Sociology of Race

The sociology of race is the study of race and race relations. It has long been a central concern of sociologists. The assignment of individuals to racial categories profoundly affects the quality and even the length of their lives. These assignments are ostensibly made on the basis of biological criteria, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Yet the biological meaning of race is so unclear that many social and natural scientists argue that race, as a biological phenomenon, does not exist. Others take the position that while different races exist, extensive interbreeding in many societies has produced large numbers of people of mixed ancestry. The assignment of these people to racial categories depends on social, rather than on biological, criteria. Thus the social consequences of biologically inherited traits is the fundamental issue of the sociological study of race.


Biological Conceptions of Race

While the terms race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, social scientists assign them distinct meanings. Scholars differ on the precise definition of ethnicity, but these definitions usually include some or all of the following criteria. First, ethnic groups are extended kinship groups, although kinship may be defined loosely, as based on a common homeland rather than common ancestry. Second, coethnics share a distinctive culture, marked by differences ranging from language and religion to styles of dress or cooking. A distinctive culture need not be a matter of everyday practice, however. It may be primarily symbolic, as when a group’s traditional language is no longer widely used, or its religious observance is confined to holidays. Third, an ethnic group shares a common history, in which key events such as immigration, colonization, and the like form a sense of collective memory. Finally, an ethnic group is marked by self-consciousness, in that its members see themselves as a people, and are seen as such by others (Cornell and Hartmann 1998).

For most of human history, ethnic groups living in close proximity did not differ significantly in physical appearance. Thus the observable biological differences associated with race were not used to distinguish friend from foe, and interracial antagonisms were virtually unknown. The rapid, long-distance migration required to bring members of different racial groups together is a comparatively recent phenomenon that was accelerated by trade and the large-scale European exploration and colonial expansion of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries (van den Berghe 1981). It was also during this period that Western science assumed a central role in the attempt to understand the natural and social worlds. Thus, as Europeans became aware of peoples who differed from them in culture and appearance, the concept of race entered the popular and scientific vocabularies as a means of classifying previously unknown groups.

Not content merely to classify people into racial groups, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scientists attempted to sort these groups into a hierarchy. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that species are engaged in a struggle for existence in which only the fittest will survive, was gaining widespread acceptance during this period. Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and other early social theorists extended this evolutionary argument, suggesting that different social groups, including races, were at different states of evolution; the more advanced groups were destined to dominate groups less “fit.” This idea, called social Darwinism (which Darwin himself did not support), provided justification for European imperialism and for America’s treatment of its racial minorities.

Building on the notion that some races were at a more advanced stage of evolution than others, a number of scientists tried to measure differences between the races, especially in the area of intelligence. The first intelligence test was developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905. Modified versions of this test were administered to approximately one million American soldiers in World War I, and the results were used to argue that there were large, genetically determined differences in intelligence between blacks and whites. Such a conclusion implied that blacks could not benefit from education to the extent that whites could; these findings were then used as a justification for the inferior education made available to blacks.

Binet himself rejected the notion that intelligence was a fixed quantity determined by heredity, or that intelligence could be measured with the kind of precision claimed by other intelligence testers, especially in the United States. Furthermore, other scholars demonstrated that the early tests were heavily biased against members of certain class, ethnic, and racial groups, including blacks. While the average scores of blacks have tended to fall below the average scores of whites, greater variation occurs within each group than between the two groups; that is, many blacks outscore many whites.

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argue in The Bell Curve (1994) that much of the gap between black and white average scores can be attributed to heredity, rather than to environmental influences. These writers use an extensive array of studies on race and intelligence to support their claim. Yet their methods and conclusions have been roundly attacked by leading scholars in the field, some of whom contend that intelligence is multidimensional, and cannot therefore be summarized in a single test score. Others point out that since intelligence tests measure academic achievement rather than innate potential, the impoverished background and substandard education of some African Americans offers a reasonable explanation for their lower average scores. Research has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that racial groups differ in terms of their innate capacity for learning. Today, therefore, the vast majority of social scientists reject the idea that any one race is superior in intelligence or any other ability, at least to the extent that such abilities are determined by heredity. (For interesting accounts of the race-intelligence controversy, see Gould 1981; Fraser 1995.)

Controversy continues also on the subject of race itself. In the nineteenth century the concept was defined quite loosely, and the idea was widely held that people of similar appearance but different nationalities constituted different races. As recently as World War II it was not uncommon to hear people speak of the “British race,” the ”Jewish race,” and so on. Some physical anthropologists narrowed the concept to include three main racial groups: the Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid, or black, white, and Asian races.

