Social Conflict Theory: Race & Gender
There are a variety of theories that attempt to explain social equality conditions. One of the more comprehensive and practical views of social equality can be found in social conflict theory. Social conflict theory views social interactions in terms of resources and conflict concerning the appropriation and control of these resources. Because resources are scarce, conflict theory posits that dominant groups maintain control over these resources while subordinate groups attempt to gain control over the resources (Macionis, 2011). Within this framework, society is viewed in terms of class conflict which constantly attempting to control resources.
Karl Marx was one of the innovators of this theory and his concepts have a great deal of merit and relevance in the modern world (Macionis, 2011). Many subordinate groups can be seen through this lens as it provides an explanation for why inequality is a constant issue despite laws and social changes aimed at creating a more equal society. Further evidence of social conflict theory is found when the theory is applied within subordinate groups and gender and other factors also inhibit social equality. In a comparison of African Americans and Asian Americans one can see how social conflict theory is relevant to the these groups as they attempt to achieve equality within the US.
It would be a terrible understatement to say that African Americans have endured a long history of racial discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. Their early history in the US began as slaves which ultimately led to a legacy of enduring segregation and discrimination. Of all subordinate groups, African Americans are treated the worst in terms of social inequality. This treatment has created many cultural, political and social, issues that have deeply impacted African Americans participation in mainstream American life.
The story of African American begins as slaves who were imported from Africa to the United States. The slave trade was a terrible burden on African Americans because it displaced them in terms of having their national culture and roots, creating a cultural identity crisis. Unlike groups such as the Irish or Italians who voluntarily came to the new world and could identify with a nationality and ethnic group; African Americans were stripped of a true ethnic identity. The concept or terminology of “African American” would not be adopted until the 1980’s (Baugh, 1999). In terms of social conflict, African Americans were forced to fight for every right and privilege that has been freely given to the dominant white Christian culture of the US (Macionis, 2011). There can be no other interpretation of this circumstance other than the dominant culture attempting to maintain control over African Americans. This is especially evident in terms of politics and law making.
Politically, African Americans are marginalized in government. Long after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws would be enacted and terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan would terrorize blacks and keep them from voting (Schaefer, 2012). Although freed, African Americans would have to wait until the 1950’s before real political change would occur and these changes would come at the cost of violence and heated protests (Schaefer, 2012).
Prior to the Civil Rights era, segregation would create uneven lines of economic advantage between African Americans and white America. The separate but equal doctrine would keep African Americans out of affluent industries and unable to advance economically because of lack of advantage. In occupations, blacks were paid significantly less than whites and were routinely fired in favor of white workers. This marginalizing of the black American would create generations of poverty that is still a significant problem today. Even today, African Americans are paid significantly lower amounts of wages than whites.
The aim of creating social inequality through segregation is often seen as an issue of racism. But racism, is just part of the goal of social dominance. Enforcing these cultural, political, and social disparities through legislation allowed the dominant group within the US to maintain economic and social control. More importantly, resources were controlled such as business, manufacturing, and trade. Even the legal system was designed to keep African Americans from obtaining equality. The Jim Crow laws that reinforced these goals codified in all states and enforced everything from poll taxes to barring interracial marriages (Schaefer, 2012). The common element of these laws was to bar African Americans entry into American society and keep them from obtaining any economic, political, and social status. This situation would continue until Dr. Martin Luther King began his work in civil rights. King’s efforts in civil rights between 1955 and 1968 produced more civil rights change than in the prior 350 years (Branch, 1988).
Social conflict does not exert itself solely in terms of one ethnic group impacting another. Gender is often a casualty in the social conflict. For example, while African Americans have been subject to income and social inequality, in-group inequality also persists that takes the form of gender inequality. According to Schaefer (2012), in 2009, the average median income for an African American man was $40,219 and for African American Women it was $32,829 (Schaefer, 2012). This inequality in pay follows the large trend of gender discrimination that permeates the US society. The cause of this in-group inequality cannot be attributed to other factors since all social groups in the US have this same issue of women earning less.
As a result of gender inequality, African American women face the worst case of discrimination because they are discriminated in terms of race as well as being a woman. Laws such as Affirmative Action have eased the problem to some degree by forcing organizations to set goals in order to incorporate women and minorities into the workforce (Fullinwider, 2016). However, the problem of gender inequality persists with African American women being the lowest paid group in the US.
Asian Americans are another minority in the US that has endured a great deal of discrimination and prejudice. Asian Americans refers to a broad and diverse group of people who share certain racial characteristics such as epicanthic eye folds. The grouping of Asian Americans is tremendously inaccurate because this grouping tends to lead to discrimination known as Orientalism. Orientalism is the diminishing of these cultures into a single perspective which is inaccurate since these cultures are extremely diverse. In the US, Asian Americans refers to Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Pacific Islanders.
Asian Americans have experienced a great deal of prejudice and hostility from other groups, both dominant and subordinate. Almost every Asian American group has experienced hostility and prejudice upon immigration to the US. The Chinese were once outlawed from entering the US under the Chinese Exclusion Act. During WWII, Japanese Americans were interred in prison camps due to fears of them being complicit with the Japanese nation. Today this form of prejudice has given way to a new prejudice which is known as the model minority myth. Model minority is the concept that this group is doing well but in reality it is still limited in terms of social class (Chan, 2007).
