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Prejudice

Gordon Allport, in his classic The Nature of Prejudice, defined prejudice as ‘‘an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization’’ (1954, p. 9). This phrasing neatly captures the notion that both inaccurate beliefs and negative feelings are implicated in prejudice. To these ‘‘cognitive’’ and ‘‘affective’’ dimensions of prejudice, some analysts add ‘‘conative,’’ referring to action orientation (Klineberg 1972) and prescription (Harding et al. 1969). Allport’s circumspection on the conative implications of prejudice—he said ‘‘(prejudice) may be felt or expressed’’ (1954, p. 9)—foreshadowed our growing understanding that the correspondence of behavior with cognitions and feelings is uncertain, a research issue in its own right (Schuman and Johnson 1976).

Racial and ethnic prejudice was Allport’s primary interest. Emerging social issues have brought expanded attention to other forms of prejudice— against women, the elderly, handicapped persons, AIDS patients, and others. This discussion will focus on racial prejudice among white Americans, in the expectation that parallels and points of contrast will continue to make race relations research relevant to other forms of prejudice.

Trends and Patterns

For many years, derogatory stereotypes, blatant aversion to interracial contact, and opposition in principle to racial equality were seen as the central manifestations of race prejudice, virtually defining the social science view of the problem. Indicators of these beliefs and feelings show a clear positive trend (Jaynes and Williams 1989; Schuman et al. 1997). White Americans’ belief in the innate intellectual inferiority of blacks declined from 53 percent in 1942 to about 20 percent in the 1960s, when the question was discontinued in major national surveys. The percentage of whites who said it would make no difference to them if a Negro of equal social status moved into their block rose from 36 percent to 85 percent between 1942 and 1972. White opinion that blacks should have ‘‘as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job’’ climbed from 45 percent in 1944 to 97 percent in 1972. Thomas Smith and Paul Sheatsley sum up this picture without equivocation: ‘‘Looking over this forty-year span, we are struck by the steady, massive growth in racial tolerance’’ (1984, p. 14).

Recurrent outbursts of overt racial hostility and public acts of discrimination (Feagin 1991) serve as unfortunate reminders that some white Americans still cling to blatant prejudice. More importantly, even the majority of whites, those on whom Smith and Sheatsley focus, appear unambiguously tolerant only if attention is confined to such traditional survey indicators as those described above. A confluence of developments has broadened the study of race prejudice and transformed our understanding of white racial attitudes. First, evidence of widespread, subtle prejudice has been revealed in research using disguised, ‘‘nonreactive’’ methods. Second, ‘‘social cognition’’ scholarship, paramount for two decades in the psychological wing of social psychology, has been powerfully applied to intergroup relations. Recent scholarship is broadened and balanced by its acknowledgment of the crucial role of affect along with cognition. Third, evolution of the struggle for racial equality in the United States has shifted attention to a new domain of racial policy-related beliefs and feelings. These perspectives provide ample evidence that white racial prejudice is not a thing of the past, but exists today in complex forms that have yet to be thoroughly charted.

Evidence From ‘‘Nonreactive’’ Studies

Given the clear dominance of ‘‘liberal’’ racial norms evinced in public opinion data, it might be expected that needs for social acceptability and selfesteem would lead many whites to withhold evidence of negative racial feelings and cognitions whenever possible. Disguised, ‘‘nonreactive’’ research (Webb 1981) provides substantial evidence that, indeed, traditional survey approaches underestimate negative racial feeling. Field experiments reveal that whites often provide less help to victims who are black (Crosby et al. 1980), sometimes redefining the situation so as to justify their lack of response (Gaertner 1976). Such elements of nonverbal behavior as voice tone (Weitz 1972) and seating proximity (Word et al. 1974) have been found to reveal negative racial feelings and avoidance. Recent reaction time and word completion studies similarly document the existence of ‘‘implicit’’ racial prejudice among many whites who score low on self-reported ‘‘explicit’’ prejudice (Dovidio et al. 1997). Thus, accumulating American evidence reveals that ‘‘microaggressions’’ (Pettigrew 1989) often accompany self-portrayals of liberalism. Parallel research in western Europe has uncovered similar forms of microaggression against that continent’s new immigrant minorities (Den Uyl et al. 1986; Klink and Wagner 1999; Sissons 1981).

