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Chapter 9: Race and Ethnicity

9.7 Race and Ethnicity in the 21st Century

At the beginning of this chapter, we noted that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We saw evidence of this in proclamations over the years about the status of people of color in the United States. As a reminder, in 1903 sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Some six decades later, social scientists and government commissions during the 1960s continued to warn us about the race problem in the United States and placed the blame for this problem squarely in the hands of whites and of the social and economic institutions that discriminate against people of color (Kerner Commission, 1968). Three to four decades after these warnings, social scientists during the 1990s and 2000s wrote that conditions had actually worsened for people of color since the 1960s (Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1996; Hacker, 2003).

Now that we have examined race and ethnicity in the United States, what have we found? Where do we stand two decades into the new century and more than 100 years after Du Bois wrote about the problem of the color line? Did the historic elections of Barack Obama as president in 2008 and 2012, and Kamala Harris, our first woman of color elected as vice-president in 2020, signify a new era of equality between the races, as many observers wrote, or did these elections occur despite the continued existence of pervasive racial and ethnic inequality?

On the one hand, there is cause for hope. Legal segregation is gone. The vicious, overt racism that was so rampant in this country into the 1960s has declined since that tumultuous time. People of color have made important gains in several spheres of life and occupy some important elected positions in and outside the South, a feat that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

On the other hand, there is also cause for despair. Overt racism has been replaced by a modern, cultural racism that still blames people of color for their problems and reduces public support for government policies to deal with their problems. Institutional discrimination remains pervasive, and hate crimes are all too common. Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds remain sharply divided on many issues, reminding us that the United States as a nation remains divided by race and ethnicity. Two issues that continue to arouse controversy are affirmative action and immigration, to which we now turn.

Affirmative Action

refers to the policies and practices offering equal opportunity to minorities and women in employment and education. Affirmative action programs began in the 1960s to provide groups who experienced historic discrimination equal access to jobs and education. President John F. Kennedy was the first known official to use the term, when he signed an executive order in 1961 ordering federal contractors to “take affirmative action” in ensuring that applicants are hired and treated without regard to their race and national origin. Six years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson added sex to race and national origin as demographic categories for which affirmative action should be used.

Although some affirmative action programs remain in effect today, court rulings, state legislation, and other efforts have limited their number and scope. Despite this curtailment, affirmative action continues to spark controversy, with scholars, members of the public and elected officials all holding strong views on the issue (Karr, 2008; Wise, 2005; Cohen & Sterba, 2003).

One of the major court rulings associated with affirmative action was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978). Allan Bakke was a 35-year-old white man who had twice been rejected for admission into the medical school at the University of California, Davis. At the time he applied, UC–Davis had a policy of reserving 16 seats in its entering class of 100 for qualified people of color to make up for their underrepresentation in the medical profession. Bakke’s college grades and scores on the Medical College Admission Test were higher than those of the people of color admitted to UC–Davis when Bakke applied. He sued for admission on the grounds that his rejection amounted to reverse racial discrimination on the basis of his being white (Stefoff, 2005).

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled 5–4 that Bakke must be admitted into the UC–Davis medical school because he had been unfairly denied admission on the basis of his race. As part of its historic but complex decision, the Court thus rejected the use of strict racial quotas in admission as it declared that no applicant could be excluded based solely on the applicant’s race. At the same time, however, the Court also declared that race may be used as one of the several criteria that admissions committees consider when making their decisions. For example, if an institution desires racial diversity among its students, it may use race as an admissions criterion along with other factors such as grades and test scores.

Other cases followed which continued to uphold the Bakke decision, such as two Supreme Court cases involving the University of Michigan.  The Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003) case, looked at the university’s undergraduate admissions, and Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), involved a review of the university’s law school admissions. In Grutter v. Bollinger the Court reaffirmed the right of institutions of higher education to take race into account in the admissions process. In Gratz v. Bollinger, however, the Court invalidated the university’s policy of awarding additional points to high school students of color as part of its use of a point system to evaluate applicants; the Court said that consideration of applicants needed to be more individualized than a point system allowed.

