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Social inequality refers to “the condition whereby people have unequal access to valued resources, services, and positions in society” (Kerbo 1983, p. 250). Racial inequality in turn can be defined as the limited economic and social opportunities that are distributed along racial lines. Societies where racial inequalities are high are characterized by large disparities among different races and ethnicities in such areas as housing, education, employment income, and health care. While some researchers argue that inequalities exist because of the efforts (or lack of efforts) of individuals, most contemporary scholars agree that persistent racial inequalities are a product of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2001) refers to as a racialized social system—a system that reproduces and maintains the status of the dominant group socially, economically, politically, and psychologically. That is, racial inequality implies that access to resources and goods are overwhelmingly denied to people of color because of systemic rather than individual notions of racism. The social system upholds racism and maintains a racialized society.
Theories of Racial Inequality
Theories on racial inequality range from individual and cultural explanations that tend to lay blame on the victims (nonwhites) for their social and economic status in society to structural and systemic theories that tend to look beyond the individual to explain why most nonwhites, especially those with darker skin, continue to face discrimination in society. For example, deficiency theory, an outdated theory of racial inequality, argues that the economic, political, and social situation of some racial groups is due to some deficiency within the groups themselves. Deficiency theorists point to three causes for these deficiencies: biological, structural, and cultural. Regarding the first, scholars, the vast majority of whom were white, attempted to prove that the cause of racial inequalities stemmed from the biological inferiority of minority groups. Other researchers sought to demonstrate that there were basic flaws in the way minority groups structured their lives that helped to explain racial inequalities. Scholars also argued that racial and ethnic groups’ cultural traits and values served as a justification for the inequalities they experienced. The problem with deficiency theories, although still widely espoused by primarily conservative scholars, is their lack of empirical evidence and mostly unsubstantiated claims.
Other theories of racial inequality (e.g., bias theory) rely on the assumption that racial inequality is the result of individual prejudice and bias. The main criticism of such theories is that they ignore how societies are often structured along racial lines, which ultimately leads to social, residential, educational, and other forms of segregation. This theoretical framework ignores how racism can continue to operate in a society even when overt prejudices and discriminatory practices are no longer “socially” acceptable.
Structural theories of inequality identify racism within social structures, such as education, institutional policies, laws, and housing and health care practices. Many critical race theorists, such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, have written about the importance of understanding why individual prejudices and biases do not fully explain the continuing existence of racism, especially given that many overtly racist policies and laws have long been dismantled. Structural theories tend to focus on how racism is maintained by identifying racist practices in institutions. For example, in the United States such practices as redlining and divestment in poorer neighborhoods result in lower property taxes. Since the quality of public schools is directly tied to property taxes, the schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to have fewer resources compared to schools in more affluent neighborhoods. According to Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993), the United States is a racially and residentially segregated society. African Americans are overrepresented in poor neighborhoods as a result of past and current racist housing practices, such as realtors refusing to sell or rent houses to African Americans in white neighborhoods. As a result African Americans continue to be steered into racially segregated neighborhoods where housing investment is low and social and economic opportunities are few or nonexistent.
Another theoretical framework examines the role of racial hierarchies to explain how different racial and ethnic groups fare compared to whites and to one another. One model, the black-white model, has generated major debate among scholars who study race and ethnicity. Joe R. Feagin (2000) and George Yancey (2006) argue that the blackwhite model is useful because African Americans are the most racially disadvantaged group and have experienced oppression far longer than most minority groups in the United States. Furthermore antiblack racism is one of the most ingrained social institutions in the United States (Feagin 2000). Researchers argue that this model can be applied to other racial and ethnic groups, but they maintain that the bipolar model is still necessary before one can fully understand racial inequality.
Critics of the black-white paradigm argue that it is outdated and does not take into account the demographic changes that have occurred in the United States as a result of increased immigration after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which increased the number of immigrants of color to the United States. Further the black-white model allows only limited understanding of the racialization of nonwhite immigrant groups and their children because the model ignores the different factors associated with the process of racialization (e.g., religion, foreignness, language, citizenship, and gender). Immigrants vary in their experiences in the United States. For example, Asian Americans do not comprise one homogenous group but consist of individuals who come from different countries for a variety of reasons. Their experiences are not uniform but are diverse due to a broad range of factors, such as skin tone, class, reasons for immigrating, and religion, among others. Bonilla-Silva (2006) argues that Chinese Americans, for example, are often considered “honorary” whites, whereas Filipino Americans can be socioeconomically categorized as collective blacks. This is due to a variety of factors, such as skin tone and class status, that are not adequately addressed by the black-white model.
Racial Inequality in South Africa and Brazil
Racial inequality is not an American phenomenon; rather, it is international. South Africa is interesting because of the longevity of the legal system of racial segregation in this industrialized country. Apartheid was a postcolonial system of white supremacy that dominated South Africa. Under this system, all South Africans were racially categorized at birth as white, Asian, Colored, or black. Economic, political, and legal resources were distributed according to this racial categorization, with South African blacks receiving the fewest resources. Moreover blacks were not permitted to live where they wanted to, and they were forced to carry identification cards at all times, were prohibited from marrying outside of their race, and were denied citizenship in their own land. According to Gay Seidman (1999), South Africa turned toward apartheid rather than follow the pattern of European decolonization because South African blacks continued to provide a source of cheap labor to South African whites.