Others argue that human populations have always exhibited some degree of interbreeding, and that this has greatly increased during the last few centuries, producing large groups of people who defy such racial classification. ”Pure races” have probably never existed, and certainly do not exist now. According to this thesis, race is a cultural myth, a label that has no biological basis but is attached to groups in order to buttress invidious social distinctions. (For an interesting discussion on the biological meaning of race, see Begley 1995; the following section owes much to this work.)

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Is Race a Myth?

At the most basic level, biologists sort organisms into species. A species is essentially a breeding boundary, in that it defines the limits within which interbreeding can occur. Thus golden retrievers can be bred with standard poodles, but not with pigs or cats. By this fairly straightforward criterion, all humans, regardless of appearance, belong to the same species. The difficulty arises when one attempts to identify subspecies, the technical equivalent of races. In some species, this is relatively simple because their distinctive traits are “concordant.” That is, the same subgroups are produced using any of a number of traits: a golden retriever can be distinguished from a standard poodle on the basis of fur color and texture, ear shape, or body type. Among humans, however, identifying subspecies is not so simple, because the traits associated with human subpopulations are nonconcordant. In short, using one trait will result in one set of “racial” categories, while another trait will produce an entirely different set.

Consider the traits commonly used to divide humans into the three conventional races. These traits include skin color, hair color and texture, and facial features. Asians are usually identified primarily by the epicanthic eye fold, yet if this criterion were applied consistently, the San (Bushmen) of South Africa would be considered Asian. And while skin color certainly helps distinguish Swedes from the Masai of East Africa, it also distinguishes Swedes from Turks, both of whom are considered ”white,” and the Masai from the San, whose olive complexion more closely resembles the Turk’s than the much darker Masai’s.

Humans are visual creatures, so that in categorizing others, we fixate on differences of appearance. But these criteria are biologically arbitrary; other, less obvious traits associated with human subpopulations might just as easily be used. A common anatomic trait among Asians is front teeth that are “scooped out,” or shovel shaped, in the back. Yet Swedes and Native Americans also share this trait, so we could divide the species into one race with shovel-shaped incisors, and one without. Considering biochemistry, some peoples produce lactase (an enzyme that aids milk digestion) into adulthood, while others do not. A “lactase-positive race” would include northern and central Europeans, Arabs, northern Indians, and many West Africans, while other Africans, Native Americans, southern Europeans, and Southeast Asians would be in the “lactase-negative race.” Genetics multiplies the possibilities even further: antimalarial genes, including but not limited to the sickle cell gene, could be used to distinguish a “malaria-resistant race” (in which Greeks and Italians would be grouped with Southeast Asians, New Guineans, and tropical Africans) from the “malaria-susceptible race” (which would place Scandinavians with the Xhosa of South Africa). Because these various traits are nonconcordant, classifying the human species on the basis of one will produce a set of “races” entirely different from the set based on another trait.

Biologically speaking, then, all such classification schemes are both arbitrary and meaningless. The genetic variation contained within any identifiable human subpopulation, including the conventional “races,” is vastly greater than the variation between populations. That is, any two Asian people are likely to have less in common than either has with a randomly chosen white person. To put it in slightly different terms, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin once observed that if a holocaust wiped out everyone on earth except a small tribe deep in the New Guinea forest, almost all the genetic variation found in the four (now five) billion people currently on earth would be preserved (cited in Gould 1981). Grouping people into racial categories tells us nothing about how biologically related they are. It tells us only that we perceive them to share some trait that we humans have chosen to consider important.

If racial categories tell us nothing meaningful about biology, however, they tell us a great deal about history, as we can see from another argument against the traditional view of race: that individuals’ racial identification can change as they move from one society to another. Americans are accustomed to thinking of black and white as two separate categories, and assigning people with any African ancestry to the former category. This is the “hypodescent rule,” in which the offspring of a mixed union are assigned to the lower-ranked group. In Brazil, however, black and white are poles on a continuum, and individuals can be placed at any point on that continuum, depending on their facial features, skin color, and hair texture. Even siblings need not share the same identity, which also to some extent depends on social class: the expression ”money bleaches” reflects the fact that upward mobility can move a person’s racial assignment closer to the white end of the continuum (van den Berghe 1967). Thus, a black American who is light skinned and well to do may find that in Brazil he is not considered ”black” at all, and may even be labeled ”white.” Should he go to South Africa instead, our light-skinned black American would be neither black nor white, but ”colored,” the term that denotes a person of mixed ancestry in that society.

