This chapter is concerned with four demographic characteristics of social groups: gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and age. Stereotyping and discrimination based on these characteristics are fairly widespread and have been the subject of a substantial amount of research. The frequency of sexism, racism, and ageism, in particular, has also prompted legislation designed to ensure equal rights to individuals, regardless of their group membership. Such legislation has been directed at employment, education, living environments, and other activities, organizations, and privileges of American citizens.
There is a wide range of physical and mental differences between the sexes, but few, if any, of these differences can serve as a justification for sex discrimination, Furthermore, sex differences in cognition and personality traits are due in large measure to social stereotyping of sex-appropriate behavior and consequent differential reinforcement and modeling of children by their parents and other people. In general, women are socialized to be more interdependent, finding identity and self-esteem in positive relationships with other people. Men, on the other hand, are socialized to be independent, finding identity and self-esteem in individual achievement and from the control and management of their lives and those of others.
The women's movement and legal action against sex discrimination have led to a decline in sex discrimination in the workplace, but working women are still disadvantaged in comparison with working men. Sexism on the job has abated somewhat, though a glass ceiling, or barrier to advancement of women, continues to exist in many occupations. One result of legal attention to gender discrimination in the workplace has been the concept of comparable worth, in which pay is equalized in occupations judged to be equally important even though the relative numbers of men and women employees on those jobs are quite different. Another legal concept, the reasonable woman standard, has emerged from cases involving alleged sexual harassment at work.
For the most part, European immigrants to the United States were successfully acculturated and assimilated into Anglo-American society, but African-American and Asian immigrants had a more difficult time integrating with the mainstream. Social discrimination is more common among people who have different physical characteristics, such as skin color, from the dominant white majority. Differences in language and culture have also created barriers ta full integration by minorities. These factors, combined with certain historical events, have led to discrimination against blacks, His-panics, and Asians in this country. Asians were more successful in gaining a foothold in the United States and participating in its material wealth than blacks and Hispanics. The last two minorities, which are the largest in number, are below the national average in income, education, health, and many other contributors to the quality of life. The discrimination experienced by African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans may be viewed as either the cause or the effect of these conditions. One thing that is clear, however, is that affirmative action in the workplace and educational institutions has improved the lot of many members of these minority groups. Despite a number of important disadvantages, the close-knit family structure of minority groups is a definite plus for their members.
Native Americans have the lowest status of any minority in this country and have experienced more difficulty than other minorities in adapting to mainstream American life. In addition to having less income than other minorities, Native Americans suffer from a variety of health problems and the shortest life span of all ethnic groups. Although they are smaller in terms of population than any other minority group, the hundreds of Indian tribes and the many languages spoken by them, as well as variations in tribal cultures and lifestyles, have added to the problems experienced by Native Americans as a group.
The most glaring contradiction between American ideals and practices is racism, the belief that some races are naturally inferior to others. The civil rights movement exposed racism to public scrutiny and led to legal reforms in the treatment of minorities but did not abolish it. Racial prejudice and discrimination in this country have abated to some extent, but they continue to exist in more subtle forms. Many African-Americans, in particular, continue to have problems in coping with the predominantly white power structure and obtaining their portion of the American dream. Be that as it may, the economic condition and the social treatment of African-Americans and other ethnic groups is demonstrably better than it was prior to the 1960s.
There is no denying the existence of differences between the attitudes and lifestyles of the rich and famous and those of ordinary mortals. But the idea that there are distinct social classes in America, each with a unique pattern of behavior and little mobility between them, is not a viable one. Certainly, the moral behavior of the British royal family and our own political, economic, and social leaders reveals that, regardless of the magnitude of their wealth and popularity, people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic status share the same motivations and shortcomings.
Ageism, the stereotyping of and discrimination against people because of their age, has not prompted as much social and legal action as racism and sexism, but the economic and health problems of older Americans have led to increases in Social Security benefits and legislation designed to ensure adequate medical care and equal employment opportunities for older Americans. Today's older adults are healthier and more affluent than ever before, and most Americans would like to keep them that way.
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