Sociology: Overview

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Sociology: Overview

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the new discipline of sociology gave little attention to the race problem (or to the Negro problem; the terms were then used interchangeably) and with a very few exceptions accepted uncritically the scientific racism of the day. That racism advanced the claim that the nonwhite races were inferior to the white race by virtue of being endowed by nature with fewer of the attributes required to sustain a civilized society. In the second decade of the twentieth century, however, a new genetics invalidated biology's racial theorizing, and the study of race moved by default to the social sciences. By the 1920s most sociologists had accepted this shift from biology to culture, and a few of them began to study race as a problem in social relations.

At the outset this change in science's understanding of race had no immediate effect beyond the university environment. Racial segregation remained firmly in place, and a racially intolerant white population was unmoved by the collapse of scientific racism and continued to view the nonwhite population as innately inferior and unassimilable. Still, sociologists accepted the scientific judgment that black people were not biologically inferior, but against the arguments of anthropologists, they retained an image of them as culturally inferior. In those two decisions was the beginning of the sociology of race relations.

That beginning was shaped by a perspective rooted in an infrastructure of assumptions and values drawn from sociology's nineteenth-century typology of modern and traditional (premodern) societies, a heritage of social evolutionary thought that was still a central issue for American sociologists in the 1920s. From that perspective came two basic assumptions. The first was the inevitability of modernizationnamely, that the historic sweep of urbanization, secularization, and industrialization would wash away all traditional cultures and incorporate into modern society whatever premodern peoples still existed. All people, including the nonwhite races, would need to master the demands of modern civilization.

Their second assumption spelled out the meaning of cultural inferiority: Black people were viewed as a pre-modern people, culturally backward by modern standards, and still isolated from the socializing currents of modern life. To sociologists that meant they were mostly uneducated, ignorant of the requirements of modern life, and beset with the vices and pathologies peculiar to the poor and ignorant. They were also portrayed as powerless by virtue of white domination and incapable of acting effectively in their own behalf or developing an adequate leadership. Nonetheless, the historic sweep toward modernity made it inevitable that black people would eventually be assimilated.

Given the implacable opposition of white Americans to racial assimilation, however, and the unreadiness of rurally isolated blacks for modern life, sociologists maintained that assimilation would not occur until some unspecified time in the future. It was to be a steady and gradual process, unmarked by large or sudden alterations of existing relations. But there were no immediate prospects of change and no reasons to try to intervene in the structure of racial segregation. Here was a cautious generation's belief in racial progress as a slow but steady process of adjustment and adaptation, not one of conflict and struggle. Until the 1960s such an outlook gave direction and purpose to the sociological study of race; then the events of that decade proved it inadequate.

Studying Race Relations

At the outset, the sociological sense of race relations was expressed by the concepts of assimilation and prejudice. Together they defined the race problem for sociologists in the 1920s: The assimilation of blacks into American society was blocked for the time by the prejudice of the white population, the overwhelming majority of whom regarded blacks as unassimilable.

Neither term was new. Assimilation had been around since the 1850s and was borrowed from sociologists who studied European immigration. Prejudice was first defined as an instinct, but with the decline of the theory of instincts it was redefined as an attitude. But the emphasis then was not on prejudice as an individual attitude (the psychologizing of the term was to come later) but as a group phenomenon; it invoked the idea of a conservative and defensive group consciousness seeking to protect the interests of an advantaged group against the disadvantaged ones.

In 1932 the concept of minority was added, to place under a single covering term the disadvantaged groupsracial, ethnic, and religiousthat suffered from the prejudice of the advantaged. It offered the potential for developing an encompassing theory. But the concept was also problematic; in the minds of sociologists, there was an important distinction to be made between the descendants of African slaves and the immigrants from Europe. The two had reached the United States under different historical circumstances, and their futures also seemed to be different. Assimilation was already under way for the recent immigrants but seemed far off for black people. The matter was resolved by the adoption of the paired concepts race and ethnicity.

This also reflected, however, a narrow conception of culture. Although sociologists understood that culture was humanly created, it was nonetheless defined primarily as a social inheritance passed from one generation to the next. Culture is not only inherited, however, it is also created anew under changed circumstances. In their long endurance of slavery and segregation, blacks created themselves as a single people with a distinct culture of their own making. But in the 1920s sociologists, with the exception of Robert Park, had no comprehension of this.

The now familiar concepts of segregation and discrimination entered the sociological vocabulary later. In the 1930s segregation was still constitutionally sanctioned and accepted as the common status of black people. The concept of discrimination was only rarely used, since the unequal treatment of black people was expected and taken for granted. Only later, when segregation and discrimination became legal and political issues, did the terms enter the sociological vocabulary and the concept of discrimination become paired with prejudice.

