Japanese Americans have been classified on the census as “nonwhite,” “Orientals,” “other,” and currently, “Asian or Asian Pacific Islander.” A relatively new ethnic category on the census is that of “Hispanic.” Many Latinos do not see themselves as “Hispanic,” as it is not a term they have used to define themselves. It is instead a term originated by the United States federal government. The term Latino references the Latin American origins of such people and thus tends to be more commonly used. Currently, “Hispanic” is not classified as a race on the US census despite the fact that whites are referred to as “non-Hispanic whites.” However, the US Census Bureau is considering adding “Hispanic” as a racial category on the 2020 census in order to more accurately reflect how people self-identify their racial and ethnic origin. As previous eras exposed great interest in African Americans, as emphasized by their census categorizations in the eras surrounding the Civil War, political interest in Hispanics has been emerging since the 1970s.

Why keep track of the racial demographics of society at all? Aren’t we all just human beings? The American Civil Liberties Union urged the race category be removed from the census in 1960, but once various civil rights acts were passed, census data on race became useful fo r gauging compliance with laws barring various forms of discrimination. Thus, we come back to Justice Blackmun’s point—to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.

Of course, the United States is not the only nation to struggle with the issue of racial categorization. France has implemented an antiracism model that has official color-blindness at its core. The basis of this model is a 1978 law that prohibits the collection of racial/ethnic data, on the census or any other official document, such as those explaining educational demographics. It is also illegal for public or private institutions to collect racial/ethnic data. Similarly, most French people disavow racial/ethnic categorization, viewing these as divisive (Bleich 2003).

Demographic Shifts in the United States

Courses on race and ethnicity are required in many colleges and universities because the face of America is changing demographically. Figure 1.1, based upon Pew Research Center data, shows the demographic breakdown of racial/ethnic groups in the United States in 2014 and predictions for 2050.

Reflect and Connect

Take a minute to look over the demographic data in Figure 1.1. A Pew Center report says “non-Hispanic whites” will lose majority status by 2050. Based upon your understanding of race as a social construction, can you identify potential flaws in this prediction/interpretation of the data?

As the previous discussion makes clear, we cannot be sure that in thirty-something years these will be the census racial categories. Census racial categories have changed over time and it is reasonable to assume this will continue. If so, what changes do you predict in terms of future census racial categories?

Figure 1.1: Demographic Breakdown of Racial/Ethnic Groups in the United States, 2014 and 2050 (predicted) – Please note: includes people who report more than one race.
Sources: Passel, Jeffrey and D’Vera Cohn. 2008. “U.S. Population Projections 2005–2050.” Pew Research Hispanic Center. Retrieved June 21, 2016 (; US Bureau of the Census. 2015. “Quick Facts: United States.” Retrieved June 21, 2016 (

A second flaw in the statement is the assertion that “non-Hispanic whites” will “lose majority status.” Sociologically speaking, to say that “non-Hispanic whites” will lose majority status speaks only to numerical status and says nothing about power and societal dominance. There is no evidence that whites will lose power, resources, and status and certainly no evidence that whites will become a minority group. Such an interpretation can be viewed not only as inaccurate but as incendiary in the current climate. It is the kind of statement that strikes fear in whites, increases antagonism toward immigrants, fuels racial tensions, and creates a climate of hostility overall.

At the same time, these are significant demographic changes confronting American society; essentially, the face of America is changing dramatically. In two short generations, American society will look very different. Thus, such changes require that we learn to understand one another, particularly cultural differences across racial/ethnic lines. Future teachers, a population that is still disproportionately white, middle-class, and female, will be facing classrooms with much more racial/ethnic diversity than those they grew up in. The hope underlying courses in racial/ethnic diversity or a multiculturalism requirement is that today’s college students will come to embrace, not just tolerate, racial/ethnic differences.

A Note on Terminology

Racial terminology, specifically what terms are acceptable for describing a group of people, has changed over time. Many white students, particularly those who have not had much interaction with people of color, often feel hesitant to interact with students of color because they “don’t know what to call them” (Fox 2009:27). There is a fear that using the wrong terminology can be offensive and lead to misunderstanding.

Prior to the civil rights movement, most African Americans were referred to as “Negroes” and the term black was considered offensive by many (Martin 1991). During the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, people were encouraged to substitute the term black for Negro. Twenty years later, at a 1988 news conference, African American leader Jesse Jackson announced that “African American” was the preferred term for blacks. It was considered a more acceptable term than black because it referenced a land base and a cultural heritage (Martin 1991).

