Racial and Ethnic Group Stratification

Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

Definitions of Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

Prejudice, discrimination, and racism are distinct concepts, but they are interrelated.

People often use the terms prejudice, discrimination, and racism interchangeably. While these concepts are related, they do have distinct meanings. Prejudice is a preconceived, negative, and inflexible attitude about a particular group of people. Discrimination is an action or behavior that results in the unequal treatment of individuals because of their membership in a certain racial, ethnic, or minority group. Racism is an ideology or set of beliefs that claims superiority of one racial or ethnic group over another. Prejudice, discrimination, and racism often stem from stereotypes. A stereotype is an oversimplified and overgeneralized belief about a group of people.

Because of prejudice, various pseudoscientific claims have been used in attempts to give credence to racist beliefs and hence to support discrimination against minorities. For instance, throughout history, people have tried to use physical features to justify beliefs that one race is morally or intellectually superior or inferior to another. This scientific racism—the misuse of science to support racist beliefs—has been used in support of evil and horrific institutions and actions, including slavery, racial segregation, forced sterilization, human experimentation without consent, so-called "ethnic cleansing," and genocide.

A well-known version of scientific racism is the now-discredited theory of social Darwinism, a late-19th century social theory in which Darwinian laws of natural selection are misunderstood and used to support the theory that some individuals or groups possess genetic superiority over others. Social Darwinism tried to apply Charles Darwin's concept of natural selection to individuals and groups of people. Natural selection is the evolutionary process by which organisms better adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and so produce more offspring. Social Darwinists twisted the idea of natural selection to infer that because a trait had survived an evolutionary process, individuals bearing that trait were morally superior to others.

Social Darwinism is related to eugenics, the attempt to improve the genetic quality of a human population using controlled breeding. The eugenics movement arose in the early 20th century. Proponents argued that preventing some groups from having children would increase the levels of intelligence and cultural superiority in a society. Based on eugenics, thousands of people were forcibly sterilized to keep them from reproducing. Most of these people were poor. Many were immigrants or African Americans. Nazi Germany used eugenic ideas to justify the genocide of Jews, Roma (often referred to as gypsies), homosexuals, and other groups deemed inferior to the white, Christian, Germanic, heterosexual majority. Some early anthropologists, such as Franz Boas (1858–1942) and Margaret Mead (1901–78), pushed back against the concept of eugenics. Eventually, eugenics was completely debunked as a scientific and intellectual theory.
An anthropologist who studied culture in Samoa and Papua New Guinea, Margaret Mead rejected eugenics, the theory that intelligence is linked to ethnicity and race. Some of Mead's conclusions about the cultures she studied were later challenged. However, her stance against racist and Eurocentric theories of culture helped to debunk eugenics and influenced the development of anthropology, sociology, and other fields.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-120226

Sociological Study of Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

Functionalism analyzes how prejudice, discrimination, and racism contribute to social equilibrium; conflict theory looks at their role in competition for scarce resources; symbolic interactionism emphasizes how they are expressed and learned within a society.

Sociologists approach the study of society using theory as a framework. Three major theories in sociology are functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Each of these paradigms provides a particular perspective for the study of racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

Functionalism is a theory that views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium. It tries to understand how the different parts of a society contribute to stability and maintain social order. Theorists using this approach try to identify the social functions that are served by prejudice and racism. The major function of prejudice and racism is to preserve the status quo, or the current state of society. They are functions that benefit the society's dominant group or groups. However, minority and oppressed groups also pass on their own prejudices about other groups. These may help the group resist oppression, or they may help the group maintain its traditions and a sense of identity.

Conflict theory posits that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. In this view, prejudice and discrimination can be viewed as tools in the competition for jobs and resources. Members of the dominant group use racism to prevent other groups from gaining power. Conflict theory sociologists may also examine how prejudices are taught and how discrimination imposes disadvantages. Conflict theorists studying education, for instance, have found that oppressed groups develop their own ideologies in which they may take pride in possessing the traits that are used to justify their oppression. Or, rather than viewing themselves as victims of institutional oppression, they come to see their low status as justified by their individual personal characteristics, weaknesses, and failures. Minority group members thus find ways to tolerate giving in to the forces that limit them to low-status, low-wage jobs.

Symbolic interactionism is a theory of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and interaction of the individual and society. According to symbolic interactionism, individuals interpret the actions of others and shape their own actions based on the social norms and meanings they have learned. Prejudice and racism are embedded in language and learned through interaction with social institutions. Symbolic interactionist sociologists may look for biases in linguistic expressions and in the languages, symbols, and practices of institutions. For instance, research has discovered habits and unspoken signals that are learned by children in dominant-group families that enable them to successfully navigate corporate bureaucracies as adults. Children of minority-group families do not learn these signals and so have less ability to succeed in a business environment as adults.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism is pervasive racism that is interwoven into social structure.

If an individual discriminates against a person or persons because of their race, that is individual racism. Institutional racism is racism that pervades a society's basic institutions in a systematic manner. Institutional racism is more damaging and more difficult to recognize and dislodge than individual racism. It disadvantages members of racial minority groups in many areas of life, including education, employment, housing, health care, and the criminal justice system. It often enables individuals to deflect criticism and accusations of particular acts of racial discrimination.

Racial profiling by police is an example of institutional racism. In the United States and other countries, members of racial minority groups are much more likely to be stopped by police, questioned, searched, and arrested. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to prison for crimes. It is difficult to prove that any specific person was stopped or searched by police or convicted or sentenced harshly by a court partly or primarily because of his or her race; nonetheless, it would appear that the criminal justice system is racist.

In the United States, laws enforced racial segregation in housing, preventing members of minority groups from living in the same neighborhoods as people who were white. Civil rights legislation and legal decisions in the 1950s and 1960s eliminated many of those laws, but unspoken segregation practices still occur. Members of racial minority groups are much less likely to be approved for home mortgages than individuals who are white. Data from 2015 shows that loan denials for black and Hispanic applicants are significantly higher than for white and Asian applicants. Black and Hispanic applicants who are approved for mortgages are more likely to pay higher interest rates on these loans than white and Asian applicants. Real estate agents may steer members of racial minority groups away from buying homes in white areas. A 2013 analysis of steering––seeking to influence the choices of a potential homebuyer––describes a range of tactics used to direct buyers towards or away from particular neighborhoods. These tactics include verbal persuasion, restricting viewing of property, and selective advertising.

Employment discrimination, likewise, is prohibited by law. But unemployment among people of color is much higher than among white Americans. White job applicants are more likely to be interviewed and hired than racial minority applicants with similar resumes. Once hired, white employees are more likely to be offered higher salaries than their minority counterparts.

Institutional racism is woven into other social institutions as well. In the United States, schools in areas that have a high racial minority population tend to be underfunded and have fewer resources. Students of color are more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Members of racial minority groups are more likely to suffer poor health, illness, and disease. Patients who are racial minorities are less likely to receive medical procedures that are commonly given to white patients.

Institutional racism does not occur only when organizations deliberately choose or attempt to engage in patterns of discrimination. While some societies and groups do consciously create structures and policies that are meant to discriminate, institutional racism is not necessarily intentionally harmful or malicious. Rather, institutional racism lies in the outcomes of institutional practices that systematically disadvantage people of color or other minorities. This form of racism can be especially difficult to combat because the individuals who perpetuate the discriminatory structures and practices do not always deliberately mean to be racist and thus can struggle to understand and acknowledge the reality of the discrimination.