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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

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A Scholar Argues that Racial Stratification Is Still Important for Understanding Inequality in America

Racial stratification, not class stratification, is the underlying cause for continuing racial inequality in the U.S., says one scholar. He explains the differences in these two perspectives on social stratification and explains why race explains more than class in understanding the situation of black Americans.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Ogbu, J. U. (1994). Racial stratification and education in the United States: Why inequality persists. Teachers College Record, 96, 264-298. Retrieved August 2, 2002, from

To see other reports that originated from this same citation,  go to the bibliography.

It has been over30 years since the Civil Rights revolution in America. So, why are black Americans still so much more likely than white Americans to be poor?

Scholar John U. Ogbu argues that most current explanations focus on economic and social class issues. He believes that this is a mistake. The real issue, as Ogbu sees it, is racial stratification, not class stratification.

But what is the difference between race and class stratification? Ogbu explains.

What Is Social Stratification?

Ogbu defines social stratification as:

"an arrangement of social groups of social categories in a hierarchical order of subordination and domination in which some groups . . . have unequal access to the fundamental resources of society." (What is Social Stratification section, ¶ 3)

Breaking his definition down, we see:

  • People are defined according to social categories. Individuals are defined in terms of the groups or social categories: whether racial groups, members of a particular social class, religion, gender, age groups, or the like.
  • Members of different social categories have different levels of access to social resources. Members of different groups are allowed different levels of access to different social resources. For instance, in the U.S., members of the age group under 18 years old are not given access to the electoral process—that is, they cannot vote.

  • Social categories are arranged in a hierarchy. Groups are arranged in a hierarchy or order in which some groups have easier access to resources than other groups. This hierarchy also implies a level of control that some groups can exercise over other groups. Using the example of age categories again, we see that members of the "over-18" category have the authority to exercise many kinds of control over minors. Subordination means that a group is under the authority or control of another group. Domination means that a group can exercise some degree of control over another group.

Social stratification is not necessarily bad or unexpected—as in the examples of age stratification. However, it may be. The basis of Ogbu's perspective rests on the assumption that race and class are not legitimate bases for stratifying U.S. society. Because of this, the fact that black Americans are disproportionately poor is an offense and one that needs to be seriously addressed.

But, how are racial stratification and class stratification different? Is racial inequality the result of class stratification or race stratification?

Class Stratification

Class stratification is based on social categories defined in economic terms. Ogbu distinguishes two different perspectives on class stratification: Marxist and non-Marxist. He does not believe that either perspective offers much explanation for racial inequality in the U.S.

Marxist perspective. Class is defined in terms of a group's "relation to the means of production"—essentially, whether they own and control capital or do not own or control capital (more or less, owners versus workers). From a Marxist perspective, class relations are described in terms of "class struggle." One class seeks to control or dominate another class for its own benefit while the subordinate class seeks to assert its own power against the dominating group. Ogbu sees two problems with a Marxist attempt to explain racial inequality in the U.S.:

  1. A Marxist perspective considers economic class stratification the only fundamental basis for social stratification. From this perspective, racial and gender stratification are merely products of class stratification. Ogbu asserts that other forms of stratification can exist alongside of—and not be a simple reflection of—class stratification.
  2. A Marxist perspective assumes (wrongly, Ogbu thinks) that the labor market is "color blind." Ogbu believes that there is ample evidence that this is not the case.

Non-Marxist perspective. Social class is a "segment of society's population differentiated by education, occupation, and income" (Conventional Perspectives section, ¶ 5).So, people with higher levels of education, higher incomes, and higher prestige jobs are in a different class or category from people with less education, lower incomes, and lower prestige jobs (or no jobs at all). Ogbu also sees problems in trying to explain racial inequality from a non-Marxist class perspective.

  • Class membership is temporary. People and their children can move up and down the socioeconomic class hierarchy. People can get better jobs, or lose the jobs they have. Membership in a racial group is permanent. So social inequality based on race has a more enduring character than inequality based on social class. The fluidity of class membership does not do much to tell us why blacks (rather than members of the "underclass") have had such sustained lack of access to social resources.

Racial Stratification

Ogbu defines racial stratification as:

"the hierarchical organization of socially defined 'races' or groups (as distinct from biologically defined 'races' or groups) on the basis of assumed inborn differences in status honor or moral worth, symbolized in the United States by skin color." (Racial Stratification section, ¶ 1)

The important points in Ogbu's understanding of racial stratification are:

  • Racial categories are symbolically constructed. That is, to be "black" or "white" is not simply a matter of genetics. There are certain physical markers (for instance, the darkness of skin) that signal group membership. This is something that, for the most part, people have no control over. They are "automatically" categorized according to social norms. However, a person could have an African genetic ancestry, but have the physical characteristics associated with European ancestry (perhaps because of interracial marriage). In this case, the person might be in a position to decide their racial status.
  • Racial differences are assumed to be inborn. Because racial characteristics are believed to have some connection to biological heritage, racial differences are assumed to come from heredity rather than environmental influences. That is, at least some of the differences between white and black Americans are assumed to be genetically based.
  • Racial membership carries with it different implications for status or moral worth. Being black does not mean simply being different. In the U.S. for many years, being black was something bad. For instance, being black meant that whites might see you not simply as a person with darker skin, but as a person who was lazy, dumb, etc.

Ogbu points out that there are different social class distinctions within racial categories. For instance, there are higher and lower class blacks as well as higher and lower class whites. However, he argues, it means something quite different to be in the "black middle class" than it does to be in the "white middle class." This is a result, to some degree, of the fact that social classes in the black and white communities had very different starts and, even now, mean very different things.

Ogbu says that members of the black middle class have about the same access to social resources as white working class, while black working class members have about the same access to social resources as members of the white underclass.

Social Stratification and Social Inequality

Few Americans would argue that the social categories of "children" or "criminals" should have equal access to all social resources and rights as "adults" or "law-abiding citizens."

However, at least since the Civil Rights era,American ideology says that Americans of all races should have equal access to social resources. Ogbu believes that the fact that black Americans do not have equal access to educational, economic, and social resources as whites is not a matter of class. In other words, it is not accidental that blacks tend to be members of the underclass. So the real explanation for black poverty is not a matter of class, but a matter of racial stratification. This, says Ogbu, flies in the face of the American belief in equality and is a fact that must be confronted.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Why does racial inequality persist in the U.S.?

Data and Methods

Ogbu draws on a wide range of research on race and education to make the argument that racial inequality is a result of racial stratification rather than class stratification in the U.S.

Funding Source

Not given.


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