SOC 2010 Lecture Notes - Norwegian Americans, Adolf Hitler, Miami People
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Biological and Social Meaning of Race
• The idea of biological race is based on the mistaken notion of a genetically isolated human group.
Applying pure racial types to humans is problematic because of interbreeding; despite continuing
prejudice about Black-White marriages, a large number of Whites have African American ancestry. Due
to people’s frequent migration, exploration, and invasions, pure genetic types have not existed for some
time, if they ever did.
• Skin color among African Americans varies tremendously, as it does among White Americans.
• If we grouped people by genetic resistance to malaria and by fingerprint patterns, Norwegians and
many Africans groups would be of the same race.
• If we grouped people by some digestive capacities, some Africans, Asians, and southern Europeans
would be of one group and West Africans and northern Europeans of another.
• Although race does not distinguish humans from one another biologically, it is an important concept
because of the social meaning people have attached to it. Race is a socially constructed concept; the
concept is significant only insofar as people define it as such.
• It is in the social setting that race is decisive. For example, Adolph Hitler expressed concern over the
“Jewish race” and translated this concern into NAZI death camps. Winston Churchill spoke proudly of
the “British race” and used that pride to spur a nation to fight.
• Michael Omi and Howard Winant use the term racial formation to refer to the sociohistorical process
by which racial categories are created, transformed and destroyed. For example:
– Some groups once defined as racial groups—and as physically and mentally inferior—are no longer
defined that way. For example, Irish and Italian immigrants were once defined as inferior “races” by
native born Anglo-Protestant Americans.
– Other groups have come to be recognized as racial groups, such as the Mestizos who have both
Mexican and Native American ancestry.
– Still other groups are seeking recognition as a distinctive racial group, such as the Miami tribe of
• Ethnicity refers to the characteristics of a group based on shared cultural identity and derived from a
common language, nationality, religion, or ancestry.
• Ethnic groups in the United States include a grouping that we refer to collectively as Hispanics or
Latinos, including Chicanos (Mexican Americans), Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Latin Americans in
the United States. White ethnics (e.g., Irish Americans, Polish Americans, and Norwegian Americans) are
also included in this category.
• The cultural traits that make groups distinctive usually originate from the “homeland” or, for Jews,