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AAAS 510/AMS 534/SOC 534
Comparative Racial and Ethnic Relations

Lesson 2. Theories of Race and Ethnicity

Reading Assignment


Marger, Chapters 2 and 4

Learning Objectives

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to describe and discuss


In lesson two, we will explore varied theories of race and ethnicity. We will discuss assimilation and pluralism, followed by power and conflict theories, and end with stratification systems.


Feagin and Feagin (1996:36) define assimilation as "a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons or groups, and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life." Two scholars who significantly contributed to the study of assimilation are Robert E. Park and Milton Gordon.

Robert E. Park. According to Park, ethnic groups come in contact with each other on a regular basis, and when contact occurs, a "race relations cycle" takes place.

  1. Contact: Migration (voluntary and involuntary) and exploration bring two different groups of people together.

  2. Competition: After the initial contact, the two groups that have come together compete for power and resources. This is referred to as economic competition.

  3. Accommodation: The subordinate group, which is usually the migrating group, adjusts to a new social situation. This stage is a critical component of the race relations cycle and often takes place rapidly.

  4. Assimilation: It may take a long time for the subordinate and/or migrant group to finally reach this final stage.

Milton Gordon. Milton Gordon introduces the concept that assimilation has varying definitions and levels. All groups reach some form of assimilation but at different rates. See Marger (2003:112-114) for a discussion of Gordon's seven stages of assimilation.

Gordon's model has been criticized for neglecting power issues and ignoring the fact that not all groups reach cultural assimilation before structural assimilation. Furthermore, Gordon believes that, despite the struggle for power and ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination, all groups will eventually reach civic assimilation. The opponents of assimilation argue that full assimilation will never be reached while power and conflict struggles continue (Feagin and Feagin 1996:36-37).

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While assimilation refers to outside groups being absorbed into the dominant society, pluralism is characterized by outside groups maintaining components of their ethnicity. Migrant groups come in contact with the dominant society (or a dominant group colonizes another group). The migrant/colonized groups maintain part of their ethnicity, such as language, customs, traditions, food, and religion, while adopting major components of the dominant society, such as its political and economic structure. Migrant groups also contribute certain elements of their society to the dominant culture (Feagin and Feagin 1996:39-40). Marger (2003:119-120) divides pluralism into two camps: equalitarian pluralism and inequalitarian pluralism.

Equalitarian Pluralism. With equalitarian pluralism, groups maintain cultural and structural autonomy but remain relatively equal in political and economic power. Their separation is mostly voluntary. Under equalitarian pluralism, cultural pluralism and corporate pluralism make up two sub-groups. In cultural pluralism, groups voluntarily maintain components of their culture. Marger uses the United States as an example of cultural pluralism where ethnic groups have maintained aspects of their cultures over many generations. Marger points out, however, that although the United States purports an ideology of equal opportunity, not all ethnic groups have access to this opportunity. Furthermore, he adds a form of structural pluralism exists "because most groups have adopted the key elements of the mainstream culture after the second immigrant generation" (2003:121).

Corporate pluralism refers to societies whose structural and cultural components are sustained by mutual political authorization. Ethnic groups maintain not only the cultural aspects of their ethnic group but also the structural components. "Institutional provisions are made to encourage an ethnically proportionate distribution of societal rewards" (Marger 2003:122). Thus, all ethnic groups have access to power and resources. Switzerland is a nation that exemplifies this type of pluralism.

Inequalitarian Pluralism. With inequalitarian pluralism, "social relations between dominant and minority groups are typified by extreme polarization, supported by high levels of prejudice and discrimination" (Marger 2003:125). Societies that experience inequalitarian pluralism can be typified in the following ways (Marger 2003:126-128).

  1. Competitive race relations: a form of exploitation realized only in a slave or classic colonial system where one (usually) outside group (sometimes few in number) holds almost all the power, wealth, and prestige, while the other has relatively none.

  2. Internal colonialism: characteristic of a society whose participants are indigenous to the society, although most, if not all, were descendents of outside groups from different areas. One group dominates other groups politically, economically, and eventually numerically and acquires the majority of power, wealth, and prestige in the society.

  3. Annihilation or expulsion: an extreme condition of inequalitarian pluralism, where one group (usually the dominant), takes the initiative to remove another group through forced migrations or genocide.

Power and Stratification Theories

Stratification theories emphasize the unequal distribution of a society's resources. Feagin and Feagin (1996:44-53) list some power and stratification theories.