Finally, consider this consequence of the hypodescent rule: in America, a white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman cannot give birth to a white child. This convention is biologically nonsensical and arbitrary; it can only be understood historically. In the United States, hypodescent was carried to the extreme of the ”one-drop rule,” in which one drop of African blood was enough to designate a person as black. This practice evolved out of a desire to maximize the profitable slave population, and to maintain the “purity” of the white race. Clearly, the racial categories commonly used in America do not reflect an underlying biological reality. This point has important implications, as we can see by returning to the debate over the relationship between race and intelligence. If the precise nature and meaning of intelligence remains unclear, and if race itself has no biological significance at all, then how are we to interpret a statistical association between “race” and ”intelligence”? It becomes little more than a mathematical exercise, yielding information of dubious value.

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Social Conceptions of Race

While race may lack biological significance, it does have tremendous social significance. Sociologist W. I. Thomas’s famous dictum is certainly true of race: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (quoted in Coser 1977, p. 521). Racial distinctions are meaningful because we attach meaning to them, and the consequences vary from prejudice and discrimination to slavery and genocide. Since people believe that racial differences are real and important, and behave accordingly, those differences become real and important. Hitler, for example, believed that Jews constituted a distinct and inferior race, and the consequences of his belief were very real for millions of Jews. Thus the major questions confronting sociologists who study race relations concern the social consequences of racial categorization. To what degree are different racial and ethnic groups incorporated into the larger society? How can we account for variations in the economic, political, legal, and social statuses of different groups?

American sociologists have found their own society to be a natural laboratory for the study of these issues. The United States has a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups, and some of these have been more successful in American society than others. Within any group there is substantial variation in economic achievement, and the success of “model minorities” is often exaggerated. Still, considered as groups, Jews and the Japanese have been more successful in America, in material terms, than have blacks and Mexicans. One explanation for these differences that has found some acceptance both within and outside scientific circles is that the cultures and values of these groups differ. Some groups’ values are believed to be more conducive to success than others. Jews, for example, have traditionally been seen as valuing scholarship and business acumen; as a result they have worked hard in the face of discrimination, educated their children, and pulled themselves up from poverty. African Americans, by contrast, allegedly lacked these values; the result is their continued concentration in the poor and working classes.

Most sociologists reject this argument, which Stephen Steinberg (1981) refers to as the ”ethnic myth.” Steinberg argues that this line of reasoning is simply a new form of social Darwinism, in which the fittest cultures survive. A closer look at the experiences of immigrants in America (including African Americans) reveals that not all immigrant groups start at the bottom; some groups arrive with the skills necessary to compete in the American labor market while others do not. Furthermore, the skills possessed by some groups are in high demand in the United States, while other groups find fewer opportunities. Thus Steinberg argues that the success of an immigrant group depends on the occupational structure of its country of origin, the group’s place in that structure, and the occupational structure of the new country.

Steinberg uses the case of American Jews to support his argument. In terms of education, occupation, and income, Jews have been highly successful. Thirty-six percent of the adult Jewish population had graduated from college in 1971, compared to 11 percent of non-Jews. Seventy percent of Jews were in business or the professions, compared with roughly a third of non-Jews. The median family income of Jews in 1971 was $14,000, approximately 30 percent more than the average American family. Again, it is possible to overstate Jewish success, since many Jews are still poor or working class; middle-class Jews are concentrated in small business and the professions, and are nearly absent from corporate hierarchies. Furthermore, Jews have experienced a great deal of economic and social discrimination. Nevertheless, when compared with other ethnic and racial groups in America, they have been quite successful.

This success, Steinberg argues, is attributable in part to the origins of Jewish immigrants, most of whom came from Russia and eastern Europe, and arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since Jews in Eastern Europe could not own land, they tended to live in cities; even those who lived in rural areas were mostly merchants and traders, rather than farmers. The urban concentration and above-average literacy rates of Jews affected their occupational distribution: 70 percent of Russian Jews worked as artisans or in manufacturing or commerce in 1897; even unskilled Jews worked in industrial occupations. Sixty-seven percent of Jewish immigrants who arrived in America between 1899 and 1910 were skilled workers, compared to 49 percent of English immigrants, 15 percent of Italians, and 6 percent of Poles.

Furthermore, Jewish immigrants were disproportionately represented in the garment industry, which was growing at two to three times the rate of other American industries. Jobs in the garment industry were better paid than other industrial jobs, and Jews, with their higher skill level, tended to have the better-paid jobs within the industry.

The garment industry also offered unusual opportunities for individual entrepreneurship, since little capital was required to start a small clothing business.

In sum, Jewish immigrants did well in America because they brought industrial skills to an industrializing country. Although the majority of Jewish immigrants arrived with little money and encountered widespread discrimination, American industry could not afford to ignore them completely. Steinberg concludes that while a case can be made that Jews have traditionally valued educational and occupational achievement, and that this contributed to their success, Jews do not hold a monopoly on these values. Furthermore, if they had encountered an occupational structure that offered no hope for the fulfillment of these aspirations, Jews would have scaled their goals down accordingly.

