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Chapter 9: Race and Ethnicity

9.2 The Meaning of Race, Ethnicity and Minority Status

To understand this “problem of the color line” further, we need to take a critical look at the very meaning of race and ethnicity. These concepts may seem easy to define initially but are much more complex than their definitions suggest.


Let’s start first with , which refers to a category of people who share certain perceived physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features and stature. A key question about race is whether it is a biological category or a social category. Many people think of race in biological terms, and for more than 300 years, or ever since European colonization, race has indeed served as a primary means of differentiating between and stratifying groups.

It is certainly easy to see that indigenous people around the world differ physically in some obvious ways. Using physical differences as their criteria, scientists at one point identified as many as nine races: African, American Indian or Native American, Asian, Australian Aborigine, European (more commonly called “white”), Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian (Smedley, 1998).

Although people certainly do differ in the many physical features that led to the development of such racial categories, anthropologists, sociologists, and many scientists today question the value of these categories and thus the value of the biological concept of race (Smedley, 2007). For one thing, we often see more physical differences within a race than between races. For example, some people we call “white” (or European), such as those with Scandinavian backgrounds, have very light skin, while others, such as those from some Eastern European backgrounds, have much darker skin.

In fact, some “whites” have darker skin than some “blacks,” or African Americans. Some whites have very straight hair while others have very curly hair; some have blonde hair and blue eyes, while others have dark hair and brown eyes. Because of interracial reproduction going back to the days of slavery, African Americans also differ in the darkness of their skin and in other physical characteristics. In fact, it is estimated that about 80% of African Americans have some white (i.e., European) ancestry; 70% to 90% of Mexican Americans have any admixture of European, Native American and/or African ancestry; and 20% of whites have African or Native American ancestry. If clear racial differences ever existed hundreds or thousands of years ago (and many scientists doubt such differences ever existed), these differences have become increasingly blurred.

Another reason to question the biological concept of race is that an individual or a group of individuals is often assigned to a race on arbitrary or even illogical grounds. A century ago, for example, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States were not regarded as white once they reached the United States but rather as a different, inferior (if unnamed) race (Painter, 2010). The belief in their inferiority helped justify the harsh treatment they suffered in their new country. Today, of course, we call people from all three backgrounds white or European.

In this context, consider someone in the United States who has a white parent and a black parent. What race is this person? American society usually calls this person black or African American, and the person may adopt the same identity (as does Barack Obama, who had a white mother and African father). But where is the logic for doing so? This person is as much white as black in terms of parental ancestry. Or consider someone with one white parent and another parent who is the child of one black parent and one white parent. This person thus has three white grandparents and one black grandparent. Even though this person’s ancestry is thus 75% white and 25% black, they are likely to be considered black in the United States and may well adopt this racial identity. This practice reflects the “one-drop rule” practiced in the United States that defines someone as black if she or he has at least one African American ancestor and that was used in the antebellum South to keep the slave population as large as possible (Wright, 1993). Yet in many Latin American nations, this person would be considered white. In Brazil, the term black is reserved for someone with no European (white) ancestry at all. If we followed this practice in the United States, about 80% of the people we call “black” would now be called “white.” With such arbitrary designations, race is more of a social category than a biological one.

image of Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama had an African father and a white mother. Although his ancestry is equally black and white, Obama considers himself an African American, as do most Americans. In several Latin American nations, however, Obama would be considered white because of his white ancestry. Janeb13Pixabay

A third reason to question the biological concept of race comes from the field of biology itself and more specifically from the studies of genetics and human evolution. Starting with genetics, people from different races are more than 99.9% the same in their DNA (Begley, 2008). To turn that around, less than 0.1% of all the DNA in our bodies accounts for the physical differences among people that we associate with racial differences. In terms of DNA, then, people with different racial backgrounds are far more similar than dissimilar.

Even if we acknowledge that people differ in the physical characteristics we associate with race, modern evolutionary evidence reminds us that we are all, really members of one human race. According to evolutionary theory, homo sapiens evolved 300,000+ years ago in sub-Saharan Africa. As people migrated around the world over the millennia, natural selection took over. It favored dark skin for people living in hot, sunny climates (i.e., near the equator), because the heavy amounts of melanin that produce dark skin protect against severe sunburn, cancer, and other problems. By the same token, natural selection favored light skin for people who migrated farther from the equator to cooler, less sunny climates, because dark skin there would have interfered with the production of vitamin D (Stone & Lurquin, 2007). Evolutionary evidence thus reinforces the common humanity of people who differ in the rather superficial ways associated with their appearances: we are one human species composed of people who happen to look different.