  1. The Caste School
  2. Colonialism Theories
  3. Power-Conflict Theory
  4. Marxian Theory
  5. Split Labor Market Theory
  6. Split-class Theory
  7. Middleman Minority Theory

The Caste School

In the early 1940s, W. Lloyd Warner and colleagues described black-white relations as constituting a caste system in which African Americans are confined to lower socioeconomic positions, denied access to power, discouraged from intermarriage, and segregated in their own living space. This caste system replaced slavery, which insured that blacks remained immobilized, and was supported by institutional discrimination (Feagan and Feagan 1996:44).

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Colonialism Theories

Internal Colonialism is the process whereby the dynamics of the colonization complex (Marger 2003:127) are seen to operate within a society. South Africa 's apartheid is an example of this type of colonialism. External colonialism is the process by which one nation controls the political and economic activities of other less developed and less powerful societies. An example of external colonialism is the British government's rule over the American colonies and India .

Power-Conflict Theory. "Prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory actions are used by elements of the dominant ethnic group, sometimes directly and other times indirectly, to secure its power and privileges" (Marger 2003:99). When the dominant group's power and privilege are challenged, the dominant group responds through prejudice and discrimination. When subordinate groups refuse to accept their stratified position, strong racist ideologies then emerge.

Marxian Theory. The premise of this theory is to divide and conquer. By pitting one ethnic group against another, the capitalist class is able to keep the working class fragmented and thus easier to control.

Split-labor Market Theory. This theory emphasizes that markets for labor become partitioned with members of certain ethnic groups confined to lower-paying jobs and prohibited from working in higher-paying jobs. This process may occur when more powerful ethnic groups become fearful of losing or sharing power through competition, which would drive wages down.

According to Bonacich, there are three key groups in a capitalist market: businesspeople (employers), higher-paid labor, and cheap labor. One group of workers controls certain jobs exclusively and gets paid at one scale, and the other group is confined to jobs paid at a lower rate. Given the imperatives of a capitalist system, employers seek to hire workers at the lowest possible wage and therefore turn to the lower-paid sector when possible as a means of maximizing profits. Recent immigrants or ethnic groups migrating from rural areas in search of industrial jobs ordinarily make up this source of cheap labor. These groups can be used by employers as strike breakers and as an abundant labor supply to keep wages artificially low. Because these groups represent a collective threat to their jobs and wages, workers of the dominant ethnic group become the force behind hostile and exclusionary movements aimed at curtailing the source of cheap labor (Marger 2003:96).

Split-class Theory. There are splits within each class along ethnic lines. According to the Marxian view, the class system is composed of five groups. (Please note that I have slightly altered this theory to include the professional class.)

  1. Capitalists control investments and/or capital, and they regulate production and the purchase of labor.

  2. Managers administer work for capitalists and control workers.

  3. Petit bourgeoisie own small businesses and buy labor.

  4. The professional class is educated and practices such professions as medicine, law, and education.

  5. The working class forms the labor pool from which the capitalists draw.

This theory maintains that members of the subordinate class can reach all levels of class, but they are not treated equally within their class subgroup. They are relegated to the less desirable, lower-paying, and less secure jobs within their class compared to the members of the dominant group (Feagin and Feagin 1996:47).

Middleman Minority Theory. Not all ethnic groups occupy lower castes and classes. Certain subordinate groups bring with them entrepreneurial skills and capital, such as the early waves of Jewish immigrants and Cuban migrants. Some ethnic groups are overrepresented in small business. They have a middle position in several ways.

  1. They have moderate levels of resources.

  2. They serve as distribution links between the producers of goods and those who buy them.

  3. They fall between the elite and the subordinate classes.

Middleman minorities are not accepted by either the dominant group or subordinate groups; in essence they are trapped in their middleman position. If they attempt to move into economic niches controlled by the dominant group, the dominant group becomes hostile and may discriminate. Lower social classes may harbor resentment and hostility toward middleman minorities and blame them for lack of access to power and resources. This perspective by the lower classes helps the dominant group ignore its responsibility for the cycle of exclusion and maintenance of power and resources (Feagin and Feagin 1996:52-53).

Stratification Systems

Definition of Social Inequality: Unequal levels of social influence or prestige exist among individual members of a society (Sanderson 1999:420).

Definition of Stratification: Resources, which are valued and scarce, are unevenly distributed among members of society. "People are grouped on the basis of how much of society's rewards they receive, and these groups, or strata, are arranged in rank order, or hierarchy" (Marger 2003:35). This system of inequality is not random, but structured. Societies may be stratified along several dimensions, such as monetary wealth and occupation.

Differences between Social Inequality and Stratification. Stratification concerns groups; social inequality concerns individuals. Social inequality can emerge at any given time, but stratification is usually hereditary; groups are born into their social strata. Social inequality is dictated by social influence and prestige, and stratification involves the competition for resources and power (Sanderson 1999).

