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Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations

Race and Ethnicity

Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations While modern societies are socially stratified, they are also racially and/or ethnically stratified to the extent that stratum positions within them are commonly distributed according to racial or ethnic background. Thus, individuals from given race/ethnic categories come to be disproportionately located in the lower reaches of the social stratification order, as those from other backgrounds are over-represented within higher ranks.

Quite often interactions between relevant race/ethnic groups have been, or continue to be, characterized by significant hostility and conflict. Although the idea seems only natural that people can be meaningfully categorized on the basis of discrete physical characteristics such as skin color or hair texture, definitions of race are very much a matter of social construction. Any number of different physical traits could be used in such definitions, and therefore, just which are employed is quite arbitrary. Moreover, the human species as a whole has come to be characterized by a great deal of overlap with regard to biological traits, since populations of given people have experienced significant interbreeding with those from other groups over extended time. Clearly, there are no "pure" races. The terms race and ethnicity are used in different ways in different contexts. People often misuse the concept of race, calling a category of people, such as Mexican Americans, a "race," when they more accurately comprise an ethnic group. Ethnic groups are defined according to similarity in cultural background and/or national origin, rather than physical traits, per se.

Thus, it is possible for people of given ethnic groups to be quite racially diverse (e.g., witness Cuban-Americans who vary in skin color from the very dark to the very light). A minority group is a sociological, not a statistical, concept. It is a social category of people who are relatively disadvantaged, held in low esteem, involuntarily labeled, and they are self-conscious of their difference. The existence of a minority group implies the existence of a majority group that has the upper hand in terms of power and privilege. Racial and ethnic conflict is a global phenomenon. In the early 1990s, as many as fifty ethnically based wars were raging worldwide. While it was once believed that modernization would weaken racial and ethnic ties, the opposite seems to be happening. Historically based ethnic rivalries are being rekindled as the world undergoes change with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

Ethnic and religious conflict in the various republics of the former Yugoslavia are used to illustrate the point. Ethnic and racial groups may range significantly in terms of how they interact with each other. Kornblum places intergroup relations on a  ontinuum, ranging from genocide to assimilation, according to the degree of tolerance shown the minority by the dominant group. Ethnic conflict occurs when ethnocentrism is combined with the struggle for scarce resources, and the "ultimate solution" to intergroup conflict are genocide and ethnic cleansing. Currently, some Bosnian Serbs are accused of such an atrocity against the Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.

Stereotypes tend to be at the root of hostile intergroup relations. Stereotypical thinking involves defining a category of people in grossly oversimplified and rigid terms. Within the dominant group, many individuals hold that most, if not all,minority members exhibit certain negative behavioral traits, such as being lazy, vice-ridden, and violent. Such oversimplified thinking provides the common rationale for more elaborate negative beliefs, as well as the inferior treatment that minorities may be afforded. It is true of course also that stereotypes can run in both directions, as they do when minority individuals regard others in rigid,unflattering terms simply because they are members of the dominant group. Intergroup hostility is directly expressed in attitudes and action. Prejudice,premised on stereotypes, literally means that individuals prejudge others, either favorably or not. In the study of intergroup relations, however, the term denotes negative beliefs and attitudes held about individuals of the other category.

Discrimination, on the other hand, refers to actions that limit the opportunities or well-being of those identified with the other category, and is most commonly directed against minorities since the dominant group, virtually by definition,monopolizes the better jobs, schools, and housing within most communities. Racial inequality in the U.S. has been explained from a number of perspectives,including attitudes (prejudice) and actions (discrimination). The perspective which examines institutionalized racism focuses on established social patterns which have the unintended consequence of limiting opportunities for minorities. In recent years, some have focused on the issue of class as the factor shaping discrimination, rather than race. The Civil Rights Movement was given impetus by a Supreme Court decision which rejected separate-but-equal doctrines involving schools. A true grassroots movement, in combination with the critical involvement of churches, the Civil Rights activism produced not only legislation,but the policy of affirmative action, i.e., programs designed to address the consequences of institutionalized racism.

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