Race, Ethnicity, and Discrimination

What you'll learn to do: define and differentiate between race, ethnicity, majority/minority groups, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination

Protesters are holding signs that read Figure 1. The Black Lives Matters movement started gaining attention in 2013 for its resistance and activism protesting police brutality and racial discrimination against black people. (Photo courtesy of Johnny Silvercloud/Wikimedia Commons)

In this section, we will focus on understanding race and ethnicity and the distinctions between commonly confused words like prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Learning outcomes

  • Explain the difference between race and ethnicity
  • Describe minority groups and scapegoat theory
  • Explain the difference between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism
  • Describe white privilege
  • Explain different intergroup relations, ranging from extreme levels of intolerance (i.e. genocide) to tolerance (pluralism)

Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups

While many students first entering a sociology classroom are accustomed to conflating, or using interchangeably, the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “minority group,” these three terms have distinct meanings for sociologists. If you recall some terms discussed in the module on social interaction, race is one example of a social construct. According to the Thomas Theorem, once individuals define situations as real, they become real in their consequences. For this reason, assumptions based on race can have materially and politically real effects. In this section, we will discuss these complex terms as both social constructs and as lived realities.

Following the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, elementary school teacher Jane Elliot sought to teach her white elementary students in rural Iowa about racism. She convinced her third grade students that students with brown eyes were superior to blue eyed students with a (false) scientific explanation saying that more melanin meant greater intelligence. The students quickly exhibited discriminatory behaviors against their peers, and antagonisms between groups were further exacerbated by Elliot's new classroom policies for dominant and subordinate groups based on eye color.

Often referred to as the "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes" exercise, Jane Elliott's experiment allows us to see how once students in her classroom began to define the situation as real, the consequences of being brown eyed and blue eyed became real. She received national attention and was heavily criticized, especially by people in Riceville, Iowa (population 840), with many saying the experiment was cruel to her all-white class. Elliot replied, “Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?”[4]

What is Race?

Biological anthropologists examine race through an evolutionary lens in which all Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs) came from a common origin in Africa and had dark skin due to proximity to the equator and as a natural defense again the sun's rays. The relative darkness or fairness of skin is an evolutionary adaptation to the available sunlight in different regions of the world. All scientists agree that there is no biological basis for racial differences, and in fact, people who consider themselves “white” actually have more melanin (a pigment that determines skin color) in their skin than other people who identify as ”black.”

Social science organizations including the American Association of Anthropologists, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association have all taken an official position rejecting the biological explanations of race. Over time, the typology of race that developed based on phenotype or physical characteristics has fallen into disuse in social and behavioral sciences (although examining melanin is still important in natural sciences), and the social construction of race has become the primary lens through which sociologists examine race. Race is a socially constructed category that produces real effects on the actors who are racialized [5] and refers to physical differences that a particular society considers significant, such as skin color. In other words, a physical marker such as skin color, eye shape, hair type, or cheekbone shape, when paired with some other element(s) of social significance, could become a social cue for inclusion or exclusion in a certain group.

Using the sociological imagination, we can delve into how racial categories were arbitrarily assigned, based on pseudoscience, and subsequently used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003). Elliot's classroom exercise is not too far from what happened in American history. Science and religion were both used to create and justify racial categories and racist ideologies. The "One Drop Rule," which states that someone is black if they have "one drop" of African blood is uniquely American (no other country defines race in this way) and a way to illustrate the social construction of race. For example, many people who appeared white and could "pass" as such in a social setting, could not pass in a legal sense because of the rule of hypo-descent, which meant that racially mixed people were automatically assigned the minority group status. There were strict prohibitions against miscegenation (or mixed offspring) in spite of centuries of white men raping enslaved black women. During slavery, this allowed intergenerational slavery to persist irrespective of skin color, and after slavery was abolished, segregationist Jim Crow laws were applied to many mixed-race Americans.

Further Research

Explore aspects of race and ethnicity at this PBS site, “What Is Race?

