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Prejudice, Discrimination, and Stereotypes



Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

Because people act on misperceptions, the dominate group will often have prejudicial beliefs and discriminate against minority groups.  Prejudice is an attitude, a prejudging, usually in a negative way on the basis of their group membership.  Prejudice is irrational, where people hold attitudes that are inflexible and with no supporting evidence.  Prejudice is in opposition to objective observations on the differences between groups.  It is not a prejudicial belief to state that African-Americans have a higher unemployment rate than whites.  It would be, however, prejudicial to state that African-Americans have a higher unemployment rate because they are black, or because they are lazy.  Prejudice and discrimination often go hand in hand together. 

1.  Fall 2012 Poll Shows Majority of Americans Still Harbor Prejudice Towards Blacks 



This is a picture of a "colored" only waiting room.Discrimination is the unfair treatment directed against someone based on a prejudicial belief.  It is an action.  Discrimination can be practiced in two ways.  The first is individually.  Individual discrimination is discrimination practiced by one person to another.  The second form is institutional discrimination.  Institutional discrimination is woven into the fabric of society.  It is found in the institutions of society, such as law, banking, and education.  Governments at all levels play in active role in maintaining discrimination.

1.   Wanted:  Black Entrepreneurs

2.   What We Know About Mortgage Lending Discrimination in America

3.  Disparity in Health Insurance Coverage Between Whites and Blacks

4.  Examining Unequal Treatment in American Health Care



Racism is the discrimination based on race.  Racism is a belief system that asserts that some groups are superior than other groups.  These beliefs are incorporated into society and used to legitimize the inferior status of minority groups.  Once racist beliefs are woven into society, they can then be passed on from generation to generation. 

1.   What is Racism?

2.   World Racism

3.  Stephen Colbert on Racism

4. The Daily Show: Conversation About Race


Study/Review Check:  How could I set up a test question with the information above?  I could create a multiple choice question which asks, "Which of the following best describes the concept of "prejudice?""... Or a short answer question that asks, "Briefly describe the difference between individual and institutional discrimination."


The tables below attempt to synthesize the concepts of prejudice, discrimination and racism.

Level of Dominant - Minority Group Relations

Dimension Individual Group or Societal
Thinking/Feeling Prejudice Ideological Racism
Doing (action) Discrimination Institutional Discrimination


Merton's Typology on Prejudice and Discrimination

The sociologist Robert Merton created a model showing how relationships between prejudice and discrimination can vary. In his four categories, Merton classified people according to how they accept or reject the American Creed: "the right of equitable access to justice, freedom and opportunity, irrespective of race or religion, or ethnic origin." 


Does Not Discriminate


Unprejudiced 1. Unprejudiced non-discriminator (All- Weather Liberal)  Many people in this category  are activists and do what they can to reduce prejudice and discrimination in society. 2.  Unprejudiced discriminator (Fair-Weather Liberal) People in this category may support efforts to keep minorities out of their neighborhood for fear of its deterioration. These people frequently feel guilt and shame because they are acting against their beliefs.
Prejudiced 3.  Prejudiced non-discriminator (timid bigot)  This group believes in many stereotypes about other groups and feel hostility towards those groups. However, they keep silent in the presence of those who are more tolerant. 4.  Prejudiced discriminator (All-Weather Bigot) People in this group experience no conflict between attitudes and behavior. Not only do they openly express their beliefs, and practice discrimination, they will defy the law if necessary.


Why are people prejudice?  

There are probably as many answers as there are prejudice individuals.  But there are some general reasons. For people in the field of sociology, understanding prejudice revolves around three theories.  They are:

1)  Theories about personality and prejudice.

2)  Theories about how prejudice is learned from the interactions with social institutions that approve of prejudice.

3)  Theories that see prejudice arising out of inter-group conflict, especially in economic situations.

Personality and Prejudice

This is a picture of authoritarian leaders Hitler and Mussolini.This theory looks to understand prejudice from how the personality is shaped by early-childhood experiences and how prejudice then, is largely psychological in nature.  In 1950 a book titled, The Authoritarian Personality, written by Theodor Adorno appeared which argued that people are prejudiced because prejudice meets certain personality needs.  Adorno and his colleagues who helped with his book stated that prejudice is produced by some particular personality pattern or type.  Their research indicated that if a person is prejudiced against one group, he or she is likely to be prejudiced against a number of groups.  The responses to the survey questions developed produced basic characteristics associated with an authoritarian personality.  They are:

1)  Conventionalism:  Rigid adherence to conventional values.  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn."

