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A Sociological Look at the Race Divide in America

By Edited Oct 14, 2016 0 0

Racial Divide in America Is Still a Problem.

However, these books help propose a solution.


Racism in America

Race is still seen by many as an antiquated problem that only affected America in the past, and was resolved during the civil rights movement by a series of individuals and laws.  However, upon further investigation, racism is still a large part of American society and affects namely our schools, housing, employment, and many other aspects of normal life, though goes unnoticed by many white individuals due to the extreme was segregation still prevalent in our society, despite laws and legal measures.  To attack the problem of racism in contemporary America, it is best to understand the dynamics of how it is still taking place.  Many authors have different views on what is actually the root of the problem.  However, the true cause of racism is the direct interplay of all these factors many of these authors propose.  Therefore, the solution to such a problem relies on changing the way Americans perceive race, much like in the book The Ordeal of Integration[5], which takes a more holistic approach to solve the epidemic of race in out society.  Ultimately, this will alleviate or diminish at least some aspect of racism in our society but I think racism is something that seems to be innate in humans (acting different towards those who look/are different from them) so racism cannot be entirely solved, just helped.  Understanding racism in America first requires an understanding of several sociological concepts that underlie and shape the way people behave in society.

Self is how and individual sees them self as an individual.  Many African-Americans see their “self” as either ugly or inadequate due to the standard of white featured beauty in this country, when in fact others may see them as having beauty.  Equally, those African-Americans with features that were more white featured saw them selves as inadequate to the black culture, and therefore had to prove them selves in that sense living in a predominantly black society.  The looking glass self is when someone can view them selves from an outside perspective, be it either society or another individual.  As a result, this individual gains an identity, or in other words, a self.  This is a dynamic process throughout a person’s life.  It is composed mainly of three parts with the interactions of how people must appear to others, the resulting judgment of that appearance, and the concluding creating of one’s self through these judgments. Through the treatment of blacks in their own society and generalized society’s widespread push for white features, it is easy to see how a black individual could create a self through the looking glass self that is inadequate to lighter skinned individuals.  Through TV, magazines, billboards, books, people are always getting bombarded with what should be viewed as attractive, and unfortunately this is predominately white people.  A few individuals have learned to embrace their black culture even though they have been told by others and society to stay away from that type of attire and way of life. 

This image of self is an outcome of mind.  Mind is a broad term that refers to the culmination of thoughts, memories, perception, and consciousness, and eventually how one comes to see them self in society.  The repeated idea of white being beautiful was highlighted throughout most African-American’s lives.  From the time many black Americans were children, they were told things like “She’s pretty…for a black girl.” or put down because their other siblings were lighter.  It would be enough to make anyone have a distorted image.  The difference between "I" and "me" is significant.  The "I" represents the spontaneous part of ourselves and the "me" is our extended social part.  The "I" is capable of doing things incongruous to that of the "me", such as deviating features from the dominant thought in the society.

Society is a large group of people that share widespread culture and establishments, and it is not usually of a particular ethnic group.  It is within a society that a distinct and accepted form of beauty may take shape.  A primary group is a social construct in which people have close relationships and shared cultures.  The black culture usually forms a primary group with a number of shared cultural heritages and is influenced by mass media.  The generalized other is what people believe is expected of them from a general other person/people within society.  People expect lighter skinned individuals to be less intimidating in society, and as a result darker skinned people must be conscious of this and work around it.  People generally don’t see darker skinned people in high positions so they must work hard to penetrate this barrier.

There are many theories of deviance to explain it within our society.  Sociologists such as Merton, Sutherland, Cohen, and Becker show their own take on deviance and how it arises.  These theories can be used in conjunction to better understand the context of works such as American Apartheid[4], When Work Disappears[6], and Code of the Street[6], especially when examining the specific examples within the text.

One theory of deviance was put forth by Merton.  According to him, deviance arises when disjunction or strain between two systems occurs.  This can happen when there is a failure to approve and value the structure, failure to motivate individuals towards norm values, or failure to provide access to structural means to obtain values;  in other words, anomie. Merton was very keen on using charts to show his points, such as listing the typology of deviance and evaluating the cultural goals and then structural means.

Because of the structural absence of employment in the ghetto, the black family was disintegrated in a way that threatened the normal family life, leading to deviance or other means of prosperity, according to the book American Apartheid[4].  Some people in the ghetto, seen in When Work Disappears[6], would like to escape the street but the structure of our judicial system and racial prejudice makes it nearly impossible, so they must deviate.  This theory is very important in the book When Work Disappears[6].  The author argues that black people are caught in the structural mess of unemployment which keeps them from getting off the street, forcing them to deviate from mainstream society to survive.

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
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(price as of Oct 14, 2016)

 Another Theory of deviance was created by Sutherland.  According to this theory, deviance is learned.  It can be learned in group activity, and the emotional intensity of the interactions heightens the learning experience.  It can arise from excess of non-normative versus normative values, and then the learned the techniques of deviance and also values and norms of the deviance becomes rooted.  Sutherland’s Differential Association implies that the socialization of primary groups further attenuates the deviance.

            In the book American Apartheid[4], it asserts that people growing up in the ghetto environment have little direct experience with mainstream society so their norms and values are further learned and enforced within their isolation in society as Sutherland suggests.  Code of the Streets[1] implies the code is learned and reinforced throughout life in the ghetto, especially through emotionally intense situations that come with violence.  In When Work Disappears[6], it says that when there are no jobs, people learn deviations from societal norms such as drugs and illegal activities to survive. They learn to lose their tie to a formal economy that is connected to a regular job.

            Cohen had a different take on deviance. His theory says structural arrangements cut off groups, which leads to deviance.  He claims that all children seek social status, but not everyone can get to it via the same route. The strain is therefore more interpersonal than structural working within groups, trying to achieve a status of one sort or another. He explained this with research in terms of delinquents and why people chose the crime pathway.

            Like Cohen’s theory, many people in the ghetto use crime as a social status because of the segregation mentioned in American Apartheid[4].  Code of the Street[1] mentions the importance of “juice” and status within the street, and this plays a large role in the motives of individuals on the street because it provides a means to get by.  When Work Disappears[6] says people may seek a better status, but because a mainstream status seems an impossibility, they choose a different route such as crime and delinquency.

            The labeling theory of deviance was put forth by Becker.  He says that those in positions of power define deviant behavior; a sort of Marxian view.  Primary deviance is the first observed act, and a social reaction must be observed.  A label becomes the master status and can limit financial opportunities, social opportunities (stigma), and self definition or secondary deviance with role engulfment.

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass
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(price as of Oct 14, 2016)

  This theory helps strengthen in American Apartheid[4] that the segregation enforced on blacks has propagated a stigmatism that perpetuates their standing and isolation.  Rob’s story in Code of the Street[1] shows how a stigma kept him trapped in the street environment.  In the book When Work Disappears[6], it is easy to see how a label on either the way these people look or even just their address puts them at a great disadvantage in mainstream society and seeking a job.

Code of the Streets[1] examines a variety of sociology ideas with a cross section of the social ecology of Philadelphia via Germantown Avenue. Anderson shows the dimensions of this social ecology with first hand accounts and his own time spent in the street.  The code of the street can be defined as a “set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, particularly violence”.  Through perceptual studying of this area, Anderson notes the changes that occur as one proceeds down the avenue, along with its changing norms and values. 

The ensuing code of the street is an oppositional culture (contraculture) whose norms are consciously opposed to mainstream society.  As one goes farther down, changes occur in what is valued in society, and the changing norms based on these values are apparent.  For example, respect or “juice” is valued very high and to achieve this one must commit acts of violence in a “staging area”.  As a result, violence becomes a norm in this society.  Status, or position is society, can be ascribed or achieved.  It can be achieved by means of juice, or perhaps ascribed by being a certain gender or other fairly immutable traits.  The roles people play represent the dynamic aspect of their status.  However, when they are acting out their status it is possible to have role conflict between roles, or role strain within a role.  Decent young people are often noted for using code switching to alleviate some of this tension.  For instance, when they are interacting in mainstream society it is less important to show their “juice” but when they enter the street it becomes one of the most important.  Therefore, they must alter their demeanor to fit a new role. 

The Code of the Street[1] also provides several other examples of sociology concepts.  Cultural lag, when progress in material aspects of culture move ahead of nonmaterial aspects, is seen in the streets.  Conservative forces tend to slow down nonmaterial development.  When technology took off, it also took away many jobs that came with the old style mass production leaving many less educated families in the inner city without jobs, leaving them to stay behind in society.  Many conflicts come into play with examining the code of the streets when people compare other cultural practices to their own, and hold their own supreme.  This ethnocentrism binds groups together but can also cause tension, such as the street and mainstream society.  Mainstream society tends to look down on the street.  One way to alleviate this tension is to keep in mind cultural relativism, or to interpret a cultural element in the context of the culture it came from.  A rite of passage can be seen in the street when perhaps a male wins at a staging area and as a result attains a higher status, and a celebration ensues.  Indeed, Germantown Avenue is the epitome of society on microscale.  These microcosms of society shows many sociological ideas, and helps sociologists such as Elijah Anderson further study and analyze society and how it functions.

Living with Racism[3] shows an important aspect of black culture that seems to go unnoticed: the black middle-class experience, the misconception that discrimination is no longer a problem, the persistence of white racism in the daily lives of blacks, this cumulative effect, and the fact that the voice of the black middle class is rarely heard or talked about when it proves to be a significant problem.  A solution for racism in America would take this side of the story into account.  The black middle-class, as people would expect, are better off financially and perhaps have more opportunities than those living in hypersegragated ghettos.  However, there is a a set of problems for blacks in this economic bracket.  Racism, though many fail to acknowledge it, is still prevalent in almost all aspects of even upper to middle class African-Americans lives.  In this book, Feagin and Sikes give this middle class a voice and sharing their stories.  Problems range from blockbusting and other forms of housing discrimination to doubt in the legitimacy of their practice, solely because of the color of their skin.  It also discusses the hardships of pursuing an education when being African-American because college campuses are almost entirely white, and cater the almost exclusively the white culture leaving blacks feeling out of place.

The solution to the problem of US racism, according to the book Living with Racism[3], is most importantly that America must acknowledging racism still exists in society today.  Furthermore, America must realize it exists both blatant and subtle, and it has a cumulative impact on black individuals.  The respondents in this book feel that changes will happen in two broad ways, either by structural reforms or eventually changes in attitude by whites. They want new programs that employ more standards of equality, especially in schools.  Most importantly they feel whites should be better educated about the black culture and struggle so they will become more committed to fair play and equal opportunity.

The end of this book marks that whites need to acknowledge racism still exists and has throughout history. It shows society is not a fixed entity but is rather dynamic in property and tends to adjust to changing times.  This can be seen with the quotes from the quotes from several primary documents that began our nation, and they meant something somewhat different then and have taken a broaden outlook, for instance color, when speaking of equality.  With this in mind, the need for racial equality is still in the process of becoming fully integrated- that is, it is significantly better from slavery times but not at equality.  With books like these outlining what needs to be done, I think it shows we are pointed in the right direction. This conclusion also points out how the voices of blacks need to be heard, not just white interpretation.  The experience of blacks, specifically middle class, are rarely taken into account and their views can prove to be promising for radical change.

Instead of relying on one of these many proposed solutions seen throughout many of these books, it would be safer to integrate all these ideas into a single plan of action.  Each of the authors of these books has done extensive research for his or her own theory of racism in America, and to place one author over another in terms of being better would be missing the point of all the work being done.  Each of these authors, as we can see from reading things books, hold their other colleagues in high regard, though they may refute a few proposed ideas.  The solution for racism in America follows a similar manner. 

Racism is a dynamic process and is always building off itself as society changes and develops, and we would not attack the racism problem as we would have a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago.  As Wilson illustrates, a large part of the problem is structural, such as the inability to find a legitimate job.  Similarly, Kozol argues much of the problem lies in America’s educational system, created a vicious cycle of poverty and therefore propagating racism.  Building on this is Anderson saying that this cycle has created an underclass wrought with its own cultures and values against societal norms, isolating blacks even more.  From this came the theory of the book American Apartheid [4]where Massey and Denton analyzed just how severe this segregation had become and the creation of the underclass.  Feagin and Sikes made known from this however that racism still persists not only in these hyper-segregated ghettos, but also in the middle to upper class with black. Racism is still a problem for all those with a different skin color.  Finally, Bonilla-Silva shows in his book how this racism persists, and how it still exists in both explicit and subtle forms. 

Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience
Amazon Price: $30.00 $5.75 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 14, 2016)

With all these ideas in mind, I think America can begin to address the problem of racism.  Though sociology never seems to be an complete science because society is always changing (though possibly in predicted patterns), it can help us understand the dynamics of what is happening to a point which we may be able to shape it in a beneficial way.  If each author successfully fulfills his of hers own part theorized, I think America may well be on its way to a more integrated society.  However, I would like to reiterate that I think racism will always exist due to human nature and human’s history of treating those who look differently worse in society.  On the other hand, I think America has the potential to be a less segregated society and much of the harsh racism could be alleviated with these integrated ideas.



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  1. Elijah Anderson Code of the Street. New York: Norton and Company, 20000.
  2. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Racism Without Racists. United States: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
  3. Feagin, Joe R., and Melvin P. Sikes Living With Racism. Boston: Beacon P, 19994.
  4. Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton An American Apartheid. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard UP, 2003.
  5. Orlando Patterson The Ordeal of Integration. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1998.
  6. William J. Wilson When Work Disappears. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

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