Race and Ethnicity in Society

Society is defined as people who live in a specific geographic territory, interact with one another, and share many elements of common culture. Within a society there are many components that make up that society. There is crime, culture, social class, gender, marriage and the family, religion, education, medicine and health care, the political order, etc. However, race and ethnicity has a great and powerful influence in society, and has for many years. On the reverse side, society also influences the different races and ethnicities of people. Race is defined as “a group of people who have been singled out on the basis of real or alleged physical characteristics” (Curry, Jiobu, Schwirian 209). Ethnicity is defined as “common cultural characteristics people share, such as the same language, origin, dress, food, and values.”  (Curry, Jiobu, Schwirian 209)

Through history, in all parts of the world, we see clear examples of this happening. When looking at race and ethnicity from a sociologist point of view, it is very easy to see how much influence it truly has on societies as a whole all over the world. One of the main things that people think about with race and ethnicity is the inequalities that are associated with it. The different sociological perspectives analyze the inequalities of race and ethnicity.

The Functionalist views racial and ethnic inequality as having a specific function in society. “The main function of ethnic and racial inequality is to ensure the unpleasant but important work gets done” (Curry, Jiobu, Schwirian, 232) The Functionalist theorist of sociology feels that the racial and ethnic minorities have very little job skills. They also feel that every society has jobs that are undesirable to the people in that society. The jobs that give low pay, have poor working conditions, and have little prestige. The minorities don’t have the means to compete for the high paying, desirable jobs, therefore they have to settle for the undesirable jobs. For example, Asian immigrants are working in sweatshops and Mexican immigrants act as maids, gardeners, and field hands. That is the function that racial and ethnic inequalities play in society.

According to Conflict theorists, “Ethnic and racial inequality results from the endless competition among groups for power, wealth, status, and other valuable social resources.” (Curry, Jiobu, Schwirian, 232) Basically, two groups of people compete for these resources. If the minorities were to acquire power, they would demand the higher paying jobs that give them more prestige and have better working conditions. That is why the dominant races and ethnicities don’t allow the minorities to get to that area. Racial and ethnic inequalities always almost end in conflict.

Conflict theorists also argue that minorities argue amongst themselves, so there can be two minority groups arguing. Two minority groups’ hostilities can be beneficial to the dominant group. Because if they are fighting each other, they can’t fight against the dominant group nor can they find societal solutions to inequality.

Symbolic Interactionist say that “in order for an ethnic or a racial group to exist, its members must develop a “consciousness of kind,” or feelings of being like one another and differ from outsiders,” (Curry, Jiobu, Schwirian 233) This “consciousness of kind” stems from the interaction between racial and ethnic groups and the rest of the people of the society. An example of this can be found in our American society. For many years, Native Americans have been grouped together into one group. Instead of differentiating between the different tribes of Native Americans, they have all just been classified into one group.

The three different perspectives all have different views of race and ethnicity and the problems of inequalities that race and ethnicities face. The Functionalist sees inequality as a beneficial part of societies since all the unpleasant jobs will get done. The Conflict theorists see race and ethnic inequalities as a process to find dominance and power. The Symbolic Interactionists see race and ethnicities as created and kept going through the ideas of social interactions and shared ideas. All of these perspectives offer ideas into why there is inequality in race and ethnicity. And there are many real world examples of the ideas of these perspectives. Many of them stem from the United States of America itself.

Many examples of the inequality of race and ethnicity can be found from studying the United States of America’s society. The most notable and highly memorable example is the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Americans started out treating the African Americans very poor and very disrespectfully. They showed clear prejudice and discrimination towards these people.  This was shown during the period of African American slavery in the United States.

Why did African American slavery happen in the United States at all? What was the mentality behind the people of this society at the time of slavery? “Historians normally date the start of slavery in the North American colonies to 1619. That year, a Dutch ship carrying African slaves docked at Point Comfort, which served as Jamestown’s checkpoint for ships wanting to trade with the colonists. The crew of the Dutch ship was starving, and as John Rolfe noted in a letter to the Virginia Company’s treasurer Edwin Sandy’s, the Dutch traded 20 African slaves for food and supplies.” (Vox). Slavery in America started here, when the Dutch traded African Americans for food. As for there mentality towards the African Americans, they felt that they were beneath them. The things they experienced and saw socially influenced the American people. They wore these nice clean clothes, went to school, and could read. But the African Americans were these dirty, illiterate people. Because of these social factors and social influences, the Americans would feel that the African Americans were below them and they were able to justify their discrimination against them.

