Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the difference between race and ethnicity
  • Describe minority groups and scapegoat theory

While many students first entering a sociology classroom are accustomed to conflating, or using interchangeably, the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “minority group,” these three terms have distinct meanings for sociologists. If you recall some terms discussed in the module on social interaction, race is one example of a social construct. According to the Thomas Theorem, once individuals define situations as real, they become real in their consequences. For this reason, assumptions based on race can have materially and politically real effects. In this section, we will discuss these complex terms as both social constructs and as lived realities.

Following the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, elementary school teacher Jane Elliot sought to teach her white elementary students in rural Iowa about racism. She convinced her third grade students that students with brown eyes were superior to blue eyed students with a (false) scientific explanation saying that more melanin meant greater intelligence. The students quickly exhibited discriminatory behaviors against their peers, and antagonisms between groups were further exacerbated by Elliot’s new classroom policies for dominant and subordinate groups based on eye color.

Often referred to as the “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise, Jane Elliott’s experiment allows us to see how once students in her classroom began to define the situation as real, the consequences of being brown eyed and blue eyed became real. She received national attention and was heavily criticized, especially by people in Riceville, Iowa (population 840), with many saying the experiment was cruel to her all-white class. Elliot replied, “Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when Blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?”[1]

What is Race?

Biological anthropologists examine race through an evolutionary lens in which all Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs) came from a common origin in Africa and had dark skin due to proximity to the equator and as a natural defense again the sun’s rays. The relative darkness or fairness of skin is an evolutionary adaptation to the available sunlight in different regions of the world, and all scientists agree that there is no biological basis for racial differences.

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 based on phenotype or physical characteristics has fallen into disuse in social and behavioral sciences (although examining melanin is still important in natural sciences), and the social construction of race has become the primary lens through which sociologists examine race. Race is a socially constructed category that produces real effects on the actors who are racialized [2] and refers to physical differences that a particular society considers significant, such as skin color. In other words, a physical marker such as skin color, eye shape, hair type, or cheekbone shape, when paired with some other element(s) of social significance, could become a social cue for inclusion or exclusion in a certain group.

Using the sociological imagination, we can delve into how racial categories were arbitrarily assigned, based on pseudoscience, and subsequently used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003). Elliot’s classroom exercise is not too far from what happened in American history. Science and religion were both used to create and justify racial categories and racist ideologies. The “One Drop Rule,” which states that someone is Black if they have “one drop” of African blood is uniquely American (no other country defines race in this way) and a way to illustrate the social construction of race. For example, many people who appeared white and could “pass” as such in a social setting, could not pass in a legal sense because of the rule of hypo-descent, which meant that racially mixed people were automatically assigned the minority group status. There were strict prohibitions against miscegenation (or mixed offspring) in spite of centuries of white men raping enslaved Black women. During slavery, this allowed intergenerational slavery to persist irrespective of skin color, and after slavery was abolished, segregationist Jim Crow laws were applied to many mixed-race Americans.

Further Research

Explore aspects of race and ethnicity at this PBS site, “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 developed categories of race based on various geographic regions, ethnicities, skin colors, and more. Their labels for racial groups have connoted regions or skin tones, for example.

German physician, zoologist, and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) introduced one of the famous groupings by studying human skulls. Blumenbach divided humans into five races (MacCord 2014):

  • Caucasian or White race: people of European, Middle Eastern, and North African origin
  • Ethiopian or Black race: people of sub-Saharan Africans origin (sometimes spelled Aethiopian)
  • Malayan or Brown race: people of Southeast Asian origin and Pacific Islanders
  • Mongolian or Yellow race: people of all East Asian and some Central Asian origin
  • American or Red race: people of North American origin or American Indians

Over time, descriptions of race like Blumenbach’s have fallen into disuse, and the social construction of race is a more accepted way of understanding racial categories. Social science organizations including the American Association of Anthropologists, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association have all officially rejected explanations of race like those listed above. Research in this school of thought suggests that race is not biologically identifiable and that previous racial categories were based on pseudoscience; they were often used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003). For example, some people used to think that genetics of race determined intelligence. While this idea was mostly put to rest in the later 20th Century, it resurged several times in the past 50 years, including the widely read and cited 1994 book, The Bell Curve. Researchers have since provided substantial evidence that refutes a biological-racial basis for intelligence, including the widespread closing of IQ gaps as Black people gained more access to education (Dickens 2006). This research and other confirming studies indicate that any generally lower IQ among a racial group was more about nurture than nature, to put it into the terms of the Socialization chapter.

