CSWAC Blog

The Two-Dimensional Model of Racial Positioning

In a racially structured society, racial groups are assigned positions in a social hierarchy. In the United States, white people are positioned at the top in the superior position and people of color are placed below in an inferior position. Many will say that black people are relegated to the lowest rung. You may agree or disagree with arrangement, but the perception that it exists is commonly shared.

Social scientists have concentrated on this single dimension of perceived superiority/inferiority to account for racial group positioning. Now some researchers are suggesting that the simple bi-polar model of superior versus inferior positioning is too simple to describe how racial hierarchy actually works. They note that racial and ethnic groups that are neither black nor white (e.g. Asian Americans, Latinxs) don’t fit easily into this simple framework. Research on Latinxs, for instance, has variously found this group perceived more positively, less positively, or equally to black and African Americans. Similar contradictory findings have occurred when looking at Asian Americans.

The researchers believe that the single dimension of superior/inferior is not enough to characterize how racial group positioning operates in US society. Instead, they propose to add an additional dimension, that of “American” versus “foreign.” According to this two-dimensional model, the social position of a racial group in the US can best be described by whether that group is commonly perceived to be superior or inferior, and whether the same group is perceived to be American or foreign.

The researchers apply their model to the four largest racial and ethnic groups in the US today, drawing upon prior research findings. Whites, they claim, are viewed as superior and American. Blacks are viewed as inferior but also American. Asians are viewed as superior and foreign. Final, Latinxs are viewed as inferior and foreign. The following table summarizes the researchers’ expectation regarding how racial and ethnic groups are positioned according to their model.

 ForeignAmerican
SuperiorAsian AmericansWhite Americans
InferiorLatinx AmericansAfrican Americans

All of this would seem like idle and useless speculation if the researchers did not back it up. To that end, they carried out a series of four studies to test whether the two-dimensional model describes how racial groups are perceived in our society.

Study 1

Participants were asked to fill out a survey asking them to “Describe a recent personal experience in which you were the target of racial prejudice. Please be as specific as possible.” Participants’ responses were then coded into categories of superior, inferior, foreign, and/or American.(1) The coders did not know the race of the participant making the response.  A given response could be coded into more than one category, or into no category at all.

The results supported the model. African Americans most commonly reported experiences of prejudice based on inferiority, and hardly any based upon foreignness. Latinxs reported roughly the same number of experiences of prejudice based on inferiority and on foreignness. Asian Americans most commonly reported experiences based on foreignness. Finally, whites most commonly reported no experiences at all.

Study 2

The researchers identified a list of stereotypes that fit the categories in their model, as follows:

Inferior stereotypes were “drug abusers,” “uneducated,” “criminals,” “thieves,” and “burdens to society,” whereas superior stereotypes were “intelligent,” “rich,” “hardworking,” “ambitious,” and “confident.” Foreign stereotypes were “refusing to learn English,” “not speaking English well,” “illegal immigrants,” “taking jobs away from Americans,” and “having accents,” while American stereotypes were “fat,” “lazy,” “privileged,” “surfers,” and “racist.”

Once again using a sample that included participants from the four racial and ethic groups under study, the researchers asked “In general, how much do you experience prejudice because others believe you/your racial group are <stereotype>?”

Five of the stereotypes failed to differentiate the groups (“burdens to society,” “fat,” “surfers,” “racist,” and “privileged”). Based on their experiences with the remaining stereotypes, African Americans reported the most experience with stereotypes of inferiority. Latinxs reported experiences with prejudice regarding both inferiority and foreignness. Asian American reported experiences with stereotypes of superiority and foreignness. Finally, white Americans reported experiences with prejudice based on superiority. Again, the two-dimensional model proved meaningful.

Study 3

Studies 1 and 2 looked at how the targets of prejudice experienced that prejudice against their own group. Study 3 looked at how people viewed other groups. The researchers identified stereotypes that applied to each of the four specific racial and ethnic groups, 77 stereotypes in total. They used a sample of 99 participants, albeit one more heavily Asian and white than in prior studies (47 Asian Americans, 32 Whites, 8 Latinxs, 3 African Americans, 9 others). Participants were given each stereotype in turn and asked “To what extent would a group that is stereotyped as <stereotype> be seen as inferior or superior?” and “To what extent would a group that is stereotyped as <stereotype> be seen as foreign or American?”

