The psychology of racism


Inherent factors that shape prejudicial attitudes


The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 has not only created havoc in the US but has given a reason to the entire world to ponder over a concerning issue that has been prevailing since long. It is known as racism. Psychological research shows that discrimination and prejudices have long been apparent in societies in many parts of the world, especially United States. According to American Psychological Association (APA), racism is defined as discrimination and prejudice against others because of their race or ethnicity. Race has a long and complicated history and goes way back to the twentieth century, when mass slaughter was witnessed in many countries like Germany, South Africa and Rwanda.

Two sub-factors that contribute to the complex makeup of racism are discrimination and prejudice. Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude, usually negative, towards an individual or group of people based primarily on the individual’s membership of a social group, whereas discrimination is the behaviour or actions, negative mainly towards an individual or group of people especially on the basis of class, race, sex, etc. Prejudice is commonly seen around the world in many societies. Many social scientists argue that prejudice involves a pre-judgment, usually negative, about a group or its members. Psychologically, prejudice is not a statement of opinion or belief, but an attitude that includes feelings such as contempt, dislike or loathing.

Human beings are social creatures and like to be a part of a group and perceive the particular group as important, which is said to be positive distinctiveness

The rate of prejudice is greater than any other negative emotion or attitude in racism, thus linking it with stereotypes. Prejudice, stereotype and discrimination often go hand-in-hand, with a possibility to occur without one another. Psychological theories of prejudice suggest that American and European race theories majorly proved white superiority. These theories demonstrate the superiority of white people and many social scientists view prejudice as a natural response to black people being dubbed a ‘backward’ race. Psychologists also argue that a large number of people exhibit aversive racism i.e., attitudes towards members of racial groups that incorporate both egalitarian social values and negative emotions, causing one to avoid interaction with the members of the group causing distance among the individuals.

Numerous deep-rooted institutional and cultural forces contribute to racism, but psychological processes and motives have a lot to do with it as well. A number of studies have proven that people often use prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviour to boost their own self-esteem and when their self-esteem is threatened, prejudicial actions such as racism appear to restore it. This is not visible in all racist individuals but some acquire this attribute.

We live in a diverse and multi-ethnic world and it is our responsibility to learn and understand ways to reduce social prejudice

Human beings are social creatures and like to be a part of a group and perceive the particular group as important, which is said to be positive distinctiveness. Hence, race is an important group distinction and usually promotes negative attitudes toward other people, who belong to other racial groups. It is believed that prejudice and racism may be a part of basic survival motives. Humans have a natural instinct for survival. They thrive in groups and compete over scarce resources. In today’s world, nations and groups within nations fight over limited natural resources available to them. Social and psychological research suggests that it is very easy to vie groups against each other, especially if they are competing for a scarce resource. However, this cause of racism may be an inborn proclivity towards group conflicts in the search of resource acquisition, therefore leading to prejudicial distinction.

Researchers have also proclaimed that racism may be driven by dominance motives. Humans are hierarchical creatures and to have a hierarchy, there must be a status difference between people. Racism, therefore, helps preserve status difference because it oppresses minority groups. High dominance individuals are more inclined to hold prejudicial attitudes towards members of minority groups. In the United States, a majority of the population is white, which creates a sense of superiority among them and they tend to promote excessive authority over many black citizens.

We live in a diverse and multi-ethnic world and it is our responsibility to learn and understand ways to reduce social prejudice. It is also important to get a clear understanding of not only the cultural and ethnic discriminations and prejudices among societies but also the psychological forces that promote racism. Inter-group contact under all the positive conditions can reduce social prejudice. Cooperation toward shared goals, equal status between groups, and the support of all the local authorities and major governing bodies can prohibit groups from practicing racism. Besides, by inter-group contact between majorities and minorities of every society, we can come together as an overarching group as a part of a community for a common humanity.


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