Example of Social Inequality. Social inequality can be found among individual members of Melanesian society, for example, who seek the prestigious title of "Big Man." According to tradition, individuals from the community begin to grow additional crops and herd additional domestic animals. At harvest time, they hold large feasts. If one individual provides the larger feast among those giving feasts, he is rewarded with the title of " Big Man. " Although he does not keep any economic surplus or obtain any power, he does gain social prestige among his peers. Thus, social inequality emerges (Sanderson 1999).

Example of Stratification. Stratification can be found in the structured hierarchy of classes. Those who own production, such as dominant shareholders of large corporations and owners of companies and businesses, are higher in the hierarchy than workers who do not own capital but who sell their labor to pay for material needs. The dominant class has greater access to resources and power (Sanderson 1999).

Dimensions of Stratification

Karl Marx's Model. Karl Marx stressed the economic dimension of social stratification. He divided society into two classes: the ruling class (those who have access to power and resources) and the working class (those who lack capital and so must sell their human labor in exchange for material goods). The ruling class dominates the working class and benefits from its labor, which gives rise to conflict between the two classes.

Weber's Multidimensional Model. Max Weber's model encompasses three components of stratification: economic, status, and political power. Although Weber's economic component is similar to that of Marx's, status and political power add other dimensions. Weber believed that people with a certain status had a certain lifestyle that set them apart from others. This dimension of political rank refers to one's standing in a collectivity or organization whose action is oriented toward the acquisition of social power (Marger 2003:36). Weberian theories include these characteristics:

Emphasize the importance of dimensions of stratification not rooted in property relations. Focus on the various ways in which groups attempt to monopolize resources in order to acquire high levels of privilege and prestige. Thus, individuals' levels of social and economic reward are proportional to their control over important resources. (Sanderson 1999:215)

Lenski's Multidimensional Model. Gerhard Lenski's multidimensional model of stratification looks at varied "class systems" that contribute to stratification. Refer to Figure 2.1 in Marger (2003:37) to see this model in a chart form.

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Writing Assignment 1
(Covering Lessons 1 and 2)

Choose one of the following two assignments and write a three- to five-page response. Be sure to cite material to which you refer.

1. Keep a journal for five consecutive days. In this journal make three lists:

My Experience My Perceptions Information Disseminated

Under "My Experience," list any thoughts that you have about race/ethnicity. For example, how often do you refer to someone's race when describing him/her to a friend or colleague? Are you consistent when referring to someone who is "white"? When you hear someone speaking another language, do you immediately think that he or she is foreign? Some thoughts will be more elaborate than others, but chronicle each with as much detail as possible.

Under "My Perceptions," make a list of people's comments and actions, regarding race/ethnicity. The list could include both verbal and nonverbal actions. For example, what does making eye contact communicate? Does a store clerk make the same eye contact to an African American as he/she does to a European American? Listen to tones of voices. This section is to make yourself more aware and sensitive to race and ethnicity around you.

Under "Information Disseminated," list any information in the news, magazines, movies, brochures, etc., that makes references to race/ethnicity. For example, if you are watching a sitcom, do you find race/ethnic jokes? For example, the George Lopez show makes reference to the "hood" and other stereotypes. When the Simpsons go on vacation, a Puerto Rican boy steals their luggage. A magazine might discuss terrorism but only refer to people from the Middle East (forgetting that Timothy McVeigh was white, an American, and a terrorist).

After completing your lists, discuss which examples best represented stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism and why. Then discuss how stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism have affected you as an individual, those close to you (family and friends), and society at large. Please note that the lists should not be counted as part of your three to five written pages.

2. This assignment has three components.

  1. First, construct a family tree, tracing the origins of your roots as thoroughly as possible. Complete names are not necessary, but geographies are a must. Where did your descendants come from? Mexico ? China ?

  2. Second, watch the 2003 PBS documentary Race the Power of an Illusion: Part 1. (This documentary can be borrowed from a public library or obtained through interlibrary loan.) Then using the information obtained from the documentary and assigned readings (including the study guide), discuss the following:

    1. What is race, and how was this idea constructed?
    2. Examine your family tree. Has your perception of race changed after watching the documentary? If so, how?
    3. Do races exist? Why or why not?
    4. What are the benefits of constructing a racist ideology?
    5. How does this construction play into stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism?

  3. Watch the documentary Race the Power of an Illusion: Part 2. Using the theories discussed in lesson 2, discuss how the dominant group obtained and maintained power. What were specific consequences?

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