America’s struggles with race and racism are never completely out of the news. But it is hard to remember when a series of stories have given this issue such resonance, whether in the rulings of the Supreme Court on affirmative action and voting rights, a tense trial in a Florida courtroom and even the racially insensitive comments of a celebrity chef.
In the wake of the election of the nation’s first black president, African Americans’ sense of the country’s – and their own – progress improved markedly, as a 2010 Pew Research Center report documented. To some extent, these more positive views endure: Our June survey found that blacks (36%) were far more likely than whites (19%) to say that economic conditions were excellent or good, even though the unemployment rate for blacks was roughly double that for whites.
Yet the good feelings among blacks after Barack Obama’s election co-exist with a persistent belief that discrimination and unfairness remain a part of life for African Americans in this country. To take a recent example, in May fully 88% said there was a lot or some discrimination against blacks, with 46% seeing a lot of discrimination. A majority of whites (57%) also saw at least some discrimination against blacks, but just 16% said there was a lot of discrimination.
Topics: Barack Obama, Race and Ethnicity, Discrimination and Prejudice, African Americans
That consideration of tolerance/prejudice should be treated as a dichotomy or a range is only one of the difficulties that has haunted the study and conceptualization of prejudice. Debates have swirled around the nature of prejudice, the causes of prejudice, and the “locus” of certain prejudices (such as racism or sexism), among other things. Allport (1979) suggests that prejudice is a “generalized” attitude—that if one is prejudiced, say, toward Jewish people, she or he will also be prejudiced toward communists, people of color, and so on. It is possible, however, that one might be prejudiced toward some groups, even in some contexts, but not toward other groups (Baldwin & Hecht, 1995).
The nature of prejudice
Allport (1979) defines prejudice as “an avertive [i.e., avoiding] or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he [or she] belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group” (p. 7). By this definition, prejudice is an aspect of affect, or feeling toward a group, though it is closely related to cognitions, or thoughts about the group, referring to stereotypes. Also, prejudice is inherently negative, following the primary definition common in modern dictionaries, though a secondary definition includes any sort of prejudgment based on group belonging, such as prejudice toward one’s own group. Most dictionary definitions follow the attitudinal approach, though in common usage, people often use the term to refer to things like racism, which carry behavioral and even policy implications that are not strictly attitudes. By strictest definition, prejudice is an attitude that favors one group over another, based on or related to cognitions, and both leading to and influenced by behaviors (including communication), texts (e.g., media, rhetoric), and policies (following the notion of structuration, in which social structures guide social behavior, but social behavior in turn creates and changes social structures).
Causes of prejudice
Allport (1979) recognized a series of influences that impact a particular incident of prejudice, such as police brutality based on racial group/social class divisions or anti-Islamic bullying in secondary schools around the Western world. These include historical, sociological, situational, psychodynamic, and phenomenological (i.e., perceptual) influences. But ultimately, for Allport, a social psychologist, prejudice is “a problem of personality formation and development” (p. 41). For Althusser (1971), a Marxist philosopher, prejudice would likely, in the last instance, be an issue of economic and social class considerations. Ultimately, a cross-disciplinary perspective is more useful for understanding a complex phenomenon like prejudice (Hecht & Baldwin, 1998). A broader consideration should consider multiple causes (Baldwin, 1998), including evolutionary causes, psychological causes (both psychodynamic and perceptual), sociological causes, and rhetorical causes. Communication and behavior become central in each of these causes, highlighting the need for a communicative understanding of prejudice.
Evolutionary causes, often referred to under the rubric of sociobiology, focus on the way in which prejudice might be an inherited trait, possibly even genetic (see, e.g., essays in Reynolds, Falger, & Vine, 1987). This approach includes the idea that groups seek to preserve themselves (e.g., by preservation of a supposedly pure gene pool or because of fear of the stranger), the ethnocentrism already noted. Behaviors that exclude have a sense of “naturalness” in that they help a group to survive, and such exclusion of strangers may help to preserve a group’s existence. Some scholars have criticized this approach as a rationale for conservative politics that create a notion of “us” and “them” as natural and that exclude the other, often in racial or religious terms, in order to preserve the way of life of a dominant group within a culture or nation.
Psychological explanations of prejudice fall into at least two major divisions. The first, psychodynamic, suggests that prejudice serves as a mechanism for individuals to meet psychological needs. Thus researchers have long linked it to things such as ambivalence toward parents, rigid personality structure, and a need for authority (Allport, 1979; Adorno et al., 1950). We see this indirectly through Kenneth Burke’s (1967) approach to rhetoric in his analysis of Hitler’s campaign against Jewish people as a means to divert negative emotions related to economic and political difficulties from the mainstream German people to Jews, and in Edward Said’s (2003) Orientalism, which notes how Medieval Europe cast negative images of lust and vice on Middle Easterners that the Europeans did not see in themselves.
A second aspect of the psychological approach concerns perception or cognition. This contains a range of possible influences on prejudice, including such things as selective attention, perception, and recall of the negative behavior of outgroup members, or the notion of attributional biases that impact how we give meanings to the behavior of those of our ingroup and those of outgroups. At the center of many of these explanations is the notion of categorization of people (i.e., dividing them into cognitive groups such as ingroups and outgroups). Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) suggests that we cannot think of ourselves apart from the groups to which we belong; we engage in intergroup comparison as a means to make us feel better about our group; and, if our group does not compare well to a group we admire or must rely on in some way—often the dominant group—we engage in strategies to reclaim a sense of pride for our group or distance ourselves from it.
Categorization, in social identity theory, is not a form of prejudice—it is simply the mental placing of people (or things, actions, characteristics, etc.) into mental boxes. However, those boxes are closely related to the stereotypes that cling to groups. Stereotypes are overgeneralizations we make about groups that we apply to individuals in those groups (Herbst, 1997). Although these stereotypes provide a mental shortcut for processing information about others, they interfere with our encoding, storage, and recall of information about members of our own group and other groups (Stephan, 1985). Countless studies of stereotypes suggest that stereotypes, like ethnocentrism, can serve positive ingroup functions, that they sometimes have at least some basis in an actual behavior or custom (a “kernel of truth”), and that we stereotype both our own group and other groups. Devine (e.g., Devine & Sharp, 2009) has found that even people who report lower prejudice, if mentally occupied, still rely on stereotypes, suggesting that everyone is aware of societal stereotypes toward certain groups (e.g., the elderly, athletes, the deaf). It is likely that if we are on auto-pilot or in a state of mindlessness, we will resort to stereotypes. But individuating people (i.e., taking them out of the group we perceive them to be in and treating them as individuals; Dovidio, Gaertner, & Kawakami, 2003) may require deliberate cognitive effort.
Group-based, or sociological, approaches, like psychological approaches, are varied. These include Marxist approaches, which are themselves varied in form (see various essays in Rex & Mason, 1986). Some hold tightly to a “vulgar” vision of Marxism, framing intolerance like racism as a creation of the elite to divide the working classes and distract them from revolution through “false consciousness.” Few Marxists take such a severe approach, choosing to see looser relations between capital and the construction of intolerance, but in the “last instance,” seeing intolerance as linked to social class and economic systems. “Capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchal social systems are frequently identified as producing inherent race and gender inequalities which, in various ways, serve the needs of the systems they perpetuate” (Knowles & Mercer, 1992, p. 110). Weberian approaches see a wider variety of classes than workers and elite, with prejudice linked not just to labor forces but to the struggle over goods, services, and prestige (Gerth & Mills, 1946). Other group-based factors also impact prejudice, such as perceived group competition for jobs and resources in times of economic upheaval (e.g., the 1970s oil crisis in the United States), known as realistic group conflict (Bobo, 1983); immigration reasons (refugees versus those seeking economic opportunity, patterns of settlement; Omi & Winant, 1986); and historically developed class statuses between groups that link immigrants or members of a minority group to a certain class (Wilson, 1978), such as the Gastarbeiter (guest-worker) Turks in Germany or the Algerian-descended French.
In a classic “chicken-egg” argument about which came first, it is fruitless to debate whether psychology leads to sociological causes or vice versa, and, in turn, whether these lead to the communicative expression of intolerance, or whether it is the communicative construction of group identities and intolerance that creates the attitudes (Ruscher, 2001). It is more likely that mental structures and communicative practices co-create each other, through forms we shall examine in more detail. One possible metaphor for understanding these influences, the impact of historical situations (such as the longstanding antipathy between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Broome, 2005), and specific incidents (such as the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City in 2001), is as layers building upon one other, or even as a hologram, in which we can imperfectly see some semblance of a complex prejudice through a single image—an experimental study on racial perceptions and media use, an analysis of an anti-Irish speech or a pro-nationalist song, or interviews with women who are victims of catcalling (Hecht & Baldwin, 1998). But, as a complete hologram provides the most faithful image, the most complete view of an intolerance will come through multiple views (e.g., disciplines), using multiple methods.