The social construction of race is reflected in the way names for racial categories change over time. It’s worth noting that race, in this sense, is also a system of labeling that provides a source of identity; specific labels fall in and out of favor during different social eras. For example, the category "negroid,” popular in the nineteenth century, evolved into the term “negro” by the 1960s, and then this term fell from use and was replaced with “African American.” This latter term was intended to celebrate the multiple identities that a black person might hold, but the word choice is a poor one, as it lumps together a large variety of ethnic groups regardless of geographical origin.

For example, Jamaicans, Haitians, and other dark skinned Caribbean groups living in the U.S. are Black but they are not African American. Calling any person with dark skin African American highlights the importance of language while at the same time illustrating the challenges of racial categorization. We do not refer to Lupita Nyong'o (Nakia in Black Panther 2018), who has Kenyan parents but was born in Mexico City and has dual citizenship in Kenya and Mexico, as African American. The U.S. Census includes "Black" or "African American" as a racial category to include "any person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa."[6]

If race is a social construction, doesn't collecting information on artificial racial categories through the U.S. Census perpetuate the notion of biologically distinct racial categories? Why do we continue to categorize Americans based on race? Collecting information on race informs policy decisions related to civil rights, including voting and redistricting procedures at the state level; furthermore, "race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks" (U.S. Census 2018). 

What is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture—the practices, values, and beliefs of a group. This culture might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities and is often based on country of origin.

The largest ethnic group in the United States, Latinos or Hispanics, are more likely to identify by their country of origin (i.e., Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican) than by an overarching ethnicity like "Latino" or "Hispanic." If you recall, language is one of the most important components of culture, and Spanish unifies many different ethnic groups within the Latino category. However, distinctive cultural practices and very different histories result in unique ethnic identities and strong ties to countries of origin that may warrant a hyphenated identity (i.e., Mexican-American, Cuban-American) or a new term altogether such as Nuyorican (New Yorker and Puerto Rican). These examples illustrate the complexity and overlap of these identifying terms.

Individuals may be identified or self-identify with ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian American, Russian, Jewish, and Serbian might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the “white” racial category. Depending on when they immigrated to the United States, many of these ethnic whites were treated as minority groups and were not afforded the same status as the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), who were typically the privileged whites throughout American history. For example, Irish immigrants were "white" in appearance and spoke English, but they were also predominantly Catholic, and made this made them suspect in terms of their prospective allegiance to the Pope in preference to the United States government. Italian immigrants were often olive-skinned, Catholic, and did not speak English, all of which made them seem even more foreign and, perhaps, unassimilable.

If we consider the British or the French as ethnicities with a common culture and geographic boundary, we see many ethnic groups within each country. Both countries have struggled with national identity as globalization and immigration, often originating in formerly colonized nations, change their demographics. For example, France won the 2018 World Cup with the help of star player Kylian Mbappe, a teenager born in Paris, whose father is from Cameroon and whose mother is Algerian.

Ethnicities and the Census

Read more about Latino opinions about the census data and identity in the article “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity” from the Pew Research Center.

Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the U.S. Census, affirmative action initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations. We celebrate ethnicity in the United States through a variety of holidays (i.e., St. Patrick's Day), enjoying different types of cuisine, and through popular cultural forms such as film, television, and music. 

Watch It

Review the ideas presented in this section about race and ethnicity in the following Khan Academy video.

What are Minority Groups?

Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a minority group as “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” According to Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris (1958), a minority group is distinguished by five characteristics:

  1. unequal treatment and less power over their lives
  2. distinguishing physical or cultural traits like skin color or language
  3. involuntary membership in the group
  4. awareness of subordination
  5. high rate of in-group marriage

Additional examples of minority groups might include the LGBTQ community, religious practitioners whose faith is not widely practiced where they live, and people with disabilities.

Subordinate group can be used interchangeably with the term minority, while the term dominant group is often substituted for the group that’s in the majority. These definitions correlate to the concept that the dominant group is that which holds the most power in a given society, while subordinate groups are those who lack power by comparison.

When we hear the word "minority" we often think of a group with a smaller number of members than the dominant group, but in some cases the "minority" is not a numerical minority. Women have been treated as a minority group even though they outnumber men in the U.S. What differentiates a minority group is that its members are disadvantaged in some way by the dominant group, such as when women are paid less than men for the same job even though they may have similar qualifications and levels of experience as their male co-workers. Consider apartheid in South Africa, in which a numerical majority (the black inhabitants of the country) were exploited and oppressed by the politically dominant white minority.

