Reflection on Diversity
Choose one of the following topics to discuss. Reflect upon your chosen topic in a one- to two-page essay, double-spaced, in APA format. Make sure to include a title page. Based on the topic you choose, describe what the experience was like, how it made you feel and think, and what you learned from it. Connect your discussion to at least three concepts, examples, and/or quotes from the course readings or lectures.
- Explore a time when you felt like “other”—when you were made to feel invisible, excluded, or too visible.
- Explore a time when you perceived someone or some group as “other” (when you noticed someone or some group was outside or excluded).
- Explore a time when a connection was made between you and an “other.”
Conflict between a society’s dominant and minority groups is nearly always rooted in the structured inequality of access to scarce and valued resources. In the United States and most industrialized Western nations, economic resources are at the center of the conflict. Society’s most powerful members are predominantly from the dominant group, and it is they who make and shape the values, ideals, goals, and means of achievement for the rest of society. Problems begin to arise, though, when these values, ideals, goals, and means of achievement become barriers to resources for some groups and gateways for others. Those for whom they are gateways are understandably protective of their advantage, and those for whom they are barriers become frustrated and discontented. What is most unfortunate is that both sides generally lose sight of the structural nature of the system and instead fall back on stereotypes and ideology. The dominant group places the blame for disadvantage on the disadvantaged, based on assumptions about group characteristics such as lack of motivation, cultural preferences, or other victim-blaming ideas. On the other side, resistance to change and a seeming refusal to open the doors of opportunity are interpreted as racist or sexist attempts to deny them their rights, strategies to oppress and exploit them, or simple hatred. While arguments for and against both sides can be made, none are very useful in addressing the real issue – inequality itself and its costs to the society at large.
Dimensions of Inequality
There are three basic social dimensions or determinants of where people are placed in the social stratification hierarchy. They areeconomics, power, and prestige. Collectively, we refer to them as our socioeconomic status, and it is determined by how and where these three dimensions intersect and diverge. Our access to these dimensions is largely a matter of our ascribed or achieved positions in society. An ascribed position is one to which we are born or receive as a result of factors over which we have no control. Being born to a racial group is one example, as is becoming disabled as a result of a debilitating disease. An achieved position is one that results from actions or behaviors on our part or the part of others. Being elected to a public office is an example, and so is becoming a convict. Every social position, whether it is ascribed or achieved, carries with it the three dimensions of stratification, but they do not always have the same value. To start, let’s define each term in turn.
This refers to what are known as common life chances. The level of access to economic resources is a prime determinant to what you will have in life. It is not enough, however, to place everyone with the same economic resources in the same social class position. Nor will it be enough alone to acquire greater access to the other two dimensions.
Power, as defined here, refers to the ability to enforce one’s will over others in spite of their resistance and the power to control one’s own life. Access to power and economics are linked, but again, power alone is not necessarily associated with increased economic access, nor is economic access a guarantee of more power.
Prestige in this sense refers to how well or poorly one’s social position is thought of in society. In the U.S., this is usually a matter of occupation. High-status occupations generally are quite prestigious, but that does not necessarily mean that they either have great power or bring economic rewards. For example, the occupation of college professor carries a very high prestige rank but is not paid nearly as much as many less prestigious occupations, nor do professors have a great deal of social power.
As an illustration, think of the two occupations of elementary school teacher and truck driver. The U.S. starting median income of each is around $30,000 to $35,000 a year. With that, they have the same economic circumstances, but what about the other two? Which has the greater prestige? Consider that the teacher has received a college degree, while the truck driver probably has a high school education, plus some formal training. To which do we afford the most prestige? Also, which has the most power? Neither has much in the way of social power except that the teacher does have considerable power over his or her students, and has potential power over parents in cases in which the child’s safety and/or health are concerned. In addition, the teacher has considerable autonomy in his or her job. A teacher is generally a salaried worker whose pay will continue uninterrupted during short periods of illness or incapacity, while the truck driver is generally paid by miles driven, as a percentage of the freight charge, or by the hour. In any case, if he or she doesn’t or can’t drive, the truck driver doesn’t get paid. Notice that the social importance of the occupation is not a factor; it is the nature of the work and not the value of the end that establishes socioeconomic position.
Competition for Resource Access
Minority groups have lower socioeconomic positions in American society than White Americans. Part of the problem is related to prejudicial attitudes toward them, but most comes from the structured nature of unequal access to the three dimensions of socioeconomic status. The foundations of inequality lie in the historical experiences of minorities in the U.S. All have, at one time or another and to some degree, been the victims of exploitation, discrimination, and mistreatment by the dominant society (with the support of both custom and law). Such things are now a thing of the past in the minds of most dominant group members, but there are remnants deeply embedded in our social structure, so deeply in fact that they are nearly invisible. Our educational system is a good example. We do not have a unified national public school system with a common curriculum and uniform funding. Public schools are, and always have been, under local control, administered by local school boards and funded primarily through property taxes. As a result, educational resources for public schools vary widely. Areas with high property values, such as suburban areas, have much more in the way of economic resources to invest in teacher salaries, facilities, and technology than do poor districts, such as those in inner city and poor rural areas. The end result is that students from the wealthier districts generally have better educational opportunities than those from poor districts, and they are more likely to go on to higher education than are their poorer cohorts. The matter is further complicated by a concept that places a greater value on where someone has gone to school than on what one actually may have learned there. It becomes quite evident at the university level – a Harvard grad applying for a job is more likely to be hired than an equally qualified individual from a state university, simply because of the Harvard name. The same is also true of high schools. A student from a well-regarded suburban high school is more likely to be accepted at a highly ranked university than one from a poorly ranked school.
Our customs and ideology often make it difficult for the dominant group to understand the nature of structured inequality and also difficult for minority groups to understand why it continues to exist, in spite of efforts to put an end to it.