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Slavery and Social Stratification in the United States, Essay Example

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Like many societies throughout history, the United States has been a stratified system, typically based on the socioeconomic status of individuals.  Social stratification is a system in which groups of people are divided into layers that are based on their relative property, power, and prestige (Henslin.) There are three major bases of social stratification: slavery, caste and class.  This paper will discuss the institution of slavery in the United States, the ideology that supported it, and will create an original basis for a class system.

Social stratification is universal, but the level of the quality vs. inequality differs between societies. Both globally and in American society, the most well-known and shameful social stratification in history has been slavery, which is characterized by individuals owning other people. This practice goes back as far as the Old Testament, the Koran, and ancient Rome and Greece; it was most common in agricultural societies and least common among hunters and gatherers (Henslin.) Slavery has fundamentally been an economic phenomenon, since throughout history it has occurred wherever powerful people have found it to be a necessary practice, financially. In the United States, prior to the Civil War, nearly four million slaves who were valued at close to $4 billion lived in the South, where they were largely needed to plant and pick crops such as cotton, a major industry at the time.

The ideology behind slavery was racism, seen as a basic characteristic of human psychology, a type of prejudice that is so innate that it is universal and eternal (Fields.) According to Barbara Fields in a well regarded 1982 essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” the racial categorizations devised by people were not a psychological response to physical differences, but were instead were created during specific time periods in history to accomplish some work for society.  Its main purpose was to legitimize a method of power and oppression that was already established, but including new standards that supported the scientific rationalization and natural rights doctrine that was described in the Declaration of Independence.

My system of stratification would be based on educational divisions.  The lowest class would consist of people who had attended absolutely no school and had no formal education such as being home schooled.  The next level would consist of people who had attended some school, but who had dropped out of school before completing junior high school (eighth grade.) The third level would be comprised of people who had finished junior high school.  The fourth level consist of people who had gone to high school but who had dropped out before completing; the fifth level would be made up of high school graduates.  The next level would be comprised of people who had attended some college who had not finished; one step up would be people who had graduated from college.  The most elite levels would be people who attended some graduate degree program, but had not finished and finally, that of level would be people who had received advanced educational degrees.  This system would be fluid because people would not necessarily be restricted to their own level, but could rise to a different category by increasing their level of education.  For example, if someone did not complete junior high school, and he or she went back to school to finish up and receive a certificate of graduation, that person could rise to another educational level.  Continuing on to high school and completing that in order to get a diploma would further increase the person’s level in the stratification system.

Works Cited:

Fields, Barbara. “Ideology and Race in American History.” McPherson, J Morgan Kousser and James M. Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. 143-177.

Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach. Boston: Pearson, 2011.

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