Until 2023, affirmative action in higher education admissions on the basis of race and ethnicity was deemed permissible as long as it did not involve a rigid quota system and as long as it involved an individualized way of evaluating candidates. However, in June 2023, in two Supreme Court cases involving admissions policies at Harvard University (Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College) and the University of North Carolina (Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina), the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions, claiming racial preferences for one group harm members of other groups.  Justice Clarence Thomas, supporting the majority opinion stated, “whatever their skin color, today’s youth simply are not responsible for instituting the segregation of the 20th century, and they do not shoulder the moral debts of their ancestors.”  Justice Sonia Sotomayor, representing the dissenting opinion countered, “the court’s decision today is profoundly wrong.”  She went on to further state, “today, this court overrules decades of precedent and imposes a superficial rule of race blindness on the nation. The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated” (Walsh, 2023).  The arguments made on both sides of these cases represent a long history of division over affirmative action, as discussed below.

The Debate over Affirmative Action

Opponents of affirmative action cite several reasons for opposing it. Affirmative action, they say, results in reverse discrimination. They argue people benefiting from affirmative action are less qualified than many of the white males with whom they compete. In addition, opponents say, affirmative action implies that the people benefiting from it need extra help and thus are indeed less qualified which stigmatizes the groups benefiting from these policies and programs.

In response, proponents of affirmative action give several reasons for favoring it. Many say it is needed to make up not just for past discrimination and a lack of opportunities for people of color and women but also for ongoing discrimination and a lack of opportunity. For example, because of their social networks, whites are much better able than people of color to find out about and to get jobs (Reskin, 1998). Given this, people of color are automatically at a disadvantage in the job market, and some form of affirmative action is needed to give them an equal chance at employment. Proponents also say that affirmative action helps add diversity to institutional settings. Many colleges, they note, give some preference to high school students who live in a distant state or rural communities in order to add needed diversity to the student body; to “legacy” students—those with a parent who went to the same institution—to reinforce alumni loyalty and to motivate alumni to donate to the institution; and to athletes, musicians, and other applicants with certain specialized talents and skills. Given the desire to maintain racially and ethnically diverse student bodies in spite of the 2023 Supreme Court decision, colleges may seek other means of ensuring diversity, such as through the use of targeted high school recruiting, greater support of first-generation students, marketing campaigns and expansion of non-traditional student programs (Lynch, 2015). 

As this brief discussion indicates, several reasons exist for and against affirmative action. A cautious view is that affirmative action may not be perfect but that some form of it is needed to make up for past and ongoing discrimination and lack of opportunity.  Given the 2023 Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, and concern that this ruling will also impact workplace hiring policies, discrimination and other difficulties faced by disadvantaged groups are likely to continue.


Since the 1980s, large numbers of immigrants have entered the United States from countries in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, which has had important consequences for American social, economic, and political life (Dinnerstein & Reimers, 2009; Waters & Ueda, 2007). One of the most important consequences is competition over jobs. The newcomers have tended to move into the large cities on the East and West Coasts and in the southwestern region of the country. At the same time, these same areas were losing jobs as manufacturing and other industries moved south or overseas. The new immigrants thus began competing with native-born Americans for jobs. Their increasing numbers also prompted native-born whites to move out of these cities in a search for all-white neighborhoods. As they did so, they left behind them neighborhoods that were increasingly segregated along ethnic lines.

image of a large mural with a diverse group of people having a gathering

Immigration to the U.S. has waxed and waned over the decades. Since changes to immigration legislation in the 1960’s, the rate of immigration has grown and diversified. dimitrisvetsikas1969Pixabay

Another impact from this influx of immigrants has been increased prejudice and discrimination against the new immigrants. As noted earlier, the history of the United States is filled with examples of prejudice and discrimination against immigrants. Such problems escalate as the number of immigrants increases. The past few decades have been no exception to this pattern. As the large number of immigrants moved into the United States, social media, blogs and other media became filled with anti-immigrant comments and hate crimes against immigrants increased. The following report summarized this trend,

