Sociology of Race and Ethnicity: Meaning and Theories

The topics of race and ethnicity have often been discussed in various academic and social circles. This article covers a short description of both these concepts. Afterwards, it lists various sociological theories related to race and ethnicity such as that of double consciousness, racial formation theory, systemic racism, internal colonialism, the theory of intersectionality and finally culture of prejudice. The article then moves forward with a description of the history of race and racism. This is followed by a section on the impact of race in everyday life. Finally, the article concludes with a few words on the post-racial promise and the future of racism.

Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

What Is Race?

The idea of race is founded upon external physical differences that various societies label significant. Historically, the meaning of race has changed from being connected to familial or national ties to becoming more concerned with superficial attributes. In contemporary times, the race is viewed as a social construction and is not identified biologically. It is used as a label to identify certain groups of people. This label has changed many times during various social eras. For example, in the 19th century, the term ‘negroid’ was a popular reference to black people. This later evolved into ‘negro’ in the 1960s. The 21st century sees the term ‘African American’ being commonly used in the United States (Vyain et al. 2014).

What Is Ethnicity?

The term ethnicity is used to describe shared culture – a group of people identifies with each other on the basis of similar practices, beliefs, values, language and religion. Just like race, ethnicity is also used as a method of identification. Different ethnic groups exist that emphasize various sources such as ethno-linguistic, ethno-national, ethno-racial, ethno-regional and ethno-religious (Vyain et al. 2014).

Sociological Theories: Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity can be examined using many theories. These are elaborated below:

Double Consciousness

The term double consciousness was a social philosophical concept originally used to refer to an inner twoness experienced by African- Americans in the 20th century. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois introduced this term in 1903. According to Du Bois, the black people in America experienced contrasting thoughts and ideals and this sensation was a permanent part of their consciousness. The reason for such a disparity in consciousness was the racial oppression faced by them in the form of Jim Crow laws in the South and segregation in the North. Du Bois stated that American Negros led double lives, one as a Negro and the other as an American. The theoretical perspective of double consciousness is still relevant in today’s times when discussing the paradoxes of black life (Pittman 2016).

Racial Formation Theory

Michael Omi and Howard Winant coined the theory of racial formation in 1986. This perspective is popularly used by sociologists to understand the contribution of race in the development of the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. Omi and Winant defined racial formation as a sociohistorical process through which racial divisions were created and propagated. They studied the role that race played in social, political and economic institutions. Most importantly, this theory views race from both a historical and contemporary perspective. The sociologists used this perspective to provide explanations for differences among people. A racial project was a social representation of a section of society. For example, a common racial project was the utilization of race to justify income and wealth disparities in society.

Systemic Racism

Systemic racism is also called structural or institutional racism. This includes the policies and processes embedded in social institutions that exclude and disadvantage African Americans. This is a covert form of racism because inequalities in the form of discrimination in housing, health care and criminal justice are normalized. Some cases of systemic racism are also explicit. For example, Jim Crow laws in the United States and the exclusion of indigenous North American women from the universal suffrage movement (“Forms of Racism” n.d.). The Black Lives Matter protests around the world are sounding a call to end systemic racism especially in the forms of police brutality and criminal justice.

Internal Colonialism

This was an American race theory from 1950 to the 1990s. Internal colonialism developed as an ideology to explain the racial effects of isolation and poverty on native communities. This perspective was widely embraced by Blacks and Chicanos (Mexicans) to illustrate their subordinate position within the United States. These two groups lived as a colonized population within the country and saw their indigenous ways of life destroyed through slavery and military occupation. The Blacks and Chicanos fate was similar to the colonial subjects of the Third World as they suffered racism and dominance by others. Internal colonialism was most popularly adopted in the 1960s and 1970s when the Civil Rights Movement became radical (Gutiérrez 2004). The human rights activist Malcolm X was an important advocate for this theory.

Theory of Intersectionality

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined intersectionality to describe the overlap and intersections between race, gender and class. This theory emerged from discussion and debates in critical race theory. Crenshaw published a paper titled ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’ in 1989. Here she mentioned three legal cases that centred on both racial and sex discrimination. She argued that the treatment of black women as purely black or purely women was a narrow view of discrimination. Crenshaw stated that black women experienced prejudice on the basis of both gender and race and sometimes even the two together. She advocated for the treatment of black women as a group, which would help tackle the specific challenges faced by them (Coston 2019).

Culture of Prejudice

This theory outlines the concept that prejudice is embedded in every culture. Casual racist imagery is present in movies, advertisements and restaurants. Since everyone is exposed to such thoughts and images, it is impossible to trace the origins of prejudices and the extent to which they impact thought processes. There are many complications related to identifying racist behavior, as it may be subtle. Finally, this theory also looks at the interactions of racism with sexism and colonialism.