In the contemporary United States, the elderly might be considered a minority group due to a diminished status that results from popular prejudice and discrimination against them. Ten percent of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an elderly person in the past year, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse (World Health Organization 2011).

Scapegoat theory, developed initially from psychologist John Dollard’s (1939) Frustration-Aggression theory, suggests that the dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group. History has shown us many examples of the scapegoating of a subordinate group. An example from the last century is the way Adolf Hitler was able to blame the Jewish population for Germany’s social and economic problems. In the United States, recent immigrants have frequently been the scapegoat for the nation’s—or an individual’s—woes. Many states have enacted laws to disenfranchise immigrants; these laws are popular because they let the dominant group scapegoat a subordinate group.


Take a look at the racial dot map from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia. The map shows a dot for each of the 308 million who were counted in the 2010 census, and displays each dot based on a person's race and ethnicity.

Think It Over

  • Why do you think the term “minority” has persisted when the word “subordinate” is more descriptive?
  • How do you describe your ethnicity? Do you include your family’s country of origin? Do you consider yourself multiethnic? How does your ethnicity compare to that of the people you spend most of your time with?

Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination

The terms stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, and racism are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Let us explore the differences between these concepts. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation—almost any characteristic. They may be positive (usually about one’s own group, such as when women suggest they are less likely to complain about physical pain) but are often negative (usually toward other groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinate racial group is stupid or lazy). In either case, the stereotype is a sweeping overview that doesn’t take individual differences into account. Where do stereotypes come from? In fact new stereotypes are rarely created, but are instead recycled from earlier applications to subordinate groups that have since assimilated into society. They are then reused to describe newly subordinate groups. For example, many stereotypes that are currently used to characterize black people were used earlier in American history to characterize Irish and Eastern European immigrants.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn about racism, prejudice, and discrimination in the United States. We'll learn about each of these terms in more detail in the reading that follows.


Prejudice and Racism

Prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on experience. Instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience.

While prejudice is not necessarily specific to race, racism is a stronger type of prejudice used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others. It is also a set of practices used by a racial majority to disadvantage a racial minority. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of a racist organization. Its members' belief in white supremacy has encouraged over a century of hate crime and hate speech.

Other types of racism are much more difficult to perceive. Institutional racism refers to the way in which racism is embedded in the fabric of society. For example, the disproportionate number of black men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes may reflect racial profiling, a form of institutional racism in which the practice of law enforcement in determining whether to stop and detain someone is based on race alone. Color-blind racism refers to "contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics" (Bonilla-Silva, 2003), which is generally professed as, "I don't see race--I see everyone as equal." The vast majority of Americans (some sociologists suggest up to three-quarters) profess to be "color blind," which sociologists see as deeply problematic because it fails to recognize the social reality of minority groups in the U.S.

Watch It

Watch this clip and consider how the media can shape the stories that are told and reaffirm stereotypes and prejudices. Note that this media coverage advances a prejudice that black men (and even young boys) are violent and/or prone to aggression.

Colorism is another kind of prejudice, in which someone believes one degree of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group. Studies suggest that darker skinned African Americans experience more discrimination than lighter skinned African Americans (Herring, Keith, and Horton 2004; Klonoff and Landrine 2000). At least one study suggested colorism affected racial socialization, with darker-skinned black male adolescents receiving more warnings about the danger of interacting with members of other racial groups than did lighter-skinned black male adolescents (Landor et al. 2013).

Whitewashing and the Academy Awards

The 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards brought attention to Hollywood's practice of whitewashing, or casting white characters in historically non-white roles. Soon after the 2015 nominations were announced, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending, where a number of people pointed out that this was in fact the second time in 20 years that the nominations list featured exclusively white actors. But pull back the Academy’s plush red carpet a little further, and one finds it was the fifth time in 30 years this has happened. Pull it back even further and one finds that in the years between 1927 and 2012, 99 percent of women who have won “Best Actress” have been white, and the same is true for 91 percent of men who have won “Best Actor."