There’s no doubt that the tone of the raging national debate over immigration is growing uglier by the day. Once limited to hard-core white supremacists and a handful of border-state extremists, vicious public denunciations of undocumented, brown-skinned immigrants are increasingly common among supposedly mainstream anti-immigration activists, radio hosts, and politicians. While their dehumanizing rhetoric typically stops short of openly sanctioning bloodshed, much of it implicitly encourages or even endorses violence by characterizing immigrants from Mexico and Central America as “invaders,” “criminal aliens,” and “cockroaches.” The results are no less tragic for being predictable: although hate crime statistics are highly unreliable, numbers that are available strongly suggest a marked upswing in racially motivated violence against all Latinos, regardless of immigration status. (Mock, 2007)

As just one example of one of these hate crimes, a New York City resident from Ecuador who owned a real estate company died in December 2008 after being beaten with a baseball bat by three men who shouted anti-Hispanic slurs. His murder was preceded by the death a month earlier of another Ecuadorean immigrant, who was attacked on Long Island by a group of males who beat him with lead pipes, chair legs, and other objects (Fahim & Zraick, 2008).

Meanwhile, the new immigrants have included thousands who came to the United States illegally. When they are caught, many are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in local jails, federal prisons, and other detention facilities. Immigrants who are in the United States legally but then get arrested for minor infractions are often also detained in these facilities to await deportation. It is estimated that ICE detains about 300,000 immigrants of both kinds every year. Human rights organizations say that all of these immigrants suffer from lack of food, inadequate medical care, and beatings; that many are being detained indefinitely; and that their detention proceedings lack due process.


Watch and Reflect

In June 2012, the Obama administration established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected certain undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children from deportation and provided them with work authorization (Beneson, 2020). Five years later, in September 2017, the Trump administration rescinded DACA, announcing that the program would be phased out, new requests for deferred action would no longer be accepted and renewal requests would only be accepted until October 5, 2017, leaving these young adults in a state of limbo. Since that time, various judicial decisions have occurred, including a Supreme Court decision on June 18, 2020, which found that the Trump administration failed to provide a reasoned explanation for ending DACA. This decision invalidated the Trump administration rescission of DACA, once again protecting those who qualified for the DACA program from deportation (Beneson, 2020). However, a year later in July 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the DACA program was illegal. This decision blocks new applicants from applying to the program but allows for those who are currently protected by DACA to maintain their status as the case goes through the appeals process. This decision has once again left the approximately 800,000 people protected by DACA in limbo. Here’s a short video that gives some background to this program: DACA Explained

View the short film about DACA and discuss some of the pros and cons of providing “Dreamers” with a pathway to citizenship.


Immigration and the Crime Rate

While many Americans take a dim view of immigration, in the last two decades, attitudes have begun to change. As shown in Figure 9.5 “Percentage of Americans Who Believe Immigration Should Be Kept at its Present Level, Increased or Decreased,” in 1995, people in the U.S. overwhelmingly felt negatively about immigration. Of those surveyed, 65% supported a decrease in immigration. However, by 2000, this number had fallen to 38% and by 2021, sentiment over immigration was fairly even split between the three categories, with 31% of Americans in favor of a decrease, 35% comfortable with the present level, and 33% wanting to see an increase in immigration (The Gallup Organization, 2021).

Figure 9.5 Percentage of Americans Who Believe Immigration Should Be Kept at its Present Level, Increased or Decreased

Bar chart showing Percentage of Americans Who Believe Immigration Should Be Kept at its Present Level, Increased or Decreased. Data is included for 1995 through 2021. In 1995, 24% felt it should be kept at present level, 7% increased and 65% decreased. Since then the percentages have changed, to where in 2021, 35% wanted immigration kept at the present level, while 33% wanted it increased and 31% decreased.

Source: The Gallup Organization. Washington, D.C.: Gallup Organization, 2021. Retrieved from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1660/immigration.aspx.

As the text notes, fear of job competition is one reason for the concern that Americans show about immigration. Yet another reason is their fear that immigration raises the crime rate. Since 2001, the Gallup Organization has surveyed Americans asking them whether immigrants to the U.S. are making crime worse, better or not having much effect. In the 2001 survey, 50% of respondents felt that immigrants were making crime worse. By 2019, this number had declined, but was still 42%, while 7% said the U.S. was better and 50% believed immigration had no effect on crime rates (2021).

