Ethnocentrism & Racism Research Paper Starter

Ethnocentrism & Racism

Ethnocentrism describes an individual or group's tendency to see their own group or culture as superior in culture and practices. Racism is a belief that human beings can be divided into various races, and that certain races are inferior to others. Racism has been blamed for various discriminatory policies throughout American history, including eugenics, slavery, segregation, and immigration. Today, ethnocentrism and racism continue to be important in discussions pertaining to issues such as education and social justice.

Keywords Color Blindness; Discrimination; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; Eugenics; Race; Segregation; White Privilege



The term ethnocentrism was first coined by American sociologist William Graham Sumner in 1906. Sumner described ethnocentrism as an individual's tendency to see his own group or culture as central or most important, relating all other groups to his own. Today, the definition of ethnocentrism also includes a belief that one's own culture or group is superior to others. Most social scientists believe that some degree of ethnocentrism is unavoidable in humans; it is inherent in how people see and organize their concept of the world (Kam & Kinder, 2007). One of the challenges of social science research is the impartiality imparted by ethnocentric tendencies. Scientists' goal is to see the world from an unbiased, objective point of view; however, impartiality may be impossible due to previous experiences. While a certain degree of ethnocentrism is natural and unavoidable, extreme ethnocentrism can be very dangerous and have ill effects on individuals and societies, leading to discrimination or persecution, or in extreme cases, war or genocide.

Human Nature

Ethnocentrism is related to ethnicity. Ethnicity refers to one's nationality, where one is born or raised, and the culture that an individual identifies with. The United States is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Cindy D. Kam and Donald R. Kinder (2006) believe that viewing outside groups as dissimilar and inferior to one’s own is part of human nature. Survey studies have proven that when humans refer to and discuss groups outside their own, they often do so in negative terms. Ethnocentrism is measured by how an individual feels toward groups in general rather than a specific group and what stereotypes or beliefs that individuals hold about these outside groups.

Racism is a belief that humans can be divided into various groups by race, and that the members of certain races are inferior to those of others, whether by intelligence, morals, culture, or physical abilities. Racism, unlike ethnocentrism, is directed at a certain group or groups, or at individuals. The term was first used in the 1930s, primarily as a response to the treatment of Jews by the German Nazis. However, racism as it is defined today can be identified much earlier in human history (Rattansi, 2007). Modern-day racism is largely seen as a product of the development of race categories and how people came to view those of different races. Racism has been a driving force behind many conflicts around the world, including colonialism by Great Britain, the Holocaust in Europe, and slavery and segregation in the United States.

As one of the most ethnically and racially diverse countries in the world, the United States has struggled with issues driven by racism and ethnocentrism throughout its history into the present day. Today, the terms are often used interchangeably. In order to understand these issues further, it is important to discuss the development of racial categories and their historical significance, as well as the part that these concepts have played in various events and continue to play today.


The Development of Race

An individual's race is imperative to their social identity, as well as their interaction with others, whether they recognize it or not. Most scientists today do not see race as a useful biological concept. However, it is an important cultural construct, invented and further developed by humans (Smedley, 1999).

Racial categories and the act of dividing people into races became prevalent during the fifteenth century when travel and colonization of other continents were on the rise, especially by European nations. Exploration, imperialism, and colonialism led to a curiosity about others who looked different from oneself. Audrey and Brian Smedley (1999) trace ethnocentrism in North America, the development of racial categories, England's treatment of the Irish, and English explorers’ interactions with groups met through travel, trade, and colonization. For example, the English exhibited extreme ethnocentrism toward the Irish and treated them as second-class people. When explorers met the American Indians during the beginning of the colonization of the Americas in the sixteenth century, this ethnocentrism continued, coupled with racism—Indians were often generalized as savage, corrupt, or inferior.

The North American slave trade had some of the greatest impacts on the development of racial categories and racism. Slavery had existed long before the colonization of North America. However, slavery in this new context had a much larger impact on the construction of race and racism. From the beginning of the American colonies, there was a system of indentured servitude through which poor Europeans exchanged several years of labor for passage, room, and board. When indentured servants fulfilled the terms of their contract, their servitude ended and servants were granted freedom dues, which usually included plots of land and supplies as payment for their service. The first black Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. At this time, there were no slave laws in place in the American colonies, and black Africans and poor white colonists were both treated as indentured servants. Many wealthy landowners began to feel threatened by the growing economic power of former indentured servants and sought to limit freedoms and opportunities for the poorest colonists. The earliest slave laws were passed several decades after the first black indentured servants arrived in colonial America, first in Massachusetts in 1641 and then in Virginia in 1661. In the early years of American slavery, English colonists typically enslaved only non-Christians, not black Africans in particular. At this time, slaves could typically earn their freedom by converting to Christianity. As a way to limit the freedoms and mobility of indentured servants and slaves, racial slavery created a permanently dependent labor force of black slaves who were clearly set apart from their poor white counterparts. Under the slave system, while poor Europeans who came to the colonies as servants could eventually gain freedom, black slaves had no opportunities to earn their freedom and remained permanently enslaved. As slavery became more ingrained, slaves were stripped of more and more rights and increasingly seen as less than human. Some historians have argued that racial slavery served an important role in preventing cooperation and solidarity between poor black and poor white colonists, thereby solidifying the economic power of the wealthy, landowning elite. For these critics, racial categories in the early American colonies served as a way of obscuring class distinctions, so that poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with the white landowning elite than the black slaves whom they worked alongside.

While slavery had existed around the world long before the English colonies in America, English slavery was very different—there was an extreme denial of recognition that slaves were human beings; they were seen as property and the laws treated them as such (Smedley, 1999).

English colonists began viewing people hierarchically and exhibited ethnocentrism toward other countries. This mindset is often connected with how slavery developed in the United States. Slavery placed black individuals in a different category from white individuals and attributed all sorts of differences in characteristics and abilities between the two. By the eighteenth century, reputable European scientists, who had little exposure to individuals of different backgrounds and few facts based in sound scientific practices, had begun to classify human beings into racial categories and connected cultural, physical, and behavioral attributes to each race, creating a hierarchy of races. Through this hierarchy, white individuals received paternalistic justification for treating black slaves as sub-human. Slavery was a precursor to how the ideology of race pervaded North America; it compounded the differences between white and black individuals, and established the English at the top of any hierarchy of human beings (Smedley, 1999).


In 1790, the Naturalization Act was passed in the United States, restricting citizenship to only free white people. This law was not fully eliminated until 1952 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in immigration and naturalization processes, over which time many people...

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