Race and Ethnic Consciousness

Race and ethnic consciousness refers to the awareness of membership in a racial or ethnic group by both group members and the larger society in which they reside. The concept embodies both popular and social scientific under standings of classification and membership. Popular perceptions often attribute race and ethnicity to biological origins. In contrast, social scientists insist that these categories are the consequence of a social construction process. Despite the social basis of race and ethnicity, social scientists acknowledge that they are real in their consequences. Race and ethnicity shape social stratification, underlie individual and group identities, determine patterns of social conflict, and condition life chances. In fact, so important is the notion of consciousness to the comprehension of race that eminent scholar George Fredrickson defines race as ”consciousness of status and identity based on ancestry and color” (1988: 3).

Fredrickson traces the concern with race and ethnic consciousness to the 1970s debate between neo-Marxists and Weberians on the origins of American racism. Prior to that time, racism was interpreted in light of psychological constructs including ignorance, prejudice, and the projection of hostility onto low status groups. Rejecting the causal importance of these factors, Marxist scholars like Eugene Genovese emphasized the economic benefits acquired by slave owners in exploiting African origin people. They contended that anti black ideologies were determined by the relations of production, and reflected the class consciousness of slave owners who imposed these outlooks on non slave owning white workers. While admitting the importance of class in racial inequality, Fredrickson and colleagues countered Marxist contentions about the economic basis of racism by reviving a polemic first made in the 1940s by W. E. B. Du Bois. They cited the many ways that poor whites, who had little economic interest in exploiting the labor of African Americans, were nevertheless passionate white supremacists. Race and ethnicity were meaningful determinants of social differentiation in their own right. Paraphrasing Marx, Fredrickson utilized the term race consciousness as an alternative to class based identities in shaping identification and solidarity.

Research by Van Ausdale and Feagin reveals the primacy of race consciousness in constructing identity by demonstrating that children as young as 3 years are well aware of racial and ethnic classification and deploy invidious distinctions based upon their comprehension thereof.

Much sociological knowledge about the nature and functioning of race and ethnic relations is rooted in the analysis of the highly structured situation of the American South prior to the Civil Rights Movement. However, recent research conducted within the highly diverse, multicultural, and globalized contemporary social environments, wherein migrants account for a significant fraction of the local population and explicitly racist statements are taboo, yields a much more intricate and varied array of racial and ethnic situations than in an earlier time. While race and ethnic consciousness remains a powerful force in such contexts, its codification is much more complex. As Winant, Bonilla Silva, and others argue in their theories of racialization, racism has multiple bases, impacts groups in different ways, and changes according to time, place, class, and gender (Bonilla Silva 2001: 41).

Migration has the potential to radically trans form the prisms and boundaries through which race consciousness is formulated. Accordingly, systems of racial and ethnic classification and consciousness defy general principles and must be studied at the local level. For example, a growing literature on African origin immigrants in North America shows that despite the pervasive, phenotypically based ideology of racism that exists in the US, dark skinned newcomers often reject the US system of racial classification and use language, social practices, and selective patterns of social interaction to exempt themselves from it.

In a large body of research on the children of immigrants in California and Florida, Portes and Rumbaut found that the more assimilated immigrant youth are, the less likely they are to call themselves American and the more likely they are to identify with their country of origin. As such, their self proclaimed foreignness is ”made in the USA” (Portes & Rumbaut 2001: 188). In contrast, the children of immigrants in the United Kingdom downplay national identities and instead emphasize their parents’ religion, preferring to be classified as Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs in their interactions with the native British, even if they do not practice their faiths any more assiduously than most British people practice Christianity (Banton 1997: 121).

In multi ethnic societies, groups come to be seen, and to see themselves, as members of broadly inclusive pan ethnic categories that were unknown in the country of origin. People who had thought of themselves as members of families, regions, religious groups, or nationalities learn to identify with labels such as Asians, Latinos, or Ukes (short for Ukrainians, this term denotes various Eastern European groups in Ontario) in the host society. Such categories can be influenced by language, class position, neighborhood, popular music taste, gender ideologies, and patterns of consumption.

Despite the merging of groups with common regional origins or phenotype into a single category, awareness of difference remains. The greatest rivalries sometimes occur among populations that the larger society believes to be members of the same race or ethnicity. In New York City, West Indians report conflicts with Haitians and African Americans, while South Americans collide with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans (Kasinitz et al. 2004).

In his study of white identity in black majority Detroit, John Hartigan found that working class whites attribute the declining quality of life in their neighborhoods not to African Americans – as popular stereotypes about urban whites might suggest – but rather to the racialized category of ”hillbillies,” relative newcomers who entered the Motor City from Appalachia in search of industrial jobs. Finally, some groups with a strong minority identity, such as Jews from the former Soviet Union, who arrive in the US and Canada are surprised to find themselves regarded as members of the white majority, albeit with a foreign accent.

Sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean have explored the changing nature of the color line in the US as the country incorporates a growing mixed race population and numerous immigrants who are neither black nor white. The authors review theories and data that suggest that increasing racial and ethnic diversity will make American society either less concerned with such distinctions (yielding a color blind society) or will result in a shift of the color line. Citing low rates of residential segregation and high rates of intermarriage between Asians and Latinos and native whites, as compared to lower rates of black-white interaction, the authors conclude that a new color line that sets off blacks from all others may be coming into existence, leaving African Americans in disadvantaged positions that are not qualitatively different from those perpetuated by the traditional black-white divide.