However, research conducted by sociologists and criminologists finds that the 7% are in fact correct: immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans, and immigration has apparently helped lower the U.S. crime rate (Immigration Policy Center, 2008; Vélez, 2006; Sampson, 2008). What accounts for this surprising consequence? One reason is that immigrant neighborhoods tend to have many small businesses, churches, and other social institutions that help ensure neighborhood stability and, in turn, lower crime rates. A second reason is that the bulk of recent immigrants are Latinx, who tend to have high marriage rates and strong family ties, both of which again help ensure lower crime rates (Vélez, 2006). A final reason may be that in the case of undocumented immigrants, they hardly want to be deported and thus take extra care to obey the law by not committing street crime (Immigration Policy Center, 2008).

As the United States continues to address immigration policy, it is important that the public and elected officials have the best information possible about the effects of immigration. The findings by sociologists and other social scientists that immigrants have lower crime rates, and that immigration has apparently helped lower the U.S. crime rate add an important dimension to the ongoing debate over immigration policy.

Future Projections

The American racial and ethnic landscape is expected to change dramatically during the next few decades. Figure 9.6 “Racial and Ethnic Composition of the United States, 2020 and 2060 (Projected)” shows the current racial and ethnic distribution in the United States and the projected one for the year 2060. Whereas a little over 60% of the country now consists of whites of European backgrounds, in 2060 only about 44% of the country is expected to be white, with Latinx Americans making the greatest gains of all the other racial and ethnic groups. On the other side of the coin, people of color now constitute about 40% of the country’s population but their numbers will increase to about 56% by 2060 (Statista, 2022).

Figure 9.6 Racial and Ethnic Composition of the United States, 2020 and 2060 (Projected)

Bar chart showing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the United States, 2020 and 2060 (Projected). The following data is included: White population 60.6% in 2020, projected to be 43.7% in 2060; Latinx population 18.7% in 2020, projected to be 28.6% in 2060; African American population 12.4% in 2020, projected to be 13% in 2060; Asian American population 6% in 2020, projected to be 9.1% in 2060; and Other population 2.3% in 2020, projected to be 5.7% in 2060.

* The “Other” category includes American Indians, Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and people who are 2 or more races.

Source: Data from “U.S. Population: Ethnic Groups in America 2015 and 2060.” Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/270272/percentage-of-us-population-by-ethnicities/. Source: US Census Bureau, Race and Ethnicity in the United States: 2010 Census and 2020 Census. 2021. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/race-and-ethnicity-in-the-united-state-2010-and-2020-census.html

Four decades from now, then, whites, the dominant racial group today in terms of power and privilege, will constitute less than half the population. It is difficult at this early date to predict what difference this demographic shift will mean for racial and ethnic relations in the United States. As the number of Latinos and other people of color increases, whites may fear and resent the competition they will provide for jobs and other resources and respond with racial violence and legal efforts to control the growing population of color. As we saw earlier, this was the pattern of the white response in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the great waves of immigration and to black migration from the South. If whites repeat this pattern during the next few decades, we may well be in for even more racial and ethnic strife than we have been seeing in the recent past.

This possibility makes it even more urgent that individuals in their daily lives and the local, state and federal governments in their policies do everything possible to foster mutual understanding and to eliminate individual and institutional discrimination. In the democracy that is America, we must try to do better so that there will truly be “liberty and justice for all.”


Using Your Sociological Imagination

The Race Card Project™, began in 2010 when journalist Michele Norris, “began inviting people to distill their thoughts on the word race to only six words. Printing 200 postcards and issuing a call to action, Norris and her team were unsure of what – if anything – would result. What took root was a groundswell.” The project “created a vehicle for expression and voice for which it seemed many were longing.” To date, over 500,000 personal narratives have been shared, representing all 50 states and 96 countries. With their submissions, people often also send photos and tell stories about the meaning behind their six-word statements, which “contain sentiments and hard truths rarely expressed out loud.” (Norris).