2)  Authoritarian Submission.  Uncritical acceptance of authority. Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question."

3)  Authoritarian Aggression.  Aggressiveness toward people who do not conform to authority or conventional norms.  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "An insult to our honor should always be punished."

4)  Anti-introspection.  Opposition to the subjective or imaginative; rejection of self-reflection. Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, " When a person has a problem or a worry, it is best for him not to think about it but to keep busy with more cheerful things."

5)  Superstition and stereotypical thinking.  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places."

6)  Concern with power and toughness.  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement,  "People can be divided into two distinct classes:  the weak and the strong."

7)  Destructiveness and cynicism.  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict."

8)  Projectivity:  Projection outward of unconscious emotions; belief that the world is a wild and dangerous place. Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, "Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching a disease from them."

9.  Exaggerated concern with sexual 'goings-on".  Someone with an authoritarian personality would agree with the statement, " The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared with some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it."

The survey questions above were able to show that if a person agreed with one of the items, he or she was likely to agree with most of the rest. The evidence also suggests that prejudice is an attitude that tends to be generalized to wide variety of out-groups, and that the authoritarian personality is associated with prejudice.

1.  Authoritarian Personality Test

2.   Prejudice Test

3.   Archie Bunker and Prejudice


Study/Review Check:  How could I set up a test question with the information above?  I could create a multiple choice question which asks, "All of the following features of an authoritarian personality EXCEPT?"... Or a short answer question that asks, "Briefly describe the characteristics of an authoritarian personality."


The Scapegoat Hypothesis 

The scapegoat hypothesis attempts to link prejudice to the individual's need to deal with frustration and express aggression. People can also become frustrated with something in their lives, for example unemployment, and look for a scapegoat, for example an racial or ethnic group, to blame for their situation.  Scapegoating, or displaced aggression,  is a tendency to take out feelings of frustration and aggression on someone other than their true source.   Frustrated individuals will find a substitute target- a scapegoat, to take out their frustration and anger.  For example,  your boss may treat you unfairly at work, but you might "take it out" on your spouse, child, or pet. 

The scapegoat theory has been used to explain the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  Germany's loss in World War I, and the economic hardships during the 1920's allowed for the anti-Semitic views and frustrations of the Nazi party to gain popularity.  Using the scapegoat hypothesis,  we would expect that during harsh economic times and times of national crisis (September 11th attacks) that there would be an increase in acts of displaced aggression.  


Cultural Learning as a Cause of Prejudice

This is a picture of the Ku Klux Klan marching in Washington D.C. in 1928.This theory focuses on how the environment and culture that an individual is raised in produces prejudiced people.  In such an environment, Prejudice is often the result of ethnocentrism, the belief that one's culture is superior to others.  Another component of learning prejudice is how it is functional for the dominant group.   Prejudice allows the dominant group to maintain positions of authority, as well as maintain group solidarity.  For example, Southern whites justified slavery, and then the period of Jim Crow laws, by believing that African-Americans were physically and spiritually inferior to whites.  Furthermore, Southern society had sanctions for whites who sympathized with the black community, which added to group solidarity.  Cultural based approaches see prejudice as the result of growing up in a society that promotes racial and ethnic inequalities.  I such a society prejudice is the "normal" way to conform in a racist environment.

One way that prejudice is learned is through the socialization process.  From an early age, children are exposed to prejudice through parents, schools, peers, and the media. Many children are unintentionally raised in homogeneous environments.  If a child is only exposed to one set of values or one way of doing things, he or she is likely to view how things are done in their environment as the natural or best way.   Children often idolize their parents and see them as all knowing.  Any prejudices that the parents have are taken as truthful by the children.  Parents can pass on prejudicially beliefs indirectly to their children.  They may establish rules about who their children can play with. Many parents may feel uncomfortable discussing issues of race and group differences. Children may learn that such topics cause anxiety.  Children may also overhear adult conversations where prejudicial beliefs are expressed. 

Peer groups are another agent of socialization where prejudice is learned.  Through interaction and play, children will develop and share prejudicial attitudes.  Children use prejudicial beliefs to organize and understand the world around them.

Reference groups may also influence prejudicial beliefs. Reference groups are the groups we use as standards to evaluate ourselves.  They may include family, an organized church, an organization, or a class.  Reference groups operate as a form of social control, acting as a yardstick for us to gauge our behaviors and beliefs.  With respect to prejudice, reference groups which people are inspired by, may overly or covertly teach prejudicial beliefs.  For example,  a church may teach prejudice openly in its doctrine (Christian Identity) or indirectly through the membership of its church.   Children whose parents were members of the Ku Klux Klan and grew up around Ku Klux Klan rallies,  and who see their parents and the Klan as reference groups, will most likely grow up to be prejudiced adults.

