Timothy Nelson

Professor Shikha Batra

Introduction to Sociology

April, 2015

Race and Ethnicity from a Sociological Perspective

In modern times, the term race is used at a profoundly higher rate than the word ethnicity. This word acting as a permissible constituent for both words smears the historical context of them. And the lack of acknowledgement of the history of these terms by the general public not only creates dissensions and division, it also brazenly endorses and encourages it.

Karl Marx’s point on capitalism was quintessential to say the least. He made the point that capitalism essentially turns the middle class and the working class against each other; invoking both groups to foster the shortcomings of societies on the other. As it is in America, and always has been, the minority groups have always struggled in the working class and they still make up majority of the working class and the lower class to this day. This being the case has made way for institutional racism, which is discrimination or pure racism against a particular “race” or ethnicity on a systematic level. And due to it being institutionalized, denial is imminent and inevitable from the oppressing party because this racism is so transparent and so deeply rooted and embedded in our society that it never occurs to one to challenge the idea.

When in an interview with the New York Magazine, Chris Rock made a great point about race relations, or rather the lack thereof. “Here’s the thing,” he began to say, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy,” Rock went on to state the absurdity in the presumption that black people have made progress, for that would then justify the treatment of them in the past as it was righteous or deserved. And this is important simply because so many of the achievements of blacks becomes generally seen as “black progress,” when in reality it is “white progress.” And this is due to the increase of toleration from whites of blacks over the centuries.

From the sociological perspective of a functionalist, this idea to tolerate and to encompass a multicultural societal quota is absurd. Rather it encourages the contrary. It is very much similar to the Puritans mindset in the Colonial Period of American history. Their entire society was linear minded and if one disagreed with their beliefs or societal norms and values they were exiled. They were very conservative minded and reluctant to change. Even if it was obvious that the change would benefit them greatly.

Whenever mentioning the functionalist perspective on race and ethnicity it is imperative to mention assimilation. Because the goal of a functionalist is to keep the societal quota intact despite any inconveniences that may happen. For example, mass migration; in an instance of mass migration a functionalist would suggest the strict, unforgiving assimilation of the migrants to the apparent institution or community with the logic that any hiccups this society or community may receive would come as a direct result from those migrants. As of a result of these presumptions, racism would precede and discrimination would commence having there being a scapegoat in which to foster the blame upon.

This scapegoat, being of the minority group would have to be great in number for it would be utterly nonsensical to blame only a few individuals for the deterioration and dissipation of a society. Due to the victimization of this minority group, inequality would persist and opportunities would desist all the while the dominant group would become more enriched. And since the dominant group is typically smaller in number and greater in wealth, they would have the ability to set precedents that would further stricken those below them and limit their opportunities or pursuits in life. As it was during the Gilded Age, where monopolistic corporations used and abused minority workers – having them work an innumerable amount of hours per week, persistently restricting their pay, working them under harsh working conditions and offering no benefits whatsoever.

This is where the functionalist theory falls to incompetence and illogic on many scales. When In the face of adversary, distain and unrighteousness, it would rather tuck its head and stick to the same dogma that inevitably led to these circumstances instead of resorting to more pragmatic, progressive resolutions which would then practically addresses any given issue.

To a conflict theorist, this level of stagnancy and conflict amongst races and ethnic groups is seen as an inevitable byproduct of class systems in general. Because whenever there are people who are born into prestigious, iconic situations there will always be a losing end with several people inlayed. And when those inlayed individuals are then born into unappealing, miserable conditions they will undoubtedly be seen as inherently inferior by the higher-ups. Due to their putatively biological inferiority, the higher-ups will unrelentingly find reasons to establish precedent which will keep the poor inadequately equipped, and limit, if not permanently sever any possibilities or opportunities of climbing up their respective hierarchal ladder.

This form institutional racism and inequality is exemplified throughout American history and is something that still reigns true today. Whether it be by slavery from the dawn of the seventeenth century to late nineteenth century, the black codes, Jim Crow Laws, Exclusion Acts, Quota Acts, and segregation which held prominence from the Reconstruction time period to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 or to more modern subtle systemic approaches like the Asset Forfeit Seizure, the inequality in the School-to-Prison Pipeline, extensive and unnecessary criminalization of petty crimes, etc… According to a conflict theorist, the persistency in the continuity of institutionalized racism and inequality acts as a strategically divisive factor amongst any given society. And from this division, the honest motive and intent of the dominant group becomes blatantly clear; to dissimilate all of those which are not of their acclaimed “own.”

The factor of dissimilation or assimilation is where the functionalist theory and conflict theory contrast the most. Whereas a functionalist would settle for utter assimilation of all migrants, a conflict theorist would want to either dissimilate the migrants altogether or utilize them as subjugates, voiceless and without the same rights as the subjugators possess.

Dissimilar to both the functionalist and the conflict theory is the Symbolic Interaction Theory. This is a theory of individual perception which doesn’t particularly focus on the large scale effect. And essentially is a theory of toleration in regards to race and ethnicity. Instead of focusing on systematic and institutionalized racism, this theory tends to lean more towards how people from different ethnicities and proclaimed races interact in a social setting. Detailing that the more the people from differing ethnicities and races interact, the less hostility and conflict will be present. And this is also a case throughout American history. Without the evidence of this, the progress that has been made in race relations would be nonexistent today. Through interaction, one is able to see the other individual as an actual individual and not a means to an end or a subject in which to assert ones authority upon. Through interaction, one is able conclude conclusions about oneself that would have otherwise remained oblivious to one’s cognizance. Through interaction, knowledge is found, ideas are conjured and cultures are not assimilated, but converged. Through interaction, however, one may forget that majority of those in the dominant group will continue to resort to stubbornness and will refuse to partake in any form of social interaction with those of a minority group, especially if it doesn’t directly benefit them. This very fact is the crux of race relations in America today; pride.

Now being aware of these sociological perspectives has changed my viewpoint on the matter tremendously. The perspectives themselves analyze race and ethnicity down to an atomic-esque level. And with this simplification I am now able to pinpoint the specificities and detail of the causes, effects, and full extent of the factors which influence race relations within a given society. I’ve learned of the peculiar difference between race and ethnicity and how the formation of race really tells a lot different perspectives. Currently being able to point out the differences in perspectives of respective cultures is evidence of my newfound cognizance and  use of a scientific perspective.