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Racism has been a core topic in social psychology since the 1930s. Central to most definitions of racism is the belief in a biological hierarchy between different social groups based on perceived racial differences. As a complex social issue multiple social psychological perspectives have been advanced to understand and theorize beliefs, behavior, and social practices that sustain racial inequality ranging from the individual to the social level of explanation. These include personality theories; social cognition models; realistic group conflict; social identity theory; critical discursive approaches, studies of White privilege; and embodied racism. Although these perspectives are frequently argued to be inconsistent with each other, recent attempts at integration are providing richer accounts of this phenomenon.
- Defining Racism
- Prejudice versus Racism
- New Racism
- Theories of Racism
- Personality Theories
- Social Cognitive Theories
- Realistic Group Conflict and Social Identity Theory
- Critical Discursive Research
- Embodied Racism
- Racism as White Privilege
- Integrating Multiple Perspectives
Although many definitions of racism have been proposed, an all-inclusive definition has yet to be agreed upon, particularly as researchers have identified a variety of ‘racisms’ (Miles and Brown, 2003; Richards, 1997). Central to most definitions of racism is the belief in a biological hierarchy between different social groups based on race, and the associated practices that maintain and reproduce social inequalities between groups based on such beliefs. The belief that different racial groups reflect a natural evolutionary hierarchy, at the top of which are European (White) people was central to scientific racism which was widely promoted as an ideology between 1850 and 1910. During this period, European imperialist expansion and colonial rule over Indigenous peoples created the ideal conditions for the proliferation of such Social Darwinist beliefs (Richards, 1997).
The concept of race is entrenched in both popular usage and scientific discourse as a taken-for-granted, essentialist category that categorizes people into groups based on assumptions that surface phenotypic characteristics such as skin color reflect deeper genotypic features. Despite its ubiquitous taken-for-granted usage, geneticists and biologists discredited the validity of race as a scientific category as long ago as the 1930s (Richards, 1997), and more recently via the mapping of the human genome (McCann-Mortimer et al., 2004). Nonetheless the concept of race continues to be used uncritically both in the scientific community and in everyday discourse as a ‘natural’ kind variable in ways that reinforce the commonplace view that it is a biological and genetic reality that reflects real differences between groups.
Although the notion of a biological hierarchy between groups is generally eschewed today and indeed is associated with blatant forms of racism, it has been replaced with beliefs in a cultural hierarchy between groups where the dominant group’s social values, norms, and practices are represented as superior to those of less dominant groups. As we will discuss further below, this has come to be known as the ‘new racism.’ Group differences therefore, whether biological or cultural, continue to operate as socially meaningful cues by which to categorize and differentiate people. That is, ‘race’ has become a reified and objectified social representation through which group differences come to be understood and explained (Moscovici, 1988).
Prejudice versus Racism
There has been a tendency within psychology to use the terms prejudice and racism interchangeably. Jones (1997), among others, argues that racism is distinct from prejudice. Prejudice has commonly been defined as negative attitudes and behavior toward a social group and its members. Prejudice is typically regarded as an individual phenomenon, whereas racism is a broader construct that links such individual beliefs and behavior to broader social and institutional norms and practices that systematically disadvantage particular groups. The second important difference between prejudice and racism relates to the role of power. At an individual level, a person can display prejudice, but this in itself does not necessarily constitute racism. Central to racism is the ability of dominant groups to systematically exercise power over outgroups. If we define racism without reference to power differentials between groups, it is clear that anyone can engage in ingroup preference and outgroup bias. ‘Everybody is racist’ is a claim that is often used to counter accusations of racism (Hage, 1998). Importantly, the power one group has over another transforms prejudice into racism and links individual prejudice with broader social practices (Jones, 1997).
Racism, practiced at a structural and cultural level, maintains and reproduces the power differentials between groups in the social system. Racism practiced at this broad societal level has been referred to as institutional and cultural racism (Jones, 1997). Institutional racism refers to the institutional policies and practices that are put in place to protect and legitimate the advantages and power one group has over another. Institutional racism can be overt or covert, intentional or unintentional, but the consequences are that racist outcomes are achieved and reproduced. Cultural racism occurs when the dominant group defines the norms, values, and standards in a particular culture. These mainstream ideals permeate all aspects of the social system and are often fundamentally antagonistic with those embraced by particular minority groups. To participate in society, minority groups often have to surrender their own cultural heritage and adopt those of the dominant group (e.g., the White majority).
