Race and ethnicity are two sensitive concepts in contemporary society because they are a common basis for social stratification and structured inequality. In America, the quest for freedom throughout its history has involved a protracted struggle for fundamental liberties, including the right to religion and political participation for all. However, these ideals are dampened by the various forms of racial oppression and inequalities that have persisted since the days of slavery. Race and ethnicity are socially significant concepts because of their direct effects on minority groups. This paper examines the nature of racial and ethnic inequality, including its historical and contemporary forms.
The Concept of Race and Ethnicity
The race is often regarded as a natural identifier of a person’s physical characteristics with a particular ancestry. This racial categorization is linked to inherent differences among people. However, Kendall (2019) observes that the biological criteria are flawed, as race is a social construct. She argues that race or ethnicity is more than genetics, as the biological differences between categories must be socially significant. Individuals identify with these groups because they are associated with social rank and inter-group relations within a society (Kendall, 2019). Therefore, while racial identities are based on physical trait differences between people, how those biological characteristics are turned into groups or races is a social process with descriptive norms and standards. Determining which traits are characteristic of a particular race is mostly subjective. The outcome includes a stratification of people into majority and minority races to propagate domination and inequality.
Ethnicity is conceptually different from race based on the factors used to distinguish racial or ethnic categories. It connotes a common cultural heritage or national descent of a group (Kendall, 2019). Ethnicity manifests as linguistic affinities and ancestral practices and beliefs common to particular people. Ethnic groups have a collective name, share kinship or origin myth, inhabit a specific locality, speak the same language or dialect, practice a distinctive culture, and exhibit a sense of unity (Siebers, 2015). On the other hand, the race is usually a generic term that incorporates many ethnic identities. Siebers (2015) gives a further distinction between the two concepts: racial categorization is ordinarily externally imposed. According to the author, whites established the Negro race to refer to all ethnic groups inhabiting their colonies in Africa or those sold to the American continent as slaves.
Thus, historically, the race was a product of early economic development where people with diverse backgrounds and biological characteristics were enslaved by European colonizers. At the center of the colonization was power relations where the socioeconomic or political rights of certain races were taken away to create a biased hierarchical system (Kendall, 2019). As a result, racial identities were formed that regarded some groups as inferior to others. The social position attached to a race was considered heritable. Thus, racial categorizations are not only based on biological heritage but are also a result of historical processes. Therefore, while ethnicity is a matter of choice, racial identity is not, as it is linked to physical characteristics. A person has an option to express customs and traditions linked to his or her culture or adopt a conventional lifestyle (Siebers, 2015). People with a mixed heritage or ancestries can choose to identify with one or more ethnic identities. In contrast, an individual may not exercise similar choices with racial identification.
Racial and Ethnic Inequalities in the 21st Century
Contemporary racial relations in the United States resulted from the dismantling of various forms of oppression, including slavery and segregation, in earlier years. Since the civil rights movements of the 1950s, significant progress have been made in addressing overt discrimination of minority groups, particularly African Americans. Their economic situation and political role are now better than they used to be a century ago. However, though all these developments are significant (most structures of racial domination have been eroded), racial and ethnic inequality persists. As a result, African Americans and other minority groups continue to struggle with socioeconomic disadvantages. Racial and ethnic inequality is seen in income, housing, lending, employment, education, and the criminal justice system.
Economic or Income Inequality
There is a significant disparity in occupational distribution between majority and minority groups in the United States. According to Noguera (2017), unemployment rates exceed the national average for American Indians and Alaskans (6.6%) and African Americans (6.5%). On the other hand, a lower proportion of Asians and Whites are jobless, at 3% and 3.5%, respectively. The median income for white households is also higher than that of black families. The causes of these differences are quite complex, ranging from low educational attainment among racial or ethnic minorities to geographic areas inhabited by racial groups (most African Americans tend to live in poor neighborhoods). The legacies of historical oppression are evident in socioeconomic inequalities among groups. Racial discrimination continues to be a major social problem in the United States to this day. It has been institutionalized and manifests in different ways – from criminal stereotypes to police brutality.
Historically, housing segregation was common until the civil rights period. Since then, the practice has reduced in some cities but in other areas, people remain segregated according to race. The segregation patterns reflect pervasive inequalities among racial and ethnic groups. First, before the civil rights period and the enactment of the Equal Opportunities Act, black people could not live or own a house in white neighborhoods (Massey, 2015). Mortgages were not accessible to minorities in some cities, promoting housing segregation. Second, racial hostility from whites motivates African Americans to self-segregate. They purchase houses in poor black neighborhoods to avoid hostile reactions from their neighbors.