The charge leveled against the Oscars is of racism; that consciously or not, members of the Academy consistently fail to appreciate and honor the work of non-white actors. The basis for the charge is that there have been enough nominations and enough awards given to detect institutional discrimination or systemic biases that resulted in real consequences for minorities in film. That is, if Oscars were awarded like lottery winnings, by sheer chance alone non-white actors would take home a more proportionate share of the little statues, so there is cause to believe that somehow the creep of racial bias is contaminating the nomination process. The fact that 94 percent of voting members are white doesn’t exactly ease fears that the Academy is playing racial favorites.


While prejudice refers to biased thinking, discrimination consists of actions against a group of people. Discrimination can be based on age, religion, health, and other indicators. Race-based laws against discrimination strive to address these social problems.

Discrimination based on race or ethnicity can take many forms, from unfair housing practices to biased hiring systems. Overt discrimination has long been a part of U.S. history. In the late nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for business owners to hang signs that read, "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." And southern Jim Crow laws, with their "Whites Only" signs, exemplified overt discrimination that is not tolerated today.

However, we cannot erase discrimination from our culture just by enacting laws to abolish it. Even if a magic pill managed to eradicate racism from each individual's psyche, society itself would maintain it. Sociologist Émile Durkheim calls racism a social fact, meaning that it does not require the action of individuals to continue. The reasons for this are complex and relate to the educational, legal, economic, and political systems that exist in our society.

For example, when a newspaper identifies by race individuals accused of a crime, it may enhance stereotypes of a certain minority. Another example of racist practices is racial steering, in which real estate agents direct prospective homeowners toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race. Racist attitudes and beliefs are often more insidious and harder to pin down than specific racist practices.

Prejudice and discrimination can overlap and intersect in many ways. To illustrate, here are four examples of how prejudice and discrimination can occur. Unprejudiced nondiscriminators are open-minded, tolerant, and accepting individuals. Unprejudiced discriminators might be those who unthinkingly practice sexism in their workplace by not considering females for certain positions that have traditionally been held by men. Prejudiced nondiscriminators are those who hold racist beliefs but don't act on them, such as a racist store owner who serves minority customers. Prejudiced discriminators include those who actively make disparaging remarks about others or who perpetuate hate crimes.

Discrimination also manifests in different ways. The scenarios above are examples of individual discrimination, but other types exist. Institutional discrimination occurs when a societal system has developed with embedded disenfranchisement of a group, such as the U.S. military's historical nonacceptance of minority sexualities (the "don't ask, don't tell" policy reflected this norm).

Institutional discrimination can also include the promotion of a group's status, as in the case of white privilege, which refers to the automatic benefits people receive simply by being part of a dominant group. While most white people are willing to admit that nonwhite people live with a set of disadvantages due to the color of their skin, very few are willing to acknowledge the benefits they receive.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about white privilege.

Racial Tensions in the United States

A photo of golfer Tiger Woods holding his golf club up in the air on the golf course. Figure 2. Golfer Tiger Woods has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage. Individuals with multiple ethnic backgrounds are becoming more common. (Photo courtesy of familymwr/flickr)

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 illustrates racial tensions in the United States as well as the overlap between prejudice, discrimination, and institutional racism. On that day, Brown, a young unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. During the incident, Wilson directed Brown and his friend to walk on the sidewalk instead of in the street. While eyewitness accounts vary, they agree that an altercation occurred between Wilson and Brown. Wilson’s version has him shooting Brown in self-defense after Brown assaulted him, while Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown also present at the time, claimed that Brown first ran away, then turned with his hands in the air to surrender, after which Johnson shot him repeatedly (Nobles and Bosman 2014). Three autopsies independently confirmed that Brown was shot six times (Lowery and Fears 2014).