Peer pressure is another factor in developing prejudicial attitudes.  As the famous experiment by Solomon Ash (1956) demonstrated, people will give in to peer pressure by agreeing to see something that their senses tell them otherwise.  Because the opinions of our peers are so important to us, many individuals embrace prejudicial beliefs to go along with the group.  Various studies on prejudice and conformity suggest that an individual's prejudicial attitudes and beliefs are shaped by our peer groups.

Individuals also learn prejudicial beliefs from the mass media.  Children also observe and are exposed to prejudice by watching television, reading books and magazines, or even studying school textbooks that present stereotyped views of various groups of people. In addition to stereotypes, some books present misinformation; others exclude important information about some groups in any positive way. Television shows and books exert undue influence when they are the only exposure a child has to certain groups. Although some improvements have been made, it is not difficult to find TV shows that depict some well-established stereotypes.


Study/Review Check:  How could I set up a test question with the information above?  I could create a multiple choice question which asks, "All of the following are reasons why people are prejudiced EXCEPT?"... Or a short answer question that asks, "Briefly describe how reference groups and peer pressure influence prejudice."


Social Distance

Social distance is defined as the degree of intimacy to which an individual is willing to admit persons of other groups.  The sociologist Emory Bogardus described seven degrees of social distance, the degree of closeness or remoteness individuals prefer in interaction with members of other groups.  Bogardus's scale begins with a number 1 which looks at willingness to have a close kinship by marriage, to the other end the scale where the number 7 represents excluding someone form the country. The seven choices were:

1. Would accept marrying into my family ( 1 point )

2.  Would accept as a personal friend in my social circle ( 2 points)

3.  Would accept as a neighbor on my street  ( 3 points )

4.  Would work in the same office ( 4 points )

5.  Would only have as speaking acquaintances  ( 5 points)

6.  Would only have as visitors to my country  ( 6 points )

7.  Would bar from entering my country  ( 7 points )

Social distance has been used to measure prejudice.   The social distance scale seems to indicate that prejudice exists apart from individuals and is passed on from generation to generation. The test has been given many times between 1926 through 2012.  The results show that over the decades prejudice has declined.  However, with the exception of African Americans and Italians, the ethnic groups which have the highest and lowest rankings have not changed much. Please click on the links below for more information on Social Distance Rankings.

1.  Social Distance Rankings

2.  The Social Distance Scale Legacy

Contact hypothesis is a way to improving relations among groups that are experiencing conflict. Gordon Allport is considered to have defined the conditions for positive outcomes when rival groups are brought into contact. Issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are commonly occurring issues between rival groups. Allport's proposal was that properly managed contact between the groups should reduce these problems and lead to better interactions.

In order for this to occur, the following must be present:

  • Equal Status, both groups taken into an equal status relationship,
  • Cooperative Activity, both groups work on a problem/task and share this as a common goal, sometimes called a superordinate goal,
  • Personal Interaction, the task must be structured so that individual members of both groups are interdependent on each other to achieve this common goal,
  • Social Norms, some authority that both groups acknowledge and define social norms that support the contact and interactions between the groups and members.

Competitions are the reasons behind rivalries and fights. Many sports teams, sororities, fraternities, and businesses use the contact hypothesis technique. Having the two groups in competitions do something that requires the groups to work together helps break the rivalries and fights. The groups are given a project to complete, like raising money for a charity or hosting an event. The two groups must be given something that one group cannot complete by itself. This will allow the groups to share a common goal and have equal status and cooperation. The most commonly seen version of contact hypothesis is in the juvenile system. Petty criminals perform community service together to decrease the amount of fights and competition in the system. This also helps the community and the individuals that might have been hurt by the petty criminal. Once this task is complete it is hypothesized that the groups will find cohesion.


Socioeconomic Status and Prejudice

The personality centered approaches described above focus on understanding prejudice on an individual level.  But it is possible to understand prejudice by examining the larger society as well. Socioeconomic status is one way see the effects of prejudice in a broader context. Socioeconomic status (SES) refers to one's ranking in society by categories such as education level, income and occupation.  Research has shown that some forms of prejudice are related to SES.  People in lower SES groups tend to report more negative views towards out-groups, be more ethnocentric, and express more stereotyped thinking.  Critics of the research suggest that those with higher SES are better able to provide "politically correct" answers to research focused on prejudice.  There are two areas where socioeconomic status seems to have an influence on prejudice- education, and economic insecurity.