The Race Card Project is still going strong and it’s a really good and seemingly simple way to get a person thinking about what race means to them. All you have to do is come up with six words that express your feelings about race. Once you start thinking about it, though, it can get a little difficult. Lucky for you, though, you’ve just read an entire chapter dedicated to race and ethnicity in a sociology textbook.

Express Yourself

Take everything you’ve learned from studying sociology into consideration and write six simple words that represent race to you. If you want, add a short explanation. If you need some ideas to motivate you, visit The Race Card Wall.


Section 9.7 References

Beneson, L. (2020, October 16). Fact Sheet: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). National Immigration Forum. Retrieved from https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-on-deferred-action-for-childhood-arrivals-daca/.

Cohen, C. and J. P. Sterba. (2003). Affirmative action and racial preference: A debate. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Dinnerstein, L. and D. M. Reimers. (2009). Ethnic Americans: A history of immigration. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Fahim, K. and K. Zraick.  (2008, December 15). Killing haunts Ecuadoreans’ rise in New York. The New York Times, p. A28.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/15/nyregion/15ecuador.html.

Hacker, A. (2003). Two nations: Black and white, separate, hostile, unequal (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Scribner.

Immigration Policy Center. (2008, September 10). From anecdotes to evidence: Setting the record straight on immigrants and crime. Retrieved from http://immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/anecdotes-evidence-setting-record-straight-immigrants-and-crime.

Karr, J. (Ed.). (2008). Affirmative action. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press

Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Lynch, Matthew.  (2015, August 10).  Diverse Conversations:  5 Ways to Maintain College Diversity Without Affirmative Action.  Diverse Issues in Higher Education.  https://www.diverseeducation.com/students/article/15096974/diverse-conversations-5-ways-to-maintain-college-diversity-without-affirmative-action.

Massey, D. S. and N. A. Denton. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Mock, B. (2007). Immigration backlash: Hate crimes against Latinos flourish. Retrieved from http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=845.

The race card wall. (2018, January 10).  The Race Card Project. Retrieved from https://theracecardproject.com/the-race-card-project-wall/.

Reskin, B. F. (1998). Realities of affirmative action in employment. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.

Sampson, R. J. (2008). Rethinking crime and immigration. Contexts, 7(2), 28–33. 

Statista.  (2022).  U.S. Population: Ethnic Groups in America 2015 and 2060. Statista.  Retrieved from www.statista.com/statistics/270272/percentage-of-us-population-by-ethnicities/.

Stefoff, R. (2005). The Bakke case: Challenging affirmative action. New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark. 

The Gallup Organization. (2021).  Immigration.  Washington, D.C.: Gallup Organization. Retrieved from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1660/immigration.aspx.

US Census Bureau (2021, August 12).  Race and Ethnicity in the United States: 2010 Census and 2020 Census. 2021. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/race-and-ethnicity-in-the-united-state-2010-and-2020-census.html.

Vélez, M. B. (2006). Toward an understanding of the lower rates of homicide in Latino versus black neighborhoods: A look at Chicago. In R. D. Peterson, L. J. Krivo and  J. Hagan (Eds.), The many colors of crime: Inequalities of race, ethnicity, and crime in America (pp. 91–107). New York, NY: New York University Press. 

Vox.  (2017, September 6).  Daca, explained. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/UzYDqQDNFzc.

Walsh, Mark.  (2023, June 29).  Supreme Court Ends Affirmative Action in College Admissions in Decision Watched by K-12.  Education Week.  Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/supreme-court-ends-affirmative-action-in-college-admissions-in-decision-watched-by-k-12/2023/06.

Waters, M. C. and R. Ueda. (Eds.). (2007). The new Americans: A guide to immigration since 1965. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York, NY: Knopf.

Wise, T. J. (2005). Affirmative action: Racial preference in black and white. New York, NY: Routledge

All Rights Reserved Content

Public Broadcasting Service. (2018, December 4). Above the noise. PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/video/should-race-be-a-factor-in-college-admissions-ye6tjl/.

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