Learning Objectives 303

Race and Ethnicity 304

Race/Ethnicity and the Law Today 305

Social Class 309

Gender 311

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 312

Summary 312

Key Terms 312

Suggested Readings 313

References 313


  • • Discuss the role that law played in slavery and the historic treatment of Native Americans
  • • Describe how the race of the victim in criminal cases matters for sentencing
  • • Explain why it is difficult to study social class differences in sentencing
  • • List the ways in which women historically were unequal in the eyes of the law
  • • Discuss how LGBTQ people still do not enjoy full legal equality

The United States will soon be entering the third decade of the twenty-first century. Since the first settlers came to these shores some 400 years ago, America has been a land filled with inequality based on race and ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, nationality, and religion. Although the relative importance of these factors has changed over the years, Americans remain more or less likely to achieve the American dream and to lead happy, healthy lives because of where they rank on these factors.

This harsh truth is a central message of sociology’s emphasis on the social stratification found in every contemporary society (Andersen and Collins, 2016). Every society is stratified, meaning that some people enjoy many advantages based where they rank on the factors just listed, while other people suffer from many disadvantages.

The social inequality that has long beset American society has also beset its legal system. Historically, the American legal system has been filled with inequality, and it has also contributed to inequality in the larger society. The overall situation today is notably better than just a half-century ago, thanks to federal and state legislation and a host of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts. As we know from earlier chapters of this book, however, how the law plays out often differs from how it is supposed to play out. Despite the legislation and court rulings just mentioned, inequality continues to characterize the legal system, and the legal system continues to contribute to social inequality. We outline the major dimensions and dynamics of inequality in American law in the pages that follow. The bulk of our discussion focuses on race and ethnicity in view of the amount of research on this topic and its historical and contemporary significance in American life.

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