Racism has been—and unfortunately still is—such a prominent feature of so many human societies that it might be tempting to think of it as somehow “natural” or “innate.”
Indeed, this is the conclusion that some evolutionary psychologists have come to. Evolutionary psychology tries to account for present-day human traits in terms of the survival benefit they might have had for our ancestors. If a trait has survived and becomes prevalent, then the genes associated with it must have been “selected” by evolution. In this article, we shall discuss the psychology of racism.
The psychological study of racism can be summed up in one word: Evolving. How society thinks about race and racism has changed and with it, the psychological discourse has changed as well.
Many Americans, particularly White Americans, were complacent going into the year 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic started, the complacency started to wane and was replaced with fear and a sense of unrest. When George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25, 2020, a bright spotlight was redirected to an uncomfortable reality that most BIPOC Americans already knew: Racism is still alive and well in America.
With the added spotlight has come a renewed interest in understanding racism. This article discusses the psychology of racism, including historical perspectives as well as more current views on the individual and systemic nature of racism.
Table of Contents
- 1 Psychological History of Racism
- 2 Prejudice vs. Racism
- 3 Cultural Tools That Perpetuate Racism
- 4 Explanations for Racism
- 5 Factors That Contribute to Racism
- 6 Combating Racism and Promoting Anti-Racism
Psychological History of Racism
The psychological understanding of racism has historically been focused on individual psychology—how racism is driven by the beliefs and behaviors of individual people (the social-psychological approach). But there are severe limitations to viewing racism solely through this lens.
Today, some researchers are using and advocating for a cultural-psychological approach, which views racism as ideas and practices embedded in culture, where individuals shape culture and culture shapes individuals.
Early Theories of Racism
Early psychological theories of racism justified the domination of one race over another because of Charles Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest. It was theorized that there was some survival advantage to being racist.2 However, modern hunter-gatherer tribes were not found to exclude out-groups (people not included in a particular group), and this problematic theory was rejected.
Then, race psychology theorized that there were brain differences between races and that intelligence tests and segregation were the answer.4 Later in 1954, American psychologist Gordon Allport argued in his book, “The Nature of Prejudice,” that people use categories to understand their world better and that racism was simply an artifact of that process.
Whatever the history of the psychology of racism is in the United States, the actual history of racism is that White people have been and continue to be afforded benefits in society because of a system that was set up for their benefit. Racism is real regardless of whether White people recognize or accept it.
Early explanations of racism were often inherently racist. Modern views on racism don’t simply focus on individual acts of racism but also look at how racism is perpetuated at a societal and cultural level.
Prejudice vs. Racism
Many people misunderstand and confuse the definitions of racism and prejudice. Though related, they are different.
Prejudice is a negative preconception or attitude toward members of a group based on shared characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, age, religion, language, class, or culture. Prejudice can be racial, but it can also be sexist, ageist, or classist, for example.
Prejudiced beliefs are usually learned early in life and can affect behavior in subtle and overt ways.6 For example, a teacher with prejudice might hold the belief that girls aren’t good at math. That belief would then affect the teacher’s behavior with their students, whether consciously or subconsciously.
In contrast, racism is directed at a particular racial group and is based on systems of power and oppression. Racism is often seen as being a problem with individual racial prejudice, but it is important to recognize that it is much more multifaceted and systemic.
People commonly think of racism in terms of overt individual actions and ideologies (the social-psychological understanding), but it also exists within systems, organizations, and cultures (the cultural-psychological understanding). In this way, racism is embedded in the reality of everyday life.
Since racism is part of daily life, cultural patterns, and historical narratives in the U.S., it is often difficult for people to see how familiar and normalized ideas promote racialized views and behaviors.
Racism isn’t just about individuals demonstrating racial prejudice or engaging in direct acts of racial discrimination; it is often less immediately obvious and much more insidious, affecting institutions like the justice system, in which Black defendants regularly face harsher sentences than White defendants for the same crimes, for example.
Decreases in overt expressions of racial bias might suggest that racial prejudice (and therefore racism) is less extreme in modern America; however, many psychologists suggest that racial bias has gone underground, and they have mounted substantial evidence that it instead thrives in subtle forms.
