As a US sociologist based in Britain since 1991, I have followed scholarship and debates concerning race, racism, and ethnic identity in both the USA and Britain. While the concept of racial hierarchy has been used liberally in many US studies of race, it is less commonly used in Britain. I became especially interested in this concept as I followed recent British debates about whether or not assertions of racial hierarchy were legitimate or untenable 'hierarchies of oppression'.
The question of whether some groups are worse off than others is highly pertinent at a time when there is growing recognition of multiple forms of racisms and racial oppression. What makes the concept of racial hierarchy so compelling is that it is suggestive of an overall picture of how different groups fare in multi-ethnic societies. There is little doubt that racial inequalities exist in Britain and the USA, but with a few notable exceptions (see Twine 1998; Kim 1999; Bonilla-Silva 1999; Feagin 2000), there is little discussion of what, exactly, are racial hierarchies, and how they operate. 'Social dominance theory' has been influential in arguing that the means by which group-based hierarchies, including racial and ethnic hierarchies, are established and maintained are similar across social systems (Sidanius and Pratto 1999). Nevertheless, there is no one definition or conception of racial hierarchy that is used consistently in either the USA or Britain.
Systems of ethnic and racial stratification have differed historically, not only in terms of the groups involved, but also the complexity and the magnitude of the distinctions made between groups (see Shibutani and Kwan 1965; Loewen 1971; Almaguer 1994; Twine 1998). The workings of formal institutionalized systems of racial stratification, as existed in South Africa prior to 1990, or under slavery and Jim Crow in the USA, were relatively transparent. In the former South Africa (though this is only the most paradigmatic and contemporary historical example of racial hierarchy), Black people were deemed inferior to both 'coloureds' and Whites, and they lived in segregated 'townships' as lesser beings. In all aspects of their lives - economically, politically, and socially - Whites were indisputably at the top,