The Psychology of Racism

“America is not a stranger to the issue of racism. With its history of African American slavery and segregation, America has come a long way since the more explicitly racist policies of our past, but racist ideals and biases are still going strong today. These ideals and biases help create a more subtle, systemic racism, which is ultimately what lead to the outcome of the Philando Castile shooting and acquittal. While there’s certainly a historical background that precedes the racism we see today, there is also a psychological aspect that attempts to explain why racist ideas are integrated into our thoughts, our actions, and our world. This essay is not meant at all to justify the hatred, violence, and trauma that racism creates, but rather, understand the psychology of racism so that we can actively combat the racism that hides in the way we think and act. Only by viewing the subconscious reasoning behind racism can we attempt to break it down by being active in conversations surrounding our internal biases.”

62 seconds was all that it took for a minor traffic stop to escalate into the death of black driver, Philando Castile, who was fatally shot 4 times by Minnesota Officer Jeronimo Yanez with his girlfriend in the passenger seat and young daughter in the backseat on July 6, 2016. The officer would go on to claim that he pulled Mr. Castile over for a broken taillight and then thought that he matched the description for a suspected armed robbery in the area because of his “wide-set nose.” From the Facebook Live video Phlilando’s girlfriend recorded during the altercation and newly released dashcam video, it’s apparent that Castile told the officer he had a firearm on him and was told by the officer not to pull it out. Mr. Castile followed the officer’s instructions and went to reach for his driver’s license and license to carry a firearm with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds reminding the officer that he would not shoot.

However, Officer Yanez proceeds to shoot Philando Castile four times, later assuring that he feared for his life in that moment and a year later, acquitted on all charges. With more and more shootings of people of color by white officers being brought to media attention and then justified for fear of the officer’s life, this question remains: why are these officers so afraid, especially with their supposed training and especially when most of these cases involve unarmed victims? In this case, Philando Castile followed all of the officer’s instructions, had his family in the car with him, and was extremely polite even after being shot, so it’s no wonder why racism is being deemed the cause of Castile’s death.

America is not a stranger to the issue of racism. With its history of African American slavery and segregation, America has come a long way since the more explicitly racist policies of our past, but racist ideals and biases are still going strong today. These ideals and biases help create a more subtle, systemic racism, which is ultimately what lead to the outcome of the Philando Castile shooting and acquittal. While there’s certainly a historical background that precedes the racism we see today, there is also a psychological aspect that attempts to explain why racist ideas are integrated into our thoughts, our actions, and our world. This essay is not meant at all to justify the hatred, violence, and trauma that racism creates, but rather, understand the psychology of racism so that we can actively combat the racism that hides in the way we think and act. Only by viewing the subconscious reasoning behind racism can we attempt to break it down by being active in conversations surrounding our internal biases.

Implicit bias is a subconscious development of attitudes and stereotypes towards other people based on race, ethnicity, age, or appearance. These biases can be positive or negative, but in either case, set a predisposition about a group of people that influences one’s actions and decisions in different social situations. This implicit social cognition, thoughts that are beyond an individual’s awareness or intentions, comes from minimal interactions with other people that then dictate how a person may decide to label an entire group of people. It develops over time from experiences during early childhood and the news and media outlets; therefore, these implicit biases are within everyone. For instance, a study was conducted that found that both Caucasian and African American people clutched their purse tighter in public when a black man walked past them on the street. This would be due to the implicit bias that “black” is associated with theft and crime, implanted in people’s mind by the news. While implicit biases are meant to favor an individual’s group, these biases can be unlearned and adapted based on new interactions with other people, leading to the question of whether mandating community engagement would decrease the police’s fear if they had more engagement with the people they are policing.

One debate that attempts to further explore how these implicit biases originate is the question of nature vs. nurture, which takes into consideration the factors of upbringing and environment when looking at the psychology of racism. Upbringing refers to parent’s influencing their child’s beliefs by advocating for one side of an issue, but not exposing their children to the other sides of an issue. For instance, if you are brought up in a home with parents who openly make degrading comments about black people, then it’s easy to adopt those beliefs. This is because from a young age we are taught that our parents are our moral guides and we have an idealized view of them. The truth, however, is that we can have disagreeing points of view with our parents and sometimes, due to ignorance from lack of knowledge or encounter, our parents’ beliefs can be wrong or misinformed. Environmental factors to consider when examining racism refers to the idea that the friends we surround ourselves with, the teachers we listen to at school, and the media have a huge impact on the way we shape our beliefs and view on the world. For example, if the news stations mostly televize crimes being committed by people of color in order to draw in viewers, then we may have a misconstrued view on people of color.