In the 1930s, with a new vocabulary at hand, sociologists produced a substantial body of work that exemplified what could be done with the new perspective. Consistent with it, they developed measurements of prejudice and discrimination to document racial progress as a steady trendline into the future. While the work was informative and useful, little of it was groundbreaking. Despite the fact that the 1930s was a decade of economic and political upheaval in the nation undergoing the Great Depression and that blacks were moving from the rural South to the urban North in considerable numbers, sociologists resisted examining that process and focused instead on southern race relations, where, they claimed, a caste system still dominated. A number of studies of black life in the rural South in the 1930s, of which John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) was the most noted, made it clear that race relations were still caste relations, that systembreaking change was not imminent, and that neither precipitate change nor racial conflict seemed likely to occur. A few sociologists, howevernotably Park and the black sociologistschallenged this characterization of southern race relations.

This formative period in the sociology of race relations drew to a close with the onset of World War II. What sociology had to say about race relations was summarized in Gunnar Myrdal's mammoth study An American Dilemma (1944), undoubtedly the most widely read study on race relations in the United States. Myrdal did three things: He advanced a controversial thesis that race relations were a contradiction between America's democratic ideals and its racial beliefs and practices (that was the "dilemma"); he summarized and assessed what sociologists claimed to know about race relations; and, reflecting his role as a European social democrat and social planner, he criticized American sociologists for not advocating social policies that would change existing race relations. Although Myrdal had little effect on the generation that had produced the work summarized in An American Dilemma, he did encourage an oncoming generation that had been raised on the social policies and programs of the New Deal to believe that intervention to change race relations was now possible. It encouraged sociologists, therefore, to move closer to the racial liberals.

Perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of Myrdal's work was his seemingly uncritical acceptance of the denigrating image of the black American from the prevailing sociological literature. While Myrdal did not deny that black people had been culturally innovative, he viewed their innovation as a secondary reaction of the powerless to the primary action of the powerful. But mere reaction did not provide an adequate recognition of the social factors that gave cultural distinctiveness to American blacks. From his reading of the book, the distinguished black novelist Ralph Ellison made this often cited comment in Shadow and Act (1964):

But can a people (its faith in an idealized American Creed nothwithstanding) live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they have found around them? Men have made a life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a way of life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma?

The Black Sociologists

In the first half of the twentieth century, white sociologists did little to penetrate into the separate communities created by blacks as a consequence of segregation. What was known about blacks came mostly from aggregates of statistical data or from observations of blacks in public, white-controlled places. It became the task of the first black sociologists to reveal the internal structure of black social life and, in doing so, to create a more adequate image of American blacks as a people.

The work of black sociologists made evident a perspective on race relations different from that of white sociologists. Although both of them understood that black people wanted the opportunities denied them, white sociologists did not seem to understand what black sociologists knew full well: that black people did not want to so fully assimilate as to disappear as a people; that race pride and a lasting resentment at white oppression had produced a distinctive set of attitudes among black people; and that nationalistic, nonassimilative ideas were emerging among young, educated blacks. Furthermore, black sociologists did not, as did their white colleagues, regard efforts at political reform as illusory; instead, they took them seriously. That was because they were more sensitive than white sociologists to the consequences of economic and demographic change in the United States, in particular the urbanization of black people, for change in race relations. In turn, they viewed the white sociologists' fascination with caste as an illusion of stability in the face of oncoming change.

Two black sociologists, E. Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson, were soon recognized by their white peers as scholars of the first rank. In such books as The Negro Family in the United States (1939) and Negro Youth at the Crossways (1940), Frazier made a compelling case for understanding black Americans in terms of their lifeshaping experiences from slavery to segregation and in the movement from rural South to urban North and not of biology or the residues of an African heritage. For all who would look to see, he revealed the complexity and distinctiveness of black life in the organization of black communities and in the black class structure.

Charles S. Johnson's Shadow of the Plantation (1934) provided a compelling study of black rural life in Alabama in the early 1930s, noting that little had changed since slavery and that the harsh conditions of life for black Americans denied the myth of the spontaneous and happy black. In similar fashion, his Growing Up in the Black Belt (1941) revealed the growing aspirations of black youth in the Deep South and their deepening resentment at the treatment of them by white people, while his Patterns of Negro Segregation (1943) laid bare the harsh reality of racial segregation.

In 1945 a study began in the 1930s provided the first detailed examination of black life in the urban North. In Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described "Bronzeville," the black community of Chicago of the 1930s and '40s. It was a large, inclusive work unlike anything before it, a true classic of the field, and the crowning achievement of the prewar black sociologists.

White sociologists read and appreciated the works of black sociologists, especially those of Johnson and Frazier, but they read them selectively, taking what fitted their perspective on race relations and of blacks as a people. They possessed, in short, a mental outlook that left them unable to grasp the full message of the black sociologists. As a consequence, despite the efforts of black sociologists, an inadequate and selective image of the black American remained a basic feature of the sociology of race relations.

