Understanding Racial Prejudice and Ethnic Bias through a Social Psychological Lens

Essay 2013 16 Pages

Psychology - Social Psychology



Introduction... 3

Racial Prejudice and Ethnic Bias: A Social Psychology Perspective... 4

Social representations and racial prejudice... 4

Attitudes... 6

The wrong side of the street... 7

Conclusion... 10

References... 13


On February 26, 2012 neighbourhood watch volunteer G. Zimmerman from Sanford, FL fatally shot unarmed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black teenager. The eventual acquittal of Zimmerman sparked fundamental debates about racial profiling and civil rights, polarizing nations and different interest groups in an argument about the possibility of a racialized shooter bias (Correll, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler, Keesee, 2007; Sadler, Correll, Park, Judd, 2012). A similar case in the US from 2001 revolved around the killing of West-African immigrant Amadiou Diallo, who had been shot 41 times by police after reaching for an object which turned out to be his wallet instead of a gun. Whereas prosecutors and spectators in favour of the victims claimed racism to be the root of such tragedies, the opposing camp argued that prosecuting the shooters would have been a travesty, absurdly and falsely representing self-defence.

Though most common in judicial situations, such as the shootings of Trayvon and Amadiou, racial profiling can be defined as encompassing any form of discrimination based on stereotypes, ethnic bias or prejudice about race and skin colour. Racial bias manifests in negative repercussions for black individuals in a variety of ways, for example in education (Crichlow, 2013), recruiting and the workplace (Hirsch Lyons, 2010; Neckerman Kirschenman, 1991), health care (Smedley, Stith, Nelson, 2009), court room decisions (Kang et al., 2012) and the promulgation of the death penalty (Lynch ; Haney, 2000). Omnipresent and deeply entrenched in historical, ideological and socio-political contexts (Allport, 1954; Bar-Tal, 1989; Pickering, 2001), racial prejudice, ethnic bias and socially created stigma of belonging to an ethnic minority comprise social phenomena whose thematisation and understanding are of paramount importance.

After providing a comprehensively integrated and analytical discussion of social representations theory, attitudes research and social identity in terms of race and prejudice, I will draw on a 45-minute open personal interview with a 22-year old American woman of Nigerian background to analyse some real-life experiences that exemplify the still occurring empiric manifestations of racism and prejudice. Arguing that these phenomena are fundamentally social, this essay achieves to tackle the societally relevant challenge of forging a better understanding of racial prejudice and ethnic bias towards black minorities by employing a social psychological perspective.

Racial Prejudice and Ethnic Bias: A Social Psychology Perspective

Social representations and racial prejudice

Social representations are quintessential elements of the inter-subjective social world. Social representations are sets of collectively shared beliefs, values, knowledge systems and ontological as well as epistemological ideas about the universe and social coexistence (Augoustinos, Walker, Donaghue, 2006; Duveen Lloyd, 1990; Moscovici, 1961; 2000). On the one hand, such representations serve as a meaningful point of reference for individuals in the otherwise too-complex-to-conceive social world. Both in a material and social-relational sense, social representations help individuals to master reality’s infinite complexity by simplifying and ordering it. As the word ‘representation’ suggests, reality is socially represented by agreed-upon entities for social actors to collectively make sense of it. On the other hand, while influencing attitudes and opinions, social representations also facilitate communication among social actors in their function as a significant “code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world” (Moscovici, 1973, p. xii). It is this constantly unfolding flux whereby social representations facilitate the construction, communication and contestation of social reality.

Besides many socio-cognitive functions of social representations, two important ones in the context of the essay at hand are a) their defining function with regard to what is believed and known to be real as well as b) the enactment of ideologies and versions of the social world that potentially feature unequal power relations and social inequalities (Jovchelovitch, 1996; 2007; Moscovici, 2000). Considering the still prevalent social inequalities and discrimination in the context of race and ethnicity, social representations theory affords a richer understanding of such issues by placing individuals in their natural “social, cultural and collective milieu” (Augoustinos et al., p. 36). Likewise, identities and subjective experiences of social actors as well as relationships between them are taken into account (Duveen, 2001; Jovchelovitch, 2007), which is essential to a differentiated understanding of ethnic biases and racial prejudice.