Although prejudice has been condemned within psychology as negative and pernicious, it has also been criticized for depoliticizing the issue of racial inequality. Because the concept of prejudice is primarily seen as located within the psychology of the individual, it fails to recognize the wider historical, social, and institutional structures that support racial inequality. Because of this narrowness, the concept of prejudice is often challenged as actually part of the problem of racial inequality – by making it an individual pathology rather than a political and social reality. As many social theorists have argued, this has had the net effect of obscuring the political and ideological dimensions of prejudice. Racism can persist in institutional structures and policies in the absence of prejudice at the individual level (Henriques, 1984).
Over the past 50 years, social psychologists and social scientists more broadly have argued that contemporary racism has become less about beliefs in a biological hierarchy between groups, and increasingly about beliefs in the cultural superiority of a dominant group’s values, norms, and practices (Barker, 1981). Survey studies consistently demonstrate that blunt, hostile, segregationist, and White supremacist beliefs are less openly acceptable to White majority group members in Western liberal democracies. However, racial inequality continues to exist. To explain this, a distinction is therefore commonly made between ‘old-fashioned racism’ and ‘modern’ (McConahay, 1986) or ‘symbolic racism’ (Kinder and Sears, 1981), which in contrast, is subtle, covert, and paradoxically, endorses egalitarianism. Modern racism rejects racial segregation and notions of biological supremacy, and is instead, based on feelings that certain social groups transgress important social values such as the work ethic, individualism, self-reliance, and self-discipline: values that are embodied in the Protestant ethic. Symbolic or modern racism justifies and legitimates social inequities based on moral feelings that certain groups violate such traditional values.
Gaertner and Dovidio (1986) have also proposed models of racism that address the changing and complex nature of contemporary beliefs about race. Their ‘ambivalent racism’ and ‘aversive racism’ models both posit that contemporary racial attitudes have become complex, contradictory, and multidimensional. In the ambivalent racism model, pro-Black and anti-Black sentiments are seen to coexist within the person and to reflect different value structures held by the individual. Pro-Black attitudes reflect humanitarian and egalitarian values that emphasize equality and social justice, whereas anti-Black attitudes reflect individualism, the Protestant ethic, hard work, individual achievement, and self-reliance. Similarly, the aversive racism model emphasizes the coexistence of a contradictory complex of attitudes: on the one hand, liberal egalitarian principles of justice and equality; and on the other, a residue set of negative feelings and beliefs about particular groups that are learned early in life, and which are difficult to completely eradicate. Gaertner and Dovidio (1986: p. 63) describe these negative feelings as “discomfort, uneasiness, disgust, and sometimes fear, which tend to motivate avoidance rather than intentionally destructive behaviors.” In both of these accounts, individuals strive to maintain a nonprejudiced image, both to themselves and to others, and struggle unconsciously to resolve the internal psychological ambivalence that is produced by maintaining a contradictory set of attitudes and beliefs. By justifying and legitimating social inequalities between groups on the basis of factors other than race, members of dominant groups can avoid attributions of racism and thus maintain and protect a nonprejudiced self-image. Indeed the psychological and social motivation to dodge a prejudiced identity is a common thread in contemporary theorizing on racism.
Contemporary racism, therefore, is seen as more insidious and difficult to identify because of its subtle and covert nature. This has led to the proliferation of implicit measures to identify and measure this more subtle racial bias (Greenwald et al., 2003). For example, the Implicit Association Test is a response latency measure using subliminal primes to test the strength of association between social categories (e.g., ‘Black’ or ‘White’) and positive and negative trait characteristics. Slower responses to stereotype inconsistent associations (Black þ positive traits and White þ negative traits) than to stereotype consistent associations (Black þ negative traits and White þ positive traits) is treated as evidence for an implicit bias or prejudice toward Blacks. Indeed the distinction between implicit and explicit racial bias is now so ubiquitous in social psychology that it is sometimes (erroneously) assumed that implicit measures reflect people’s true or real attitudes whereas explicit measures merely reflect social desirability norms. It has been argued, however, that implicit measures do not tap racial attitudes or beliefs per se but deeply ingrained stereotypes strongly associated with particular groups. Devine’s (1989) dissociation model of prejudice is consistent with this view and posits that stereotypes are more primitive cognitive structures learned early in life that can be automatically activated, whereas racial attitudes (prejudice) are learned later in life and can be either inconsistent or consistent with these stereotypes. The fact that negative stereotypes can be unconsciously activated even among people with low levels of explicit prejudice should not be taken as evidence that prejudice is an inevitable and natural cognitive tendency in everyone. As we will discuss below, the inevitability of prejudice perspective is associated with cognitive models of prejudice.
