Chapter 3: Racial and Ethnic Inequality

Social Problems in the News

“Anger, Shock over Cross Burning in Calif. Community,” the headline said. This cross burning took place next to a black woman’s home in Arroyo Grande, California, a small, wealthy town about 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The eleven-foot cross had recently been stolen from a nearby church.

This hate crime shocked residents and led a group of local ministers to issue a public statement that said in part, “Burning crosses, swastikas on synagogue walls, hateful words on mosque doors are not pranks. They are hate crimes meant to frighten and intimidate.” The head of the group added, “We live in a beautiful area, but it’s only beautiful if every single person feels safe conducting their lives and living here.”

Four people were arrested four months later for allegedly burning the cross and charged with arson, hate crime, terrorism, and conspiracy. Arroyo Grande’s mayor applauded the arrests and said in a statement, “Despite the fact that our city was shaken by this crime, it did provide an opportunity for us to become better educated on matters relating to diversity.”

Sources: (Jablon, 2011; Lerner, 2011; Mann, 2011)

Cross burnings like this one recall the Ku Klux Klan era between the 1880s and 1960s, when white men dressed in white sheets and white hoods terrorized African Americans in the South and elsewhere and lynched more than 3,000 black men and women. Thankfully, that era is long gone, but as this news story reminds us, racial issues continue to trouble the United States.

In the wake of the 1960s urban riots, the so-called Kerner Commission (Kerner Commission, 1968)Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on civil disorders. New York, NY: Bantam Books. appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the riots famously warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The commission blamed white racism for the riots and urged the government to provide jobs and housing for African Americans and to take steps to end racial segregation.

More than four decades later, racial inequality in the United States continues to exist and in many ways has worsened. Despite major advances by African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color during the past few decades, they continue to lag behind non-Hispanic whites in education, income, health, and other social indicators. The faltering economy since 2008 has hit people of color especially hard, and the racial wealth gap is deeper now than it was just two decades ago.

Why does racial and ethnic inequality exist? What forms does it take? What can be done about it? This chapter addresses all these questions. We shall see that, although racial and ethnic inequality has stained the United States since its beginnings, there is hope for the future as long as our nation understands the structural sources of this inequality and makes a concerted effort to reduce it. Later chapters in this book will continue to highlight various dimensions of racial and ethnic inequality. Immigration, a very relevant issue today for Latinos and Asians and the source of much political controversy, receives special attention in Chapter 15 “Population and the Environment”’s discussion of population problems.


Jablon, R. (2011, March 23). Anger, shock over cross burning in Calif. community. Retrieved from

Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on civil disorders. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Lerner, D. (2011, July 22). Police chief says suspects wanted to “terrorize” cross burning victim. Retrieved from

Mann, C. (2011, March 22). Cross burning in Calif. suburb brings FBI into hate crime investigation. Retrieved from


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