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The race-conflict approach is a sociological perspective that looks at disparity and tension between people of different racial and ethnic groups. This lesson describes the race-conflict approach to sociology.

Race-Conflict Approach

When a Ferguson, Missouri, teenager was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, the incident brought widespread attention.

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Thousands of people marched in the streets, demanding that the officer be prosecuted. When the grand jury declined to indict the officer, protests and some rioting erupted across the nation. Why was this incident so volatile? In large part, the answer is ‘race.’ The police officer was white, and the teenager was black.The race-conflict approach is a sociological perspective that looks at disparity and tension between people of different racial and ethnic groups. It’s a way of viewing and studying people that focuses on racial inequality and conflict. The Ferguson demonstrations are just one of the many incidents that highlight perceived inequalities and continuing conflict between black Americans and white Americans.

Causes of Race Conflict

Let’s take a moment to look at some of the causes of race conflict. Let’s specifically examine conflict between white and black people in the United States.Slavery was common in the U.S.

prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln declared ‘that all persons held as slaves…are, and henceforward shall be free.’ But that wasn’t the end of the story.

A century later, black Americans still experienced segregation, oppression and race-inspired violence. Local and state Jim Crow laws enforced segregation by imposing legal punishment for those who associated with members of another race. Black people were banned from such settings as classrooms, bathrooms, public transportation, theaters and juries.The civil rights movement generally lasted from 1954 to 1968. It was a series of social efforts geared toward ending racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans.

By the end of the era, black people secured legal recognition and federal protection of their constitutional citizenship rights. But the new federal laws didn’t automatically bring equality.In fact, studies show that today’s white Americans are still more likely to:

  • Earn higher levels of income
  • Obtain advanced educational degrees
  • Have better access to quality healthcare
  • Live longer than American racial minorities

Using Race-Conflict Approach

When studying these disparities, sociologists look at how race affects factors such as wealth, privilege and poverty. For example, the term ‘white privilege’ was popular during the Ferguson demonstrations. White privilege refers to privileges, rights, benefits and liberties afforded to white Americans but not equally afforded to American minorities.

For example, many people wondered, ‘Would the Ferguson police officer shoot the teenager if the teenager was white?’ If not, then that’s an example of white privilege. The white teenager possesses a right to interact with and confront officers without being shot, where the black teenager does not.Using a race-conflict perspective, researchers would examine how and why the white teenager enjoys rights that the black teenager does not.

Sociologists examine how disadvantages are often handed down through the generations. In this situation, sociologists might link current disadvantages to past segregation and oppression. Notice that the race-conflict perspective views current events by examining the events of the past.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The race-conflict approach is a sociological perspective that looks at disparity and tension between people of different racial and ethnic groups. For example, the approach can be used to examine racial tensions between white and black Americans.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared ‘that all persons held as slaves…are, and henceforward shall be free.’ However, Jim Crow laws continued to enforce segregation by imposing legal punishment for those who associated with members of another race. The late 1950s brought the civil rights movement, which was a series of social efforts geared toward ending racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans.Though laws now protect citizenship rights for blacks and other minorities, a disparity still exists.

Many attribute the disparity to white privilege, which refers to privileges, rights, benefits and liberties afforded to white Americans but not equally afforded to American minorities. The race-conflict approach looks at how and why certain privileges exist for whites but not for minorities.

Learning Outcomes

As you complete the lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Describe what the race-conflict approach is in sociology
  • Explain the causes of race conflict
  • Demonstrate how to use the race-conflict approach

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