The world offers a fascinating variety of human shapes and colors. With six and a half billion people on earth there is no shortage of comparisons. People see one another as black, white, red, yellow, and brown. Because of this, race is a complex and often misunderstood concept. Race is a reality in the sense that inherited physical characteristics distinguish one group from another. However, race is a myth in the sense of one race being superior to another and of the existence of pure races. The idea of race is powerful, shaping basic relationships between people. Often confused with ethnicity, race refers to inherited biological characteristics, while ethnicity refers to cultural ones.
A concept often associated with race is minority group. A minority group was defined by sociologist Louis Wirth as people who are singled out for unequal treatment and who regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination. The dominant group is the group with the most power, greatest privileges, and highest social status. Both race and ethnicity can be a basis for unequal treatment. The extent of ethnic identification depends upon the relative size of the group, its power, broad physical characteristics, and the amount of discrimination. Ethnic work is the process of how a person constructs their ethnic identity.
Prejudice refers to an attitude. Studies show that prejudice, a form of prejudging in a negative way, is learned. Discrimination refers to unfair treatment. Individual discrimination is the negative treatment of one person by another, while institutional discrimination is discrimination built into society's social institutions. Institutional discrimination can affect every aspect of one's life including home mortgages, loans, health care, and life opportunities.
Theories to explain prejudice are based on both psychological and sociological perspectives. Psychological theories explain the origin of prejudice in terms of stress frustration directed towards scapegoats (minorities) and in terms of the development of authoritarian personalities. Sociologists emphasize how different social environments affect levels of prejudice. Functionalists address the benefits and costs of discrimination. Conflict theorists examine the exploitation of racial and ethnic divisions by those in power. Symbolic interactionists stress selective perception, self-fulfilling prophecies, and the power of labeling.
Sociologists have found six basic patterns that characterize the relationship of dominant groups and minorities. These include genocide, population transfer, internal colonialism, segregation, assimilation, and pluralism. Genocide is the systematic annihilation of a people based on their presumed race or ethnic identity. Population transfer involves forcing a minority group to move out of a specified area. Internal colonialism is the policy of economically exploiting minority groups. Segregation is the practice of structuring social institutions to maintain minimal contact between the dominant and minority groups. Assimilation, the process of being absorbed into the mainstream culture, is often illustrated by America being a "melting pot." Assimilation can be both forced and permissible. Forced assimilation is when the dominant group refuses to allow the minority group to practice its religion, to speak its language, or to follow its customs. In permissible assimilation the minority adopts the dominant group's patterns in its own way and at its own speed. In pluralism, also called multiculturalism, there is a diffusion of power among many interest groups which prevents any single group from gaining control.
The major ethnic groups in the United States, ranked from largest to smallest, are European Americans, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Each minority group faces different issues. European Americans are often confused with being white Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs). In reality, WASPs are generally from Great Britain. Other immigrants from Europe, known as white ethnics, were greeted with disdain and negative stereotypes by the WASPs who had already colonized America. In the 2000 census the Latino population in the United States was officially 37 million with another 10 million being in the country illegally. This made Latinos the largest minority. Latino loyalty is divided by country of origin. Mexico is the country of origin for two-thirds (67.0%) of all Latinos in the United States. African Americans account for just over twelve percent of the American population. African Americans are increasingly being divided by social class more than race. There are two contrasting worlds African American experience, one educated and affluent and another poor with little hope. Asian Americans account for four percent of the population which is approximately twelve million people. Like Latinos, their culture, customs, and lifestyles vary considerably based on country of origin. China is the country of origin for the highest percentage of Asian Americans followed by the Philippines. Native Americans are often referred to as the invisible minority because about half of them live in rural areas and one-third in three states. Although Native Americans have a rich history of tradition, they have been the objects of institutional discrimination that included genocide, population transfer, and forced assimilation. Some of the issues Native Americans face today includes poverty, a loss of nationhood, settling treaty obligations, and health concerns including high rates of suicide and alcoholism.
The primary issues that dominate race-ethnic relations today are immigration, affirmative action, and how to develop a truly multicultural society. Today more immigrants and children of immigrants live in America than ever before. In California, ethnic and racial minorities constitute the majority of the population. Within the next fifty years over fifty percent of Americans will have a non-European ancestry.
As America moves into the twenty-first century, there will be a greater emphasis on multiculturalism. Varying racial-ethnic groups will not only coexist but will respect one another and work together for mutually beneficial goals.