“That’s how a belief gets constructed – by the social environment you live in, the schools you attend, your church, your families, your neighbors, all of that,” says Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, psychologist at Georgetown University and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, who specializes in ethno-cultural and community violence. “If you grow up in an environment where people think that white people are superior to people of color, you begin to believe it.” These theories are not always clear cut since there are some cases where people break away from the beliefs of their parents or change their minds based on new information; however, these theories explain why at least some choose to follow a set of racist beliefs.

Another line of thinking when studying racial science is looking at personality theories such as Freudian psychodynamic accounts about race and prejudice and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). In The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno et al published in 1950, this account focused on unconscious conflicts within a person by claiming that the authoritarian personality explained the widespread support for Nazi Germany fascism and the Holocaust. Some key features of this personality include: severe parent-child relationships with extreme discipline, obedience to superiors, strong devotion to conventional beliefs and social values, and renouncement of others who disagree with the norm. Meanwhile, SDO talks about a human need to form group-based hierarchies in society that could be based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic values. Creating ingroups (the group an individual identifies with) and outgroups (groups that an individual does not identify with) is a feature of most societies, but becomes especially dangerous when they produce prejudice.

Within the category of Intergroup Theories are two branches called the Realistic Group Conflict Theory and the Social Identity Theory. The Realistic Group Theory says that competition during difficult times breeds intergroup hostility between the different social groups based on economic, social, or cultural interests. This means that tensions between ingroup members can be politically exploited and scapegoats are assigned, furthering hostility. Meanwhile, the Social Identity Theory talks about intergroup hostility that still arises even when competition is not present. This hostility is created because of tense political and social conditions rather than direct competition. Establishing oneself as a group member and not an outsider is critical under these conditions; therefore, there is a tendency to enlist discrimination, especially racial discrimination, as a defense mechanism. In turn, there is a differentiation of groups with one group becoming the superior dominant group with members receiving ingroup privileges. This is where white privilege comes into play, as those identified as white have a social, political, and economic advantage, while nonwhite groups face discrimination and less opportunities as a result.  

Social cognitive theories take into consideration the way that our minds process and catalogue information. In The Nature of Prejudice 1954 by Gordon Allport, prejudice was defined by an “antipathy based in fault and inflexible generalization” about the members of a social group. This definition of prejudice refers to the idea that prejudice is an aversion or dislike of a certain group of people based on general statements made about a group of people that are false and inaccurate of the population as a whole. It brings to light social and hierarchical categorization, stereotyping, and racial bias that all have the potential to degrade a group of people. According to this theory the human mind is limited in capacity of thought, so there is a need to simplify information in order to process these thoughts. Therefore, the need to process information and situations quickly and efficiently overshadows the sensitivities of race, age, and gender issues.

Lastly, a theory suggests that there are four psychological motives to racism: self-esteem, positive distinctiveness, survival, and meaning. While these motives certainly are not excuses for racial discrimination, they offer a look at the mindset behind some prejudicial attitudes. The self esteem motivation uses prejudice as a defense mechanism, similar to how the Social Identity Theory enlists discrimination to be a part of a group. In this way, the self esteem motivation uses discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors to build oneself up by putting others down for the color of their skin, for instance. Positive distinctiveness is when the ingroup is placed on a pedestal above other religions, social values, races, and politics. By elevating ingroup members and looking down on outgroup members, a superiority complex arises that promotes common group identity and is a result of human insecurity. The survival motivation is a subconscious instinct that comes from an ancestral history of competing with other groups for resources. While racial discrimination is not a result of competition for supplies, the idea of group competition is more of an impulse. The final motivation in this theory is meaning, which is the idea that humans strive to find meaning in life. The idea is that investing in cultural beliefs gives the human mind a sense of order and stability, so racial superiority is an idea that can, unfortunately, give some people the kind of certainty about race in life that they are looking for to feel secure in the meaning of life.

In conclusion, there are hundreds of theories and research studies that exist about why the human mind turns toward discrimination and prejudice and why racism is alive and well in society today. The truth is that these are merely attempts to understand the vast and complicated human mind. Each individual’s mind is different and one mindset of racism could be a product of all, some, or even none of these causes and motivations. However, attempting to understand and work through both the intentional and unintentional thought processes behind racism is only the first step in overcoming racism and preventing tragic situations such as the case of Philando Castile’s death from ever occurring again.

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