The shooting focused attention on a number of race-related tensions in the United States. First, members of the predominantly black community viewed Brown’s death as the result of a white police officer racially profiling a black man (Nobles and Bosman 2014). In the days after, it was revealed that only three members of the town’s fifty-three-member police force were black (Nobles and Bosman 2014). The national dialogue shifted during the next few weeks, with some commentators pointing to a nationwide sedimentation of racial inequality and identifying redlining in Ferguson as a cause of the unbalanced racial composition in the community, in local political establishments, and in the police force (Bouie 2014). Redlining is the practice of routinely refusing mortgages for households and businesses located in predominantly minority communities, while sedimentation of racial inequality describes the intergenerational impact of both practical and legalized racism that limits the abilities of black people and other racial minorities to accumulate wealth.

Ferguson’s racial imbalance may explain in part why, even though in 2010 only about 63 percent of its population was black, in 2013 blacks were detained in 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests (Missouri Attorney General’s Office 2014). In addition, de facto segregation in Ferguson’s schools, a race-based wealth gap, urban sprawl, and a black unemployment rate three times that of the white unemployment rate worsened existing racial tensions in Ferguson, while also reflecting nationwide racial inequalities (Bouie 2014).

TrayVon Martin

On the evening of February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black teenager was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancée in the Sanford, Florida gated community where his father's fiancée lived. Trayvon left her home on foot to buy a snack from a nearby convenience store. As he was returning, George Zimmerman, the community’s neighborhood watch program coordinator, noticed him. In light of a recent rash of break-ins, Zimmerman called the police to report a person acting suspiciously, which he had done on many other occasions. The 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, but soon after Zimmerman and Martin had a physical confrontation. According to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, and in the ensuing scuffle Martin was shot and killed (CNN Library 2014).

Two photographs depict people holding signs at a rally in protest of the death of Trayvon Martin. An African American woman in the photograph on the left holds a sign with the text 'one million hoodie march for Trayvon Martin,' in one hand, and a bag of skittles in the other. A young African American girl in the photograph on the right holds a sign with the text 'My mother taught me that just like that bag of skittles, all colors should be able to co-exist!!' Figure 3. Do you think race played a role in Trayvon Martin’s death or in the public reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest George Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? (Photo courtesy of Ryan Vaarsi/flickr)

A public outcry followed Martin’s death. Florida's Stand Your Ground Law immediately came into the center of a national debate on 2nd Amendment rights and self-defense. Zimmerman was not arrested until April 11, when he was charged with second-degree murder by special prosecutor Angela Corey. In the ensuing trial, he was found not guilty (CNN Library 2014). 

The shooting, the public response, and the trial that followed offer a snapshot of the sociology of race. Do you think race played a role in Martin’s death or in the public's reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male, or on his later acquittal? Does society fear black men, leading to self-defense justifications with unarmed youth? What about the role of the media? Was there a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion? If you were a member of the jury, would you have convicted George Zimmerman?

Multiple Identities

Prior to the twentieth century, racial intermarriage (referred to as miscegenation) was extremely rare, and in many places, illegal. In the later part of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century, attitudes have changed for the better. While the sexual subordination of slaves did result in children of mixed race, these children were usually considered black, and therefore, property. There was no concept of multiple racial identities, with the possible exception of the Creole. Creole society developed in the port city of New Orleans, where a mixed-race culture grew from French and African inhabitants. Unlike in other parts of the country, “Creoles of color” had greater social, economic, and educational opportunities than most African Americans.

Increasingly during the modern era, the removal of miscegenation laws and a trend toward equal rights and legal protection against racism have steadily reduced the social stigma attached to racial exogamy (exogamy refers to marriage outside a person’s core social unit). It is now common for the children of racially mixed parents to acknowledge and celebrate their various ethnic identities. Golfer Tiger Woods, for instance, has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage; he jokingly refers to his ethnicity as “Cablinasian,” a term he coined to combine several of his ethnic backgrounds. While this is the trend, it is not yet evident in all aspects of our society. For example, the U.S. Census only recently added more nuanced additional categories such as non-white Hispanic. A growing number of people chose multiple races to describe themselves on the 2010 Census, paving the way for the 2020 Census to provide yet more choices.