While this shift in terminology has been relatively successful, some blacks are hesitant to embrace it as an identity. As one undergraduate of African descent explains, “My mother calls herself Black—capital B—my aunt won’t hear of anything but African American, and I prefer to be called an American of African Descent, which stresses the American-ness of my experience. We are an extremely diverse community that values our individualism and our independent thinking” (Fox 2009:30). Another black undergraduate explains, “I am not an African American, I’m black. I refuse to be called American until the day that this country treats me with the same value and respect as everyone else” (Fox 2009:30). Ultimately, neither black nor African American is considered to be an offensive term, although individuals differ as to whether or not they personally feel comfortable with them. Both the terms Negro and colored are considered outdated and inappropriate terms for describing black people.

The term Latino is often preferred by Latinos to the term Hispanic. Hispanic is a term describing people of Spanish (and sometimes Portuguese) descent in the United States. It was a term created by the federal government in the early 1970s and is an umbrella term that includes over twenty different nationalities (Fox 2009). Because of its origins, it is not a term that many Latinos used to describe themselves. Some feel that the term needs to be retired. Others find the umbrella nature of both Hispanic and Latino problematic, preferring to see themselves as Mexican American or Puerto Rican, for instance. The term Latino is now used interchangeably with Hispanic, although Latino is the preferred term in this text.

The term Chicano was created by Mexican American activists during the Brown Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s (see Chapter 6). “During the 60s, young Mexican Americans started to use ‘Chicano/Chicana’ as an affirmation of pride and identity and to say, ‘We’re not Mexicans or Americans. We’re a combination—a special population with our own history and culture’” (Martinez 1997, quoted in Fox 2009:33). Thus, all Chicanos are Mexican Americans, but not all Mexican Americans embrace the term Chicano.

The terms Native American, Native people, Indian, American Indian, First Nation, and indigenous people are used interchangeably by Indians and non-Indians without offense; however, much like with the previous discussion, individuals have preferences for specific terms. One of the leaders of the American Indian Movement (see Chapter 6), Russell Means, commented, “You notice that I use the term American Indian rather than Native American or Native indigenous people or Amerindian when referring to my people. There has been some controversy about such terms. . . . Primarily it seems that American Indian is being rejected as European in origin—which is true. But all of the above terms are European in origin” (italics in the original, Nagel 1996:xi). This text will use Native American, American Indian, Indian, and Native people interchangeably.

There has been less contestation surrounding terms used to describe Asian Americans. The term Asian American is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of Asian ethnic groups in the United States. While the term Asian American is not considered offensive, it is more accurate to describe people as members of their particular ethnic group: Korean American, Japanese American, Chinese American, and so on. Using the term Oriental to describe Asian Americans is inappropriate due to the outdated nature of the term, similar to the use of the words Negro or colored to describe African Americans.

There are even fewer debates over what to call white people, with one notable exception: Caucasian. Caucasian was a term introduced in the late eighteenth century to refer to people of European origin (broadly defined) with white skin, referring to people from the Caucasus Mountains region, from Russia to northern Africa. Although it is not a term the US Census Bureau ever used to describe white people but is instead a racial classification employed by anthropologists, it quickly became synonymous with white. However, the term is losing its meaning, as most white people do not use it to describe themselves.

Reflect and Connect

Were any of the terms we just discussed new to you? Would you consider yourself someone who has avoided interracial interactions because you were unsure “what to call them”?

Racial Identities, Racial Ideologies, and Institutional Racism

There are three interlocking aspects of race: identities, ideologies, and institutions. Racism and privilege are manifested in all three, so we must understand all three in order to fully grasp the intricacies of race in our society. Race is an arena of power and, as French theorist Michel Foucault emphasizes, power can be exercised as control through scientific knowledge. Chapter 3 focuses on the changing science of race and the many ways this has acted as a system of control. This text takes a different approach than standard sociological texts that emphasize only the social scientific research on racial inequality. This kind of approach fails to account for how science itself informs identities, ideologies, and institutions and actually helps maintain the racial hierarchy.

Racial Identities

What do we mean by “racial identity”? Our identity is how we see ourselves. We establish our racial identity, our sense of who we are racially and how we view ourselves, through interaction with others. In addition to interactions with others, the way race is discussed and presented in society contributes to the creation of individual and collective racial identities. The potential racial/ethnic identities one has to choose from change across time, similar to the changing census categories. A current example of such change is the increasing salience of biracial and multiracial identities. There is nothing new about people with multiple racial ancestries. What is new is that people are identifying as biracial or multiracial. Historically in the United States, the one-drop rule reigned, which meant that individuals with more than one racial heritage, one of which was black, identified themselves or were identified by others as black (in other words, to have “one drop” of black blood made one black, a policy that has not been applied to any other racial/ethnic minority group). The so-called biracial baby boom of the post-1960s era has resulted in many of the children of black-white interracial unions, the most taboo in our culture, claiming a biracial identity rather than a black identity, as previous generations had (Korgen 1998).

