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A racial hierarchy is a system of stratification that focuses on the belief that some racial groups are either superior or inferior to other racial groups.[1] The groups perceived to have the most (soft or hard) power, intellect and de facto authority are at the top of the racial hierarchy, while the groups perceived to be inferior are at the bottom.


United StatesEdit

In the United States, racial hierarchy refers to ranking of different races/ethnic groups, based on physical and perceived characteristics that have been perpetuated through legal and political policy, providing unfair advantages for some races and/or hindering the advancement of others.

Southern United StatesEdit

Before the American Civil War, the racial ideology that was established throughout the United States was thought to have been established because of biological, political, or even cultural differences among people. This was one of the most important aspects of forming the racial hierarchies in the United States.[2]:14–15 Other experts and leading abolitionists like W. E. B. Du Bois began viewing race as a social construction. Their thoughts began to raise questions and challenge previous existing thoughts about race and why it was divided the way it was.[2]:13–21

In order to maintain and defend slavery, pro-slavery writers organized a "planter liberalism" by combining paternalist and liberal views into an ideology that could be understood by both slave-holding and non-slave-holding citizens. Their ideology was based on familiar domestic relationships. These views later paved the way for white Southern planters to keep racial conditions as close to slavery as legally possible after the Civil War during the Reconstruction era.[2]:22

The entire planter liberalist view was rooted in the idea of servitude and dependence which was based on defined obligations to each one another.[2]:27 This view forced the subordinates of these relationships to lose their freedoms under complex definitions and other legal circumstances. Slaves were defined to have no "legal personalities" which meant that they had no freedom.[2]:26They were given legal rights that were similar to children or women. These ideas of slaves being considered legal things or property had significant influences on cases like the Dred Scott Case.[2]:26–28

As some of these liberalist views began to fall apart, slave inferiority was then reinforced by ideas of blacks being savage-like beings that needed to be tamed or civilized through slavery.[2]:32–34 Other defenses of slavery were based on blacks being suited for tasks that were not meant for white people to do.[2]:34 Some laws were based on "slave codes" that established that slaves were social dangers; therefore, their educations was to be limited so that they could not learn to read and write.[2]:35 Black people were not the only race subject to inferiority under the racial hierarchy. Mulatto and poor white people were also subject to being classed under the independent white people in some cases. So long as a group of people was dependent on an independent group, they, too, could be classed as a group that was inferior and incapable.[2]:44–50 Even after slavery, whites continued to exercise mastery over blacks and other dependent groups.

As policies in the United States changed after the Reconstruction period, different establishments of racial hierarchies tried to continue their mastery of the races they deemed inferior. Laws enacted after the 1880s prevented certain groups and their levels of racial hierarchies, like Southern planters, from continuing to affirm their mastery as black and white people became more legally equal. Southern Darwinian liberals wanted to provide little civil and political rights to blacks as a part of their mission to maintain white supremacy.[2]:104

Cognitive racial hierarchiesEdit

Books like The Bell Curve analyze highly predictive cognitive characteristics like IQ, and one of the book's most discussed sections is its analysis of mean IQ scores across different races. They measure that the mean IQ of African Americans is less than the mean IQ of white Americans, and both of the mean IQs of white Americans and African Americans are less than the mean IQ of Asian Americans. When discussing IQ, other researchers establish that IQ is largely genetically determined and supplementary education would not noticeably change an individual's IQ scores. Others hypothesize that as the U.S. becomes more cognitively stratified, a large part of African Americans will remain in lower socioeconomic strata, insofar as life outcomes correlate with IQ. Others suspect that it could be wasteful to expend additional educational resources to increase IQ because IQ appears not to appreciably increase when changing these environmental factors.[3]

Racial inequality stemming from racial hierarchiesEdit

There is evidence that shows that racial inequalities affect various economic aspects of people's lives. In a study conducted by the Urban Institute, "black homebuyers encountered discrimination in 22 percent of their searches for rental units and 17 percent in their efforts to purchase homes. For Hispanics, the figures were 26 and 20 percent."[4]:10 African Americans and Hispanic people receive "inferior health care" compared to Caucasians when dealing with major health problems.[4]:11 This is why a study conducted in 1995, showed that the infant mortality rate was higher for black babies than it was for white babies. The black rate was 14.3 for every 1000 babies as opposed to the 6.3 for every 1000 white babies.[4]:11 Some research has shown that it is easier for white people to find employment than black people despite the white person having a felony.[4]:13

Stratification modelEdit

This model explains that there is a hierarchical system in place that separates groups in society. In this model, the higher level groups use their superior resources and influence to put distance between the lower level groups and themselves. Their actions include all kinds of discrimination that prevent the lower groups from attaining similar statuses. In summary, they can manipulate the housing options for minorities causing them a chain reaction of economic lifelong problems.[4]:29

White supremacyEdit

Some experts[who?] believe that the material basis for white supremacy does not come from an idea of European superiority. They believe that the actual basis of white supremacy is "in a system of white-skin privileges, a system of preferences for white labor and other white people in employment, land usage and ownership, housing immigration, and society generally."[5]:143 Other experts[who?] believe that there are three pillars of white supremacy. The first pillar is "slaveability/anti-Black racism, which is all based on the idea that Black people were made to be slaves and that they are property.[6]:68 One theory explains that in a capitalist system, workers become commodities. In this theory, a racial hierarchy is used to give non-black races a chance to avoid being commodified in the capitalist system. Black people are at the bottom of this hierarchy and other races are relieved that they are not at the bottom.[6]:68–69 The second pillar is genocide. This pillar states that non-indigenous people should eliminate the indigenous race in order to stake claim to the indigenous people's land. This pillar is an example of colonization.[6]:69 The last pillar's focus is on orientalism, which establishes that certain groups of "foreign people" are menaces to a society or empire.[6]:69 These pillars not only victimize minorities but also make them become part of the supremacy as each of the pillars explained singles out one particular group. In this way, all other groups can share in the fact that they are not part of the specific group being discriminated against.[6]:69–70 White supremacy functions through all three of these pillars or logics. Binaries like the Black-White binary and the indigenous-settler binary also play a significant part in white supremacy as any race can find themselves closer to one of the sides of the binary and possibly get discriminated against or avoid discrimination altogether.[6]:74–75 For example, if a Native American had a lighter skin complexion, the fact that he/she is closer to the white side of the Black-White binary makes it possible for them to avoid discrimination because they are closer to being white than black.

Some theorists[who?] believe that since race is a social construction, the entire idea of the white race was a means for people to control each other in a system based on skin color. Along with this idea is the belief that because all races are social constructions, the very idea of the white race and its supremacy can also be deconstructed.[5]:43–47


  1. ^ "Racial Hierarchy". Blackwell Reference Online. doi:10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Steedman, Marek (2012). Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy. New York: Routledge.
  3. ^ Fish, Jefferson (2002). Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 180–181.
  4. ^ a b c d e Squires, Gregory; Kubrin, Charis (2006). Privileged Places: Race, Residence, and the Structure of Opportunity. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner.
  5. ^ a b Smith, Chip; Foy, Michelle (2007). The Cost of Privilege: Taking On the System of White Supremacy and Racism. Fayette, North Carolina: Camino Press.
  6. ^ a b c d e f HoSang, Daniel; LaBennett, Oneka; Pulido, Laura (2012). Racial Formation in the Twenty-first Century. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Further readingEdit

Discusses the nature of the racial hierarchy in the USA, contrasts the (black/white) bipolar model vs more complex ranking systems.