Sociology Of Racism Research Paper

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Few concepts in social science have generated more heat and less light than ‘race’ and its derivative ‘racism,’ the former because of its multiplicity of meanings, and the latter because of its dual career as a concept and as an ideological bludgeon.

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1. Definitions

‘Race’ has been used with four distinct meanings:

(a) As a synonym for a biological species, as in ‘the human race.’

(b) As a synonym for a biological subspecies as in ‘the Caucasoid race.’

(c) As a synonym for a nation or ethnic group, as in ‘the French race.’

(d) As a term to designate a group of diverse origins thought to be a biological subspecies in a given society, as in ‘the Jewish race’ in Nazi Germany. To reduce the confusion and distinguish this usage from the second, the term ‘social race’ has sometimes been used, but generally the qualifier is omitted.

The first usage is largely metaphorical and, thus, unproblematic. However, the other three, are hopelessly confusing, either because they have no clear empirical referent (as in the second), or because they overlap empirically with one another (as in the second, third, and fourth), or both. The result is a conceptual muddle that has plagued the social science literature since the turn of the twentieth century.

‘Racism,’ i.e., the ideology or attitudes associated with one or more of the listed definitions of ‘race,’ is in an even more parlous state of conceptual confusion. The following list includes some but not all of the current usages:

(a) As an ideology or set of attitudes accompanying the second meaning of ‘race,’ that is, a belief in the relative inferiority or superiority in moral, intellectual, physical, and other attributes of biological subspecies of Homo sapiens.

(b) As an ideology or set of attitudes corresponding to the third meaning of ‘race,’ that is, as a synonym for ethnocentrism, as in the belief that one’s own ethnic group is superior to others.

(c) As an ideology or set of attitudes linked to the fourth meaning of ‘race,’ namely ‘social race.’

(d) As a set of practices or institutions, divorced from individual beliefs or attitudes, that, by design or otherwise, have a differential impact on various racial or ethnic groups. This is usually labeled ‘institutional racism,’ and is a synonym for discrimination, witting or unwitting. Thus, an ostensibly neutral test on which some groups consistently perform better than others is said to be ‘institutionally racist.’

(e) As a general term of opprobrium hurled at any person, policy, or practice one disapproves of. Examples would be the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution passed by the United Nations, or accusations leveled at opponents of race-based affirmative action in the USA. In the latter case, and indeed in much contemporary usage in the USA, race-blindness is said to be racist, while race discrimination is defined as liberal, thus turning the concept on its head.

2. Evolution In The Use Of The Term ‘Racism’

Clearly, racism as a social concept has outlived whatever use it may have had until the 1960s, before its usage became broadened beyond recognition. At mid-twentieth century, a clear distinction was maintained in most social literature between attitudes and behavior, between prejudice and discrimination, and between race and ethnicity. The concept of racism was largely restricted to prejudicial ‘attitudes’ applied to ‘social races.’ Discrimination was treated as varying in partial independence of prejudice, and discrimination was seen as a possible (but not necessary) consequence of racist attitudes. Prejudicial attitudes applied to ethnic groups were termed ‘ethnocentrism,’ as distinct from racism. Driven by an ideological agenda of stigmatizing any beliefs or practices thought to sustain any kind of group differential in society (e.g., group differences in performance in tests, in admission to universities, in crime or incarceration rates, in school drop-out rates, in mortality or morbidity rates, in representation in various occupations, and so on), social scientists since the 1960s have gradually blurred or eliminated this double distinction between prejudice and discrimination, and between race and ethnicity. The result has been to universalize the concept of racism. Everybody can now be called a racist, including those who steadfastly refuse to make racial distinctions.

To blur the distinction between prejudice and discrimination, as the concept of ‘institutional racism’ does, achieves at least two aims. First, it dissociates ‘racism’ from individuals, and makes it an inherent property of social institutions, or indeed of entire societies. Second, it dissociates racism from consciousness and intentionality. Both individuals and institutions can be labeled ‘racist’ irrespective of beliefs, attitudes, or intentions. A classical liberal, for instance, who believes in philosophy of individual rights and equality of opportunity, without any consideration of race or ethnicity, can easily be labeled a racist if, for instance, she opposes ‘race norming’ of tests in employment or education. Thus, we find opponents on the two sides of a clear debate on whether to take race into account in social policy hurl the epithet of ‘racist’ at each other. ‘Racism’ is now void of meaning and reduced to pure invective.

The confounding of race and ethnicity has also served a variety of political agenda. The analytical use of the distinction between race and ethnicity is that racial (e.g., physical) categorization of groups leads to much more rigid, enduring, invidious, and stigmatizing social cleavages than ethnic (e.g., cultural) criteria of group membership. For example, the categorically different position of blacks in the USA compared to other minority groups, such as Hispanics or Asian Americans, can only be understood because they are overwhelmingly defined by the double stigma of racial slavery.

African-Americans were essentially treated as a stigmatized pariah group in American society. However, redefining American blacks, as merely one ethnic minority in a ‘multicultural’ society may, it is hoped, destigmatize their uniquely invidious position, but it does nothing to explain the stubborn resilience of their disabilities and predicaments in American society. The confounding of race and ethnicity in this cited example cuts both ways ideologically: it may on the one hand promote pride in ‘black culture,’ but it also underpins the racist argument of innate black inferiority. If blacks are but one ethnic group among many, how come they fail where others (notably Asian Americans) succeed?

