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Racism Definition Essay

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Updated: Mar 21st, 2020


Race and ethnicity play significant roles in the field of sociology. The race is a socially constructed perception referring to a group of people who are understood to possess similar physical characteristics. Several theoretical perspectives can be adopted in understanding the problem of racism.

This essay adopts three fundamental theories to explore the problem of conflict and racial hostility (symbolic interaction theory, structural-functionalist perspective, and the conflict theoretical perspective). This paper focuses on the article, “A Town in Turmoil” written by Gretel Kovach and Arian Campo-Flores about racial conflict in the town of Jena. Using these three theoretical perspectives, the paper provides an examination of racism.

Structural-Functionalist Perspective

Structural functionalism refers to a consensus philosophy that society is founded on harmony, interrelation, and equilibrium between parts as a way of preserving the smooth performance of the whole. The theory perceives collective norms and values as the foundations of society.

It concentrates on social order built on implicit agreements between groups and organizations. According to structural-functionalist theorists, social change happens in a gradual and systematic fashion (Andersen and Taylor 147). They admit that though change is occasionally required to remedy dysfunctions in society, this change must happen gradually to allow individuals and institutions to adapt without the hurried disorder.

The theory postulates that the core structures in society are family, education, religion, economy, and the government (Andersen and Taylor 147). Failure in any of these institutions leads to a disruption of social order in the community (as is the case with Jena). In Jena, education and the government fail to accomplish their prescribed roles. It is this failure that blows the racist incident out of proportion.

Though the principal duty of the school is education, it still plays a major role in maintaining social order. Moreover, to promote an atmosphere that favors learning, the school needs to employ mechanisms that prevent conflict. The vice-principal cannot be faulted for allowing Purvis to sit anyplace he likes on the school compound. He is probably not acquainted with the racist undertones in this society.

To demonstrate the severity of the action of hanging nooses on the tree, the three white students ought to receive more serious punishment.

The government in Jena fails to protect its citizens from discrimination and harm. It is the duty of the government to draft proper legislation that guarantees the security of everyone. The incident under the tree needs to serve as a warning. Consequently, mechanisms need to be devised to prevent further deterioration of events and animosity. However, this is overlooked as the majority of those in power are from the same ethnic community.

Structural-functionalist approach regards crime as an essential element of society. By way of community indignation and legal penalty, most members of the Jena community recognize and adhere to a collective set of moral codes and rules. Without delinquency, there can be no penal system or collective moral principles in society. The penal system in Jena is used in an attempt to solve the racial problem.

However, this avenue fails because it lacks representation from all constituents of the Jena community. According to the article, the jury consists entirely of members from one ethnic bloc. One of the African-American members of the Jena community is quoted saying that the District Attorney is a racist.

The structural-functionalist perspective believes that stability of crime is an indication of a properly functioning society. High crime rates and civil unrest (as is the case in Jena) cause society members to lose their sense of solidarity while low crime rates are a sign of authoritarianism. The state of turmoil described in the article can be because people in the town lose faith in the legal systems and in each other and resort to other means of getting justice.

Conflict Perspective

The conflict theory starts with the role played by an individual or group within the social setting. It asserts that the purpose of a society is to bring about social change. Unlike the gradual nature of the functionalist change, the conflict perspective believes that change is brought about by physical conflict and class struggle.

The principal argument put forward by the conflict school of thought is that class conflict is an essential component of society (Gabbidon 125). They argue that racial hostility is linked to class conflict and that in order to solve such hostility the gap between racial groups should be addressed.

According to the conflict perspective, those in positions of power use it as a tool for oppression. In Jena, not only do different individuals and groups have differential access to power, but those who have more access to power use it to oppress and torment the powerless.

Using the conflict lens to assess the situation in Jena, it is evident that the white students along with the white power structure in the city and the school are in a privileged position of power which they use to advance their racist intentions. The disparity in the severity of punishment prescribed for the two sets of offenders depicts the use of the power of the criminal justice system to oppress one ethnic community.

Another form of class conflict in the Jena scenario is ethnic conflict. The African-American students concerned have a clear sense of what happens in terms of the application of differential power. When they see the hanging nooses, years of repressed racial resentment cannot be contained. The difference in class where one race perceives the other as inferior causes the constant need for the African-Americans to prove themselves. They often feel the need to defend each other against what they see as white oppression.

Conflict theorists stress the domination of certain social groups and perceive order as preserved through the exploitation of the subordinate groups by their influential counterparts.

This theory, therefore, proposes that the two antagonistic classes fight over means of production and control. According to this theory, a revolution organized by the oppressed is likely to overturn the status quo. Jena’s turmoil depicts some aspects of this revolution since those who feel oppressed decide to take action. They feel that the state-controlled mechanisms are not working in their favor.

Symbolic Interaction Perspective

Symbolic interactionism is the sociological school of thought, which states that our relationship with each other is a consequence of symbols we attach to each other, the functions we play, and the meanings we attach to certain positions (Herman-Kinney and Reynolds 67). These are not necessarily real symbols but are labeled to which individuals and groups bestow significance. The symbols generate norms that influence the way we relate to each other in society.

The symbol of a teacher, for example, carries social norms that demand respect. Therefore, when the deputy principle tells Purvis that he can sit anywhere he wants, Purvis takes it as a matter of fact. A teacher is supposed to be a role model and a unifying principle. When the teachers in Jena treat the students in a racially discriminatory way, the white children see racism as normal because the symbol to which they attach respect entertains the same practice.

The conflict school of thought looks at the role of social interaction and how we can lessen racial acrimony. Due to the color of their skin, African-Americans are seen as violent and deviant. Associating dark skin with servitude and being subordinate makes the white students in Jena isolate themselves from their black counterparts as they do not consider black company appropriate.

To them, breaking the norm of segregation is punishable by hanging. This stereotyping can also be seen when one of the students is attacked by a (white) person wielding a gun. The jury cannot believe that a white man can attack a black man and, the student is convicted of firearm robbery.

For the African-American community, the noose is a symbol of oppression under slavery by the white man. In those days, breaking the laws of segregation was punishable by hanging. Seeing this symbol again is offensive to the students and triggers historical anger. If they had a different history, maybe the noose hanging from a tree could not have elicited such sharp emotions.


From a sociological standpoint, the events in Jena are set to happen the way they do because of how the communities are socialized. Since the fuel is already there, all that the community in Jena requires is a trigger. Using these theories we can understand the root causes of racial instigated animosity and crime and prescribe solutions. Racism ought to be a thing of the past and events like the one in Jena ought not to be repeated.

Works Cited

Andersen, L. Margaret and Howard F. Taylor. Sociology: The Essentials, Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Gabbidon, L. Shaun. Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime, New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Herman-Kinney, J. Nancy and Larry T. Reynolds. Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, New York: Altamira, 2003. Print.

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