The reasons for doubting the biological basis for racial categories suggest that race is a social category rather than a biological one. Another way to say this is that race is a , a concept that has no objective reality but rather is what people decide it is (Berger & Luckmann, 1963). In this view race has no real existence other than what and how people think of it.

This understanding of race is reflected in the problems, outlined earlier, in placing people with multiracial backgrounds into any one racial category. We have already mentioned the example of President Obama. As another example, the famous golfer Tiger Woods is typically labeled an African American by the news media but in fact his ancestry is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter white, one-eighth Native American and one-eighth African American (Leland & Beals, 1997).

image of Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods is identified by many people as African American, however, his heritage is more diverse with Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American and Dutch ancestry. Individuals with multiple ethnic backgrounds are becoming more common. Familymwr – flickr

Historical examples of attempts to place people in racial categories further underscore the social construction of race. In the South during the time of slavery, the skin tone of slaves lightened over the years as babies were born from the union, often in the form of rape, of slave owners and other whites with slaves. As it became difficult to tell who was “black” and who was not, many court battles over people’s racial identity occurred. People who were accused of having black ancestry would go to court to prove they were white in order to avoid enslavement or other problems (Staples, 1998). Litigation over race continued long past the days of slavery. In a relatively recent example, Susie Guillory Phipps sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records in the early 1980s to change her official race to white. Phipps was descended from a slave owner and a slave and thereafter had only white ancestors. Despite this fact, she was called “black” on her birth certificate because of a state law, echoing the “one-drop rule,” that designated people as black if their ancestry was at least 1/32 black (meaning one of their great-great-great grandparents was black). Phipps had always thought of herself as white and was surprised after seeing a copy of her birth certificate to discover she was officially black because she had one black ancestor about 150 years earlier. She lost her case, and the U.S. Supreme Court later refused to review it (Omi & Winant, 1994).


Think Like a Sociologist

Every ten years, since 1790, the Census Bureau conducts a count of the U.S. population. The racial-ethnic categories and terminology used by the Census to categorize people has varied across time, reflecting changes in political, social and scientific attitudes (Pew, 2020). Go to the following website and click on each year listed in the timeline to review how the official racial-ethnic categories and terminology has changed over time: What Census Calls Us.

How have the categories and terminology changed over time?

Consider your own race and ethnicity. How would your racial-ethnic identity, as defined by the Census, have changed over time?

Starting in 1960, Americans were allowed to choose their own race, and starting in 2000, Americans could choose to identify with more than one race. Why are these changes significant?

How do changes to Census categories over time help demonstrate that race is a social construct?


Although race is a social construction, it is also true that things perceived as real are real in their consequences. Because people do perceive race as something real, it has real consequences. Even though so little of DNA accounts for the physical differences we associate with racial differences, that low amount leads us not only to classify people into different races but to treat them differently—and more to the point, unequally—based on their classification. Yet modern evidence shows there is little, if any, scientific basis for the racial classification that is the source of so much inequality.


Because of the problems in the meaning of race, many social scientists prefer the term ethnicity in speaking of people of color and others with distinctive cultural heritages. In this context, refers to the shared social, cultural, and historical experiences, stemming from common national or regional backgrounds, that make groups different from one another. Similarly, an is a group with a set of shared social, cultural, and historical experiences; with relatively distinctive beliefs, values, and behaviors; and with some sense of identity of belonging to the group. So conceived, the terms ethnicity and ethnic group avoid the biological connotations of the terms race and racial group and the biological differences these terms imply. At the same time, the importance we attach to ethnicity illustrates that it, too, is in many ways a social construction, and our ethnic membership thus has important consequences for how we are treated.

Figure 9.1 Responses to “How Close Do You Feel to Your Ethnic or Racial Group,” by percentage

Pie chart showing Responses to “How Close Do You Feel to Your Ethnic or Racial Group,” by percentage, with 41% very close, 36% close, 18% not very close and 4% not at all close.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2004.

The sense of identity many people gain from belonging to an ethnic group is important for reasons both good and bad. Because one of the most important functions of groups is the identity they give us, ethnic identities can give individuals a sense of belonging and a recognition of the importance of their cultural backgrounds. This sense of belonging is illustrated in Figure 9.1 “Responses to “How Close Do You Feel to Your Ethnic or Racial Group,” by percentage,” which depicts the answers of General Social Survey respondents to the question, “How close do you feel to your ethnic or racial group?” More than three-fourths said they feel close or very close.