While most blatant individual demonstrations of racism are no longer tolerated or viewed as acceptable in “mainstream” contemporary American society, our society’s understanding of what is racist continues to evolve. In reality, our institutions are not so far removed from the years of colonialism, slavery, and segregation, and racism is still ignored, condoned, or even actively supported in many facets of American life.
In order to better understand how racism operates, it’s important to look beyond individual psychology to the systemic and cultural practices that continue to uphold racism.
Cultural Tools That Perpetuate Racism
The dominant American culture’s discomfort with race and racism continues to result in harmful beliefs and sentiments that promote ignorance about racism and uphold the racial status quo. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that they are “color-blind,” “don’t see color,” or that “race doesn’t matter.” Maybe you’ve even said something to that effect yourself.
Those ideas, though often promoted as inclusive, actually shut down important conversations about race and deny the fact that racism exists not only on an individual level but as a systemic problem. It’s the same as responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.”
This denial of the significance of race is a tool that allows the dominant racial group to legitimize the effects of racism under the guise of individual merit. Through this lens, people in positions of power can credit their successes to their own hard work while positioning the disadvantages oppressed racial groups face as personal rather than systemic failures.
Continuing to support this individualistic American narrative results in blindness to the realities of America’s racist systems. For example, research has shown in no uncertain terms that Black Americans experience disparities in income, employment, education, and health.8 But research shows that White Americans still tend to be less aware of these racial realities than people who are part of racial minority groups.
Ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away. Rather, it perpetuates it, effectively shutting down the possibility of moving forward by not having important conversations about the problems and possible solutions.
Explanations for Racism
As more attention is being given to the racism ingrained in our society, many more people are seeking explanations for it. Is it survival of the fittest, or a psychological defense mechanism to help people identify with a primary group and feel more secure? Below is a list of possible psychological explanations for why racism exists.
It’s true that those who lack an identity and struggle with insecurity may seek group membership. Consequently, after finding a group, members of the group may start to alienate non-group members. Sometimes, hostility arises toward those people who have been alienated.
While in a clique, people tend to think and behave more like the people they surround themselves with. It becomes much easier to attack others when you’re among people who share the same viewpoint. Racism comes in when groups are formed based on characteristics like race, bolstered by beliefs of superiority, and supported by systems of oppression.
Lack of Compassion
Alienation of others eventually leads to less compassion for those who have been ostracized. People begin to only show compassion and empathy for those they regularly associate with.
Consider, for example, television segments asking viewers to donate to causes that support food security for families in Africa. These messages may be easier for a person to dismiss if they don’t identify with the group or culture in need. This dismissal may or may not be overt racism, but it begins with a lack of empathy.
Projection of Flaws
When people feel bad about themselves or recognize their shortcomings, instead of dealing with them and trying to fix them, they may project their self-loathing onto others. Alienated groups can easily become scapegoats for those who ignore their own personal flaws.
Poor Mental Health
Is racism a sign of poor mental health? Not necessarily, but it can be. For example, paranoid personality disorder and narcissism are both mental health disorders that are characterized in part by feelings of insecurity, which may make a person more likely to hold racist beliefs or engage in racist behaviors. But it’s important to recognize that racist beliefs and actions are certainly not limited to people with mental health disorders.
Hatred and Fear
Extreme hatred is almost always based on fear. People may feel threatened by people they view as “different” or “foreign.” They may fear losing power. To combat this fear, some people may seek social support from others with similar fears, perpetuating the cycle.
Racism is not a mental illness, but it is certainly related to psychological adaptation. Factors such as personal insecurity, lack of empathy, and projection may contribute to racism.
Factors That Contribute to Racism
In a 2020 paper published in the journal American Psychologist, Steven O. Roberts, a Stanford psychologist, and Michael T. Rizzo, a New York University postdoctoral fellow, discuss what leads to racism.4 With their paper, the authors aimed to provide an overview of several of the major factors theorized to contribute to racism in America. Those factors are the following.
Humans learn to group people into categories based on race from a young age. Roberts and Rizzo hold that racial categories are not inborn but become significant because “they are federally sanctioned (e.g., by the U.S. Census Bureau), easily employed by individuals, and because they directly tell people which racial categories to form.”
Category labels can support a belief that category members have a shared identity, which promotes stereotypes. This categorical grouping and the concept of shared identity later lead to factions.