While many of the historical considerations of race have been corrected in favor of more accurate and sensitive descriptions, some of the older terms remain. For example, it is generally unacceptable and insulting to refer to Asian people or Native American people with color-based terminology, but it is acceptable to refer to White and Black people in that way. In 2020, a number of publications announced that they would begin capitalizing the names of races, though not everyone used the same approach (Seipel 2020). This practice comes nearly a hundred years after sociologist and leader W.E.B. Du Bois drove newsrooms to capitalize “Negro,” the widely used term at the time. And, finally, some members of racial groups (or ethnic groups, which are described below) “reclaim” terms previously used to insult them (Rao 2018). These examples are more evidence of the social construction of race, and our evolving relationships among people and groups.

The social construction of race is further reflected in the way names for racial categories change over time. It’s worth noting that race, in this sense, is also a system of labeling that provides a source of identity; specific labels fall in and out of favor during different social eras. For example, the category “negroid,” popular in the nineteenth century, evolved into the term “negro” by the 1960s, and then this term fell from use and was replaced with “African American.” This latter term was intended to celebrate the multiple identities that a Black person might hold, but the word choice is a poor one, as it lumps together a large variety of ethnic groups regardless of geographical origin.

For example, Jamaicans, Haitians, and other dark-skinned Caribbean groups living in the U.S. are Black but they are not African American. Calling any person with dark skin African American highlights the importance of language while at the same time illustrating the challenges of racial categorization. We do not refer to Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia in Black Panther 2018), who has Kenyan parents but was born in Mexico City and has dual citizenship in Kenya and Mexico, as African American. The U.S. Census includes “Black” or “African American” as a racial category to include “any person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.”[3]

If race is a social construction, doesn’t collecting information on artificial racial categories through the U.S. Census perpetuate the notion of biologically distinct racial categories? Why do we continue to categorize Americans based on race? Collecting information on race informs policy decisions related to civil rights, including voting and redistricting procedures at the state level; furthermore, “race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks” (U.S. Census 2018). 

What is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is sometimes used interchangeably with race, but they are very different concepts. Ethnicity is based on shared culture—the practices, norms, values, and beliefs of a group that might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. Like race, 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. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, diversity initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations.

In some cases, ethnicity is incorrectly used as a synonym for national origin, but those constructions are technically different. National origin (itself sometimes confused with nationality) has to do with the geographic and political associations with a person’s birthplace or residence. But people from a nation can be of a wide range of ethnicities, often unknown to people outside of the region, which leads to misconceptions. For example, someone in the United States may, with no ill-intent, refer to all Vietnamese people as an ethnic group. But Vietnam is home to 54 formally recognized ethnic groups.

Adding to the complexity: Sometimes, either to build bridges between ethnic groups, promote civil rights, gain recognition, or other reasons, diverse but closely associated ethnic groups may develop a “pan-ethnic” group. For example, the various ethnic groups and national origins of people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and adjoining nations, who may share cultural, linguistic, or other values, may group themselves together in a collective identity. If they do so, they may not seek to erase their individual ethnicities, but finding the correct description and association can be challenging and depend on context. The large number of people who make up the Asian American community may embrace their collective identity in the context of the United States. However, that embrace may depend on people’s ages, and may be expressed differently when speaking to different populations (Park 2008). For example, someone who identifies as Asian American while at home in Houston may not refer to themselves as such when they visit extended family in Japan. In a similar manner, a grouping of people from Mexico, Central America and South America—often referred to as Latinx, Latina, or Latino—may be embraced by some and rejected by others in the group (Martinez 2019).

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. Depending on when they immigrated to the United States, many of these ethnic whites were treated as minority groups and were not afforded the same status as the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), who were typically the privileged whites throughout American history. For example, Irish immigrants were “white” in appearance and spoke English, but they were also predominantly Catholic, and made this made them suspect in terms of their prospective allegiance to the Pope in preference to the United States government. Italian immigrants were often olive-skinned, Catholic, and did not speak English, all of which made them seem even more foreign and, perhaps, unassimilable.

If we consider the British or the French as ethnicities with a common culture and geographic boundary, we see many ethnic groups within each country. Both countries have struggled with national identity as globalization and immigration, often originating in formerly colonized nations, change their demographics. For example, France won the 2018 World Cup with the help of star player Kylian Mbappe, a teenager born in Paris, whose father is from Cameroon and whose mother is Algerian.

