Class, Race, and Gender Structured Inequalities

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Class, Race, and Gender

Structured Inequalities

Class, race, and gender organize society as a whole and create a variety of contexts for family living through their unequal distribution of social opportunities.

  • They are forms of stratification that foster group-based inequalities.

  • They distribute social resources and opportunities differently.

  • Life chances

  • They are relational systems of power and subordination.

  • They are interconnected systems of inequality.

  • Matrix of domination

  • Families can be a place to resist inequality
  • Social stratification: structured (socially patterned) inequality

  • Groups are socially defined & treated unequally


  • Persons occupying the same relative economic rank form a social class.

  • Striking differences in income; growing gap between top 1/5 & bottom 1/5

  • Occupation is the most frequently used indicator of class.

  • Determines income, opportunity, lifestyle

  • Cultural explanations of class

  • Each class is viewed as having a distinctive culture.

  • Comparisons between the classes usually turn out to be “deficit” accounts of lower-status families.

  • Culture of poverty, underclass

  • Cultural explanations obscure or ignore the social and material realities of class.

  • Rodman: “lower class family traits” are actually solutions to problems faced by lower class people

  • Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID): families experience short-term spells of poverty as result of dramatic changes (divorce, sudden unemployment, serious illness)

  • Structural Explanations of Class

  • Examine the ways in which social class shapes the networks of relationships between families, individuals, and institutions.

  • Focus on relationships of power between class groups

  • The key to social class is not occupation, but the control one has in one’s work, the work of others, decision making, & investments.

  • Different connections with society’s opportunity structure produce & require unique family adaptations

  • Class privileges (advantages, prerogatives, options available to middle & upper classes) shape family relationships

  • Class structure organizes families differently

  • Poverty, wage earning, affluent salaries, & inherited wealth create different material advantages, differences in the amount of control over others, and class differences in how families are shaped & how they operate

  • Gender cuts across class & race racial divisions

Class-Based Family Differences

  • Families in Poverty (Lower Class)

  • Lack of opportunities make nuclear family difficult to sustain: poor are more likely to expand family boundaries, use larger network of kin than nonpoor

  • Poverty reduces the likelihood of marriage: undermines the availability of economically secure partners

  • Blue-Collar Families (Working Class)

  • Largest single group of families

  • Economic changes, increased vulnerability move these families farther from idealized nuclear family model: pioneers of contemporary family patterns

  • Interact more with kin than middle class families do

  • Middle Class Families

  • Idealized family form

  • Many sustain middle class status through wives’ employment

  • Able to rely on non-familial institutions (rather than kin) such as medical coverage, credit at banks

  • Families of Professionals (Upper Middle Class)

  • Likely to merge spheres of work & family: leisure activities revolve around occupational concerns & associates, family life often subordinate to husband-father’s occupation

  • Autonomy of nuclear family is strengthened by economic resources & built-in ties with supportive institutions

  • Wealthy Families (Upper Class)

  • Economic power based on wealth (not income) provides opportunities not available to other families: ability to generate additional resources

  • Family lifestyles made possible by control over labor of others

  • Family boundaries are more open than those of middle class: includes extended family, kin-based family form serves to preserve inherited wealth

  • Class boundaries are more rigidly drawn: marriage market restricted to small (but national) pool of eligible partners linked by exclusive schools, colleges, clubs, resorts

  • Marriage is more than legal-emotional commitment; it is a means for concentrating capital & maintaining in-group solidarity

  • Gendered division of labor maintains class solidarity: women’s philanthropic work serves “gate-keeping” function, preserves institutions that benefit family & class


  • Race is a socially defined reality, not a biological reality.

  • DNA evidence from Human Genome Project

  • Racial categories are the basis for allocating social resources & differential distribution of power, privilege, and prestige.

  • Racial formation: society is continually creating & transforming racial categories (Mexican American > Hispanic, Japanese American > Asian American)

  • Race is used for socially identifying groups based on physical differences

  • Ethnicity identifies distinctive national origin, language, religion, culture (social differences)

  • Racial-ethnic groups are socially subordinated & remain culturally distinct within the U.S.

Macro Structural Inequalities and Racial-Ethnic Families

  • Racial stratification produces different opportunity structures that shape families in a variety of ways.

  • Segregation, employment problems, poverty are barriers to family well-being & family formation which result in racial-ethnic family arrangements (& even their definitions of what families are) which differ from the idealized family

  • Extended kinship systems, “fictive kin”, & informal support networks spread across multiple households are produced by racial & economic conditions that fail to meet family needs

  • Racism results in limited economic resources and inferior living conditions for many racial-ethnic families.

  • Great disparity in income level have persisted over time

  • Even wider gap in wealth

  • Poverty rate for African American & Latino families 3x that of White families

African American Families

  • Over the last 40 years, increases in female-headed households, marital disruptions, out-of-wedlock births, & % of children living in poverty have resulted in African American families being less conventional & more diverse in their structure & composition than White families

  • Social, demographic, and economic factors underlie the lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates of blacks.

  • Gender ratio: women outnumber men in the 20-49 age range

  • High unemployment, low wages & little job security for men

  • Economic conditions make marriage less important than kinship

  • Blacks are more likely than whites to reside in extended family households.

  • “Othermothers”

  • Underclass debate

  • Single parent families are the cause of poverty vs. single parent families are the consequence of economic deprivation

  • Two parent family is no guarantee against poverty for minorities

Latino Families

  • Poverty rates for Hispanics have risen in the past decade.

  • Highest among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans

  • Causes of poverty across Latino communities differ

  • Extended kinship systems in Chicano families

  • Familism refers to an obligation to, and an orientation toward, one’s nuclear and extended families.

  • Develops as a strategy for surviving difficult economic circumstances

  • Four components: demographic, structural, normative, behavioral

  • Compadrazgo system includes two sets of “fictive kin”

  • Among immigrants, family extension is a classic adaptation

  • Mexican extended families in U.S. become stronger & more extensive through successive generations & socioeconomic mobility

Human Agency and Family Formation

  • People of color have acclimated to difficult circumstances by adapting their household structures (compadrazgo, othermothers, household augmentation).


  • Gender, like race and class, is a basic organizing principle of society.

  • Social & cultural definitions of masculinity & femininity are the basis for treating men & women differently: dividing labor, assigning roles, allocating social rewards

  • Gender system denies both women and men the full range of human & social possibilities

Two Ways of Thinking about Gender

  • The Traditional Gender Roles Approach

  • Biology, history, and the needs of society naturally separate women and men into distinctive roles.

  • Gender inequality is a consequence of behavior learned by individual women & men.

  • This perspective ignores what is most important about roles—that they are unequal in power, resources, and opportunities.

  • The Family as a Gendered Institution

  • The gendered institution perspective holds that gender is a factor in the assumptions, practices, and power dynamics of U.S. institutions.

  • Patriarchy (forms of social organization in which men are dominant over women) shapes families along with other social institutions.

  • Private, public, capitalist patriarchy

  • Structured gender inequality interacts with other inequalities such as race, class, & sexuality to sort women & men differently.

  • In general, men gain privileges at the expense of women

  • Domestic division of labor (kind & amount of work done in the home) limits women’s occupational opportunities

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