Ethnic or Racial Division of Labor

An ethnic or racial division of labor exists in a society in which ethnic or racial groups have distinctive concentrations or specializations in particular lines of work. Ethnic/racial divisions of labor may arise through relatively benign labor market sorting processes, or they may be the result of systematic acts of bigotry and discrimination, often with state sanction. Regardless of how they arise, ethnic/racial divisions of labor can be observed and traced over time, and they can have measurable effects on social and political dynamics within societies.

Ethnic/racial divisions of labor have a long history. For example, in Athens of classical antiquity, landowners and other free citizens were almost exclusively Athenian, but  the slaves who performed the bulk of the society’s work were typically (but not universally) ethnic outsiders, as were the metic and xenoi artisans and merchants who dominated many areas of trade. More recently, European colonial powers created ethnic divisions of labor across the globe, installing themselves as a ruling class and frequently selecting a specific ethnic group within a colonized territory to fill privileged positions in colonial administration or trade. Apartheid in South Africa and slavery and Jim Crow in the American South are two examples of legal systems in former colonies that enforced racial divisions of labor, reserving desirable positions for whites while largely restricting subordinated groups to menial occupations. Ethnic divisions of labor in many countries are among the most persistent legacies of European colonialism.

Social theorists have developed a number of explanations for the creation and maintenance of ethnic divisions of labor. Neo-Marxists have alternated between two seemingly contradictory positions. The first position, which dates back to Marx, holds that capitalists are the architects of ethnic/racial  divisions of labor, offering privileged positions to some groups of workers while assigning the most onerous tasks to others. The capitalists’ goal is to foster conflict and competition within the working class, keeping it divided and weak. So called radical theories of labor market segmentation mostly adopt  this  position. The  second position, espoused most forcefully by Bonacich in the early 1970s, does not hold capitalists responsible for anything beyond creating a context that forces workers to compete with each other in order to survive. In Bonacich’s scheme, when relatively privileged workers face a threat from ethnically or racially distinct others, they use ethnic solidarity, labor organization, and other social and political resources at their disposal to insulate themselves from competition. When they are unable to completely exclude the other group from the labor market, they are often able to create an ethnically/racially split labor market, reserving the best positions for themselves. The split labor market persists as long as ethnic/racial others remain a threat.

Development  in  these  macro level neo-Marxist theories has virtually stalled since the late 1980s. Most recent work has focused at lower levels of abstraction – the metropolitan area, the industry, or even the individual firm. Ecological approaches to the ethnic/racial division of labor, for example, typically concern metropolitan labor markets. These approaches treat local labor markets as metaphorical ecologies, with ethnic/racial  groups pictured as metaphorical species struggling to find and expand their ‘‘niches.’’ In his study of native blacks and white immigrants at the dawn of the twentieth century, Lieberson (1980) proposes a ‘‘model of occupational composition’’ that frames the ethnic/racial division of labor as the outcome of a struggle for group position within a fixed hierarchy of occupational positions. For a particular group, the outcome of this struggle is determined by the overall group composition of the metropolitan area, group members’ ‘‘objective’’ qualifications, group members’ occupational preferences, the desirability of particular occupations, and, perhaps most importantly, the ethnic/racial preferences of employers and potential co workers and customers. This approach helps account for collective upward mobility among ethnic groups, although it does little to explain the extra efforts made by immigrant whites to exclude blacks.

While Lieberson focused on earlier immigrant waves, mass movements to the US and Europe since the mid 1960s have sparked considerable interest in understanding how ethnic divisions of labor are formed and transformed over time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the phenomenal growth of immigrant enterprises and the role of these businesses in providing co ethnic workers with employment niches attracted much attention. Portes and his colleagues developed the notion of the ethnic enclave economy, a separate economy semi detached from the mainstream economy in which ethnic entrepreneurs both exploit co ethnic workers and provide new business opportunities for them. Among immigrant groups that bring entrepreneurial expertise and a modicum of capital, opportunities for small business play a major role in shaping the group’s place in the overall ethnic/racial division of labor.

Views on the consequences of ethnic/racial divisions of labor vary. Few disagree about the destructive consequences of coercive systems like apartheid and Jim Crow. Contemporary immigration scholars who study the entry of comparatively small groups of newcomers into larger ethnic/racial divisions of labor, however, tend to view these divisions of labor as inevitable. They also often see the consequences as very favorable to the new immigrants. Some, however, point out that not all immigrants locate favorable niches and that, furthermore, immigrants may be squeezing native minorities out of opportunities.

Neo-Marxists tend to view ethnic divisions of labor as wholly undesirable because they are based on discrimination, leave some groups disproportionately impoverished, and undermine class unity. Hechter’s influential work on the ‘‘cultural division of labor’’ provided clarification on this last point. Hechter distinguishes two major dimensions to the ethnic or racial division of labor: the degree of between group hierarchy and the degree of group specialization or distinctiveness. To the extent that an ethnic or racial group is concentrated at one level in the occupational hierarchy, whether at the top, bottom, or middle, it will share interests with other groups at the same hierarchical level and tend toward class politics. On the other hand, to the extent that a group specializes in particular lines of work, and thus has high levels of within group interaction and interdependence, the greater is the salience of ethnic politics.

Three areas promise to be most fruitful in the future study of racial/ethnic divisions of labor. First, studies of the ‘‘new second generation,’’ the children of the post 1965 immigrants to the US, should expose the extent to which specifically ethnic and racial factors still structure the opportunities available to natives. Second, feminist scholars, particularly those studying immigration, have been making progress in gendering our understandings of ethnic/racial divisions of labor, and this progress is likely to continue. Third, as global integration grows more important, so does attention to its effects on national ethnic/racial divisions of labor. Continuing research on, for example, how the new ‘‘transnational’’ migrants fit into ethnic/racial divisions of labor will be invaluable.


  1. Bonacich, (1972) A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor Market. American Sociological Review 37: 547 59.
  2. Hechter, (1978) Group Formation and the Cultural Division of Labor. American Journal of Sociology 84: 293 318.
  3. Lieberson, (1980) A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  4. Model, (1993) The Ethnic Niche and the Structure of Opportunity: Immigrants and Minorities in New York City. In: Katz, M. (Ed.), The ‘‘Under class’’ Debate: Views from History. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  5. Nakano Glenn, (1991) Cleaning Up/Kept Down: A Historical Perspective on Racial Inequality in ‘‘Women’s Work.’’ Stanford Law Review 43: 1333 56.
  6. Omi, & Winant, H. (1986) Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York.
  7. Portes, & Jensen, L. (1989) The Enclave and the Entrants. American Sociological Review 54: 929 49.
  8. Wilson, J. (1978) The Declining Significance of Race. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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