Third, inequality is pervasive in housing markets when it comes to preferential access to credit. According to Massey (2015), homebuyers with similar credit ratings and earnings are treated differently based on race. The author notes that bias exists in real estate with African Americans and Hispanics encountering unfavorable treatment in housing searches. The discriminatory practices included less information given about houses and limited help with financing options. As a result, they settle in less wealthy neighborhoods where racial minorities are the dominant inhabitants.
Wealth difference between racial and ethnic groups is another cause of inequality. Whites are generally wealthier than minority groups: they own investments that can be used as collateral for obtaining loans. Thus, in the credit market, poor African Americans are disadvantaged. Further, according to Noguera (2017), black individuals with a good credit history are less likely to be granted a loan on favorable terms than white customers. The lenders often quote high-interest rates and fees for minority clients, a practice that limits their borrowing rates.
Racial and ethnic discrimination is difficult to demonstrate in the labor market because other factors, such as age, education, gender, also play a role in employment decisions. However, hiring practices are often biased against racial minorities. According to Carratala and Maxwell (2020), employers consider black applicants less capable to perform a given role than their white counterparts. This belief stems from the perceived intellectual inferiority of African Americans. The discriminatory employment decisions may also be related to the idea that black workers received low-quality education and training compared to white employees. The central theme is that employers generally feel that an individual from one racial group is a more preferable employee to another person from a different race. Although there may be differences in competence and skills between the two, hiring managers are largely informed by morally unjustified stereotypes when recruiting staff. The outcome is racial and ethnic inequality in employment.
The basis for the civil rights movement was racial segregation in schools. The Supreme Court decision considered the principle of separate but equal education for American children inherently inequitable (Noguera, 2017). Subsequently, legal segregation in schools was abolished to promote racial integration in public schools. However, subtle forms of this practice still exist today in some American cities. Residential segregation created inner-city schools that draw children from poor urban neighborhoods. In contrast, suburban schools are located in wealthier residential areas predominated by white inhabitants.
Racial inequality also relates to differences in funding of schools from poor and rich neighborhoods. The spending per child reflects the historical spatial segregation. The per capita funding received by school districts in affluent areas is relatively higher than that for poor neighborhoods. This discrepancy has impacted negatively the academic outcomes of children from low-income households (Kendall, 2019). The reason for this trend is that schools in poor neighborhoods have a greater proportion of non-credentialed teachers than those in high-income (white) areas.
The Criminal Justice System
Racial disparities exist in the proportion of individuals incarcerated for criminal activity. Black males are seven times more likely to be apprehended than whites (Noguera, 2017). The high rate of incarceration in this population is attributed to racism. The social and economic conditions that disadvantage African Americans drive them to commit a crime. Within the criminal justice system, dramatic arrests resulting from racial profiling sometimes end up in the death of the suspect. Disproportionate surveillance of black suspects and biases in prosecution and conviction contribute to the disparities in the number of incarcerated persons.
Racial disparities in health are persistent in the United States. Health inequalities are experienced in coverage, morbidity, and mortality. The disparities are attributed to years of systematic inequality in many areas, including income and housing. For instance, in 2017, up to 10.6% of African Americans had no coverage compared to 5.9% of non-Hispanic whites (Carratala & Maxwell, 2020). Chronic health conditions are also predominant in this population. Further, the mortality causes among blacks, including heart disease and cancer, pose a lower risk among whites due to disparities in healthcare access and coverage.
Racial and ethnic inequality is a complex contemporary problem linked to historical and systemic oppression. The analysis reveals that the practice has negative outcomes for the oppressed groups who are often the minorities. Socioeconomic inequalities are the leading cause of high poverty rates among African Americans. Racial disparities also occur in preferential lending practices of lenders, employment practices and decisions, and access to quality education, justice, and healthcare services.
Carratala, S., & Maxwell, C. (2020). Health disparities by race and ethnicity. Center for American Progress. Web.
Kendall, D. (2019). Social problems in a diverse society (7th ed.). Pearson.
Massey, D. S. (2015). The legacy of the 1968 fair housing act. Sociological Forum, 30(1), 571-588. Web.
Noguera, P. A. (2017). Introduction to racial inequality and education: Patterns and prospects for the future. The Educational Forum, 81(2), 129-135. Web.
Siebers, H. (2015). “Race” versus “ethnicity”? Critical race essentialism and the exclusion and oppression of migrants in the Netherlands. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40, 369-387. Web.