Race, racism, bigot they’ve all been in the news lately. Hell, it’s America! Racism is ever present hiding in the corners, lurking in the shadows, stalking each and everyone of us, until it pounces startling the perpetrator and hurting the victim. Of course, the perp is white, and the victim is a person of color. Of course, the whitey white-meat swears it wasn’t an instance of racism, not them. Unpossible. Whitey white-meats is full on a good person, so, of course, everything a good person do is good, right? That’s the definition of a good person. Racism is bad, so a good person can’t be bad, can’t be racist, can they? And, of course, the recipient of this extra-special goodness by our insightful whitey white-meat has his or her soul eroded just a bit more and his or her hide thickened just a bit more and his or her temperature increase just a degree or two more towards boiling over!
It ain’t like the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid has a run on the market of racism, though, is it? There ain’t no shortage of racism in this world. It’s not like we need to prove it or anything, but what the heck!
Like in India!
Its like you are born with a stamp on your forehead and you can never get rid of it.
Like in France!
…the Quran instructs both men and women to be “modest in their dress and behavior.” This modesty is being put to test with the French Riveria town of Villeneuve-Loubet banning Muslim women from wearing the burkini, a modest type of swimwear. Thank you, Mickey
Like in South Africa!
She was [told] that she would not be allowed to write her exam with her hair ‘like this’.
See? We’re not alone! In fact, racism is so widespread that you might be tempted to speculate that it is universal. So, what could the evolutionary purpose of racism be? What are the psychological causes of racism?
Like all good obfuscating academics, we start with some definitions and exploration of concepts. According to Psychology Today, prejudice is an over-arching concept that racism is part of. Prejudice is the social phenomenon in which the members of a specific group are viewed negatively simply by their membership in that group. Many of us have a negative view of black people all around the world. Check yourself out by taking the Harvard Implicit Project part of which is a measure of your implicit racial and ethnic social attitudes. It’s pretty cool and pretty reliable. And here’s something fun! Tell us about it in the comments! Wouldn’t that be fun!
Racism is a social phenomenon in which prejudicial attitudes are taken to such an extreme in which people of a specific group, often a racial or ethnic group, that people of that targeted group are hurt. This injury can be through a systematic discrimination by government, businesses, and other social organizations. Something like Trump’s systematic refusal to rent apartments to blacks and marking their applications with a “C” for colored — nice — to ensure that their race is known throughout the process. Kinda like that.
Racism is the routine, instititutionalized mistreatment of a person based on his/her membership in a group on the downside of power. Cal Poly Panoma, Dr. Mio
There are three parts to prejudice, affective (emotions), cognitive (thoughts), and behavior. Racism emphasizes behavior. Behavior that harms. So what drives discrimination, which is the act of prejudice to become racism, which is the extreme harm based on prejudice — see the strange fruit in the picture above?
Social Identity Theory
Since Tajfel proposed Social Identity Theory in 1979 it has become widely accepted that people seek to become members of social groups. Indeed, evolutionary and educational psychologists agree that people work far better in groups. It is how we learn best and how we perform best. It probably seems intuitive to most of us.
Our self-esteem is based on the esteem of the group we identify with. Tajfel named this group the in-group, perhaps you’ve heard of it. All other groups are termed, out- groups.
But what about people that we meet who are unaffiliated or whose group membership is not immediately discernible? We rely on visible details. What is the first thing you see about a person when you meet them? Gender and skin-tone. We quickly categorize people by the traits that we easily perceive, and race is one of the easiest categorizations out there.
This type of categorization leads to stereotyping. Stereotypes are not necessarily bad. They are simply shortcuts and shorthand ways of interpreting someone until we get more information. Where stereotyping goes wrong is when it discriminates — remember discrimination is an action — and racism, which is real harm.
The Role of Self-Esteem
This is where we come to a major crossroads: Route 1 is the idea that racism has evolved so that it is no longer frequently includes violence, you know, strange fruit and sundowner towns. This type of racism is typified by being unnerved when you realize a black man is walking behind you at night. Just ask Professor Gates! It is a kinder subtler type of racism. Certainly, not your grandfather’s racism. It’s the kind where you move from your house after a black family moves onto the block.
Route 2 is best characterized by the idea that competition for scarce resources will lead to conflict between groups. On one hand, it makes intuitive sense. We don’t question the statement. But, we don’t compete for scarce resources in the US. White people are not competing with black people for resources. And, if you ask white people, they will tell you that racism doesn’t exist or is very seldomly acted upon. Black people differ in their views.
You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Jesse Helms, White Racist
But, as the lovely patriot, Jesse Helms, so delicately suggested in his 1990 campaign ad, Hands, perhaps there are white people who feel that they are in competition with black people, especially when the economy is poor.
There are several salient points that need to be made here. First, don’t discount the role of self-esteem. If your economic well-being is in doubt, your self-esteem is down. Tajfel suggests that one way to improve your self-esteem is to belittle an out-group since your self-esteem, in part, is based on the esteem of your in-group. Cognitive dissonance suggests that if your perceptions or beliefs do not meet your behaviors, then you will change one of them. The easiest thing to change is your beliefs or yourself cognitively.
Putting these two ideas together, we get an economically threatened white person experiencing lowered self-esteem. You can’t change your race. You can’t change your economic condition. You can’t improve your self-esteem since it is so directly related to your job. What’s left? To improve your self-esteem you attack an out-group: the wealthy, politicians, and minorities, wink wink, black people. That makes sense, right?
Hypotheses & Predictions
We could hypothesize that self-esteem is one of the most central facets of racism because racist behavior is committed in order to improve the self-esteem of whites. So, when Barack Obama became president, whites, we could theorize, felt threatened with a concomitant lowering of self-esteem. The solution? Send your friend an email with an image of President Obama as a monkey!
As self-esteem lowers for whites, we can predict that racism will shift from the socially acceptable subtle racism to a much more robust blatant even violent racism. Racism is the tragic logical end of a natural tendency towards social categorization, stereotyping, and group formation.