January 28, 2013 at 1:17 PM

Is Racial Inequality Still a Problem in the U.S.?


With the election of President Obama in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, many people declared that racism and racial inequality were dead.  After all, if the U.S. had an African American president, how unequal could the situation really be?  Many argued that it was time to become a color-blind society, stop noticing race, and put history behind us. When you examine the issue from a sociological perspective, however, it isn’t quite that simple.

Sociologists typically rely on two measures of equality—equality of opportunity and equality of outcomeEqual opportunity means that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed, and if they work hard, they should have the same chance of attaining success as anyone else.  Equal outcome refers to equality of results, such as educational level, employment status, income, and assets.  The notion behind equal outcome is that if we truly have the same opportunities to succeed in our society, some people in each group will work hard and be successful; others will experience moderate success; and still others will not succeed.  All other things being equal, similar proportions of each group will succeed.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.  Do we have equality of opportunity in the United States?  It would appear so—after all, starting in the 1950’s, laws prohibiting discrimination on account of race (as well as gender, national origin, religion, age, and disability status)—were passed, and these laws guarantee our civil rights.  Other sociologists point out, however, that we don’t all start with a level playing field.  Because of historic inequities, persons of color (as well as women, immigrants, and poor people), are less likely to have the ingredients necessary for success, such as family wealth and assets built up over generations, financial support from family members, connections that aid in getting into college and finding a job, and even the know-how to successfully navigate higher education and the job market.  They argue that because whites were more likely to have these supports in the past, the racial playing field is still not level today (advantage is passed from generation to generation), and equality of opportunity doesn’t truly exist.  In sum, we may be equal in the eyes of the law, but still not have an equal playing field.

So, what about the second measure—equality of outcome?  Government data reveal a striking pattern.  Compared to white and Asian Americans, African and Hispanic Americans are less likely to attend (and complete) college, less likely to have managerial/supervisory jobs, tend to have lower incomes and to own fewer assets.  Even Asian Americans, who are similar to White Americans on most measures, fall short on net worth, perhaps indicating the historical impact of generational advantages.

Table 1.  Equality of Outcome, by Race




Net Worth1


Percent College1

Graduates (2012)


(Males Only) (2012)








$110, 729



















2 www.bls.gov


Hispanic refers to ethnicity, as opposed to race.  Hispanic persons may be of any racial origin.

In sum, measures of both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome indicate that racial inequality persists.  Over the past 100 years, racial inequities have become much smaller, and some groups have equaled or surpassed whites (at least in some areas), but racial inequities haven’t completely disappeared.  Of course, when examining questions of racial inequality, racism, and group differences; many other factors come into play.  Legal equality, history, and access are only some of the factors that influence group success.  For example, are groups differently motivated?  Are cultural differences responsible for differences in attainment?  Sociologists—as well as Americans in general—disagree on the answers to these questions.  Likewise, when discussing solutions, we struggle to reach consensus.  How do we fix the situation?  Do we ignore historical differences or try to compensate for them?  If some groups are more motivated to succeed than others, should the rest of society be encouraged to emulate them?  If we become ‘color-blind’ and stop noticing race, will inequities disappear?  Like you, sociologists and policy makers of the future are eager to discover the answers to these questions.

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1 Comment

  • hello I would love to cite you work from this article but your last name is unknown? How do I cite this page in MLA format

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