The Confederate Flag vs. the First Amendment

A photo of the Confederate flag hanging on a flagpole Figure 4. To some, the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride in Southern history. To others, it is a grim reminder of a degrading period of the United States’ past. (Photo courtesy of Eyeliam/flickr)

In January 2006, two girls walked into Burleson High School in Texas carrying purses that displayed large images of Confederate flags. School administrators told the girls that they were in violation of the dress code, which prohibited apparel with inappropriate symbolism or clothing that discriminated based on race. To stay in school, they’d have to have someone pick up their purses or leave them in the office. The girls chose to go home for the day but then challenged the school’s decision, appealing first to the principal, then to the district superintendent, then to the U.S. District Court, and finally to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Why did the school ban the purses, and why did it stand behind that ban, even when being sued? Why did the girls, identified anonymously in court documents as A.M. and A.T., pursue such strong legal measures for their right to carry the purses? The issue, of course, is not the purses; it is the Confederate flag that adorns them. The parties in this case join a long line of people and institutions that have fought for their right to display it, saying such a display is covered by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. In the end, the court sided with the district and noted that the Confederate flag carried symbolism significant enough to disrupt normal school activities.

While many young people in the United States like to believe that racism is mostly in the country’s past, this case illustrates that the symbols and iconography associated with the history of slavery are still potently meaningful. If the Confederate flag is synonymous with slavery, is there any place for its display in modern society? Those who fight for their right to display the flag say such a display should be covered by the First Amendment: the right to free speech. But others say the flag is equivalent to hate speech, which is not covered by the First Amendment. Do you think that displaying the Confederate flag should be considered free speech or hate speech?

Further Research

Think It Over

  • How do redlining and racial steering contribute to institutionalized racism?
  • Give an example of stereotyping that you see in everyday life. Explain what would need to happen for this to be eliminated.
  • Consider this video example “Why I’m Not Buying Adele’s 25” of why some say that white soul singers have an unfair advantage over black singers. Give three examples of white privilege. Do you agree or disagree with the argument? Can you give any other examples of white privilege?

Intergroup Relationships

Intergroup relations (relationships between different groups of people) range along a spectrum between tolerance and intolerance. The most tolerant form of intergroup relations is pluralism, in which no distinction is made between minority and majority groups, but instead there is equal standing. At the other end of the continuum are amalgamation, expulsion, and even genocide—stark examples of intolerant intergroup relations.


Genocide, the deliberate annihilation of a targeted (usually subordinate) group, is the most toxic intergroup relationship. Historically, we can see that genocide has included both the intent to exterminate a group as well as the function of effectively exterminating a group--whether this was intentional or not.

Possibly the most well-known case of genocide is Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish people both immediately before and during World War Two. Also known as the Holocaust, the explicit goal of Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the programmatic eradication of European Jewry, as well as the decimation of other minority groups such as Catholics, people with disabilities, and homosexuals. With forced emigration, concentration camps, and mass executions in gas chambers, Hitler’s Nazi regime was responsible for the deaths of 12 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish. Hitler’s intent was clear, and the high Jewish death toll certainly indicates that his regime committed genocide. But how do we understand genocide that is not so overt and deliberate?

The treatment of Aboriginal Australians is also an example of genocide, in this case one that was committed against indigenous people. Historical accounts suggest that between 1824 and 1908, white settlers killed more than 10,000 Aborigines in Tasmania and Australia (Tatz 2006). Another example is the European colonization of North America. Some historians estimate that Native American populations dwindled from approximately 12 million in the year 1500 to barely 237,000 by the year 1900 (Lewy 2004). European settlers coerced Native Americans from their lands, often causing thousands of deaths in forced removals, such as occurred in the Cherokee or Potawatomi Trail of Tears. Settlers also enslaved Native Americans and forced them to give up their religious and cultural practices, but the major cause of Native American deaths was neither slavery, nor war, nor forced removal: it was the introduction of European diseases and Native Americans' lack of immunity to them. Smallpox, diphtheria, and measles flourished among indigenous American tribes who had no exposure to the diseases and no ability to fight them. Quite simply, these diseases decimated the tribes. How planned this genocide was remains a topic of contention. Some argue that the spread of disease was an unintended effect of conquest, while others believe it was intentional, citing rumors of smallpox-infected blankets being distributed as “gifts” to tribes.