Theories of Racism
A variety of explanations for prejudice and racism have been advanced by social psychologists throughout the twentieth century. The prevalence of particular kinds of explanations has shifted during this time depending on wider historical and social factors and the dominance of specific paradigmatic frameworks within social psychology itself. Here we provide an overview of six current approaches to racism ranging from the individual to the social level of explanation: personality theories; social cognition models; realistic group conflict and social identity theory; critical discursive approaches, studies of White privilege; and embodied racism.
Freudian psychodynamic accounts of prejudice were prevalent between 1930 and 1960. Prejudice was largely understood as a product of intrapsychic unconscious impulses primarily related to sexual and aggressive desires within the person. To reduce tension, negative emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust generated by these internal psychological conflicts are projected outward onto outgroups.
The most well known of these psychodynamic approaches is The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno et al. (1950). Published soon after the end of the Second World War, Adorno et al. were interested in explicating a theory that accounted for the widespread support for fascism as was seen in Nazi Germany. Adorno et al. (1950) argued that parent–child relationships with severe and punitive parental discipline produce children with an authoritarian personality characterized by a rigid adherence to conventional social values and mores, an unquestioning subservience to one’s moral and social superiors, and a vigilance for, and hostile rejection of, those who violate conventional social values and mores. The F Scale was developed to measure levels of authoritarianism and was widely used as a personality measure. High levels of authoritarianism were found to be associated with all types of prejudice (racism, sexism, homophobia). Despite the widespread use of the F Scale, by the 1960s, the theory of the authoritarian personality was strongly criticized for its emphasis on internal psychological predispositions at the expense of social and cultural norms that tolerated prejudice and sanctioned institutionalized racism, for example, racial segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa (Pettigrew, 1958).
Interest in authoritarianism was revived in 1981 with Altemeyer’s theory of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). RWA is described as a rigid adherence to social conventions, submission to established authorities, and a strong rejection of outgroups who are perceived to be culturally and ethnically different. Unlike Adorno et al. whose work was heavily influenced by psychodynamic theory, Altemeyer theorized RWA as an individual personality characteristic that was predominantly shaped by social learning experiences. RWA has been found to be a good predictor of racial and ethnic prejudice in a variety of different settings, more so than the early authoritarianism scales.
The most recent personality approach to prejudice is that of ‘social dominance orientation’ or SDO (Sidanius and Pratto, 2001). SDO is purported to be a stable individual difference that refers to a person’s level of support for group-based hierarchies in society such as racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic hierarchies. Like RWA, SDO is strongly correlated with prejudice. SDO scores vary with gender (males score higher), personality and temperament, education, religion, and whether one is a member of a dominant or subordinate group. Although the concept of SDO is embedded within a wider social theory, it too has been criticized for reducing prejudice to a psychological trait rather than a social phenomenon that requires a social/structural explanation. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of SDO is the claim that group-based hierarchies and the legitimating beliefs that support them have an evolutionary basis.
Significant limitations have been identified with personality accounts of prejudice. Most notably is the issue of why certain groups rather than others become the targets for prejudice by authoritarians, those high on RWA and/or SDO. In addition, although such theories recognize that economic, historical, and social factors contribute to these predispositions, the potential interplay between individual psychology and social structural factors is rarely dealt with explicitly or integrated thoroughly into these models.
Social Cognitive Theories
Gordon Allport’s seminal work, The Nature of Prejudice (1954), provides the foundational basis for social cognitive models of prejudice which have become dominant and influential in social psychology since the 1980s. Allport’s definition of prejudice as “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization” (1954: p. 9), about a social group and its members emphasizes the prominent role that social categorization and stereotyping as perceptual–cognitive processes are given in social cognition models. According to these models, categorizing people into their respective group memberships (such as race, gender, age) is driven by our cognitive need to simplify the overwhelming amount of stimulus information we receive from our environment. This group-based or category-based perception is seen as distorting reality because people are not viewed as individuals in their own right but rather as prototypical group members. In turn, this leads to stereotyping, which recent social cognition research suggests can occur automatically and outside conscious awareness (Nosek et al., 2011). Stereotyping of course is just one step away from prejudice – literally prejudging someone based solely on their group membership. This inextricable relationship between categorization, stereotyping, and prejudice is central to social cognition models of prejudice and notwithstanding some of the qualifications that recent research has placed on this directional, and by implication, causative link between these three processes (e.g., Devine, 1989, see above), it is nonetheless the case that categorization in and of itself is seen as the cognitive basis for prejudice, driven primarily by our limited processing capacities.