Symbolic interactionists claim that we learn our prejudices from interaction with others.  If an individual  associates with the Klu Klux Klan, it is likely that that person will pick up prejudicial beliefs towards minority groups.  Research suggests that people with higher levels of education score lower on most measures of prejudice.  Prejudice is correlated with a lack of tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.  This helps to explain why education might reduce prejudice.  As we become more educated, we become better able to understand complex ideas and situations.  People have less need to oversimplify.

In a 1993 study titled The Scar of Race, Paul  Sniderman and Thomas Piazza designed a study to get around the issue of masked biases.  They asked white Americans of various levels of education whether they thought the government should guarantee equal rights for  women and for blacks.  Among people with a college degree, there was no double standard. There was just as much support for equal rights for blacks as for women.  But at lower levels of education a double standard became apparent.  Participants with a high school education or less showed a 60% support for equal rights for women, but only a 20% support for equal rights for blacks.

Economic Insecurity and Prejudice

Research seems to indicate a relationship between one's economic insecurity and prejudice.  The less secure your economic position is, the more likely you will harbor prejudicial beliefs.  Working class whites who often compete with minority groups for jobs will sometimes see minorities as threats, perhaps even enemies.  Lower SES whites might be able to make themselves feel better by comparing themselves positively to minorities. "I might not be worth much, but at least I'm better than a lousy (fill in the blank)."

The Robber's Cave Experiment

In the 1950's a study was conducted at a campground where 11 and 12 year old boys were divided into two groups.  The groups lived in separate cabins and were consistently  placed in competitions with each other in a variety of games,  sports, and household chores.  Both groups developed hostilities against each other with members engaged in name calling and "raids" against the other group. After awhile, to reduce the conflict, the two groups worked on projects that required cooperation.  As a result friendships were established between the two groups.  The experiment demonstrated that prejudice was the result of competition and conflict between groups.  To learn more about the Robber's Cave Experiment, click on the link below.

Robber's Cave Experiment


Study/Review Check:  How could I set up a test question with the information above?  I could create a multiple choice question which asks, "All of the following are true statements concerning socioeconomic status and prejudice EXCEPT"... Or a short answer question that asks, "Briefly describe the contact hypothesis."



This is a picture of the cast of the original Star Trek series.Of the three major sociological theories, the symbolic interactionists would have the most to say about stereotypes.  This sociological theory asks the student of society to focus on the labels which produce prejudice.  These labels lead us to  selective perception, or the ability to see certain things and be blind to other things.  For example, if we are told that a certain racial group has a negative trait, we will only notice that negative trait and fail to notice either good traits, or the same negative trait in another racial group. Selective perception then, leads to the creation of stereotypes, which are prejudicial views towards a category of people. Stereotypes stress a few traits and assume that these characteristics apply to all member of the group, regardless of individual characteristics. Highly prejudicial people will maintain their stereotypes even in the face of massive evidence that their views are wrong.  For the prejudicial person, any challenge to the stereotype is dismissed as exceptional or situational.

One of the reasons the original Star Trek series was popular was how it broke down racial stereotypes.  What racial stereotypes were addressed with the cast pictured above?   Comedians have long made a career of poking fun at stereotypes.  The quotation below is from a Chris Rock sketch:

"You know the world's gone mad when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the USA of arrogance and the Germans don't want to go to war!"

" Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians ".


Stereotypes can be created for two reasons.  One is to illustrate inferiority (e.g., laziness, irresponsibility, lack of intelligence).  The emphasis is that the minority group does not possess a desirable trait.  This is done to justify exploitation of a minority group.  Slavery is an example of this form of stereotype.  A second type of stereotype is used when the minority group is beginning to improve its position in society.  Then the minority group is accused of having "too much" of a desirable trait.  They are "too smart", "too sly", or "too ambitious".  So their success is viewed negatively. 

It is easy for people to use stereotypes in their daily routine.  It is easy because a person doesn't have to do the hard work of researching a stereotype to find out it is not true.  Teachers in public schools can fall into this trap by relegating certain groups to special education classes, and police officers can be guilty as well when they engage in racial profiling.

