Social Psychology and Racism

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Social psychology

Social psychology addresses the concepts of racism by analyzing publicly expressed racial or national prejudices.  Most issues are presented in terms of joint efforts of society as a whole.  The ideas that one individual has tends to transfer to others in that individual’s society.

Social psychology and racism

There are four main concepts involved is associating Social Psychology and racism.  Stereotyping, Prejudicial Stereotyping, Projection and Scapegoating are all to be addressed below:

  • Stereotyping places an individual into a category and assigns all the characteristics of such category to the individual, regardless of whether or not the individual possesses those characteristics.
  • Prejudicial Stereotyping is similar to stereotyping in the sense of categorizing an individual, but it also adds irrational prejudices to the stereotype.
  • Projection involves an individual that does not realize his own personality faults are defective. This individual passes this defect onto others and then campaigns against it.  Example:  A woman organizes a campaign against drunk driving, and rallies for law changes to be stricter on offenders.  She is later arrested for drunk driving.
  • Scapegoating is a means of responding to aggression. An innocent third party is targeted as the source for aggression.  Example: A man works as a construction laborer and gets laid off at the end of the season.  The man blames the Mexican workers for taking all the work assignments.  The man and a fellow employee confront one of the Mexican workers and physically assault him.

These concepts concern the meanings of social groupings and how those meanings come to guide patterns of relations among individuals recognized as members of particular groups.

Social perspectives on racism

“Existing social psychological perspectives tend to overlook the fact that public expressions of racial, ethnic or national prejudice normally constitute collaborative accomplishments, the product of joint action between a number of individuals.” (Condor, 2006)  What is frequently overlooked is the fact that these public expressions of prejudice happen primarily between individuals in a social setting.

“Realistic conflict theory is based on the simple idea that groups engage in a struggle for scarce resources of some description.” (Meek, 1998)  This shows a “simple observation that we tend to divide the world into ‘us and them’ or ‘ingroup and outgroup.” (Baron and Byrne, 1994: pp. 228-229)  In addition, we also have the tendency to categorize the outgroups based on preconceived prejudices.  “Not surprisingly, it has also been found that there is a tendency to make more flattering comments about ‘us’ than about ‘them.’ (Meek, 1998)  Basically we are showing the positives of ourselves, and accentuating the negatives, or prejudices if you will, of others.  “We seem highly pre-disposed to form ‘us and them’ groups.” (Meek, 1998) “Race is used as a criterion for categorization.” (Tajfel and Frasier, 1978: p. 318) “The ‘minimal group studies’ by Tajfel et al in Bristol not only reiterated this fact but also demonstrated just how predisposed we are to exhibit prejudice and discrimination to ‘them’ whoever ‘they’ are – even when divided into groups on the trivial basis of mere artistic preference as Tajfel did – even at a cost to us.” (Meek, 1998)

The ‘frustration-aggression hypothesis’ (Baron and Byrne, 1994: pp.444) originally states that frustration leads to aggression and always stems from frustration.  Thus, we have the scapegoat aspect.  Scapegoating is more common with targets such as a group that has little or no social and political power.

Theories of racism

A more simple theory is taken from social-learning theories. (Baron and Byrne, 1994: pp. 230-231) “The child acquires racist attitudes and beliefs by observing them in those surrounding it, particularly the media and popular culture, and parents and peers.  The child is positively reinforced by, for example, parental approval for demonstrating the same sort of language as them.” (Meek, 1998)

Explaining racism cognitively gives way to stereotyping.  We tend to find life less difficult by stereotyping individuals.  Less thought is involved.  “Stereotyping individuals by mentally assigning them into homogenous groups with identifiable traits just make life easier for us.” (Baron and Byrne, 1994: pp. 231-239)  Instead of accepting information to contradict current stereotypes, we would rather accept information that coincides with current stereotypes.

Racism is considered a form of collectivism: “[the assertion] that the values and behaviour of some individual are the inevitable result of their race [its determinist] and, since this determinism is applied to a group, [it is] collectivist.” (Roentsch, 1985a)

Literature contains a number of distinct and vital clusters of intellectual activity: “some focus on problems (e.g., minority status and performance in school), some on method (e.g., surveys of racial attitudes), and others on theory (e.g., status expectation states theory).” (Bobo and Fox, 2003)

One of the many bodies of research has “focused on the degree of contact and interpersonal or intimate relations between dominant – and subordinate-group members.” (Allport, 1954)  There has been a tremendous amount of attention given to how openly individuals discuss their views on racial issues.  “For more than three decades, scholars belonging to three main schools of thought have proposed competing theories to explain racism.” (Bobo and Fox, 2003)

  • The first group of theories are social-psychological in nature; “they all share the assumption that old fashioned racism has not disappeared but rather has been replaced by a new and different brand of racism, variously called symbolic racism or racial resentment (Henry and Sears, 2002), subtle versus blatant prejudice (Pettigrew and Meertens, 1995), or other forms of racism (Feagin, 2000).”
  • The second group of theories are social-structural in nature.  They only differ slightly from social-psychological theories.  Social-structural theories take group interests seriously.  “These theories, which include realistic group conflict theory and sense of group position, generally maintain that individuals identify with their own racial or ethnic group, that group conflict emerges from competing interests, and that dominant groups develop and propagate idealologies that maintain and even legitimize their higher social status.” (Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo, 2000)  With these theories, prejudice results from competition regarding resources or privileges.
  • In the third theory, “sometimes labeled principled politics, whites’ opposition to liberal racial policies is rooted not in any new racism nor in any competing group interest, but rather in race – neutral values and idealologies such as fairness or individualism.” (Sniderman and Carmines, 1997)



Allport, Gordon W. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books

Baron, R. and Byrne, D. (1994) Social Psychology, 7th Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, M.A.

Leagin, Joe R. (1991)’The Continuing Significance of Race: Anti-Black Discrimination in Public Places.’ American Sociological Review (Vol. 56: pp.101-116)

Henry, P.J. and Sears, David O. (2002) ‘The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale’ Political Psychology (Vol. 23: pp.253-283

Meek, Nigel (1998) ‘Racism, Collectivism, and Social Psychology.’ Libertarian Alliance

Pettigrew, Thomas F. and Meertens, Roel F. (1995) ‘Subtle and Blatant Prejudice in Western Europe’ Journal of Social Psychology Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Vol.25: pp.57-75)

Roentsch, D. (1985a) ‘What is Racism?’, in The Radical Capitalist (USA), 3 (1), pp.1-3 and pp. 7-8

Sears, David; Sidanius, Jim; and Bobo, Lawrence, D. (eds) (2002) Racialized Politics: The Debate on Racism in America Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Sniderman, Paul M. and Carmines, Edward (1997) Reaching Beyond Race. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press

Tajfel, H. and Fraser, C. (eds) (1978) Introducing Social Psychology. Penguin, Harmondsworth


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