Asian Americans have been the target of prejudice since the ending of the Gold Rush in the US. Much like African Americans they have been targeted economically and politically in the US. However, much of this prejudice has eased in recent decades because Asian Americans are typically able to assimilate more effectively than African Americans. The influence of Asian culture can be found in every state in the US where major cities almost always have Asian cultural enclaves such as China Towns or Korea Towns. Asian Americans have also been highly effective in creating financial equality by becoming small business owners and taking advantage of higher education to obtain better jobs. Despite these achievements, Asian cultures still have gender biases. Asian American women are underpaid to their counterparts by about 20%. Asian American women tend to be less hireable and earn less than Asian men and white women.
Gender inequality appears universal in terms of societies. The question that arises with gender is how it fits into social conflict theory? Conflict theorists differ on this topic but most tend to believe that capitalism breeds male domination (Macionis, 2011). Because capitalism creates wealth residual reasons for male domination such as being adept at physical labor prior to industrialization have reinforced power for males.
Another factor that must be considered is that women, because of their place prior to industrialization, were prone to consumerism due to being responsible for the home (Macionis, 2011). This factor also allowed men the ability to exploit women for free labor by having them work in the home to support the family without monetary gain (Macionis, 2011). These factors seem logical when considering the fact that all women are subject to inequality no matter the group they belong to; and this inequality is worse in groups where inequality is high.
Over time, the dominant male role in society has created numerous barriers for women to gain equality because this ultimately detracts from the male’s ability to acquire and control wealth. This gender inequality provides a means to see social conflict not as a racial or ethnic issue but as a social issue that permeates groups as well as society.
It should be noted that conflict theory with regard to gender has issues. One of the major issues with this theory is the fact that if one views conflict rising out of roles based on gender differences, then this lends itself to a more functional approach to class and social inequality, meaning in order for social conflict theory to explain racial and social inequality it must view gender relations from a point of power. This presents a controversial area of gender conflict which may be based on the nature of gender being a conflict oriented state. If this were true, then gender may often be a vehicle of discrimination as one gender attempts to dominate the other. However, this is a purist approach to conflict theory and it is far more likely that elements of functionalist theory are applicable to gender relations.
While both African and Asian Americans face resistance, Asians have faced far less issues with discrimination in the broad view of these groups history. Asians have fared better in terms of economics and in social class. The reason for this outcome is likely an issue of assimilation and racial identity. While the US views itself in terms of being a melting pot, it is really an assimilation. Groups that mirror the dominate white Christian group tend to assimilate easier and faster. For example, after the waves of Irish immigrants in the 18th century, this group only took a generation to assimilate. This is because they more closely resembled the dominant group and after a generation they lost their accents and were immersed in US society.
Oppositely, African Americans have not been able to fully assimilate because of race. Being black creates a means for the dominant group to isolate and identify African Americans and maintain social control. This is true also with Asian Americans which explains the longer period of social integration into mainstream life. However, because Asian Americans did not face the severity of Jim Crow laws and legalized segregation that African Americans did, they have been able to integrate and gain social standing.
Statistically, African Americans are fifth behind Asian American Men, White men, Asian American women, and white women (Schaefer, 2012). These disparities in income have resulted from the various levels of social conflict that continue to limit these groups. Because African Americans experience the worst of class conflict they also have less earning potential (Jencks, 1992). According to Jencks (1992), class distinctions have been historically used to reinforce the dominant affluent and middle-class members of society.
While it is a politically incorrect and often taboo topic, race is a key factor in social conflict. Social conflict is the only way to explain this problem with race since race as a form of classification does not exist beyond society’s interpretations. Despite the obsession that Americans seem to have with race, the concept of race is one of the most unscientific ideas since it cannot be considered a form of accurate classification or taxonomy. The use of race by media and government continues despite the obvious issues with people being too genetically similar to be classified in this manner. So if race is not really a concept beyond society than what is the driving force behind social inequality? The only answer to this is social class and conflict theory.
Race has become a means of classification for Americans in which persons of different classes and economic circumstance can be categorized. This categorization takes the form of physical or cultural differences which is referred to as race but it is really social class issue in which groups vie for resource control and attempt to maintain or gain power (Macionis, 2011).
In the United States this class struggle is important because racial and ethnic diversity is used to caste citizens into subordinate groups and keep them there. Whether this conflict is deliberate or sublime in its intentions is difficult to say, as it seems to occur both ways. What is understood is the fact that subordinate groups that are least likely to achieve equality are those which differ racially from the dominate group. This problem is further complicated by gender differences which appear to override racial taxonomy as all women are subject to unequal treatment within every group. The answer to this issue is complicated and decades of education and changes in laws have produced some change, but there are still many issues with racial discrimination and inequality.
Baugh, J. (1999). Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational. San Antonio, TX: University of Texas.
Branch, T. (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Chan, S. (2007). The changing contours of Asian-American historiography. Rethinking History, 11(1), 125–147.
Fullinwider, R. (2016). Affirmative Action. Retrieved from Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/affirmativeaction/
Jencks, C. (1992). Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Criminology, 8(5), 45–46.
Macionis, J. (2011). Society: The basics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Schaefer, R. T. (2012). Racial and Ethnic Groups (13 ed.). Prentice Hall, NJ: Merrill.
Article Updated: 9/27/2021