The inability of other racial and ethnic groups to match the success achieved by Jewish Americans has also been attributed to the cultures and values of those groups. Glazer and Moynihan (1970), for example, blame the persistent poverty of blacks on “the home and family and community. … It is there that the heritage of two hundred years of slavery and a hundred years of discrimination is concentrated; and it is there that we find the serious obstacles to the ability to make use of a free educational system to advance into higher occupations and to eliminate the massive social problems that afflict colored Americans and the city” (pp. 49, 50). Yet, as Gutman (1976) has shown, the black family emerged from slavery relatively strong and began to exhibit signs of instability only when blacks became concentrated in urban ghettos. Furthermore, for generations after emancipation, blacks faced extreme educational and employment discrimination; the notion that a free educational system provided a smooth path to the higher occupations is simply inconsistent with blacks’ experience in America.

Most sociologists tend, like Steinberg, to locate the cause of African Americans’ poverty relative to white immigrant groups in the structure of opportunity that awaited them after slavery. The South was an economically backward region where blacks remained tied to the land and subject to conditions that were in many cases worse than those they had known under slavery. The vast majority of white immigrants settled in the North, where industry provided jobs and taxpaying workers provided schools. The more agricultural South had fewer educational opportunities to offer blacks or whites. Immediately after the Civil War, when they were provided access to education, blacks flocked to southern schools. This opportunity was short lived, however, since the scarcity of educational resources made it advantageous for whites to appropriate the blacks’ share for themselves, a temptation they did not resist.

By the time large numbers of blacks migrated north, the industrial expansion that had provided so many jobs for immigrants was on the wane. Moreover, the newly freed slaves did not have industrial skills and were barred from industrial occupations. Given the generations of social, economic, political, and legal discrimination that followed, and the fact that blacks did take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, it is unnecessary to call on ”inferior values” to explain the difference in achievement between African Americans and white immigrants. (For an interesting comparison of the struggle of blacks in the postbellum South and the North to that of black South Africans, see Frederickson 1981; for a comparison of the conditions faced by U.S. blacks and white immigrants, and the effects of these differences on each group’s success, see Lieberson 1980.)

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Ever since Darwin proposed that the evolutionary process of natural selection ensures that only the fittest species survive, social science has been bedeviled by the notion that some human groups, especially races, are more biologically or culturally fit than others. This extension of Darwin’s principle to competition for survival within the human species, especially when applied to industrial or postindustrial societies, cannot withstand close scrutiny. While human subpopulations have evolved certain traits such as malaria resistance and the retention of lactase into adulthood as adaptations to environmental conditions, these physical traits do not sort our species into consistent categories, and they are hardly relevant to performance in today’s school or workplace.

Furthermore, cultural differences between groups can be identified, and these differences may have economic consequences, but they are more likely to reflect a group’s historical experiences than the value its members attach to economic success. Thus, the current trend in sociology is to explain differences in the success of racial and ethnic groups in terms of the economic and political resources possessed by those groups, and by the groups with whom they are in competition and conflict.

One reason for the longevity of the biological and cultural forms of social Darwinism may be that for many years most natural and social scientists have been white, and middle class to upper class. While the objective search for truth is the goal of the scientific enterprise, race is an emotionally and ideologically loaded concept, and even the most sincere humanitarians have been led to faulty conclusions by their own biases. An important prospect for the advancement of the scientific study of race, then, is the recruitment of new scholars with a wide diversity of ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. This increasing diversity will help to broaden the exchange of ideas so necessary to scientific inquiry, and will yield an understanding of race that is more balanced and less subject to bias than it has been in the past.

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  1. Begley, Sharon (1995) ‘‘Three Is Not Enough.’’ Newsweek (February 13):67–69.
  2. Cornell, Stephen, and Douglas Hartmann (1998) Ethnicity and Race. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge.
  3. Coser, Lewis A. (1977) Masters of Sociological Thought, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  4. Fraser, Steven (ed.) (1995) The Bell Curve Wars. New York: Basic Books.
  5. Frederickson, George M. (1981) White Supremacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1970) Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
  7. Gould, Stephen Jay (1981) The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
  8. Gutman, Herbert (1976) The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. New York: Pantheon.
  9. Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray (1994) The Bell Curve. New York: Free Press.
  10. Lieberson, Stanley (1980) A Piece of the Pie. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  11. Steinberg, Stephen (1981) The Ethnic Myth. New York: Atheneum.
  12. van den Berghe, Pierre L. (1967) Race and Racism. New York: John Wiley.
  13. van den Berghe, Pierre L. (1981) The Ethnic Phenomenon. New York: Praeger.

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