Chapter 8: Introduction to Race and Ethnicity

Introduction to Race and Ethnicity

Race and Ethnicity is a sub-field of sociology that focuses on identity. This is similar to the sections we just reviewed on Gender and Social Class and Stratification. The sub-field of Race and Ethnicity in sociology was first established in the United States through the work of the first American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, MA. He studied at Fisk University in Tennessee, the University of Berlin, and Harvard University, and was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (1895). He taught at Wilberforce University, the University of Pennsylvania, and then went on to become a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. He founded the NAACP in 1909 and was the editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
The Souls of Black Folk was first published in 1903. Du Bois offered a counter-narrative that emphasizes how the government failed Blacks, the valiant struggle for civil rights, and the social and cultural contributions of Blacks to American life. In Souls, Du Bois draws on his idea that each race has an important contribution to make to humanity. Race is not, in his terms, a biological category, but is a socio-historical phenomenon.
Double Consciousness was one of the most important and lasting concepts Du Bois offers. Double consciousness is the experience of ‘twoness’ the African versus the American. DuBois’ concept helps illustrate the difficulties of marginalized racial identities.  This information is from Sally Haslanger, Milo Phillips-Brown, Kevin Richardson, and Said Saillant. 24.01 Classics of Western Philosophy. Spring 2016. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, https://ocw.mit.edu. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.
W.E.B. DuBois was the first sociologist to examine race. Although his concepts were explicitly designed to examine the construction of race in the United States, contemporary sociologists continue to utilize his concepts of identity, double consciousness, and the veil.
  • Identity: Understood as the combination of how the individual sees themselves and how society sees the individual.
  • veil: Understood as the partial covering of view of a person’s racial identity. The metaphor of the veil underlines that viewing both in and out of the veil it is impossible to see the ‘entire’ picture.
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Two photographs depict people holding signs at a rally in protest of the death of Trayvon Martin. An African American woman in the photograph on the left holds a sign with the text 'one million hoodie march for Trayvon Martin,' in one hand, and a bag of skittles in the other. A young African American girl in the photograph on the right holds a sign with the text 'My mother taught me that just like that bag of skittles, all colors should be able to co-exist!!'
How do you think race played a role in Trayvon Martin’s death or in the public reaction to it? How do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest George Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? (Photo courtesy of Ryan Vaarsi/flickr)

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old black teenager. On the evening of February 26, 2012, he was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancée in the Sanford, Florida multi-ethnic gated community where his father’s fiancée lived. Trayvon left her home on foot to buy a snack from a nearby convenience store. As he was returning, George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male, and the community’s neighborhood watch program coordinator noticed him. In light of a recent rash of break-ins, Zimmerman called the police to report a person acting suspiciously, which he had done on many other occasions. The 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, but soon after Zimmerman and Martin had a physical confrontation. According to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, and in the ensuing scuffle, Martin was shot and killed (CNN Library 2014).

A public outcry followed Martin’s death. There were allegations of —the use by law enforcement of race alone to determine whether to stop and detain someone—a national discussion about “Stand Your Ground Laws,” and a failed lawsuit in which Zimmerman accused NBC of airing an edited version of the 911 call that made him appear racist. Zimmerman was not arrested until April 11, when he was charged with second-degree murder by special prosecutor Angela Corey. In the ensuing trial, he was found not guilty (CNN Library 2014). The shooting, the public response, and the trial that followed offer a snapshot of the sociology of race. Do you think race played a role in Martin’s death or in the public reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? Does society fear black men, leading to racial profiling at an institutional level? What about the role of the media? Was there a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion? If you were a member of the jury, would you have convicted George Zimmerman?

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Rothschild's Introduction to Sociology by Teal Rothschild is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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