Think Like a Sociologist

image of confederate flag near state capital building

To some, the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride in Southern history. To others, it is a grim reminder of a degrading period of the United States’ past. Eyeliam – flickr

In January 2006, two girls walked into Burleson High School in Texas carrying purses that displayed large images of Confederate flags. School administrators told the girls that they were in violation of the dress code, which prohibited apparel with inappropriate symbolism or clothing that discriminated based on race. To stay in school, they’d have to have someone pick up their purses or leave them in the office. The girls chose to go home for the day but then challenged the school’s decision, appealing first to the principal, then to the district superintendent, then to the U.S. District Court, and finally to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Why did the school ban the purses, and why did it stand behind that ban, even when being sued? Why did the girls, identified anonymously in court documents as A.M. and A.T., pursue such strong legal measures for their right to carry the purses? The issue, of course, is not the purses: it is the Confederate flag that adorns them. The parties in this case join a long line of people and institutions that have fought for their right to display it, saying such a display is covered by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and is a symbol which allows them to display pride in their Southern heritage. In the end, the court sided with the district and noted that the Confederate flag carried symbolism significant enough to disrupt normal school activities.

While many young people in the United States like to believe that racism is mostly in the country’s past, this case illustrates how racism and discrimination are quite alive today. If the Confederate flag is synonymous with slavery and is often used as a way to intimidate people of color, is there any place for its display in modern society? Those who fight for their right to display the flag say it displays their Southern heritage and should be covered by the First Amendment: the right to free speech. But others say the flag is equivalent to hate speech (Griffiths, et., al, 2015).

Why do you think that some people might see displaying the Confederate flag as a free speech issue while others see it as hate speech?  


Another aspect of ethnicity and ethnic group membership is the conflict they create among people of different ethnic groups. History and current practice indicate that it is easy to become prejudiced against people with different ethnicities from our own. Much of the rest of this chapter looks at the prejudice and discrimination operating today in the United States against people whose ethnicity is not white and European. Globally, ethnic conflict continues to rear its ugly head. The 1990s and 2000s were rife with incidences of “ethnic cleansing” and pitched battles among ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. Our ethnic heritages shape us in many ways and fill many of us with pride, but they also are the source of much conflict, prejudice, and even hatred.

Minority and Dominant Groups

Once established, it is common for racial and ethnic groups to be stratified, where one group holds dominant status and other groups minority status. Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a as “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” The term minority connotes discrimination, and in its sociological use, the term can be used interchangeably with the term minority. These definitions correlate to the concept that the is that which holds the most power in a given society, while subordinate groups are those who lack power compared to the dominant group.

Note that being a numerical minority is not a characteristic of being a minority group; sometimes larger groups can be considered minority groups due to their lack of power. It is the lack of power that is the predominant characteristic of a minority, or subordinate group. For example, consider apartheid in South Africa, in which a numerical majority (the black inhabitants of the country) were exploited and oppressed by the white population, who made up approximately 15% of the population.

According to Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris (1958), a minority group is distinguished by five characteristics: (1) unequal treatment and less power over their lives, (2) distinguishing physical or cultural traits like skin color or language, (3) involuntary membership in the group, (4) awareness of subordination, and (5) high rate of in-group marriage. Additional examples of minority groups might include the LGBTQ+ community, religious practitioners whose faith is not widely practiced where they live, and people with disabilities (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

Test Yourself


Forms of Contact

Racial and ethnic groups typically attain dominant or minority status when groups that were formerly separated territorially come into contact with one another (Marger, 2015). Contact between groups can take different forms and the form of contact will determine the long-term status of and interactions between groups. The current U.S. racial and ethnic hierarchy was established in this fashion.

There are three broad forms of contact between racial and ethnic groups, including conquest, annexation and immigration. is a form of contact that occurs when conflict arises between formerly separated groups, resulting in one group conquering and coming to dominate the other (Marger, 2015). During the period of European colonization, for instance, Europeans conquered and assigned minority status to groups living in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands. American Indians and Alaskan Natives became minorities in this period through this process, and continue to hold this status today, centuries later.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Go to the Native Land Digital website: Native Land Digital Map, and examine the diversity of tribes throughout the Americas, and then enter your town and state in the search box to learn which American Indian tribes lived in this territory prior to colonialism.

What did you find?