Robert Park: An Unrealized Perspective

At the University of Chicago, Frazier and Johnson were students of Robert Park, whose pioneering work did more to develop the sociology of race relations than that of any other sociologist. Park provided the definitive statement on assimilation, developed his well-known race relations cycle, promoted the idea of prejudice as social attitude, and invented the concept of social distance. Yet these contributions, readily accepted by sociologists, were not all that Park had to offer.

When other sociologists saw black people as a quiescent and backward population not yet ready for modern society, Park saw them as a race-conscious people involved, like the national minorities of Eastern Europe, in a struggle for independence. He placed the American race problem within a world process of racial and ethnic conflict and change, where subject peoples sought independence and self-determination. That made of race relations a continuing field of conflict. For Park, this was not to be deplored because it was a stage in the eventual assimilation of the world's peoples into a common culture and a common historical life.

But all of this was far beyond the parochial worldview of Park's sociological colleagues. As a consequence, a perspective that gave promise of anticipating and better understanding the emergence of a blackled Civil Rights Movement and preparing the nation for significant changes in race relations went unrealized.

The Postwar Sociology of Race Relations

In the 1940s and '50s there was a rush of political and legal actions, neither predicted nor anticipated by sociologists, that changed some basic aspects of race relations and led to expectations of even further changes. Among these were the 1941 March on Washington movement, which led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order forbidding discrimination in defense industries and which, after the war, stimulated political efforts to promote fair employment practices; the Detroit Riot of 1943 which stimulated the formation of local groups to deal with racial tension in the community; President Harry S. Truman's desegregation of the armed forces; the U.S. Supreme Court's decision rendering restrictive racial convenants illegal and the consequent liberal effort to abolish segregated housing; and the Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, to desegregate the public schools. These changes signified that race was finally on the liberal agenda and that the nation was making its first moves to eliminate the established pattern of racial segregation.

In the face of such changes, a new postwar generation of sociologists abandoned the politically detached position of the prewar generation and tried to shift sociology from the "objective" study of race relations to race as a problem in applied research, in service to the liberal activists and the professional practitioners of intergroup relations. It was also an experiment in bringing together scholar and practitioner, in uniting theory and practice.

But it never worked. One reason was that the professionals were too politically constrained by their social agencies; what they could do in practice was limited by what was acceptable to their governing boards. In the public agencies, among a diverse set of politically appointed community representatives, there were always some who were cautious about, if not unsupportive of, decisive action. To work with professional agencies, therefore, was to seek no more change than the civic elite that controlled those agencies was willing to undertake. There was no consideration of organizing a constituency among nonelite groups or of linking the objectives of intergroup relations with other social causes. It was also the case that a sociology that studied social roles in stable structures had difficulty analyzing the more fluid dynamics of racial conflict and change.

The attempt to construct an applied sociology of race relations and to participate in the liberal effort at racial change did not last long. It emerged in the first decade after the war and then vanished almost without a trace with the coming of the blackled civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Beyond Prejudice

In the 1950s social psychologists went beyond the measurement of prejudice to examine the relation of race to personality. One direction of study saw prejudice in some whites as an expression of a deeply rooted psychological need, which often led to the projection of hostility on a socially acceptable target such as a racial minority. Such individuals exemplified the authoritarian personality: antidemocratic, rigidly inflexible, and admiring of power. A decade of supporting research claimed that these more prejudiced individuals were likely to be people of lesser social status: the less educated, the working class, the lower class. Whereas prewar sociologists had viewed the whole of the white population as prejudiced, a postwar generation saw racial bias differing by social class. An educated middle class, it seemed, was tolerant and racially progressive, while classes below them were not. This quickly became a fixed element in sociological (and liberal) thought.

While research does indeed show that middle-class whites will more readily endorse principles of equal rights, it also finds that, when it comes to implementation, the difference between the middle class and other classes decreases and even disappears. It also declines when the proportion of blacks increases, and it disappears when blacks become a majority. Sociologists' belief in a racially unprejudiced middle class, it now seems, is unwarranted and has provided no basis for a workable strategy of action.

In 1958 the sociologist Herbert Blumer suggested that prejudice is a sense of group position, not a set of feelings the individuals of one group hold toward those of another. A group's position in the racial order, he argued, produced a proprietary claim to privilege and prerogative, and prejudice emerged when that position was threatened. What Blumer had done was return to the earlier idea of prejudice as defense of social advantage. But sociologists made no effort to develop Blumer's conception of prejudice and its promise of a better way to explain race prejudice among social classes.