African Americans and Latinxs were both more stereotyped as inferior compared to Asian Americans and whites. Whites were stereotyped as least inferior. Latinxs and Asian Americans were stereotyped as more foreign compared to African Americans and whites. Whites were least stereotyped as foreign.

Study 4 – What about others?

The researchers comment that Native Americans and Arab Americans are two groups that receive less attention in studies of race and ethnicity. In their final study, the researchers looked at bias against these two additional groups (along with the original four groups). They also looked at the impact of gender. Participants consisted of104 Whites, 85 African Americans, 67 Asian Americans, and 69 Latinxs. Each was asked straight up to rate “Black/African Americans,” “Hispanic/Latino Americans,” “Asians/Asian Americans,” “Native Americans/ American Indians,” “Arab Americans,” and “White Americans” to the extent that each group was seen as “inferior or superior” and “foreign or American” in US society. They were then asked to separately rate men and women of each group in regard to how they were seen in US society.

The findings for the four largest racial and ethnic groups (black Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans and white Americans) followed the same pattern as in the previous three studies. Arab Americans occupied the lowest position in terms of inferiority. They are also considered the most foreign. Native Americans were also viewed as inferior, on par with Latinxs and African Americans. Latinx Americans and Asian Americans were seen as more foreign than African Americans. White Americans were seen as most American.

Men and women of each racial and ethnic group were seen nearly identically, with the single exception that “Asian American women were perceived as only marginally more superior than African American women.”

The researchers wanted to know if the racial and ethnic group of the perceiver (the person making the ratings of other groups) had an effect on how the groups were rated. By and large, people of each racial and ethnic group acted the same when rating groups. The only difference they found was that “Overall, African American participants positioned African Americans as less American than did White participants…. In addition, African American participants positioned Whites as less American than [did] White participants… and Latino participants.”

Implications

The researchers point out some important caveats regarding their findings.

First, they did not measure the absolute amount of prejudice faced by each group. If one group faced more prejudice on the inferior-superior dimension, and another group faced more prejudice on the foreign-American dimension, there is no way to say which group actually faced more prejudice in total.

Second, the findings of prejudice and bias do not necessarily measure how much actual discrimination and material disparity a group faces in regard to housing, employment, education, health and other social sectors that impact well-being. Again, relative comparisons cannot be made.

The researchers also note that at the time of the study, in 2016, Arab Americans were subject to intense scrutiny “regarding the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIL) and controversial political proposals to systematically discriminate against Muslims and Muslim Americans.” They note this may partly account for the positioning of Arab Americans in the findings of Study 4.

All that being said, the Two-Dimensional Model of Racial Positioning bears up well under research, and promises to be helpful in understanding how racial prejudice and bias operate. Racial discrimination is a closely related concern. The researchers point out that studies of discrimination might do well to focus on both dimensions of prejudice when developing measures or analyzing situations.

They also suggest that the two-dimensional model can help predict ways in which various groups of color might come into conflict with one another. Or, alternatively, “A two-dimensional Racial Position Model may clarify under what conditions solidarity is possible and how to produce such conditions to encourage positive relations among racial and ethnic minority groups.”

We would add that this is a game that white Americans, as a racial group, can play as well. For example, they might collude with African Americans in opposing “foreign” groups who “are taking our jobs,” or they might collude with Latinx Americans and Asian Americans against African Americans, characterizing African Americans as “unworthy” of time, attention, and resources.

For those seeking to build multiracial community, it’s important to understand these lines of division and proactively build a common prototype of American identity that fosters solidarity across them.

Zou, L. X., & Cheryan, S. (2017). Two axes of subordination: A new model of racial position. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(5), 696–717. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000080


(1) The researchers also looked at additional categories of theoretical interest throughout the four studies. For the purpose of brevity, and because these categories did not bear significantly upon the main findings, we do not report them here.