Since the 1960s, social scientists have increasingly understood race and ethnic consciousness as the basis for the evaluation of group status and the concomitant formation of collective action. Herbert Blumer’s theory of race relations as a sense of group position contended that this feeling was critical to the relations between the dominant and the subordinate groups in society. It provided the dominant group with its perceptions, values, sensitivities, and emotions (Blumer 1999 [1958]: 101). More recent scholarship sees group position as applying to subordinate as well as dominant groups.

Theorists concerned with ethnic mobilization, ethnic economies, and social capital assert that shared notions of ethnic and racial membership underlie forms of trust, political and economic cooperation, and mobilization. In their pivotal work on social capital, Portes and colleagues identify mutual racial or ethnic consciousness as fostering the achievement of common goals. Among these are raising investment capital, encouraging academic achievement, fostering political activism, and stimulating self help philanthropy. At the same time, however, they remind us that social capital can have a downside, such that members of an ethnic or racial group will sometimes disdain assimilation, achievement, and upward mobility as violating group norms. Those engaging in sanctioned behaviors will be seen as disloyal and barred from accessing group based resources.

Race and ethnic consciousness is strongest in societies where populations are clearly divided and scarce and valued resources are unequally distributed on the basis of highly visible racial or ethnic characteristics. Often, the process is initiated as an elite group – such as white slave owners in the antebellum South – unites to dominate a minority population – Africans -using state power to legitimate the social and economic structures that underlie inequality. This, in turn, heightens the consciousness of the oppressed group, leading to conflict.

From the 1960s until the 1990s, several states undertook policies to reduce race and ethnic consciousness and, hopefully, dampen the associated resentment and conflict. This frequently involved the engagement of two pronged policies that encouraged assimilation and minimized racial, ethnic, and gender differences in the distribution of jobs, education, and other social goods, while simultaneously fostering group consciousness through affirmative action and the implementation of multicultural programs that advanced the maintenance of language, identity, political incorporation, and religious practice. Michael Banton (1997: 65) offers an interpretation of this apparent paradox, asserting that individual goal seeking reduces group consciousness and promotes assimilation, but certain goals (like public goods) can be attained only by collective action.

However, following the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1990, which resulted in the obsolescence of state socialism (a major alter native to ethnic and racial bases of identity), the outbreak of terrible ethnic conflicts in the Balkan region, and the events of September 11, 2001 a decade later, many states became much more cynical about their ability to manage the negative manifestations of race and ethnic consciousness through tolerance and moderate state support. Instead, majoritarian movements from the US and the Netherlands to Zimbabwe and Iran asserted that major social conflicts are best resolved by privileging an idealized version of these states’ cultural, religious, racial, and national roots, while restricting immigration and making few concessions on behalf of the cultural dispositions of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

In her provocatively titled book World on Fire (2003), legal scholar Amy Chua argued that, at least for the short term, the correlates of western modernization – the expansion of free markets plus democratization – will amplify rather than reduce ethnic conflict. This happens because under economic liberalization, the enhanced affluence of ethnically distinct minorities contrasts dramatically with the dire circumstances typically encountered by the local majority. As a result, entrepreneurial “outsiders” including South Asians in Fiji, Chinese in Malaysia, Jewish “oligarchs” in Russia, and whites in Zimbabwe and Bolivia have been subject to the vengeance of impoverished but politically empowered majorities. Consciousness of the differences between haves and have nots activates retribution and may provoke the exit of highly visible targets.

Given the multiform nature of ethnic and racial identities in a globalized world marked by economic transformations, transnational ties, border crossing social and religious movements, and increasing access to communication and travel, it appears likely that forms of ethnic and race consciousness will continue to be both complex and volatile social forces in the coming years.


  1. Banton, M. (1997) Ethnic and Racial Consciousness, 2nd edn. Longman, London and New York.
  2. Blumer, H. (1999 [1958]) Race Relations as a Sense of Group Position. In: Gallagher C. A. (Ed.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity.
  3. Mayfield, Mountain View, CA, pp. 99 105. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001) White Supremacy and Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner,Boulder, CO.
  4. Chua, A. (2003) World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Doubleday, New York.
  5. Fredrickson, G. (1988) The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality. Wesleyan University Press, Middle-town, CT.
  6. Hartigan, J., Jr. (1999) Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton Uni­versity Press, Princeton.
  7. Kasinitz, P., Mollenkopf, J. H., & Waters, M. C. (Eds.) (2004) Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
  8. Lee, J. & Bean, F. (2004) America’s Changing Color Lines: Immigration, Race/Ethnicity, and Multi­racial Identification. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 221 42.
  9. Light, I. & Gold, S. J. (2000) Ethnic Economies. Academic Press, San Diego.
  10. Portes, A. & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001) Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation. Univer­sity of California Press, Berkeley.
  11. Van Ausdale, D. & Feagin, J. E. (2001) The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Rowman &Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
  12. Waters, M. C. (1999) Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  13. Winant, H. (2001) The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. Basic Books, New York.

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