The relation between prejudice and discrimination and the proclaimed inverse relation between prejudice and social class were easily incorporated into the postwar sociology of race relations. So was another idea: that the firm exercise of authority over recalcitrant whites was necessary to attain racial change. An idea first applied to crowd situations with a potential for violence came to be applied to conflicts over desegregation where, it was believed, the firm exercise of authority would prevent resistance from being effective. Given the fact that sociologists defined the prejudiced person as primarily coming from the working and lower classes, the idea of the firm exercise of authority followed logically.

These were social psychological studies of white people, but sociologists had often commented about the psychological damage done to black people by a racially oppressive environment. In the 1930s one sociologist suggested that blacks suffered from an "oppression psychosis," and in the 1940s another claimed that "personality disorders" were one of the pathologies to be found among black people. The most influential expression of this view came in 1951 when the psychiatrists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey argued, in The Mark of Oppression, that the persistent and pervasive consequence of discrimination had a thoroughly destructive effect on the psychological development of black people.

The image of the black person that emerged from their study was that of a psychological cripple: a mentally unhealthy person given to low self-esteem and self-hatred, to resentment, rage, and an aggression for which there was no safe outlet. Blacks, the authors asserted, lacked any "genuine religiosity," had created no religion of their own, and had been unable to develop their own culture. They bolstered their self-esteem with compensatory activities such as flashy dressing, gambling, taking drugs, and vindictive behavior toward one another.

Perhaps the most damning claim the authors made was that American blacks were incapable of the social cohesion that would enable them to act collectively in their own interests. They traced this back to the severe limitations on personal development imposed by slavery and segregation. The frustrations of childhood, they insisted, produced a distrusting personality lacking confidence in human relations.

Kardiner and Ovesey were not intent on condemning blacks for their deficiencies but on demonstrating the "marks" of oppression under which blacks were forced to live. Nonetheless, their message was that blacks were so victimized by this oppression that they were unable to act in their own behalf and required the assistance of sympathetic whites. Only their oppressors, it seemed, could also be their liberators. For sociologists the book became a seminal work that rounded out their conception of American blacks.

No one can deny that oppression leaves a distorting mark on the human personality. But it is not the case that such oppression can fully and forever cripple the human spirit or leave a people permanently unable to act on its own behalf. Even in the most destructive of environments, a people will create the cultural resources for sustaining hope and preserving a decent sense of their own humanity. From the days of slavery, black Americans did that. Through religion and music they created life-sustaining forces to offset the pain evident in everyday life, while the black church became a force for leadership, for sustaining family, and for building community. But none of this evidence was noted by Kardiner and Ovesey.

Nor did any of this appear in the sociological literature. There was no work to identify and measure cultural resources by which blacks could defend their very humanity against the crippling effects of oppression. Nor did the literature imagine the possibility of black-directed social action. Yet in the 1950s it was already late in the day to be so unaware of the gathering storm already developing in the South.

A Failed Perspective

In the early 1960s that storm of protest and revolt swept through the South and then spread northward, bringing on a decade of blackled civil rights revolution and ending forever the prevailing structure of racial segregation. But the sociologists had provided no warning that such was to occur; a reading of the sociological literature, in fact, would lead one to believe that such was not going to happen. It became painfully obvious to some thoughtful sociologists of race relations that their work could no longer explain what was going on in the world of racial interests and actions. The race relations that appeared in their writings bore little resemblance to the race relations taking shape around them.

Perhaps the greater failure of those writings was their denigrating and inadequate conception of black people as culturally inferior and therefore incapable of acting effectively on their own behalf. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s dispelled that idea once and for all. But it was not until the 1970s that sociologists could acknowledge that blacks were a people with a distinct culture formed in the oppressive heat of slavery and segregation.

Also found wanting was sociology's confident faith that the inevitable outcome of modernization was a steady dissipation of prejudice and discrimination, a gradual assimilation of blacks into the society, and in time, a disappearance of black people as a distinct people. Instead, a heightened race consciousness prevails among black Americans, ethnicity has experienced a worldwide resurgence, and a multicultural movement has arisen to celebrate ethnicity and to seek legal and institutional means to ensure the persistence of ethnic cultures. Furthermore, belief in a progressively more rational social order is now doubted by many and disbelieved by some.

Over the past quarter century sociologists have continued to measure prejudice, discrimination, and still-existing segregation, but they have done little else to inform and educate the citizenry or the political, civic, and educational leadership. Now, late in the twentieth century, the contemporary discourse between white and black and within both races is discordant and without consensus on what to do. New developments, such as the emerging global economy and a new wave of immigration, make more complex the social context in which race relations are embedded. The task for sociologists is to do more than measure prejudice and discrimination, useful as that still is; they must provide analyses that take adequate account of these complexities while finding in them possibilities for racial progress.

See also Cayton, Horace; Drake, St. Clair; Frazier, Edward Franklin; Johnson, Charles Spurgeon; Race, Scientific Theories of; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race


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james b. mckee (1996)
Updated bibliography