Ethnicities and the Census

Read more about Latino opinions about the census data and identity in the article “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity” from the Pew Research Center.

Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the U.S. Census, affirmative action initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations. We celebrate ethnicity in the United States through a variety of holidays (i.e., St. Patrick’s Day), enjoying different types of cuisine, and through popular cultural forms such as film, television, and music. 

Watch It

Review the ideas presented in this section about race and ethnicity in the following Khan Academy video.

Try It

What are Minority Groups?

Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a minority group as “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.” According to Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris (1958), a minority group is distinguished by five characteristics:

  1. unequal treatment and less power over their lives
  2. distinguishing physical or cultural traits like skin color or language
  3. involuntary membership in the group
  4. awareness of subordination
  5. high rate of in-group marriage

Additional examples of minority groups might include the LGBTQ community, religious practitioners whose faith is not widely practiced where they live, and people with disabilities.

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 by comparison.

When we hear the word “minority” we often think of a group with a smaller number of members than the dominant group, but in some cases the “minority” is not a numerical minority. Women have been treated as a minority group even though they outnumber men in the U.S. What differentiates a minority group is that its members are disadvantaged in some way by the dominant group, such as when women are paid less than men for the same job even though they may have similar qualifications and levels of experience as their male co-workers. Consider apartheid in South Africa, in which a numerical majority (the Black inhabitants of the country) were exploited and oppressed by the politically dominant white minority.

In the contemporary United States, the elderly might be considered a minority group due to a diminished status that results from popular prejudice and discrimination against them. Ten percent of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an elderly person in the past year, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse (World Health Organization 2011).

Scapegoat theory, developed initially from psychologist John Dollard’s (1939) Frustration-Aggression theory, suggests that the dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group. History has shown us many examples of the scapegoating of a subordinate group. An example from the last century is the way Adolf Hitler was able to blame the Jewish population for Germany’s social and economic problems. In the United States, recent immigrants have frequently been the scapegoat for the nation’s—or an individual’s—woes. Many states have enacted laws to disenfranchise immigrants; these laws are popular because they let the dominant group scapegoat a subordinate group.

Multiple Identities

A photo of golfer Tiger Woods holding his golf club up in the air on the golf course after hitting a golf ball

Figure 1. Golfer Tiger Woods has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage. Individuals with multiple ethnic backgrounds are becoming more common. (Credit: familymwr/flickr)

Prior to the twentieth century, racial intermarriage (referred to as miscegenation) was extremely rare, and in many places, illegal. In the later part of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century, attitudes have changed for the better. While the sexual subordination of slaves did result in children of mixed race, these children were usually considered Black, and therefore, property. There was no concept of multiple racial identities, with the possible exception of the Creole. Creole society developed in the port city of New Orleans, where a mixed-race culture grew from French and African inhabitants. Unlike in other parts of the country, “Creoles of color” had greater social, economic, and educational opportunities than most African Americans.

Increasingly during the modern era, the removal of miscegenation laws and a trend toward equal rights and legal protection against racism have steadily reduced the social stigma attached to racial exogamy (exogamy refers to marriage outside a person’s core social unit). It is now common for the children of racially mixed parents to acknowledge and celebrate their various ethnic identities. Golfer Tiger Woods, for instance, has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage; he jokingly refers to his ethnicity as “Cablinasian,” a term he coined to combine several of his ethnic backgrounds. While this is the trend, it is not yet evident in all aspects of our society. For example, the U.S. Census only recently added more nuanced additional categories such as non-white Hispanic. A growing number of people chose multiple races to describe themselves on the 2020 Census, indicating that individuals have multiple identities.

Exercises

Take a look at the racial dot map from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia. The map shows a dot for each of the 308 million who were counted in the 2010 census, and displays each dot based on a person’s race and ethnicity.

Think It Over

  • 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?

Try It

glossary

dominant group:
a group of people who have more power in a society than any of the subordinate groups
ethnicity:
shared culture, which may include heritage, language, religion, and more
minority group:
any group of people who are singled out from the others for differential and unequal treatment
race:
a socially constructed category that produces real effects on the actors who are racially categorized
scapegoat theory:
a theory that suggests that the dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group
social construction of race:
the school of thought that race is not biologically identifiable
subordinate group:
a group of people who have less power than the dominant group

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  1. Bloom, S. 2015. "Lesson of a Lifetime." Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/.
  2. Bonilla-Silva, E. 2003. Racism without Racists. Lanham: Rownman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  3. "Race," U.S. Census. last updated Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html.