Slavery in the United States is a good example of the Functionalist perspective and the conflict perspective in some ways. The African Americans were the minorities; therefore it was their function to do all the unwanted and filthy jobs that the white Americans didn’t want to do. And with conflict perspective, the Americans are the dominant power and they just kept winning the conflict over the African Americans. However, in 1861 came there was a division in the dominant American power.  Because of this, civil war broke out and this conflict within the dominant power became beneficial to the African American minorities. By 1865 the conflict ended and slavery was abolished. “No society could withstand the tension inherent in enslaving its own members.” (Finley) What he means is that no society cannot bear the tension of putting its own people into slavery. The American society is a very good example of that.

However, that did not end the prejudices and discriminations towards the African American people, or against any other race or ethnicity. After the abolishment of slavery, amendments were passed to give African Americans some rights. However, “regarded by many as second-class citizens, blacks were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, prisons, armed forces, and schools in both Northern and Southern states.” (A Century of Racial Segregation 1849-1950) Because of this racial segregation happening in the United States many civil rights leaders emerged.  The most famous of these civil rights leaders being Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was preacher who quickly became involved in the civil rights movement. His most noted event was the delivering of his “I Have A Dream” speech. Shortly after, he was assassinated. Because of the work of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders the African American’s segregation in the United States was eventually lifted.

In modern-day American society African Americans have become a lot more accepted and have been integrated into the society. African Americans are now some of the most famous names around. We see a lot of African American basketball players, musicians, and even high positions in the government. The African Americans have come a long way. However, not everyone has become accepting of the African Americans. Madonna G. Constantine and Sha’kema M. Blackmon talk about “Black Adolescents’ Racial Socialization Experiences”(Matson 111). According to them “researchers have theorized that racism and discrimination act as developmental mediators in the lives of Black Americans across their life spans” (Matson 111).  The “Black Adolescents”, even though living in the new and accepting American society, still have to deal with some prejudice ideas from their peers. In conclusion, though the African American race has grown and become a lot more socially integrated into American society, the prejudices against them will never fully disappear from the society.

How does this example of the African Americans going from slavery to segregation to becoming a working and successful race in the American society show race and ethnicity having influence to society?  The example shows proof of social growth and integration of race and ethnicity. African Americans went from being lowly slaves to mostly accepted and successful people.

African Americans weren’t the only race and ethnicity that the Americans discriminated against. During World War II Americans imprisoned Japanese-American citizens living in the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans feared for their safety. “Out of fears of espionage and sabotage along the Pacific, the government removed Japanese American men, women, and children from their homes and placed them in internment camps in the interior of the country.” (Breed) The American society discriminated against an ethnicity and clumped them all together into one social group and thought they were all evil. You could say the Americans took a Symbolic Interactionists approach to the Japanese-Americans.

How does all of this prove that race and ethnicity have influenced societies? Race and ethnicity is what helps make a society what it is. The integration of races and ethnicities is what makes a society grow and flourish. The examples of racial and ethnic inequality in America and the races and ethnicities overcoming these inequalities shows a great social change. In conclusion, race and ethnicity influence society by causing social change and integration among societies, which in turn changes the world.


Breed, Ciara. “Japanese American Internment.” N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/japanese_internment/index.html>

“A Century of Racial Segregation 1849-1950.” N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown/brown-segregation.html>

Finley, Moses I. “The Sociology of Slavery.” N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/548305/slavery/24168/Laws-of-manumission#toc24169>.

Vox, Lisa. “The Start of Slavery in North America.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/slavery/a/The-Start-Of-Slavery-In-North-America.htm>.

Matson, Ronald R. The Spirit of Sociology: A Reader. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2005. Print.

Curry, Timothy J., Robert M. Jiobu, and Kent P. Schwirian. Sociology for the Twenty-first Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

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