Racial Inequality: Emphasis on Explanations

By Conyers, James E. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Racial Inequality: Emphasis on Explanations


Conyers, James E., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Social inequality is a topic of long standing concern in the social science; however, I will not attempt to document the evolution of this concern. In the brief spurn of this article I will be concerned about one principal type of social inequality, i.e., racial inequality; however, in as much as inequality by race is but one instance of social inequality in general, my discussion should have some degree of generalizability to the larger theoretical question of who gets how much of what and why.

All sorts if ideas, theories, and models are advanced to interpret, explain, or defend the social fact of inequality by race. Theories of racial inequality can be divided into three broad categories: 1) deficiency theories, 2) bias theories, and 3) structural discrimination theories (Barrera, 1979). A discussion of these broad theoretical perspectives, and their sub-types, is the principal concern of this paper. But first, a few words about social inequality in general.

Leonard Reissman (1973) contends that an ideological bias exists in the American system with respect to inequality; a bias revealed in the manner in which the rhetoric and promise of "equality" is emphasized over the day-to-day realities of "inequality." The serious student of inequality is thus put in an undignified position because one is much more likely to find information on "differences," "opportunities," "relations," and the like, by race, age, sex, religion, and ethnicity, than information listed under "inequality." These neutral-sounding types of emphases blur our understanding of inequality and allow us to emphasize "equality" over "inequality" without facing the contradictions that daily experience with inequality continue to produce." (Reissman, 1)

As a general statement, the position is taken that the genesis of real social inequality, as opposed to mere social differentiation, is rooted in the evolution of the production process. The existence of surplus was a pre-condition for structured inequality. As Turner and Starnes state "... production of more than was absolutely necessary for survival created a basic problem: who should get how much?" (1976, 2)

Economic inequality is basic to an understanding of general social inequality, but a comprehensive view of inequality does not end here, for economic inequality makes possible other forms of inequality. According to Turner and Statues:

Once inequality is legitimated by ideas, the power of the wealthy is dramatically increased. They no longer must expend as many of their resources on forcing acceptance of their privilege; they can now use increased power to gather even more of the economic surplus" (Ibid., 3).

One of the inscriptive bases for the structuring of social inequality in America has been race. If social inequality is "... the condition whereby people have unequal access to valued resources, services, and positions in the society ..." (Kerbo, 1983, 1) then demonstrating social inequality by race can be readily documented. As Reissman has said, "Being black in America means quite probably the inheritance of inequality in every aspect of life that makes a difference" (Ibid., 71). If this discussion had as its principal objective documentation of the fact of racial inequality, then all that would be needed would be to look at inequality in three of the principal institutions of American life, the educational, political, and economic institutions; however, since the objective of the paper is theoretical, and not descriptive, let us turn to a discussion of theories of racial inequality.

Deficiency Theories

Deficiency theories ultimately rest on the proposition that the inferior economic, social and political statuses of racial minorities are due to some deficiency within the minority groups (Barrera, 1979:1974). In general, the causative deficiency has assumed three varieties: 1) biological, 2) structural, and 3) cultural.

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