Genocide is not a just a distant historical footnote; it is practiced today. Recently, ethnic and geographic conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. As part of an ongoing land conflict, the Sudanese government and their state-sponsored Janjaweed militia have led a campaign of killing, forced displacement, and systematic rape of Darfuri people. Although a treaty was signed in 2011, the peace is fragile.


Expulsion refers to a subordinate group being forced, by a dominant group, to leave a certain area or country. As seen in the examples of the Trail of Tears and the Holocaust, expulsion can be a factor in genocide; however, it can also stand on its own as a destructive group interaction. Historically, expulsion has often occurred with an ethnic or racial basis. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, after the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Order authorized the establishment of internment camps for anyone with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry (i.e., one great-grandparent who was Japanese). Over 120,000 legal Japanese residents and Japanese U.S. citizens, many of them children, were held in these camps for up to four years, despite the fact that there was never any evidence of collusion or espionage. (In fact, many Japanese Americans continued to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States by serving in the U.S. military during the War.) In the 1990s, the U.S. executive branch issued a formal apology for this expulsion; reparation efforts continue today.


A group of black men and an old car standing outside a billiard hall. The words Figure 5. In the “Jim Crow” South, it was legal to have “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Segregation refers to the physical separation of two groups, particularly in residence, but also in workplace and social functions. It is important to distinguish between de jure segregation (segregation that is enforced by law) and de facto segregation (segregation that occurs without laws but because of other factors). A stark example of de jure segregation is the apartheid movement of South Africa, which existed from 1948 to 1994. Under apartheid, black South Africans were stripped of their civil rights and forcibly relocated to areas that segregated them physically from their white compatriots. Only after decades of degradation, violent uprisings, and international advocacy was apartheid finally abolished.

De jure segregation occurred in the United States for many years after the Civil War. During this time, many former Confederate states passed Jim Crow laws that required segregated facilities for blacks and whites. These laws were codified in 1896’s landmark Supreme Court case Plessey v. Ferguson, which stated that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. For the next five decades, blacks were subjected to legalized discrimination, forced to live, work, and go to school in separate—but unequal—facilities. It wasn’t until 1954 and the Brown v. Board of Education case that the Supreme Court declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” thus ending de jure segregation in the United States.

De facto segregation, however, cannot be abolished by any court mandate. Segregation is still alive and well in the United States, with different racial or ethnic groups often segregated by neighborhood, borough, or parish. Sociologists use segregation indices to measure racial segregation of different races in different areas. The indices employ a scale from zero to 100, where zero is the most integrated and 100 is the least. In the New York metropolitan area, for instance, the black-white segregation index was seventy-nine for the years 2005–2009. This means that 79 percent of either blacks or whites would have to move in order for each neighborhood to have the same racial balance as the whole metro region (Population Studies Center 2010).


Pluralism is represented by the ideal of the United States as a “salad bowl”: a great mixture of different cultures where each culture retains its own identity and yet adds to the flavor of the whole. True pluralism is characterized by mutual respect on the part of all cultures, both dominant and subordinate, creating a multicultural environment of acceptance. In reality, true pluralism is a difficult goal to reach. In the United States, the mutual respect required by pluralism is often missing, and the nation’s past pluralist model of a "melting pot" posits a society where cultural differences aren’t embraced as much as erased.

A photo of the Statue of Liberty. Figure 6. For many immigrants to the United States, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and a new life. Unfortunately, they often encounter prejudice and discrimination. (Photo courtesy of Mark Heard/flickr)


Assimilation describes the process by which a minority individual or group gives up its own identity by taking on the characteristics of the dominant culture. In the United States, which has a history of welcoming and absorbing immigrants from different lands, assimilation has been a function of immigration.

Most people in the United States have immigrant ancestors. In relatively recent history, between 1890 and 1920, the United States became home to around 24 million immigrants. In the decades since then, further waves of immigrants have come to these shores and have eventually been absorbed into U.S. culture, sometimes after facing extended periods of prejudice and discrimination. Assimilation may lead to the loss of the minority group’s cultural identity as they become absorbed into the dominant culture, but assimilation has minimal to no impact on the majority group’s cultural identity.

