The Social Construction of Race

This chapter is authored by Donna Giuliani

“Concepts of race did not exist prior to racism. Instead, it is inequality and oppression that have produced the idea of essential racial differences” (Ferber, 2009: 176).

In the context of the United States, there is a binary understanding of race as either Black (Here, we capitalize Black and not white in recognition of Black as a reclaimed, and empowering, identity) or white. This is not to say that only two races are recognized, just to say that these are the constructed “oppositional poles” of race. What do we mean by race? What does Abby Ferber in the quote above mean by race? More than just descriptive of skin color or physical attributes, in biologized constructions of race, race determines intelligence, sexuality, strength, motivation, and “culture.” These ideas are not only held by self-proclaimed racists, but are woven into the fabric of American society in social institutions and everyday interactions.

Gender, race, class, and other categories are social constructs. A social construct provides meaning we ​collectively build ​and assumes the meanings we assign to particular identities and categories are ​not ​natural, inherent, or inevitable. A social construction approach assumes there is not one objective reality, but rather multiple realities that depend on the standpoint, or perspective, of individuals, groups, and societies. The meanings individuals hold about gender, race, class, and other identity categories come from shared dominant understandings of how people should be and act but that do not match how people may actually live their lives or want to live.   https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=oer

Intersectionality is the “complex intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, among other vectors of diversity.” Before we examine intersectionality, we need to understand ​what precisely is intersecting.


Theorist and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to identify how different identities might combine to create a new and more complicated injustice that those without the combination might not experience.  She first conceived of the need to name this problem when reading about Emma DeGraffenreid, a Black woman who brought a hiring discrimination lawsuit forward against a car manufacturer. The judge who heard the case dismissed her claim because the car manufacturer hired Black men and also hired white women. The judge did not recognize that a pattern of not hiring Black women as a group is a unique discrimination. Crenshaw said, “many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.” https://youtu.be/sWP92i7JLlQ


In a TedTalk entitled Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw Defines Intersectionality, she suggests that while social constructions like race and gender intersect, it is often that a solution for these discriminations happens only if a narrow definition is met. According to Crenshaw:

…a simple analogy to an intersection might allow judges to better see Emma’s dilemma. So if we think about this intersection, the roads to the intersection would be the way that the workforce was structured by race and by gender. And then the traffic in those roads would be the hiring policies and the other practices that ran through those roads. Now, because Emma was both black and female, she was positioned precisely where those roads overlapped, experiencing the simultaneous impact of the company’s gender and race traffic. The law — the law is like that ambulance that shows up and is ready to treat Emma only if it can be shown that she was harmed on the race road or on the gender road but not where those roads intersected. https://youtu.be/sWP92i7JLlQ

Expanded beyond race and sex, the theory of Intersectionality suggests that our different identities and social statuses layer to make up our identity and to shape our lived experiences. How I experience family life is shaped by the social class, race, gender, religious affiliation, education level I have, country I live in (think Somalia or Canada vs. US), sexual orientation,… there are so many different identities I possess that come together to shape my experience of family. And then when we combine those with my partner’s, well, you can see how people in a relationship bring a lot with them to the table.

Sociologically speaking, there are general patterns that emerge when some of these big statuses cross. When race intersects with gender and social class, there are some general trends that appear in the population. How might social class and gender intersect in family life? How might race and gender identity intersect in family life? Think about some of your own identities, but then also think beyond yourself. What are some identities that work to shape other people’s family life in ways you have not experience?


The consequences of the social construction of race





The distinction between individual and structural discrimination can be difficult, but there are conceptual tools to help differentiate between the interpersonal and the institutional. Political sociologist Mario Peucker, presented a matrix for discrimination at the 4th Human Rights Meeting, San Sebastian, Spain in 2008. Peucker conceptualizes the work of sociologist Joe Feagin in a useful framework that explains multiple dimensions of personal, structural, and experiential discrimination. He contends that there are four types of Interpersonal discrimination, what we are calling individual discrimination, five types of structural discrimination, and the third dimension is the experience of discrimination.