Distinctively negative narratives and prejudices about racialized minority groups are related to a frame of mind that juxtaposes the in-group in opposition to the out-group based on racial and ethnic features (Brown, 2011; Tajfel Turner, 1979; Wetherell, 1996). This is accompanied by what is generally referred to as othering (Orgad, 2012; Pickering, 2001). In the context of social representations, the practice of othering can be understood as viewing and/or depicting a person or a social group as fundamentally and innately distinct when comparing the in-group with the out-group (e.g. Levinas, 1999; Tajfel Turner, 1979). Since the individual and collective human experience is essentially coined by and dependent on the relationship to others (Silverstone, 1999), self-categorization and construction of meaning would be impossible within a social vacuum, where no others could serve as a meaningful point of reference.

Psychologically, our ability to construct an identity and relate to ourselves largely depends on who we are not (Orgad, 2012). This strings a chord with Honig (1993), who usefully adds that “the other awakens differences and resistances within us, inviting us to experience as contingencies the identities and proclivities that constitute us so deeply that we often experience them as natural” (p. 193). In other words, there is a divided legacy of difference, which not only entails a need for difference and some identifiable other to relate to in order to define and delineate oneself, but also the often naturalized and taken for granted nature of identification through others. This encapsulates the ways in which social categorisation based on racist representations leads individuals to evaluate themselves favourably relative to others in order to maintain a positive social identity (Howarth, 2002; Tajfel Turner, 1979).

While being a necessity for the production and clear definition of meaning, language, and culture (Hall, 1997), ‘the other’ is inextricably related to the creation and reinforcement of stereotypes, which are saliently present in the representations of Afro-Americans and blacks in political discourse, Hollywood movies and Western video games (Boggs Pollard, 2006; Doane Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, Ivory, 2009). Conceptually, stereotypes have been described as “a set of beliefs about the characteristics of a social category of people” (Bar-Tal, 1996, p. 342). Such beliefs about personality, behaviour, attitudes, intentions and feelings of individuals or groups often follow a simplistic binary black-and-white logic, such as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, educated/ignorant and rich/poor (Slater, 2003). Very few of these reductionist comparisons are neutral. In fact, they often implicate in-group favouritism, which is the tendency to favour the own in-group over others (Turner, Brown, Tajfel, 1979), and are racially saturated by unequal power relations and divisive polarisation (King Anderson, 1971; Rau Measell, 1974).


Research on attitudes is closely related to social representations as well as identity and adds an interesting perspective to the study of racial bias and prejudice. Attitudes are sets of readily available ideas in an individual’s mind to make judgments about other individuals and situations in a social setting (Allport, 1954). Put differently, attitudes are mental shortcuts that facilitate making sense of the social world. In the context of prejudice and racism, it is important to note that attitudes are social, experiential and cognitive (Augoustinos Walker, 1995). First, the social dimension entails that attitudes are shaped by social representations, which highlights the link between attitudes and social representations theory (Potter, 1996). Second, attitudes are shaped by past experience and social memory, which encapsulates the experiential dimension. Finally, cognitive and psychological processes partly shape attitudes and form corresponding ideas and beliefs (Fraser Burchell, 2000).

I would argue that the cognitive dimension is the factor with least explanatory weight in terms of prejudice formation. This is true because “attitudes are social” (Augoustinos Walker, 1995, p. 14, italics original). Even though cognitive processes are important, prejudiced attitudes could not be formed only cognitively within a social vacuum. Hence, the social world, its representations and an individual’s experiences within it predominantly facilitate the creation of prejudice and racial bias. Opposing the claim that attitudes are effortful and require cognitive activity (Pratkanis, Breckler, Greenwald, 1989; Zanna Rempel, 1988), attitudes can more usefully be seen as communicative and inter-subjective (Augoustinos et al., 2006), which highlights the significance of social representations and social experiences for racial bias and prejudice formation.

Moreover, individuals do not evaluate and form ideas about situations and other individuals without relying on previously formed ideas and experiences based on similar encounters from the past (Fraser, 1994). Thus, racial bias can partially be explained by treating attitudes as mental shortcuts that drive people to apply certain pre-developed frames of mind and prejudices to other individuals and groups based on salient features (e.g. black skin colour). This is done to reduce the need to constantly evaluate every individual separately. For instance, once particular social representations that carry racist ideologies have been established, individuals tend to rely on the same racially saturated cognitive toolbox every time they get in contact with a black individual. Accordingly, prejudice is adopted in often unquestioned, sometimes even structurally hegemonic ways that are self-perpetuating in nature (Augoustinos et al., 2006; Brown, 2011; Moscovici, 1988).


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Racial bias racial tension shooter bias racial profiling racism Trayvon Martin prejudice ethnic bias stereotypes



Title: Understanding Racial Prejudice and Ethnic Bias through a Social Psychological Lens