Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the difference between race and ethnicity
  • Describe minority groups and scapegoat theory

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?”[1]

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, and all scientists agree that there is no biological basis for racial differences.

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 [2] 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.”[3]

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.

Try It

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?

Try It


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
minority group:
any group of people who are singled out from the others for differential and unequal treatment
a socially constructed category that produces real effects on the actors who are racially categorized
scapegoat theory:
a theory that suggests that the dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group
social construction of race:
the school of thought that race is not biologically identifiable
subordinate group:
a group of people who have less power than the dominant group

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" href="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vy-T6DtTF-BbMfpVEI7VP_R7w2A4anzYZLXR8Pk4Fu4" target="_blank"

  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.


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