Categories lead to factions in which people are assigned to a racial group and begin to strongly identify with their racial ingroup. Positive perceptions of their assigned racial group and the desire to show cooperation, loyalty, and empathy to the group commonly lead to behavior that benefits the group, even to the detriment of another group.
Beyond loyalty to their own group, group members can also begin to show hostility toward other groups as a result of real or perceived competition or threats to their self-image, values, or resources.
Being segregated from other racial groups greatly influences attitudes and feelings about race. Lack of contact with other racial groups tends to narrow and harden a person’s beliefs and opinions about others and offers few chances for negative beliefs to be challenged. That is why segregation by race early in life can influence the development of racist attitudes.
A hierarchical system assigns wealth, power, and influence unevenly across groups. Hierarchies are further reinforced by beliefs that attribute power and status to individual characteristics rather than systematic influences, ultimately resulting in the dominant group believing that they are, in fact, superior to non-dominant groups.
Power grants groups the ability to build a society that benefits them. It also allows them to create what are considered to be culturally acceptable standards. They control resources and are allowed to exploit others and assume dominance. When power is distributed along racial divides as it is in the U.S., so are advantages.
The media plays a role in sustaining racism. On one level there is simply representation (or lack thereof). When the media consistently portrays a mostly White cast of actors in magazines, television shows, and movies, it makes the White culture the “dominant” or “normal” American culture.
On another level, there is how the media portrays racial groups. When media reinforces racial stereotypes in its representation of different racial groups, it also reinforces individual racial prejudice and the systems that perpetuate institutionalized racism.
The final factor Roberts and Rizzo describe is perhaps the most important. It is the passive racism that results from ignorance, apathy, or denial. When racism is systemic and ingrained in social structures, all that is required to sustain it is inaction. People do not need to be actively racist in their beliefs and actions to support racist systems—they simply need to do nothing to change those systems.
Research suggests that many factors contribute to racism on both individual and systemic levels. These factors include categorization, factions that pit people against each other, social hierarchies, power, and media influences.
Combating Racism and Promoting Anti-Racism
When faced with the sheer magnitude of racism in America, it can be easy to feel powerless. But there are things you can do on an individual level to influence both interpersonal racism and systemic racism. Below are some ways in which racism can be combated on an individual level:
- Build a system of equity in which all communities are equally engaged.
- Direct attention to the problem of racism instead of sweeping it under the rug or pretending that it does not exist.
- When you hear racist attitudes, challenge them; ask people for the reason behind their thinking and encourage them to consider alternatives.
- Remember that change does not occur overnight and be patient when it seems like the progress being made is slow; even small changes can lead to big results when you are consistent in your actions.
- Teach children inclusion and empathy from a young age so that they grow up to be adults who can identify racism and challenge it.
- Conduct psychological research on how social norms change and how best to implement systems that result in the changing attitudes of people in the dominant group so that systems will also be affected.
- Design a curriculum that addresses the legacy of the United States history of racism and teaches students how to be aware of their own inherent biases.
- Engage in contact in favorable conditions with other groups, and work toward shared goals with people from different races.
- Seek and foster friendships across racial lines so that you can start seeing people as individuals rather than as just part of a race.
The way children learn about American history can affect their understanding of racism. For example, one study looked at how Black History Month was taught in predominantly White and predominantly Black schools. The researchers found marked differences in how information was presented.10
In mostly White schools, students were exposed to displays and discussions that were highly abstract and focused more on individual achievements rather than addressing racism. At mostly Black schools, however, information more directly addressed racism and the effects of racial barriers.
Combating racism is about more than being “not racist,” which often equates to passive racism. Learning to be actively anti-racist is essential. For example, research has shown that taking a more direct, anti-racist approach to teach children about history has a greater impact on their understanding of the real effects of racism.
For too long, racism has been relegated to the past or reduced to individual beliefs and actions. As a result, America’s lingering systemic and institutionalized racism has been overlooked and allowed to persist and progress. But cultural-psychological approaches to understanding racism challenge these ideas. Racism is in more ways a cultural phenomenon than an individual psychological occurrence.
What this means is that you do not need to be racist to uphold racist systems. We each have a personal responsibility to challenge racism on an individual level, but we also must look toward the cultural structures that perpetuate individual bias and the injustice that racism causes.