[Image 1.4 (not included in sample)]

Native American identity reclamation is another example of the significance of race as an identity and emphasizes the idea that identities are always in flux. In this case, many individuals who formerly viewed themselves as white are now reconnecting with their Native heritage and identify as Native American, specifically their tribal identity (Fitzgerald 2007; Nagel 1996). Thus, people who have assimilated and have race privilege are instead claiming a nonwhite racial identity.

A final argument for why racial identity is important pertains to the idea of racial identity development. Psychologists have long studied identity development, particularly in adolescents; however, racial identity development has too often been overlooked. All people go through stages of development as they begin to define themselves in relation to others. Racial identity development is a part of this process, yet often not a conscious part of it. Researchers argue that racial identity development differs for white people and people of color (Helms 1990; Cross, Parham, and Helms 1991; Tatum 1992, 1994). For instance, whites in the first stage of racial identity development base their notions of people of color on media stereotypes because they tend not to have had much contact with people of color. For students of color, stage one involves internalizing many of the stereotypes about their own racial group and other people of color. For some, this can be the result of being raised in a primarily white environment. Thus, Tatum (1992) argues, they tend to distance themselves from the more oppressed members of their own group. Social psychologists use the term internalized racism to describe individuals who believe what the dominant group says about them; in other words, they internalize negative messages about their racial group.


The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. —South African liberationist and martyr Steven Biko, I Write What I Like (1978)

Racial Ideologies

Racial ideologies, or cultural belief systems surrounding race, are also significant and have changed over time, generally to meet the needs of the dominant group in a particular era or in response to changing social conditions. Societies establish racial hierarchies to benefit some groups while disadvantaging others, and ideologies serve to justify such arrangements. The current reigning racial ideology in the United States is that of color-blindness, or the color-blind ideology. Color-blindness is the idea that race no longer matters, particularly since the civil rights movement, and that if there is evidence of ongoing inequality along racial lines, it must be based on some nonracial factor, such as culture. This is a significant racial ideology because it allows white people, even those who consider themselves liberal and/or progressive, to deny the significance of race in our current society (Bonilla-Silva 2006; Omi and Winant 1994).

This is a justifying ideology because it allows us to think that the social activism of the 1960s resolved racial inequalities and thus we are a society that is beyond race. Color-blindness suggests that race no longer matters, which in turn implies that policies with a racial component are no longer needed. This ultimately allows people to dismiss the necessity of social policies such as affirmative action. And yet, such policies are designed to address not only current racial (and gender) inequality but also the ongoing effects of historical inequalities; as long as inequality remains, a need for social policies to address them remains. In previous eras, ideologies based on white supremacy predominated to justify slavery long after slavery had been introduced. Such ideologies served to deflect questions about the morality of slavery because they allowed white people to believe in the complete inferiority and inhumanity of blacks. White supremacist ideologies allowed Anglo Americans to justify taking land away from Native peoples and engage in genocidal policies against them, due to the perceived inferiority of the Native peoples, who were viewed as “uncivilized heathens.”

Institutional Racism

Finally, institutional racism is found in the ways societal institutions, such as those in the educational, economic, political, media, and legal spheres, are “raced.” Institutional racism is the most pervasive form of racism today and also the most subtle because it is found in everyday business practices, laws, and norms that create or maintain racial inequality, whether intentional or not. Institutional racism is often considered to be the most difficult kind of racial discrimination to see because it tends not to be an action taken by a particular person that others can point to and recognize as racism. It is much more subtle than that, despite the fact that the racial manifestations are very real. Because this is the most prominent type of racism in the United States, it may explain why white people and people of color have such divergent views on the extent of racism that still exists in our society.

Racial identities, ideologies, and institutions are intricately interconnected. For instance, when the ideology of white superiority reigned and the one-drop rule was established, biracial individuals saw themselves as black. They did not consider their white heritage as informing their identity in any way, nor were they encouraged to do so. Claiming a biracial or a multiracial identity is a post-1960s phenomenon. Additionally, ideologies inform institutional practices such as public-policy making, and vice versa. For instance, the emergence of a biracial or multiracial identity came as interracial relationships increased in the post-1960s era, after the last laws forbidding interracial marriage were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967.

Another example of the interconnections between identities, ideologies, and institutions occurred during the 1990s with the battle for a multiracial category on the census, a clear institutional reflection of this growing movement of people who claim a multiracial identity. The Census Bureau did not opt for a specific biracial or multiracial category, but it did allow individuals for the first time to check more than one racial category (see Chapter 11).