Social Cognition Perspectives, Now Acknowledging the Role of Affect

In recognizing aspects of prejudice as predictable outgrowths of ‘‘natural’’ cognitive processes, Allport (1954) was ahead of his time. A wave of social cognition research on intergroup relations was set in motion by Henri Tajfel (1969), who demonstrated that mere categorization— of physical objects or of people—encourages exaggerated perception of intragroup homogeneity and intergroup difference. Even in ‘‘minimal groups’’ arbitrarily created in psychology laboratories, these effects of social categorization are often accompanied by ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination (Brewer 1979, 1991; Hamilton 1979). Accumulating evidence of the negative consequences of ingroup/outgroup categorization has spurred research aimed at identifying conditions of intergroup contact that are likely to decrease category salience and promote ‘‘individuation’’ or ‘‘decategorization’’ (Brewer and Miller 1988; Wilder 1978), or at least to reduce the negativity of outgroup stereotypes (Rothbart and John 1985; Wilder 1984). Recent attention to the role of motivation in guiding cognition (Fiske 1998) contributes to this effort.

The study of attributional processes (Heider 1958) also has been usefully applied to intergroup relations, calling attention to such issues as whether white perceivers believe that black economic hardship results from discrimination or lack of effort. Research evidence has linked stereotypic thinking to attributions of outgroup behavior (David L. Hamilton 1979). Specific predictions are developed in Pettigrew’s discussion of the ‘‘ultimate attributional error’’ (1979a), the tendency to hold outgroups personally responsible for their failures, but to ‘‘discount’’ their responsibility for successes, attributing successes to such factors as luck or unfair advantage.

The intense research scrutiny given cognitive factors meant that the critical affective component of prejudice was often ignored. That imbalance is being corrected. The 1993 publication of Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping, edited by Mackie and Hamilton (1993), marked the dramatic shift in emphasis in social psychology. Varied research, from American laboratory experimentation (Stangor et al. 1991; Dovidio et al. 1989) to European surveys (Pettigrew 1997; Pettigrew and Meertens 1995), demonstrates that emotional factors not only are central to intergroup prejudice but have special characteristics of their own and are highly predictive of policy attitudes. One attempt at synthesis outlines a tripartite conception of prejudice as stereotypes, affect, and ‘‘symbolic beliefs’’ (Esses et al. 1993; Zanna 1994).

Expanding The Racial Attitude Domain to Policy Views.

Over the past twenty-five years, evolution in the struggle for racial equality has brought new complexity to the public debate about racial issues. Notions that barriers to black equality consist solely of white hostility and aversion, and formal denial of rights, now appear naive. Advocates insist that structural barriers far more complex and far more pervasive than formal denial of access prevent actual desegregation and equality of opportunity, making questions about acceptance by white individuals a moot point for millions of black Americans.

In the current era of U.S. race relations, traditional manifestations of race prejudice recede in relevance, and different forms of race-related belief and feeling take center stage—reactions to agitation for change, recognition and interpretation of continuing inequality, and support for proposed remedies. By all indications, such white ‘‘perceptions, explanations, and prescriptions’’ (Apostle et al. 1983, p. 18) show far less consensus and support for racial change than appeared in traditional race survey data. Asked about specific policies and programs designed to increase racial equality—fair housing guarantees, school desegregation plans, affirmative action in hiring and college admission—white Americans show substantially less support than they voice for racial equality in principle (Pettigrew 1979b; Schuman et al. 1997). Many white Americans exaggerate recent black gains and benefits of affirmative action (Steeh and Krysan 1996) and underestimate the remaining inequality (Kluegel and Smith 1982). There is substantial white resentment of black activism and perceived progress (Bobo 1988a; Schuman et al. 1997). Attribution research in social psychology and earlier societal analyses (Ryan 1971; Feagin 1975) converge with recent studies of racial policy opinion to tell a clear story: Whites explain the economic plight of black Americans more often as the result of such ‘‘individualistic’’ factors as lack of motivation than in terms of such ‘‘structural’’ factors as discrimination (Apostle et al. 1983; Kluegel and Smith 1986). In addition, individualistic attributions along with denial of discrimination are linked to a variety of policy-relevant beliefs and opinions, including opposition to affirmative action (Bobo and Kluegel 1993; Kluegel and Smith 1983, 1986).

Characterizations of White Racial Attitudes

Efforts to characterize the complex pattern of racial attitudes held by white Americans emphasize an array of themes, as discussed below.

‘‘Natural’’ Cognitive Processing

As noted earlier, social cognition analyses claim that a substantial part of the racial prejudice once thought to have sociocultural or psychodynamic roots actually stems from ordinary cognitive processing, particularly categorization (David L. Hamilton 1979). Social cognition portrayals increasingly acknowledge motivational and social influences (David A. Hamilton and Tina K. Trolier 1986; Fiske 1987, 1998). And there are recent powerful calls to acknowledge the joint influence on prejudice of cognition and affect (Esses et al. 1993; Pettigrew 1997; Smith 1993).