Along with many other government agencies, colleges, universities and business organizations, in 2021, Lansing Community College adopted a resolution acknowledging that the land on which LCC campuses are based was originally inhabited by the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples.

Using your sociological imagination, consider the following question: Why are indigenous land and territorial acknowledgements important for both indigenous people and non-indigenous people?


is similar to conquest in that it often results from conflict. It is distinct though because it involves a legal process that transfers territory, typically in the form of a treaty, between groups. For instance, following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced the Mexican government to cede 529,000 square miles, or roughly ½ of the Mexican Republic, to the United States. While roughly 115,000 Mexicans, thereafter commonly referred to as Chicanos, living in this annexed territory were given rights to U.S. citizenship, Mexican Americans who have been migrating to the US since then have also become a minority group, and continue to suffer the harsh consequences of this status.

Map of the states that were formerly Mexican territory that were ceded to the U.S. in 1850, including California, Nevada, Utah and arts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

The states colored red were formerly Mexican territory that were ceded to the U.S. via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

Immigration also results in bringing diverse racial and ethnic groups together. There are two forms of immigration in this respect: and (Marger, 2015). Africans brought to the Americas as a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are a good example of involuntary immigrants. Groups forced to move to a new society are established as a subordinate group through this process. Conquest, annexation and involuntary immigration are the three forms of contact that result in the greatest inequality and long-term conflict and antagonism between minority and dominant groups. This fact is evidenced by our earlier review of economic, educational, political and health disparities that continue to disproportionately impact African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans centuries after their initial contact with white Americans.

Immigrants who voluntarily move to another society who differ in race or ethnicity from the dominant group may be assigned minority status upon arrival and are subordinated as a result. However, the subordination of these groups will often ease over several generations, resulting in their rise in status within the racial-ethnic hierarchy. This is particularly true for immigrants who are more physically and/or culturally similar to the dominant group, such as Irish, Italian and Eastern European Americans. As discussed earlier in this chapter, these ethnic groups were initially painted as racially distinct from and inferior to Americans of British descent, but by the 3rd and 4th generations, these ethnic groups underwent assimilation and experienced significant social mobility.

Once dominant-minority relations are established, ideology forms to explain, justify and perpetuate this hierarchy. For instance, beginning in the 1600’s a field of pseudoscience, referred to by critics as scientific racism, was established in which theories relating to racial hierarchy were tested. Researchers conducted studies to measure skull size and shape as well as other supposed physical differences between racial groups and inevitably found that the physical differences between groups aligned with the position of the group, i.e., “superior” physical qualities were found in the dominant group, while “inferior” qualities characterized racial and ethnic minority groups, thus justifying rank and the resultant inequalities. Similarly, as discussed in the next section, positive and negative stereotypes arise in relation to groups and their position. Positive stereotypes justify the high status of dominant groups (Group X is hard working and smart), while negative stereotypes disparage and justify the low status of minority groups (Group Y is lazy and criminal).

Test Yourself


Section 9.2 References

Begley, S. (2008, February 29). Race and DNA. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/labnotes/2008/02/29/race-and-dna.html. 

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann.  (1963). The social construction of reality. New York, NY: Doubleday. 

Leland, J. and G. Beals. (1997, May 5). In living colors: Tiger Woods is the exception that rules. Newsweek, 58–60. 

Marger, Martin.  (2015).  Race and Ethnic Relations:  American and Global Perspectives (10th ed).  Stamford, CT:  Cengage Learning.

Native Land Digital. (2021, October 8). Retrieved from https://native-land.ca/.

Omi, M. and H. Winant. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Painter, N. I. (2010). The history of white people. New York, NY: W. W. Norton. 

Pew Research Center. (2020, February 6). What Census Calls Us.  Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/interactives/what-census-calls-us/

Pew Research Center. (2020, May 30). Race and ethnicity in the U.S. census. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/interactives/what-census-calls-us/

Smedley, A. (1998). “Race” and the construction of human identity. American Anthropologist, 100, 690–702. 

Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview:  Third Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Staples, B. (1998, November 13). The shifting meanings of “black” and “white,” The New York Times, p. WK14. 

Stone, L. and P. F. Lurquin. (2007). Genes, culture, and human evolution: A synthesis. Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing.

Wagley, C. and M. Harris.  (1958). Minorities in the New World: Six Case Studies. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wirth, L. (1945). The Problem of Minority Groups. In R. Linton, (Ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis (pp. 347-72).  New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, L. (1993, July 12). One drop of blood. The New Yorker, pp. 46–54. 

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Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

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