Social cognition models have been criticized for normalizing prejudice and racism as inevitable products of our cognitive hard-wiring. Critics have also argued that by treating racial categories and racial categorization as natural rather than social and ideological constructs, social cognition models themselves reproduce racism in psychology (Hopkins et al., 1997).
Realistic Group Conflict and Social Identity Theory
Realistic group conflict theory and social identity theory are intergroup approaches to racism in social psychology that emphasize the role that relations of power and dominance between different social groups play in determining patterns of intergroup hostility. As the name suggests, realistic group conflict views intergroup hostility as arising from competition between social groups for economic, social, and cultural resources. Unlike personality theories that see racism and prejudice as outcomes of internal psychological drives or differences in personality, in this approach conflict is viewed as emerging from ‘real’ group-based interests. The famous boys’ camp field studies by Sherif et al. (1961) demonstrated how the creation of two competing groups was able to produce ingroup favoring and outgroup derogating attitudes and behavior between the two groups. When the social conditions were changed, however, and the two groups were required to cooperate to obtain resources or to complete valued tasks, intergroup hostility began to diminish.
Another series of famous studies, the minimal group experiments by Henri Tajfel and his colleagues formed the foundations upon which social Identity theory (SIT) was built (Tajfel and Turner, 1986). Many social psychologists have concluded erroneously from the minimal group experiments that the mere categorization of people into ingroups and outgroups is sufficient to trigger intergroup discrimination and prejudice. Although SIT stresses the psychological importance for groups to differentiate themselves positively from other groups this does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with ingroup enhancement and outgroup derogation though regrettably these are all too frequent occurrences. Groups can maintain a positive social identity without threatening the social identity of others. SIT posits that groups and their members strive to achieve some sort of differentiation from other groups, in ways that are shaped by the nature of the intergroup context and on dimensions of importance to them. Sometimes those dimensions of importance emphasize tolerance, generosity, and beneficence, but again all too often these dimensions emphasize superiority, dominance, and preserving ingroup privilege (Ellemers and Haslam, 2012).
Critical Discursive Research
Critical discursive research views racism as interactive and communicative and as located within the language practices and discourses of a society. This body of work emphasizes the ambivalent and contradictory nature of contemporary racism, but explicitly avoids making claims about the psychology of individual perceivers. Discursive studies analyze how people talk, discuss, and debate matters to do with ‘race’ and intergroup relations in both formal and informal settings (van den Berg et al., 2003).
It is through everyday language practices, both in formal and informal talk that relations of power, dominance, and exploitation become reproduced and legitimated. The analytic site for discursive research is how discursive resources and rhetorical arguments are put together to construct different social and ‘racial’ identities, and to provide accounts that legitimate these differences and identities as ‘real’ and ‘natural.’ Discursive studies locate these language practices or ‘ways of talking’ at a societal level, as products of a racist society rather than as individual psychological and/or cognitive products. The analytic site therefore is not the prejudiced or racist individual, but the discursive and linguistic resources that are available within an inequitable society (Wetherell and Potter, 1992). This approach has been able to identify how linguistic resources are combined in flexible and contradictory ways to reproduce and justify racist outcomes in modern liberal democracies. In some instances, existing relations of power, dominance, and privilege are maintained through overt racial ideology, but given the increasing opprobrium against the expression of such views, social inequalities are more commonly legitimated through the flexible and contradictory use of liberal egalitarian arguments that draw on principles such as freedom, individual rights, and equality. Discursive studies in several Western countries including Australia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States have demonstrated how majority group members express negative and even hostile views of minorities by the use of self-sufficient rhetorical arguments premised on liberal and egalitarian values such as treating everybody equally.
Critical discursive research has demonstrated the varied ways the category of racism is itself highly contested in everyday life: that is, defining what is and what is not racist is far from being a value-free, neutral assessment. Rather, the category of racism itself is constructed flexibly and variably, and can be used to manage the moral accountability and identity of an individual or group. van Dijk (1992) documents the ubiquitous nature of denials of racism through the use of disclaimers such as “I’m not racist but . .” Contemporary race talk therefore, is strategically organized to deny prejudice and racism. By redrawing the boundaries of what may be legitimately defined as ‘racist,’ the category of racism may be used to position a person or group as ‘not racist’ by placing their own behavior and views outside of these boundaries.
These language practices are forms of power that are products of particular historical, hierarchical relationships between groups of people, in which some people have unjustly and unfoundedly claimed dominance over others. Understood as power relationships, racism shapes the lives of everyone within these hierarchies, both the oppressed and the oppressors. In this sense, ‘race’ is a form of categorization that reflects particular forms of power relations between groups of people, rather than reflecting the actual attributes (whether they be physical or behavioral) of any particular group of people.
While critical discursive research has been invaluable for elucidating the perpetuation and legitimation of racism, it has also been criticized for its privileging of discourse; for ignoring the materiality of oppression. Discursive work has tended to become heavily involved in identifying the rhetorical aspects of racism and oppression, but has been less concerned with the nexus between discourse, space, and place. Such a research focus has been taken up by Durrheim and Dixon (2005) in South Africa.
Durrheim and Dixon (2005) combine discourse analysis with ethnographic mapping to identify the ways in which discourses are embodied in people’s use of public places such as beaches. They demonstrate that, even in post-Apartheid South Africa, there remains significant physical segregation on South Africa’s beaches – Whites and Blacks use different areas of the beach, and use the beach at different times. These spatial practices are legitimated through discourses about ‘appropriate beach behavior’ with White beach-goers explaining that they leave the beach because Black beach-goers are too loud, create mess, and do not respect personal space. Their research demonstrates the interdependence of discourse and embodied practices and how “‘race relations’ are constructed both in language and in located bodily practices, emphasising how people describe and account for the racialised features of social life that they participate in” (Durrheim and Dixon, 2005: p. 459). They argue that without such a combined approach, research on racism cannot capture the lived experience of racism, or of anti-racism. Their observations and interviews capture the ongoing nature of racism in everyday life, even where overt official structures maintaining inequality are dismantled.
Racism as White Privilege
While traditional research on racism focuses on attitudes and practices toward minorities, recent research on White privilege turns the gaze from minorities to the majority group. Thus there is a shift in focus – the gaze moves away from those who bear the brunt of racism, and toward the discourses and institutional practices of those who benefit from racism (Aveling, 2004). This body of work focuses on White identity construction (e.g., Carter, 1997). It also examines the ways in which whiteness is produced and reproduced in different social and cultural sites; and the implications of these constructions for intergroup relations and anti-racism (e.g., Hage, 1998). Whiteness studies is primarily concerned with how White people’s identities are shaped by broader institutionalized forms of racism and brings to the fore both the benefits that White people accrue because of their privileged position in society and the responsibilities they have for addressing racism (Giroux, 1997).
Clearly the category ‘White’ or ‘White people’ is problematic as a way of referencing the dominant majority in Western liberal democracies as it fails to adequately reflect the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of group members that may identify as ‛White.’ Nonetheless by marking ‘whiteness’ (not only as a category of skin color, but of cultural capital (Hage, 1998)), there is an attempt to make visible the unearned power and privilege that accrues to the dominant majority, especially those that have access to the highest cultural and social capital – in terms of appearance, ancestry, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and employment (Hage, 1998).
Broadly speaking, whiteness is “. the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality, and privilege rather than disadvantage.” In this definition, whiteness is something that places White people in normative positions and grants White people unfair privileges. These positions and privileges are often invisible to White people, because of this normativity. Indeed, it is this normativity that gives whiteness its power (Frankenberg, 1993: p. 236).
Integrating Multiple Perspectives
This overview of social psychological approaches to racism always raises the difficult question of whether it is possible to integrate these different theories. This question has always been a bone of contention within psychology, as analytic frameworks differ significantly in their epistemological assumptions and orientations. It also raises the question of whether integration is desirable.
Duckitt (1992) argues that these multiple social psychological perspectives are not necessarily competing paradigms, but rather each is a valid response to different aspects of this social phenomenon: unconscious processes, personality, cognitions, social norms and linguistic practices, power, social structure, and intergroup relations.
Duckitt (1992) has proposed an integrative framework that identifies four primary causal processes of prejudice: internal psychological processes; social and intergroup dynamics; social transmission; and individual differences. He argues that each of these causal processes provides a partial but essential contribution to the explanation of prejudice: psychological processes build a human propensity for prejudice; social and intergroup dynamics elaborate this propensity into socially shared patterns of interaction; these patterns are socially transmitted throughout social groups; and individual differences in susceptibility to prejudice modify these social norms. Each theory is limited on its own as it focuses on and seeks to elaborate just one of these causal processes.
While Duckitt’s integrative framework has considerable appeal more recent critical approaches that focus on racial discourse, power, whiteness, and embodiment are largely ignored in this model. Bringing all of these together we conclude that social psychology has conceptualized racism to be a normative, often invisible system of social practices, cognitions, emotions, and discourses that are perpetuated through all levels (individual, interpersonal, intergroup, institutional) that privilege one social group and disadvantage and marginalize other social groups. These practices can be overt assertions of biological difference, but in today’s social and political climate, are more likely to be covert and implicit.
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