Strain Between Individualism and Egalitarianism

Current racial policy issues are said to pull whites between two cherished American values, individualism and egalitarianism (Lipset and Schneider 1978). Qualified support for social programs exists, in this view, because egalitarian sentiments prevail only until a proposal challenges individualistic values.

Ambivalence

Adding psychodynamic flavor to the individualism/egalitarianism value strain idea, some analysts describe current white feelings as an ambivalence that produces an unpredictable mix of amplified positive and negative responses (Katz et al. 1986).

‘‘Aversive’’ Racism

A desire to avoid interracial contact, muted negative feeling, and egalitarian self-concept are the mix Kovel (1970) characterized as aversive racism. The outcome is avoidance of positive interracial behavior when the situation can be defined to permit it, and expression of negative feelings when there are ostensible nonracial justifications (Gaertner 1976; Gaertner and Dovidio 1986).

‘‘Symbolic’’ or ‘‘Modern’’ Racism and ‘‘Racial Resentment’’

Antiblack affect instilled by childhood socialization and the sense that racial change threatens fondly held individualistic values, not self-interest, are claimed as the twin foundations of Sears’s ‘‘symbolic’’ racism (1988). ‘‘Modern’’ racism contains the added ingredient of denying continuing racial inequality (McConahay 1986).

‘‘Racial resentment’’

Racial resentment is a recent addition to this family of ‘‘new racism’’ constructs. The label serves as a reminder that whatever the roots of new racism, a primary manifestation is anger that blacks’ gains have exceeded their entitlement.

‘‘Subtle’’ Prejudice

Using probability survey data from western Europe, Pettigrew and Meertens (1995) developed scales for both blatant and subtle prejudice that proved highly predictive of attitudes toward immigrants across four nations, six target outgroups, and seven samples. Their conception of subtle prejudice contains three components: perceived threat to traditional values (similar to symbolic racism), exaggeration of intergroup differences, and the absence of positive affect (admiration and sympathy) for the outgroup. Rejecting the claims of Sniderman and his colleagues (1991), Meertens and Pettigrew (1997) demonstrate that their subtle prejudice is distinctly different from political conservatism.

‘‘Dominant Stratification Ideology’’

A belief that opportunity is plentiful and equally distributed, and thus effort is economically rewarded and economic failure is deserved—these compose the ‘‘dominant stratification ideology’’ (Huber and Form 1973; Kluegel and Smith 1986), a sociological elaboration on the individualism theme. Although personal status and strands of American ‘‘social liberalism’’ also play a role, unyielding adherence to this American ‘‘dominant ideology’’ is portrayed as a major impediment to public support for redistributional claims in general, and to calls for racial change in particular (Kluegel and Smith 1986). On a backdrop of ignorance bred of social segregation, whites’ own experiences of economic success work to prevent recognition of the continuing barriers to full opportunity for black Americans (Kluegel 1985).

Self-Interest

Collective self-interest is sometimes identified as the primary basis of whites’ interracial beliefs and feelings (Jackman 1994; Wellman 1993). If zero-sum assumptions prevail, redistribution in favor of blacks will be seen as a losing proposition to whites. Self-interest is at the heart of what Bobo (1988b) called an ‘‘ideology of bounded racial change’’ and what Bobo and colleagues (1997) have dubbed ‘‘laissez-faire racism’’: White acceptance of racial change and efforts to promote it end when continued change is perceived to threaten the well-being of whites.

Prescriptions for Modern Prejudice

When the lessons from cognitive social psychology are counterposed with those from other perspectives on modern race prejudice, an apparent dilemma is revealed. Though social cognition findings indicate that category salience can promote stereotype change under some circumstances (Cook 1984; Pettigrew 1998), much of the cognitive literature insists that categorization is a central contributor to race prejudice and negative race relations: Color consciousness is often portrayed as an evil, color blindness the ideal. From other scholars of modern prejudice, the analysis and prescription are nearly a mirror image of this view. Color blindness is said to impede forthright problem solving in desegregated institutions (Schofield 1986); to represent ignorance of the structural barriers faced by black Americans (Kluegel 1985); and to be used as a weapon by those opposing black claims of collective rights (Jackman and Muha 1984; Omi and Winant 1986). The solution implied or stated by these analysts is for whites to adopt a color consciousness that fully acknowledges the historical impact of racial subordination and the continuing liabilities of direct and indirect discrimination. The two streams of advice present this challenge: How to promote a racial understanding in the white public that minimizes the psychological liabilities of ingroup/outgroup categorization while acknowledging the full sociological implications of the past and continuing color line.

Related Links

This Aricle was Written by
MARYLEE C. TAYLOR
THOMAS F. PETTIGREW

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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