Some groups may keep only symbolic gestures of their original ethnicity. For instance, many Irish Americans may celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, many Hindu Americans enjoy a Diwali festival, and many Mexican Americans may celebrate the Day of the Dead; however, for the rest of the year, other aspects of their originating culture may be forgotten.

Assimilation is antithetical to the “salad bowl” created by pluralism; rather than maintaining their own cultural flavor, subordinate cultures give up their own traditions in order to conform to their new environment. Sociologists measure the degree to which immigrants have assimilated to a new culture with four benchmarks: socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language assimilation, and intermarriage. When faced with racial and ethnic discrimination, it can be difficult for new immigrants to fully assimilate. Language assimilation, in particular, can be a formidable barrier, limiting employment and educational options and therefore constraining growth in socioeconomic status.

Watch It

Consider Frantz Fanon's theory about the inherent racism behind assimilation, as explained in his book, Black Skin, White Masks.


Amalgamation is the process by which a minority group and a majority group combine to form a new group. Amalgamation is reflected in the classic “melting pot” analogy. Unlike the “salad bowl,” in which each culture retains its individuality, the “melting pot” ideal sees the combination of cultures mixing together and becoming more homogeneous.

Though the term is rarely used today in a racial sense, Amalgamation was also once a synonym for miscegenation. Recall that this term refers to intermarriage between races or to the mixed-race offspring of such unions. In the United States, antimiscegenation laws flourished in the South during the Jim Crow era. It wasn’t until 1967’s Loving v. Virginia that the last antimiscegenation law was struck from the books, making these laws unconstitutional.

Further Research

So you think you know your own assumptions? Check and find out with the Implicit Association Test.

What do you know about the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal population? Find out more by viewing the feature-length documentary Our Generation.

Think It Over

  • Do you believe immigration laws should foster an approach of pluralism, assimilation, or amalgamation? Which perspective do you think is most supported by current U.S. immigration policies?
  • Which intergroup relation do you think is the most beneficial to the subordinate group? To society as a whole? Why?



the process by which a minority group and a majority group combine to form a new group


the process by which a minority individual or group takes on the characteristics of the dominant culture


the belief that one type of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group

color-blind racism:

the belief that one doesn't "see" race


prejudiced action against a group of people

dominant group:

a group of people who have more power in a society than any of the subordinate groups


shared culture, which may include heritage, language, religion, and more


the act of a dominant group forcing a subordinate group to leave a certain area or even the country


the deliberate annihilation of a targeted (usually subordinate) group

institutional racism:

racism embedded in social institutions

minority group:

any group of people who are singled out from the others for differential and unequal treatment


the ideal of the United States as a “salad bowl:” a mixture of different cultures where each culture retains its own identity and yet adds to the “flavor” of the whole (compare with "melting pot")


biased thought based on flawed assumptions about a group of people


a socially constructed category that produces real effects on the actors who are racially categorized

racial profiling:

the use by law enforcement by looking at race alone when determining whether to stop and detain

racial steering:

the act of real estate agents directing prospective homeowners toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race


a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that are used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others


the practice of routinely refusing mortgages for households and business located in predominately minority communities

scapegoat theory:

a theory that suggests that the dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group

sedimentation of racial inequality:

the intergenerational impact of de facto (a matter of custom) and de jure (a matter of law) racism that limits the abilities of black people to accumulate wealth


the physical separation of two groups, particularly in residence, but also in workplace and social functions

social construction of race:

the school of thought that race is not biologically identifiable


oversimplified generalizations about groups of people

subordinate group:

a group of people who have less power than the dominant group

white privilege:

the benefits people automatically receive simply by being part of the dominant group

  1. Bloom, "S. 2015. \"Lesson of a Lifetime.\" Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/. "
  2. Bonilla-Silva, "E. 2003. Racism without Racists. Lanham: Rownman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc."
  3. "Race," "U.S. Census. last updated Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html."
  4. Bloom, "S. 2015. \"Lesson of a Lifetime.\" Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/. "
  5. Bonilla-Silva, "E. 2003. Racism without Racists. Lanham: Rownman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc."
  6. "Race," "U.S. Census. last updated Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html."

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More