Stereotypes as Social Constructions

It is possible to develop legitimate cultural generalizations that are based on careful scientific study and not have them be labeled as a stereotype.   But most people rely on the stereotypes that their society has socially constructed for them.  These socially constructed stereotypes reflect the power relations that exist within a culture.  Stereotypes are also used to reinforce group and individual subordination.   So when men in a culture tell a stereotyped joke about women, they are reinforcing women as second class citizens.  In terms of in and out group behavior, stereotypes can be used to designate the "out" group.

Characteristics of a Stereotype

Stereotypes tend to possess the following characteristics:

1.  They are categorical and general, suggesting the traits apply to all group members

2.  They are inflexible or rigid, thus not easily corrected.

3.  They are simplistic.

4.  They are pre-judgments not based on experience (although they could be reinforced by negative personal experiences).

5.  They can be conscious or unconscious.

6.  Within a sentence structure, stereotypes take the form of "all X's are Y".   In other words, all Jews are (fill in the blank), all women are (fill in the blank), all blacks are (fill in the blank).


1.  White With a Mic

The existence of stereotypes can make communications between members of different groups difficult. The psychologist  Claude Steele wrote about this.  He said:

"I think much of what is mistaken for racial animosity in America today is really stereotype vulnerability. . . . Imagine a black and a white man meeting for the first time. Because the black person knows the stereotypes of his group, he attempts to deflect those negative traits, finding ways of trying to communicate, in effect, 'Don't think of me as incompetent.' The white, for his part, is busy deflecting the stereotypes of his group: 'Don't think of me as a racist.' Every action becomes loaded with the potential of confirming the stereotype, and you end up with two people struggling with these phantoms they're only half aware of. The discomfort and tension is often mistaken for racial animosity."
New York Times Magazine, 9-17-95    



Study/Review Check:  How could I set up a test question with the information above?  I could create a multiple choice question which asks, "The term "selective perception" can best be described as?"... Or a short answer question that asks, "Briefly describe tsome of the characteristics of a stereotype."

Ethnic Stereotypes in the Media

Ethnic stereotypes have a long history in human society.  These stereotypes are not static- they can change over time. One of the main contributors to ethnic stereotypes in modern societies is the media.  Stereotypes are easy to reinforce when large groups of people in the same culture are exposed to the same stereotypes. Throughout  American history,  ethnic stereotypes have been promoted through the various forms of media.  Most, if not all ethnic groups, have had images created by the media that have had lasting influence on the public.  An examination of television shows that especially in its earliest stages, ethnic minority groups have been typecast into roles- many of them negative.  For example, African Americans in the 1950's were portrayed in shows such as Amos n' Andy as lazy clowns, crooks, or happy servants.  By the 1970's there were shows that tried to overcome harmful racial stereotypes by showing blacks as smart and successful, shows such as Julia, The Jeffersons, Roots, and The Cosby Show

Where does that leave us today?  Some observers  believe that minority representation has improved.  One can look at programs such as the  Law and Order series or E.R. and see ethnic groups portrayed positively.  On the other hand, there are critics who say that many ethnic groups still face ethnic stereotypes.  For example, whether in television, music videos or video games, black males are still depicted as gang members, drug users, unemployed, or involved in crime. Opportunities for advancement and recognition within the media are often limited.   In 2004 it was reported that in television and movies, roles for African American actors decreased 3%, for Hispanics 31%, and for Asian Americans 35% from the previous year.  In addition, while the number of television series with multiracial casts have increased,  the number of shows featuring predominately minority ethnic groups has decreased.  The shows that still exist are comedies.  There are no predominately minority dramatic series. 

Another question is how are minorities portrayed in newscasts of the major media.  There was considerable debate after Hurricane Katrina about the two photos which appeared together in a news report from the Associated Press.  Please read the captions next to the images below.  Notice how the African-American male is described as "looting" while the two white people are described as "finding" bread and soda at a local grocery store.  How do images like these affect people's perceptions and stereotypes?


1.  Ethnic Stereotypes in Pornography 

2.  The Economics of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping

3.  Ethnic Stereotypes is the Media


   Movies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  White Men Can't Jump.  Among other things, a look at stereotypes on the basketball court.

2.  Crash.  A racially and economically diverse group deal with stereotypes that emerge after a series of car crashes. 



  Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War  by John W. Dower




Farley, John E.
     2005   Majority-Minority Relations  (5th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:   Pearson Education 

Healey, Joseph F.
     1998   Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class  (2nd Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:   Pine Forge Press

Newman, David M. 

     2006  Sociology:  Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life (6th Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:  Pine Forge Press


Copyright 2006 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved