The psychology of racism (2023)

The psychological study of racism can be summed up in one word: evolution. The way society thinks about race and racism has changed, and with it the psychological discourse has also changed.

Many Americans, especially white Americans, were complacent in the year 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the complacency began to wane and was replaced by fear and a sense of unease. When George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25, 2020, a bright spotlight was redirected on an uncomfortable reality that mostbeepAmericans already knew this: racism is still alive and well in America.

With the added attention came a renewed interest in understanding racism. This article is about thepsychologyof racism, including historical perspectives as well as more current views on the individual and systemic nature of racism.

psychological history of racism

Historically, the psychological understanding of racism has focused on individual psychology: how racism is driven by the beliefs and behaviors of individual people (thesociopsychological approach). But there are severe limitations to viewing racism through this lens alone.

Today, some researchers are using and defending apsychological-cultural approach, which views racism as ideas and practices rooted in culture, where individuals shape culture and culture shapes individuals.

The first theories of racism

The first psychological theories of racism justified the domination of one race over another due to Charles Darwin's concept ofsurvival of the fittest. It was theorized that there was some survival advantage to being racist.However, modern hunter-gatherer tribes did not exclude outgroups (people not included in a specific group), and this problematic theory has been rejected.

So racial psychology theorized that there were brain differences between races and that intelligence testing and segregation were the answer.Later, in 1954, the American psychologist Gordon Allport argued in his book "The Nature of Prejudice" that people use categories to better understand their world and that racism was simply an artifact of this process.

Whatever the history of the psychology of racism in the United States, the true history of racism is that white people have received and continue to receive benefits in society because of a system that was established for their benefit. Racism is real, whether or not white people recognize or accept it.


Early explanations of racism were often inherently racist. Modern views on racism not only focus on individual acts of racism, but also look at how racism is perpetuated on a social and cultural level.

What is white privilege?

Prejudice x Racism

Many people misunderstand and confuse the definitions of racism and prejudice. Although they are related, they are different.


PrejudiceIt is a prejudice or negative attitude toward members of a group based on shared characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, religion, language, class, or culture. Prejudice can be racial, but it can also be sexist, age or class, for example.

Prejudicial beliefs are usually learned early in life and can affect behavior in subtle and overt ways.For example, a biased teacher might believe that girls are not good at math. This belief would then affect the teacher's behavior with his students, consciously or unconsciously.

How does implicit bias influence behavior?


In contrast, racism is directed at a particular racial group and is based on systems of power and oppression. Racism is often seen as a problem of individual racial prejudice, but it is important to recognize that it is much more multifaceted and systemic.

People often think of racism in terms of overt individual actions and ideologies (the psychosocial understanding), but it also exists within systems, organizations, and cultures (the cultural psychological understanding). In this way, racism becomes embedded in the reality of everyday life.

Because racism is part of everyday life, cultural patterns, and historical narratives in the US, it is often difficult for people to see how familiar and normalized ideas promote racialized views and behaviors.

Racism is not just about individuals displaying racial bias or engaging in outright acts of racial discrimination; it is often less immediately apparent and much more insidious, affecting institutions such as the justice system, in which black defendants typically face harsher sentences than white defendants for the same crimes, for example.

Phia S. Salter, Glenn Adams, and Michael J. Perez in "Current Directions in Psychological Science"

Declines in overt expressions of racial prejudice might suggest that racial prejudice (and therefore racism) is less extreme in modern America; however, many psychologists suggest that racial prejudice has gone underground and have gathered substantial evidence that it thrives in subtle ways.

— Phia S. Salter, Glenn Adams, and Michael J. Perez in "Current Directions in Psychological Science"

While the most egregious individual manifestations of racism are no longer tolerated or considered acceptable in contemporary "mainstream" American society, our society's understanding of what is racist continues to evolve. In reality, our institutions are not that 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.


To better understand how racism operates, it is important to look beyond individual psychology to the systemic and cultural practices that continue to underpin racism.

Cultural tools that perpetuate racism

mainstream american culturediscomfort with race and racismit continues to give rise to unhealthy beliefs and feelings that promote ignorance about racism and maintain the racial status quo. Perhaps you've heard someone say that he's "color blind," or "he doesn't see color," or that "race doesn't matter." Perhaps you yourself have said something along these lines.

These ideas, though often promoted asinclusivevery out of placeimportant conversations about raceand they deny the fact that racism exists not just on an individual level, but as a systemic problem. It is the same as answering "black lives matterwith "All Lives Matter".

This denial of the importance 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 attribute their successes to their own hard work, while positioning the disadvantages faced by oppressed racial groups 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.But research shows that white Americans still tend to be less aware of these racial realities than people from racial minorities.

Ignoring racism doesn't make it go away. Instead, it perpetuates it, effectively closing off the possibility of moving forward by not having meaningful conversations about the problems and possible solutions.

Explanations for racism

As more attention is paid to entrenched racism in our society, many more people are looking for 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 the existence of racism.

personal insecurity

It is true that those who lack identity and struggle with insecurity may seek membership in a group.Consequently, after finding a group, the members of the group can start toremove non-group members. Sometimes hostility arises towards 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 is much easier to attack others when you are among people who share the same point of view. Racism arises when groups are formed based on characteristics such as race, reinforced by beliefs of superiority, and supported by systems of oppression.

lack of compassion

Alienation from others ultimately leads to less compassion for those who have been ostracized. People begin to show compassion and empathy only with those with whom they associate regularly.

Consider, for example, television segments that ask viewers to donate to causes that support household food security in Africa. These messages may be easier for a person to dismiss if they do not identify with the group or culture that needs them. This rejection may or may not be overt racism, but it starts with a lack ofempathy.

Defect projection

When people feel bad about themselves or admit their flaws, instead of dealing with them and trying to fix them, they may project their self-hatred onto others. Alienated groups can easily become scapegoats for those who ignore their own personal failings.

poor mental health

Is racism a sign of mental health problems? Not necessarily, but it can be. For example,paranoid personality disorderminarcissismBoth are mental health disorders characterized in part by feelings of insecurity, which can make a person more likely to hold racist beliefs or behave in racist ways. But it's important to recognize that racist beliefs and actions are certainly not limited to people with mental health disorders.

hate and fear

Extreme hate is almost always based on fear. People may feel threatened by people they consider"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 adjustment. Factors such as personal insecurity, lack of empathy and projection can contribute to racism.

Factors Contributing to Racism

In a 2020 article published in the magazineamerican psychologist, Steven O. Roberts, a Stanford psychologist, and Michael T. Rizzo, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University, discuss what leads to racism.With their article, the authors attempted to provide an overview of several of the major factors that theoretically contribute to racism in the United States. These factors are as follows.


Human beings learn to group people into categories based on race from an early age. Roberts and Rizzo argue that racial categories are not innate, but rather become meaningful because "they are sanctioned by the federal government (for example, by the US Census Bureau), they are readily used by people, and because they are told directly tell people what racial categories to form".

Category labels can support the belief that category members have a shared identity, which promotes stereotyping. This categorical grouping and the concept of shared identity later lead to factions.


Categories lead to factions where people are assigned a racial group and begin to identify strongly with their racial group. Positive perceptions of their assigned racial group and a desire to show group cooperation, loyalty, and empathy often lead to behavior that benefits the group, even at the expense of another group.

In addition to loyalty to their own group, group members may also begin to show hostility toward other groups as a result of real or perceived competition or threats to their own 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 little chance for negative beliefs to be challenged. This is the reason why racial segregation in the first years of life can influence the development of racism.attitudes.


A hierarchical system allocates wealth, power, and influence unequally among groups. Hierarchies are further reinforced by beliefs that attribute power and status to individual characteristics rather than systematic influences, ultimately leading the dominant group to believe that it is, in fact, superior to non-dominant groups. .


Power gives groups the ability to build a society that benefits them. It also allows them to create what are considered culturally acceptable standards. They control resources and can exploit others and take control. When power is distributed along racial lines, as in the United States, there are also advantages.


The media play a role in maintaining racism. At one level, there is simply representation (or lack thereof). When the media consistently portrays a cast of mostly white actors in magazines, TV shows, and movies, they make white culture "mainstream" or "normal" American culture.

On another level, there is the way the media portrays racial groups. When the media reinforces racial stereotypes in its portrayal of different racial groups, it also reinforces individual racial biases and the systems that perpetuate institutionalized racism.


The final factor that Roberts and Rizzo describe is perhaps the most important. It is passive racism that results from ignorance, apathy or denial. When racism is systemic and entrenched in social structures, all it takes to sustain it is inaction. People don't have to be actively racist in their beliefs and actions to support racist systems, they just don't have to do anything to change those systems.


Research suggests that many factors contribute to racism on an individual and systemic level. These factors include categorization, factions that pit people against each other, social hierarchies, power, and media influences.

Combat racism and promote anti-racism

When faced with the magnitude of racism in America, it can be easy to feel helpless. But there are things you can do on an individual level to influence both interpersonal and systemic racism. Here are some ways racism can be addressed on an individual level:

  • Build an equity system in which all communities participate equally.
  • Bring attention to the problem of racism instead of sweeping it under the rug or pretending it doesn't exist.
  • When you hear racist attitudes, challenge them; Ask people the reason behind their thoughts and encourage them to consider alternatives.
  • Remember that change does not happen overnight and be patient when progress seems slow; even small changes can lead to big results when you are consistent in your actions.
  • Teaching children inclusion and empathy from an early age so that they grow up to be adults capable of identifying and challenging racism.
  • Conduct psychological research on howsocial normschange and how best to implement systems that result in changing the attitudes of people in the dominant group so that the systems are also affected.
  • Design a curriculum that addresses the legacy of the history of racism in America and teaches students to be mindfultheir own inherent biases.
  • Enter into contact under favorable conditions with other groups and work for shared goals with people of different races.
  • search and promotefriendships across racial linesso you can start to see people as individuals, not 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 the way the information was presented.

In majority white schools, students were exposed to displays and discussions that were highly abstract and focused more on individual achievement than racism. However, in predominantly black schools, the information more directly addressed racism and the effects of racial barriers.


Fighting racism is about more than "not being racist," which is often equated with passive racism. learning to be activeanti racistis essential. For example, research has shown that taking a more direct anti-racist approach to teaching history to children has a greater impact on understanding the real effects of racism.

Strategies to help you on your way against racism

A word from Verywell

For too long, racism has been relegated to the past or reduced to individual beliefs and actions. As a result, America's persistent systemic and institutionalized racism has been overlooked and allowed to persist and thrive. But cultural-psychological approaches to understanding racism challenge these ideas. Racism is more of a cultural phenomenon than an individual psychological fact.

What that means is that you don't have to be a racist to defend racist systems. Each of us has a personal responsibility to challenge racism on an individual level, but we must also look to the cultural structures that perpetuate individual bias and the injustice that racism causes.

What is a trip against racism?


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