While the dismantling of apartheid in 1994 led to a concerted effort to democratize South Africa and produce radical changes that would result in racial equality, this proved difficult to achieve because of the extent of racism that apartheid ingrained in the economic, social, and political structures. The dismantling of apartheid did not magically improve the situation for South African blacks. High rates of unemployment and substandard housing, education, and health care continue to plague them due to years of racial oppression and exploitation (Winant and Seidman 2001). The racial inequality that an oppressive and violent system like apartheid leaves behind requires a radical restructuring of social structures. While the postapartheid South African government is committed to creating an equitable society, it has yet to commit to radical plans for change.
Brazil has also seen racial oppression and inequality due to the impact of colonization by Portugal. In the twentieth century Brazil prided itself on being a “racial democracy” with little racial prejudice. This ideological claim has been tested by many scholars, including Edward Telles and Peter Wade. Between 1890 and 1940 the black Brazilian population decreased from 66 percent of the total population to 34 percent (Paixão 2004). During this period, policies promoting the immigration to Brazil of white Europeans, along with the enactment of a strict penal code against black Brazilians, were implemented in order to rid Brazil of its native black population. In spite of (or perhaps as a result of) this whitening agenda, the Brazilian black population grew to 47 percent of the population between 1940 and 1980 (Paixão 2004). Between the late 1930s and the early 1940s a new ideology emerged in Brazil—a Brazilian national identity where mixed blood was encouraged rather than discouraged. Although this new way of thinking seemed to be a radical shift toward racial equality, it inevitably denied blacks their history and culture and ignored the racial inequality they experienced. Studies indicate that blacks in Brazil continue to face racial discrimination and that, compared to whites, they tend to be paid lower wages and experience higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment.
Racial Inequality in the United States
As in Brazil and South Africa, racial inequality in the United States stems from a long and complex history of racial oppression. The history of racism in the United States is similarly tied to economic exploitation achieved through racial violence and justified through the creation and maintenance of racial hierarchies. The colonization of the United States resulted in the genocide of Native Americans who occupied the land prior to European settlement. White capitalists violently forced African slaves to the Americas for the purpose of unwaged labor, resulting in the economic growth of the United States. Theories of the racial inferiority of nonwhites—specifically African slaves, Native Americans, and Mexicans but many others as well—were invented to justify their exploitation and the use of violence against them.
Although overt racist policies and laws (e.g., slavery, legal racial segregation) have been dismantled in the United States, their effects remain embedded in social institutions. Quality education is tied to property value, resulting in greater social, political, and economic opportunities for those who live in affluent neighborhoods. In contrast, the overrepresentation of African Americans in poor neighborhoods results in decreased opportunities for upward mobility. Scholars note that the great health disparities between African Americans and white Americans are due to disparities in access to good health care, medical insurance, and preventative care. Low-wage, lowskilled, part-time jobs that do not provide benefits are predominately filled by people of color in the United States, a situation that results in a class of working poor. Racial profiling, along with stricter sentencing for African Americans convicted of crimes, results in their overrepresentation in American prisons and consequently decreased opportunities upon their reentry into mainstream society. Racial inequality continues to exist in the United States because society has been structured around racial lines that provide advantages to whites. Racial inequality endures because it is at home in a “color-blind” society that is ingrained with racist practices that are mostly ignored.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation. American Sociological Review 62 (3): 465–480.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists: ColorBlind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the USA. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Conyers, James E. 2002. Racial Inequality: Emphasis on Explanations. Western Journal of Black Studies 26 (4): 249–254.
- Feagin, Joe R. 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.
- Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
- Gold, Steven. 2004. From Jim Crow to Racial Hegemony: Evolving Explanations of Racial Hierarchy. Ethnic and Racial Studies 27 (6): 951–968.
- Kerbo, H. R. 1983. Social Stratification and Inequality. New York: McGraw Hill Brook.
- Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Paixão, Marcelo. 2004. Waiting for the Sun: An Account of the (Precarious) Social Situation of the African Descendant Population in Contemporary Brazil. Journal of Black Studies 34 (6): 743–765.
- Seidman, Gay. 1999. Is South Africa Different? Sociological Comparisons and Theoretical Contributions from the Land of Apartheid. Annual Review Sociology 25: 419–440.
- Stewart, James. 2004. Globalization, Cities, and Racial Inequality at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century. Review of Black Political Economy 31 (3): 11–32.
- Winant, Howard, and Gay Seidman. 2001. South Africa: When the System Has Fallen. In The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II, ed. Howard Winant, 177–218. New York: Basic Books.
- Yancey, George. 2006. Racial Justice in a Black/Nonblack Society. In Mixed Messages: Doing Race in the Color-Blind Era, ed. David L. Brunsma, 49–62. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
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