Sociologists recognize that social stratification is a cultural universal, an aspect present in every society. In many societies, these social hierarchies are based on factors like class, gender or kinship. In the United States and most advanced industrialized capitalist countries, for example, being wealthy can significantly improve a person's life chances.
In a society as diverse as the United States, racial and ethnic categories are another key factor in determining social hierarchy and one's life chances. In the 2000 Census, respondents were given a choice of 15 racial groups to choose from. Additionally, respondents were given the option of choosing two or more races when appropriate.
For many people, these racial categories are a crucial determinant of identity.
In addition to how people are grouped by race, sociologists are also interested in the social meanings and significances that people attach to race.
For sociologists, race should be studied beyond physical characteristics like skin and hair color. Because of the social definitions and significances that people attach to skin color in the United States, race has become a determinant of social status.
This paper looks at how sociologists have looked at race as a social construct. In the first part, this paper discusses the different associations that people have made in regards to race. In the next part, this paper examines how racism functions on an individual and an institutional level in American society. In the final sections, the paper studies racism through the structural functionalist, the conflict and the interactionist perspectives.
Race as a social construct
Sociologists have documented how race has often been used as an indicator of a person's intelligence, morality, personality, criminal tendencies and other characteristics. Among the most contentious recent studies is The Bell Curve, where sociologist Richard Herrnstein talks about the development of a "cognitive elite," an upper class based on intelligence. Herrnstein further argues that racial groups differ in intelligence (Herrnstein 589-591). The Bell Curve presents statistical proof, consisting of graphs showing the correlation between race and IQ. In Herrnstein's book, African-Americans and Latinos scored consistently lower in IQ tests, compared to their Caucasian and Asian counterparts.
This approach, however, has important flaws.
By ascribing a correlation solely based on race and IQ, Herrnstein's study is largely unsociological, and almost crosses the line into biological determinism.
Since IQ and education could be tied to socio-economic status, one could argue that the lower IQ scores among African-American groups are linked to poverty. People from the lower socio-economic or lower-income families generally receive education from crowded and under funded schools. Children from lower-income families are further constrained by the lack of resources, such as access to computers at home. Many poorer children who have to work after school to help support their families cannot devote as much time to study as their more affluent peers.
These socio-economic factors discussed above provide alternative factors for Herrnstein's correlation, factors that explain the seemingly causal relationship between IQ and race. Herrnstein's failure to take these factors into account therefore severely weakens his conclusions.
Individual and institutional racism
Related to the social construction of racism, sociologists have also been interested in how racism seems to exist on two social levels. On the individual level, many people come to believe that some ethnic or racial categories are "superior" while others are "inferior." Richard Nisbett, for example, studied the relationship between race, genetics and IQ (Nisbett, 86-101).
These studies showed that the human tendency to classify people into racial groups based on biological traits. This tendency gives rise to racism, since it paves the way for an in-group vs. out-group mentality, where people can develop an aversion to the members of different racial groups. For the proponents of individual racism, this in-group mentality provides the foundation for the development of prejudice and discrimination.
This level of analysis, however, focuses mainly on the individual, to the exclusion of the role of social institutions. There is a danger of equating "human tendencies" with being "natural," without taking into consideration the social institutions that spawn racism. After all, racism is also practiced and perpetuated on an institutional level, embedded in social structures.
The current debates regarding affirmative action, for example, are aimed at reversing the institutional racism in many colleges that have kept many racial minorities from a college education.
In summary, looking at racism from only an individual level neglects the role that social institutions like religion, media and education play in reinforcing ideas regarding race. To ensure that studies are sociological, it is necessary to look at the role played by relevant social institutions as well.
Functionalists believe that society is an organism, and that equilibrium must be maintained in order to ensure healthy social function. Viewed in this light, functionalists could argue that racism exists because it contributes to social differentiation and indirectly, to social order. After all, while racial categories serve to categorize people into groups, race also promotes strong cohesion among the in-group members. In this way, racial categories serve to ensure that members of a society maintain important connections while being aware of group boundaries.
For some functionalists, racism and prejudice provides society with a scapegoat to blame for social ills. Human beings can be aggressive by nature. However, in many parts of American society, expressions of aggression are taboo. Thus, the "channeling" of these impulses to permissible social targets - such as racial minorities - helps members of society release tension and express conflict. Through the designation of racial minorities as scapegoats, racism helps to maintain the stability existing social structures.
This functionalist approach, however, neglects the destabilizing effects of racism in society. Most functionalists view racism as a dysfunction, something that will fade away and decline as society tends towards equilibrium. The continued debate regarding immigration in the United States, for example, challenges the optimistic account that racism will eventually decline. In fact, the conflict in multi-racial societies such as Yugoslavia could be evidence regarding functionalism's weaknesses in explaining the continued presence of racism.
Much of sociology's critical analysis of racism grows from the conflict perspective. Under the conflict perspective, racism grows from the tensions spawned by competing social groups. Racial groups that hold economic and social power - meaning Caucasians - are thus able to assert their interests over those of minority racial groups.
The Marxist-based approach relates racism to the rise of capitalism. Conflict thinkers have argued that racism has historically provided colonial powers with additional reasons to invade other, "inferior" countries.
Racism helps maintain the capitalist status quo by keeping Caucasian workers from uniting and pooling resources with minority workers. Susan Olzak, for example, has studied how racism and strong ethnocentric sentiments contribute to the exploitation of workers. In societies where people are divided by race, people fail to unite for their common interests, since they think they could achieve their goals only at the expense of those of another group's (Olzak 161-179).
Finally, conflict thinkers argue that capitalism benefits when racism provides industries with a cheap source of labor. It is therefore in the capitalist class's interests to encourage racism, to ensure that minorities will continue to provide cheap labor for the capitalist class.
One notable weakness of the conflict perspective is its failure to explain why racism existed prior to the development of capitalism. Furthermore, racism exists in developing countries as well. However, the conflict perspective provides a more thoughtful explanation for the continued existence of racism in American society.
The interactionist perspective on racism is related to the way sociologists view race as a social construct. Racism is thus strongly identified with physical characteristics. In the United States, this translates to the view that people with darker skin are "inferior" to those who are of Caucasian ancestry.