Chapter Summary

This chapter introduced key concepts necessary for understanding the history and current status of race in American society, particularly the idea that race is a social construction rather than a biological reality. We began by distinguishing between race and ethnicity while acknowledging that they are interrelated concepts, then explored the various types of racism, from prejudice to institutional racism to colorism. Ultimately, while there has been racial progress since the Jim Crow era, when whites terrorized minorities through lynching, we do not live in a postracial society.

Studying race, racism, and race privilege is essential in our rapidly changing world. Most businesses recognize the changing face of America and expect future employees to be able to adapt to a diverse workforce. For that to occur, it is necessary that Americans of all racial/ethnic backgrounds understand one another and understand how race operates at the level of individual identities, as well as through ideologies and institutions. This text encourages us to take account of race in society by providing an essential history of racial/ethnic relations in the United States and explaining the significance of that history to current society. Additionally, the emphasis on self-­reflexivity, the call to look within ourselves to understand how racial ideologies inform our attitudes and beliefs concerning racial “others” as well as how such ideologies inform our identities, allows us to personally take account of race. While color-blindness remains the dominant racial ideology in the United States, it is more helpful to recognize race, racism, and privilege—in other words, to embrace color consciousness.

Key Terms and Concepts

Color-blind ideology
Color consciousness
Cultural norms
Individual discrimination
Institutional racism
Internalized racism
Majority group (dominant group)
Minority group (subordinate group)
People of color
Race privilege
Racial identity
Racial ideologies
Racial justice activism
Racial order
Racialized space
Social construction
Sociological imagination
Standpoint perspective
White space

Personal Reflections

  1. Describe the life experiences that have informed your racial attitudes and beliefs and reflect on your level of interaction with members of other racial/ethnic groups. What in your life has facilitated or hindered you in interacting with members of different racial/ethnic groups?
  2. Look around your campus (cafeteria, classes, and dormitories). Is there evidence of racial segregation? Why do you think self-segregation occurs? Is it harmful? What does it tell us about our society, if anything? Should we work to eradicate self-segregation? Why or why not?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Speculate on what changes you think will occur in census racial categories over the next fifty years, keeping in mind that census categories always reflect the prevailing notions of race and result from an intensely political process.
  2. Explain how the racism of the dominant group can be understood as prejudice plus power and how the color-blind ideology is an example of dominant group power.

Essential Reading

Davis, F. James. 1991. Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1989 [1903]. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin Books.

Fox, Helen. 2009. When Race Breaks Out: Conversations About Race and Racism in College Classrooms, revised ed. New York, Washington, DC: Peter Lang Publishers.

Nagel, Joane. 2003. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. New York, London: Routledge.

Recommended Films

A Girl Like Me (2007). Directed by Kiri Davis. This film explores the ways racial stereotypes affect the self-image of young African American women and children. Through interviews with young African American women, the film explores racialized beauty standards surrounding skin color, body type, and hair texture, as perpetuated in the media.

Race: The Power of an Illusion, Vols. 1–3 (2003). Produced by Larry Adelman. One of the best documentaries on race, this film explores the idea of race as a social construction and questions the idea that race is biological by exploring the science of race, historically and currently, how the idea of race was legitimized, and the ways race manifests itself in our daily lives.

What’s Race Got to Do with It? (2006). Written, directed, and produced by Jean Chang. This film is a sequel to Skin Deep (1995), a look at race relations on college campuses. This new film explores the experiences of a diverse group of college students as they engage in a sixteen-week intergroup dialogue program. They challenge one another on issues such as minority underrepresentation, multiculturalism, individual responsibility, and affirmative action, and their experiences exemplify the attitudinal changes that can occur over a period of sustained dialogue.

Recommended Multimedia

Explore the Census Bureau’s online graphic showing US population statistics by race between the years 1790 and 2010. Make an argument that this is evidence that race is a social construction. What about the changing US racial categories surprised you the most? What are the most consistent patterns, and why do you think this is so?

Listen to “A More Perfect Union,” the speech on race given by Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. As you listen, think about the following questions: What points do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Does the speech make you think about race in a new way? Why or why not? Reflect on this speech and President Obama’s eight years in office. To what extent did President Obama affect race relations in the United States during his two terms? Give evidence to support your position.

Check out the website for ERACE, the racial justice organization discussed in Box 1.2. http://

We hope you have enjoyed this sample of:

Recognizing Race and Ethnicity

Second Edition

Kathleen J. Fitzgerald


Copyright © 2017 by WESTVIEW PRESS

Click here for more information
  • African Studies
  • Art and Architecture
  • Education
  • European Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Religion
  • Science and Advanced Math