History of Race and Racism

The concept of race was created to grant legitimate power to white people to dominate over non- white people. There is a long history surrounding the construction of racism. In the beginning, religion was used as a justification for racism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Christianity deemed people of color as soulless and pagan. This ideology supported the increasing trends of slavery in the United States. In 19th century Europe, Darwin published his book ‘On the Origin of the Species’ which led to Social Darwinism. European and American genocide and colonization of native lands were supported by the theory of survival of the fittest. In 1850, Robert Knox began providing scientific evidence for racial prejudices. He compared the anatomy of white and black people and stated that people of color were intellectually inferior due to their brain texture. His findings were flawed since his conclusion was based on the study of only one man. Unfortunately, Knox’s studies contributed towards the growth of the eugenics movement. Eugenicists believed in improving the human race by encouraging the reproduction of “genetically fit” people. The American eugenics movement also inspired the Nazis and later resulted in the Holocaust in the 20th century (“A History” 2005).

Race and Everyday Life

Racism often teaches people about the disadvantages faced by black people but fails to recognize the advantages granted to white people. This is termed as white privilege. A paper titled ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ was written by Peggy McIntosh on this topic. As a white woman, she identified fifty effects of white privilege that she can choose to cash in any day. For example, she noted that if she ever had to move, she could afford housing in an area that she would want to live in. McIntosh could access mass media such as newspapers and the television, and see the people of her race adequately and correctly represented. Moreover, she could always find staple foods belonging to her cultural traditions in a supermarket and when she needed a haircut, she did not have to find a special hairdresser. McIntosh also mentions that if she needed “flesh” colored bandages, she could find ones matching her skin color. Finally, she also talked about how her race never worked against her when she required medical or legal help. These are just a few examples of how daily experiences supported by their white privilege are taken lightly by white people. It is important for all those benefitting from their race, to acknowledge their privilege instead of denying it (McIntosh 2003).

Read: How to Apply Sociology in Everyday Life

Impact of Race and Ethnicity

There are three important terms when talking about the impact of race and ethnicity. These are stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.

Stereotypes are generalizations about groups of people that don’t take individual differences into account. They tend to maximize the differences between cultures while simultaneously maximizing the similarities of a single culture. Stereotypes are harmful because they tend to create self- fulfilling prophecies. For example, if white men are often told that black men have better athletic ability, they may also perform worse than those white men with whom this stereotype is not reinforced.

Prejudices refer to deeply embedded negative attitudes towards a particular group of people. They are not based on actual experiences and rather on assumptions. Racism is an expression of both stereotypes and prejudices about the black race. White people hold the prejudice that they are superior to others and this belief is used to justify their unfair actions. For example, the Ku Klux Klan is an American white supremacist racist organization that encourages hate crime and speech against African Americans. Another example of racism and racist profiling is the disproportionately high number of black men who are victims of police brutality and criminal convictions.

Discrimination is any action undertaken based on stereotypes and prejudices about a community. There are many forms of discrimination based on race and ethnicity. In earlier times, overt discrimination through Jim Crow laws such as “Whites Only” signs was popular in the Southern states. Many business owners would also hang signs like “Help Required: Irish need Not Apply”. In contrast, covert forms of discrimination are more common today. For example, this could be in the form of a lack of access to healthcare or housing by the black community. It is important to understand that racism cannot be eradicated by simply banning discriminatory actions. Emile Durkheim called racism a social fact. This means that even if people do not act upon them, they can still continue to hold and propagate racist beliefs.

The Post- Racial Promise

There have been many instances where millennials were called “post-racial”. It was assumed that after the election of Barack Obama as the first black president, the United States had finally gotten over race. But this is a lie. One needs to look no further than social media to see the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests both in the United States and across the world. The horrifying deaths of George Floyd and many others have enraged the youth and pushed them onto the streets, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Protestors are demanding police departments be defunded and also taking down confederate statues that are in fact racist symbols. This generation voted Barack Obama into office but they must not see that as the fulfilment of a post-racial promise. They must continue to march for a better world. A world where race is recognized but not used as a unit of oppression. We must not act colorblind. Instead, we must celebrate every color equally.


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Coaston, J. (2019). The intersectionality wars. Retrieved from

Forms of Racism. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gutiérrez, R. (2004). INTERNAL COLONIALISM: An American Theory of Race. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 1(2), 281-295. DOI:10.1017/S1742058X04042043

McIntosh, P. (2003). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding prejudice and discrimination (p. 191–196). McGraw-Hill.

Pittman, J. P. (2016). Double Consciousness. Retrieved from

Vyain, S., Scaramuzzo, G., Cody-Rydzewski, S., Griffiths, H., Strayer, E., Keirns, N., Little, W. (2014). Chapter 11. Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from

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Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.