3. Recent Developments

The unintended consequences of this broadening of the meaning of racism are three-fold. First, it robbed social science of a useful tool that permitted complex analysis of complicated social phenomena. Examples of such analyses are the relationship between prejudice and discrimination (one can be for instance, an unprejudiced discriminator or a prejudiced non-discriminator, depending on a social context which rewards or punishes discrimination); the difference between profoundly racist societies such as the Ante Bellum US and apartheid South Africa, and less racist ones such as Mexico or Brazil, where ethnic and class distinction often overshadow racial ones; and, the social consequence of stressing physical phenotypes such as skin color, as distinguished from cultural characteristics, such as language or religion, for the dynamics of group conflicts. Broadening the meaning of racism not only transformed a concept into an epithet; it simultaneously impoverished social analysis. It also made the teaching of race relations in race-polarized societies a minefield of political correctness liberally sprinkled with euphemisms and impervious to rational discourse.

Second, the broadening usage of racism and the confounding of race and ethnicity have noticeably weakened the effectiveness of remedial policies by facilitating and legitimating a shift from universalistic, race-blind policies of equal opportunity and individual rights, to one of groups rights, proportional representation, quota systems, and collective grievances and guilt. Policies such as race-based affirmative action in the USA are not only ineffective but even retrogressive because they are based on bad social science. The inherent contradiction involved in race-based affirmative action is that the remedy of ‘positive discrimination’ uses as a selection criterion the very stigma the policy seeks to eliminate. Surely, the way to reduce the social significance of race is not to classify the population into official race groups, to use these categories in official statistics and reports, and to request individuals to identify themselves by race for the purpose of school attendance, employment, promotion, college admission, faculty recruitment, etc.

4. Racism And Sociobiology

Third, the extension of the concept of race and its confounding with ethnicity are congruent with the sociobiological approach to the study of race and ethnicity that has been slowly gaining ground in the social sciences over the last 20 years of the twentieth century. The motor of natural selection is differential reproduction. Organisms are selected to behave in ways that are reproductively successful. Reproductive success can be direct or indirect. An organism can have offspring, or it can help other related organisms (that share a proportion of their genes) to reproduce. In short, nepotism—the favoring of kin—is a common strategy for maximizing inclusive fitness. This clearly operates in humans as in other social species, and is particularly evident in nuclear and extended families. However, members of ethnic and racial groups also define themselves as linked by common biological descent, that is, as large extended families. Racism and ethnocentrism can thus be seen as extended forms of nepotism. Members of such groups are typically more closely related to one another on average, than to members of other groups.

Racial and ethnic groups, in short, share the fundamental property of real, or at least putative, common descent, although they only constitute diluted forms of nepotism. The distinction between racial and ethnic groups is in the criteria used to determine membership: either physical traits in the case of races, or cultural characteristics in the case of ethnics. Preference for other individuals who resemble one physically is common where certain visible traits, such as skin color, enable one to discriminate easily between groups. However, in the case of neighboring groups that closely resemble one another (such as Swedes and Norwegians, or Zulu and Swazi), cultural traits, notably language and dialect, are more useful than biological features in establishing group membership.

The choice of racial or cultural criteria of group membership is thus opportunistically dictated by which does the best job of cheaply, quickly, easily, and reliably discriminating between co-existing groups. Sometimes both racial and cultural traits are used, but purely physical traits are often unreliable because neighboring groups frequently interbreed. Ethnocentrism, therefore, is far more general a phenomenon than racism, even though racism is generally present where it ‘works,’ e.g., in situations of recent long-distance migration rapidly putting in close contact large numbers of phenotypically distinct populations. Military conquest, colonialism, slavery, and labor migration are examples of such situations where racism thrives. Conversely, after several generations of contact and interbreeding, racism tends to wane, unless forcibly maintained as in the USA and South Africa, by a discriminatory political and legal system.

Seen in evolutionary perspective, racism becomes a natural propensity to favor individuals to whom one assesses to be more closely biologically related to one, and thus an expression of the nepotism that drives natural selection through inclusive fitness. This general preference for ‘look-alikes’ operates both at the individual level (e.g., in assortative mating between members of the same group), and between groups where group differences in the distribution of certain phenotypes are pronounced enough to make reliable and easy discrimination possible.

According to this evolutionary perspective, racism is both primordial, that is rooted in the biology of nepotism, and circumstantial or instrumental, varying with the degree to which co-existing groups look alike or different. It is neither inevitable nor unchangeable, but it is likely to occur whenever physical phenotypes, especially highly viable ones, such as skin pigmentation, sharply differentiate between groups. Extensive interbreeding, however, can quickly undermine it. Racism is also responsive in both directions, to state- imposed policies that either reward, or punish it. A state determined to maintain a racial caste society can do so for centuries, as US and South African history amply demonstrate. Conversely, the state can create an environment in which racial tolerance can thrive. The persistence or waning of racism is also a function of the degree of overlap between class and race. Racism is more likely to endure when large socio- economic differences exist between racially defined groups, and to subside where those differences are reduced.

In conclusion, the double side of racism is that while, in all likelihood, it is indeed ‘in our genes’ as an expression of the biology of nepotism, it takes definite environmental conditions to become expressed. In this respect, it is no different from all our genetic propensities. The phenotype is always the product of interaction between the genotype and the environment. But that environment is not only changeable; it can also be manipulated for malign or benign ends. However, the main lesson of multiracial societies is that any state policy based on race, whether purportedly malign or benign, consolidates and perpetuates racial distinctions.


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  5. Schermerhorn R A 1970 Comparative Ethnic Relations. Random House, New York
  6. Sowell T 1994 Race and Culture. Basic Books, New York
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