Interpersonal, direct discrimination

1) Resentment based discrimination occurs when negative treatment of a marginalized group is based on “racist, xenophobic, nativistic or ethno-centric attitudes” (2009, p. 6). This is the most personally aggressive form of discrimination.

2) Societal discrimination occurs when an employer treats an employee differently based on what they perceive their customers will think of the business for hiring the employee (2009, p. 6). This also occurs as a front of store vs. back room employment distinction.

3) Statistical discrimination occurs when an employer assumes potential productivity of an applicant based on stereotypes of the applicant’s group identity, never assessing the individual before them (2009, p. 7). Example: everyone knows this group is weak, so I won’t hire this person for this bit of labor.

4) Opportunist discrimination occurs when an employer knows they can pay someone less because of their vulnerable position in society (2009, p. 7). Examples include undocumented workers, the elderly and young, people who are differently abled, etc.


These individual and interpersonal decisions to treat vulnerable people differently are different than an often-invisible structure that leads to differential treatment.


Structural discrimination

Structural discrimination occurs as a process of everyday life because it is embedded in the very fabric of society.

  • 1) Indirect discrimination occurs when seemingly logical practices exclude marginalized groups for unnecessary reasons (2009, p. 8). Example: having a height requirement for police departments that conveniently excludes women and shorter racial/ethnic groups from being eligible to serve.
  • 2) Past-in-present discrimination occurs when laws and structures produce historical cumulative oppression that create a disadvantaged playing field long after the laws and structures are publicly discontinued. “U.S. racist segregation policies (abolished only in the 1950s and ‘60s) have created and reinforced societal structure of ethnic inequality which still persist” (2009, p. 8).
  • 3) Side-effect discrimination occurs when the interconnectedness of institutions means that discrimination in one public sphere leads to compounding disadvantage in others (2009, p. 8). Example: discrimination in housing and lending leads to unequal access to good neighborhood schools, healthcare, food sources… “discrimination patterns in different spheres may therefore mutually reinforce ethnic inequalities. The mechanisms and extent of side-effect discrimination is also severely under-researched…” (2009, p. 8).
  • 4) Legal discrimination occurs when law dictates or allows unequal treatment of persons (2009, p. 9). Examples include laws against employment of undocumented workers, or laws restricting headscarves for Muslim women, or laws allowing businesses to deny service to LGBTQIA customers, or … list could be super long.
  • 5) Institutional discrimination is a broad umbrella term that is used to describe patterns of discrimination that occur throughout a societal construct that reinforce inequality (2009, p. 9). This can best be explained with an example. The institution of education has inequality built into public school districts in funding, in teacher and resource allocation, in building structures, in security and safety measures, in testing, in student tracking, in curriculum, in extra curriculars. Public schools have wide variability in educational outcomes, which results in differential opportunity given to children across the U.S. K-12 inequality carries over into college admissions, tuition funding, persistence, graduation, etc. The college or non-college experience leads to the interconnectedness of education and job type. The resulting economic status leads to the children of college credentialed or not college credentialed parents living in rich or poor school districts… and the cycle of institutional discrimination repeats itself.


Experience of discrimination

This third dimension of discrimination is distinct because it is dependent upon experienced discrimination of the person or group being acted against. When someone is discriminated against, they may or may not know about the resistance they are facing. When discrimination occurs, there is an experiential difference if someone knows vs. suspects, vs. is oblivious to the discrimination. Also, according to this dimension, someone might not be actively experiencing immediate discrimination, but might perceive discrimination based on past experience.

How do historical racial patterns influence modern racial patterns?


White people –

We have this idea white Colonial life (1607-1776) that is a mix of old-money, genteel, robber barons and of “Little House on the Prairie” frontier life with Pa, Ma, well behaved children, and a covered wagon. Family life was not a privilege for the first English wave of male immigrants arriving as soldiers and explorers, and the founding of Jamestown and Plymouth was lonely. “In 1620, the leaders of the Jamestown colony, hoping to promote greater stability, began importing English women to be sold in marriage” (2016, p. 66).  In this heavily patriarchal society, both women and children were considered the dependents and property of their male head of household. Christianity emphasized their subordination, and harsh physical discipline was considered the proper method of ensuring obedience. Colonists believed children were born of original sin and rather than spoil the child, the rod was applied liberally. Because women could not earn significant money, own property, access the courts, or vote, they were dependent on their father’s choice of husband and their husband’s good will.


Children were considered mini-adults, were doing adult work by the age of 6 or 7, and could be apprenticed or fostered as laborers between 7-12 years of age. This approach meant that the more children, the more work could be done. Consequently, colonial women had as many children as possible, an average of 6 children, and death in childbirth was not uncommon.  While the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) merchant class was arranging status and wealth retaining marriages for their children, less privileged families had different courtship rituals, such as Bundling. When an eligible gentleman caller visited a homestead, a daughter of the house would be sewn into her bedding in a bundle and the visiting male would also be sewn into his bedding in a bundle. A board would be placed between them, and they would be given their privacy for the night. Consequently, between 30-40 percent of New England brides were pregnant when they wed (Strong & Cohen, 2016, p. 67).



How would these patterns have influenced family life?



Black people –

The history of Black people in the United States is a legacy that makes my students uncomfortable, sad, defensive, guilty, impatient, angry, helpless, motivated, and so many other words. Moving from slavery in the colonies (246 years) to Jim Crow segregation laws (89 years) to Supreme Court rulings in landmark Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the path toward equality and equity has always been a battle. No step toward equity has simply been granted because it was the right thing to do… Slavery, the Civil War, firehoses and police dogs, old fashioned and modern-day lynching, protests, the destruction of property and (more importantly) the destruction of people.




Of course, this fraught history had an impact on the structure of family. How could it not?  Authors of Race in America, Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, state that slavery essentially destroyed what it meant to be a father because enslaved men had no way to protect, provide for, and defend their partners or children. The brutality of slavery destroyed the fabric of family with the rape of black women, the fact that black women were forced to nurse the slave master’s children before their own, and the selling of children and partners away from their biological kin. “White domination of the black body and black family was so total during these times that some historians convincingly have argued that on many plantations what existed was not a slave ‘family’ in the conventional sense of the term, but rather a ‘reproductive unit’ controlled by the master, who desired as many offspring as possible” (2020, p. 328).

Other sociologists such as Bryan Strong and Theodore Cohen emphasize the strength and resilience of black families. While the conditions of slavery did not permit traditional gender roles and legal marriage as it did for whites, enslaved people formed strong emotional bonds and extended family kinship networks. When possible, enslaved adults formed two parent families with their children, who they often named after themselves to help strengthen family identity when separated (2016, p. 68). Sociologist Philip Cohen sums up the conflicting narrative, “Two things are true: Black families were devastated by slavery and as a generalization most Black children under slavery lived with both parents,” (familyinequality.wordpress.com).



How would these patterns have influenced family life?


Native American – reservations, genocide, boarding schools

The history of the Native American experience in the United States goes back much further than the Colonial times and is far more nuanced than the cringeworthy Thanksgiving story presented to kindergarteners in our public schools. Estimates based on some pretty faulty colonist record-keeping place roughly 2 million Native peoples from ~240 tribes in North America before colonization. The graphic below from Richard Schaefer does a nice job putting population ratios into perspective.  After colonization, a rapid genocide decimated Native peoples. As documented by Desmond and Emirbayer:

Death swept across the native population, rendering some tribes extinct. Just in the English-colonized regions alone, between 1630 and 1730, European-introduced diseases killed off nearly 80 percent of the indigenous population of New England, including 98 percent of the Western Abenaki who inhabited the lands that are now New Hampshire and Vermont. In five deadly years, between 1615 and 1620, 90 percent of the indigenous population of Massachusetts died of the plague (2020, p. 45).

Between disease, war, enslavement, reservations, boarding schools, and forced sterilizations, acts perpetrated on Native peoples meet all the elements in Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml


Richard Schaefer,


According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are currently 574 recognized tribes in the United States, almost 40% of them in Alaska. There is great variation in people, culture and customs, governance systems, language, etc. With so much cultural diversity, it is difficult to generalize family patterns, but there are some dominant themes here just as there are for other racial/ethnic groups.


While some tribes were/are patrilineal, there are noted matrilineal examples where lineage, property and rights pass from mother to daughter (Strong and Cohen, p. 65), the thought being that while paternity is sometimes difficult to know, it can be determined with absolute certainty who birthed the next generation. Examples of the Zuni, Hopi, and Iroquois show women taking prominent roles in public life and decision making. “Among the Hopi Indians in the high deserts of the Southwest, for example, families lived in clans following mothers’ descent, with the oldest daughter inheriting the family home and living there with her husband and children. Because women were the property owners in the household, and men were relative outsiders surrounded by their wives’ kin, women had greater authority within the clan,” (Cohen, 2021, p. __). If and when divorce occurred, the woman simply set the man’s belongings outside the home and he either joined a bachelor group or returned to his mother’s home. As a whole, Native American tribes were less concerned with fidelity and female purity than white colonizers.


Other generalizable patterns are that elders were revered, women breastfed, there were high child mortality rates, infants were often swaddled, tightly wrapped and carried close to the body constantly. Children were gently treated, physical discipline was rare, and they were incorporated into adult life from a young age following the example of their elders, and children were rewarded with praise and punished with public shame (Cohen 2021, Strong and Cohen, 2016).


How would these patterns have influenced family life?


  Latino/a/x – immigration patterns and legislation, Texas land changes


Latino/a/x populations in the United States are a complicated story, in part because people now considered Latino were living all the way up the west coast in what is now the United States long before Europeans landed. Hispanic means Spanish speaking, colonized by Spain. When England, France, and Spain were busy carving up the globe and claiming distant peoples and land, Spain took South America and conquistadors decimated indigenous populations, including the Mayans, Incas and the Aztecs. Spanish troops were well entrenched in North America and as the French, English, and Spanish fought their wars for North America, and as purchased land expanded borders, those artificial lines on a map moved over, encompassed, people who were living their lives. While we know “colonized by Spain” is a diverse group of folk, there are some general patterns for family life.

According to an OER learning module entitled Equal Protection for Other Groups  (https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/15219/overview), Hispanics and Latinos in the United States have faced many of the same problems as African Americans and Native Americans. Although the terms Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Hispanic usually refers to native speakers of Spanish. Latino refers to people who come from, or whose ancestors came from, Latin America. Not all Hispanics are Latinos. Latinos may be of any race or ethnicity; they may be of European, African, Native American descent, or they may be of mixed ethnic background. Thus, people from Spain are Hispanic but are not Latino. “Hispanic v. Latino,” http://www.soaw.org/resources/anti-opp-resources/108-race/830-hispanic-vs-latino (April 10, 2016).

Many Latinos became part of the U.S. population following the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 and of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado following the War with Mexico in 1848. Most were subject to discrimination and could find employment only as poorly paid migrant farm workers, railroad workers, and unskilled laborers. David G. Gutierrez. 1995. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, chapter 1. The Spanish-speaking population of the United States increased following the Spanish-American War in 1898 with the incorporation of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. In 1917, during World War I, the Jones Act granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.


In the early twentieth century, waves of violence aimed at Mexicans and Mexican Americans swept the Southwest. Mexican Americans in Arizona and in parts of Texas were denied the right to vote, which they had previously possessed, and Mexican American children were barred from attending Anglo-American schools. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mexican immigrants and many Mexican Americans, both U.S.-born and naturalized citizens, living in the Southwest and Midwest were deported by the government so that Anglo-Americans could take the jobs that they had once held. See Abraham Hoffman. 1974. Unwanted Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929–1939. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. When the United States entered World War II, however, Mexicans were invited to immigrate to the United States as farmworkers under the Bracero (braceromeaning “manual laborer” in Spanish) Program to make it possible for these American men to enlist in the armed services. See Michael Snodgrass. 2011. “The Bracero Program,1942–1964” In Beyond the Border: The History of Mexican–U.S. Migration, ed. Mark Overmyer-Velásquez. New York: Oxford University Press, 79–102.


Latinos constitute the largest minority group in the United States. They also have one of the highest birth rates of any ethnic group. Center for Public Affairs Research. 24 November 2015. “UNO Study: Fertility Rate Gap Between Races, Ethnicities is Shrinking,” http://www.unomaha.edu/news/2015/01/fertility.php. Although Hispanics lag behind whites in terms of income and high school graduation rates, they are enrolling in college at higher rates than whites.  https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/15219/overview


How would these patterns have influenced family life?

Asian – internment camps, male only immigration policies, the railroad

Because Asian Americans are often stereotypically regarded as “the model minority” (because it is assumed they are generally financially successful and do well academically), it is easy to forget that they have also often been discriminated against and denied their civil rights. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, Asians were among the most despised of all immigrant groups and were often subjected to the same laws enforcing segregation and forbidding interracial marriage as were African Americans and American Indians.

The Chinese were the first large group of Asians to immigrate to the United States. They arrived in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century to work in the mining industry and on the Central Pacific Railroad. Others worked as servants or cooks or operated laundries. Their willingness to work for less money than whites led white workers in California to call for a ban on Chinese immigration. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese from immigrating to the United States for ten years and prevented Chinese already in the country from becoming citizens (Figure). In 1892, the Geary Act extended the ban on Chinese immigration for another ten years. In 1913, California passed a law preventing all Asians, not just the Chinese, from owning land. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, all Asians, with the exception of Filipinos, were prevented from immigrating to the United States or becoming naturalized citizens. Laws in several states barred marriage between Chinese and white Americans, and some cities with large Asian populations required Asian children to attend segregated schools. See Gabriel Chin and Hrishi Kathrikeyan. 2002. “Preserving Racial Identity: Population Patterns and the Application of Anti-Miscegenation

Statutes to Asian Americans, 1910–1950,” Asian Law Journal 9.



The cartoon shows a Chinese laborer, the personification of industry and sobriety, outside the “Golden Gate of Liberty.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 has barred him from entering the country, while communists and “hoodlums” are allowed in.

During World War II, citizens of Japanese descent living on the West Coast, whether naturalized immigrants or Japanese Americans born in the United States, were subjected to the indignity of being removed from their communities and interned under Executive Order 9066 (Figure). The reason was fear that they might prove disloyal to the United States and give assistance to Japan. Although Italians and Germans suspected of disloyalty were also interned by the U.S. government, only the Japanese were imprisoned solely on the basis of their ethnicity. None of the more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans internees was ever found to have committed a disloyal act against the United States, and many young Japanese American men served in the U.S. army during the war. See Greg Robinson. 2010. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York: Columbia University Press. Although Japanese American Fred Korematsu challenged the right of the government to imprison law-abiding citizens, the Supreme Court decision in the 1944 case of Korematsu v. United States upheld the actions of the government as a necessary precaution in a time of war. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). When internees returned from the camps after the war was over, many of them discovered that the houses, cars, and businesses they had left behind, often in the care of white neighbors, had been sold or destroyed. Robinson, Tragedy of Democracy.


Japanese Americans displaced from their homes by the U.S. government during World War II stand in line outside the mess hall at a relocation center in San Bruno, California, on April 29, 1942.   https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/15219/overview



Explore the resources at Japanese American Internment and Digital History to learn more about experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II.


How would these patterns have influenced family life?


A Student Primer on Intersectionality: Not Just A Buzzword An Open Educational Resource https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=oer

Cohen, P. N. (2021).  The family: Diversity, inequality, and social change (3rd ed.). W.W. Norton

& Company, Inc.


Desmond, M. & Emirbayer, M. (2020). Race in America (2nd ed.). W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Equal Protection for Other Groups, Rice University, OpenStax College. https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/15219/overview


Peucker, M. (2009). Ethnic discrimination in the labour market- Empirical evidence on a multi-

dimensional phenomenon. Institute of Human Rights, San Sebastian, Spain.



Strong, B. & Cohen, T. F. (2016). The marriage and family experience: Intimate relationships in a

changing society (13th ed.). Cengage Learning.


TedTalk Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw Defines Intersectionality. https://youtu.be/sWP92i7JLlQ



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