Race, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
- Understand the difference between race and ethnicity
- Define a majority group (dominant group)
- Define a minority group (subordinate group)
While many students first entering a sociology classroom are accustomed to conflating the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “minority group,” these three terms have distinct meanings for sociologists.
- race refers to superficial physical differences that a particular society considers significant.
- ethnicity describes shared culture
- minority groups describe groups that are subordinate, or that lack power in society regardless of skin color or country of origin.
What Is Race?
Historically, the concept of race has changed across cultures and eras, and has eventually become less connected with ancestral and familial ties, and more concerned with superficial physical characteristics. In the past, theorists have posited categories of race-based on various geographic regions, ethnicities, skin colors, and more. Their labels for racial groups have connoted regions (Mongolia and the Caucus Mountains, for instance) or skin tones (black, white, yellow, and red, for example).
- Race as a social construction: Belief that race is not a scientific fact, but a social construction created by particular cultures and society for purposes and functions pertinent to that culture and society.
Social science organizations including the American Association of Anthropologists, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association have all taken an official position rejecting the biological explanations of race. Over time, the typology of race that developed during early racial science has fallen into disuse, and the social construction of race is a more sociological way of understanding racial categories. Research in this school of thought suggests that race is not biologically identifiable and that previous racial categories were arbitrarily assigned, based on pseudoscience, and used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003).
When considering skin color, for example, the social construction of race perspective recognizes that the relative darkness or fairness of skin is an evolutionary adaptation to the available sunlight in different regions of the world. Contemporary conceptions of race, therefore, which tend to be based on socioeconomic assumptions, illuminate how far removed modern understanding of race is from biological qualities. In modern society, some people who consider themselves “white” actually have more melanin (a pigment that determines skin color) in their skin than other people who identify as ”black.” People with high levels of melanin may consider themselves “white” if they enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. On the other hand, someone with low levels of melanin might be assigned the identity of “black” if he or she has little education or money.
The social construction of race is also reflected in the way names for racial categories change with changing times.
- Race is also a system of labeling that provides a source of identity
- Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture—the practices, values, and beliefs of a group.
This culture might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. The term ethnicity is difficult to describe and its meaning has changed over time. And as with race, individuals may be identified or self-identify with ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian American, Russian, Jewish, and Serbian might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the “white” racial category. Conversely, the ethnic group British includes citizens from a multiplicity of racial backgrounds: black, white, Asian, and more, plus a variety of race combinations. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, affirmative action initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations.
- a minority group is “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” (Sociologist Louis Wirth, 1945).
The term minority connotes discrimination, and in its sociological use, the term subordinate group can be used interchangeably with the term minority, while the term dominant group is often substituted for the group that’s in the majority. These definitions correlate to the concept that the dominant group is that which holds the most power in a given society, while subordinate groups are those who lack power compared to the dominant group.
Note that being a numerical minority is not a characteristic of being a minority group; sometimes larger groups can be considered minority groups due to their lack of power. It is the lack of power that is the predominant characteristic of a minority, or subordinate group.
Race is fundamentally a social construct. Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture and national origin. Minority groups are defined by their lack of power.
Why do you think the term “minority” has persisted when the word “subordinate” is more descriptive?
How do you describe your ethnicity? Do you include your family’s country of origin? Do you consider yourself multiethnic? How does your ethnicity compare to that of the people you spend most of your time with?
Explore aspects of race and ethnicity at PBS’s site, “What Is Race?”: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/PBS_what_is_race
Caver, Helen Bush, and Mary T. Williams. 2011. “Creoles.” Multicultural America, Countries and Their Cultures, December 7. Retrieved February 13, 2012 (http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Bu-Dr/Creoles.html).
CNN Library. (February 22, 2014). “Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.” CNN US. N.p., Retrieved October 9, 2014 (http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/)
Graves, Joseph. 2003. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Wagley, Charles, and Marvin Harris. 1958. Minorities in the New World: Six Case Studies. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wirth, Louis. 1945. “The Problem of Minority Groups.” The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by R. Linton: 347. In Hacker, Helen Mayer. 1951. Women as a Minority Group. Retrieved December 1, 2011 (http://media.pfeiffer.edu/lridener/courses/womminor.html).
the school of thought that race is not biologically identifiable
shared culture, which may include heritage, language, religion, and more
any group of people who are singled out from the others for differential and unequal treatment
a group of people who have more power in a society than any of the subordinate groups
a group of people who have less power than the dominant group