What Research Tells Us About the Psychology of Racism

A new review takes a broad look at hows and whys of racism in American society.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

Designincolor/Adobe Stock
Source: Designincolor/Adobe Stock

Today, many Americans observe Juneteenth, a long-celebrated holiday in the Black community that commemorates when the news that slavery had been abolished reached Galveston, Texas in 1965, two years after Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

This year’s Juneteenth celebration comes at a time when race occupies the forefront of our national consciousness. Scholars are working to help us understand how racism has come to dominate our society and what we can do to change it.

A prime example of this work is a sweeping new review article "The Psychology of Racism," scheduled to be published this year in American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association. In it, the authors compile a wide range of academic literature to identify seven factors that contribute to racism today in the U.S.

“People often define racism as disliking or mistreating others on the basis of race. That definition is wrong,” Steven Roberts, a Stanford University psychologist and lead author of the paper, told Stanford News. “Racism is a system of advantage based on race. It is a hierarchy. It is a pandemic. Racism is so deeply embedded within U.S. minds and U.S. society that it is virtually impossible to escape.”

The paper is co-authored by Michael Rizzo, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University. Roberts and Rizzo bring together a broad range of academic work in psychology, sociology, and public policy to paint a clear picture of racism in American society today.

First, they explain how Americans are organized into distinct categories, or groups, based on their race. These categories are learned from a young age, and they promote stereotyping.

Second, society places people within these categories based on the color of their skin, which leads to factions. Research shows when people are assigned to and identify with a specific faction, they naturally show loyalty to that faction and feel the urge to compete with other factions. The authors cite a considerable body of research that shows how people of all ages feel and act more positively toward those in their own faction, and treat those from other factions less favorably.

Third, decades of rules and laws, including housing restrictions and economic policies, have created disadvantages for Americans who are not White. As a result, American communities tend to be segregated by race. This means Americans are less likely to come into contact with people of different racial backgrounds and less likely to think of people of different races as part of their own group or faction. Roberts and Rizzo cite academic literature that clearly demonstrates that the amount of exposure a child has to other racial groups early in life affects how they will think about and act toward those groups when they are adults.

The fourth factor the authors identify is hierarchy, a system that ranks groups according to their status and power. In America, White people form the highest-ranking group. They make up 77 percent of the U.S. population, hold the majority of the country’s wealth, and are more likely to hold high-ranking jobs. This hierarchy encourages White people to believe they are superior to other races.

The fifth factor, power, is closely related to hierarchy. Because White Americans hold high-ranking positions, they are able to build a society that benefits them. For example, White people have historically created our societal norms, such as which accents are considered standard and who is allowed to participate in political elections. They are more likely to control resources, including educational and financial institutions. They are in better positions to give orders, through political power. And they are ultimately in a position to dominate and exploit others.

The sixth factor the authors identify as contributing to racism in America is the media. The authors cite clear evidence that demonstrates people internalize what they watch on TV. A very early example of this research occurs in a 1963 study where preschool children witness aggression on TV and then imitate that aggression in their lives. The paper is the first in a large body of research that demonstrates how people internalize what they see in the media. The authors also cite clear evidence that the American media portrays idealized representations of White Americans and marginalizes and minimizes people who are not White.

The final factor Roberts and Rizzo identify is passivism, or society’s tendency to overlook and deny the existence of racism. The authors describe several pathways to racism, including ignorance that racism exists, denial of racism, and the observation of inaction in others (sometimes called the bystander effect).

The authors conclude their review by encouraging scholars to develop research in the emerging field of anti-racism, or building a system of equity. They suggest the field of psychology can contribute to this effort through research on changing social norms, child development and educational curricula, and other pathways to create an anti-racist society.

The take-home message: There is clear evidence of long-standing, deeply entrenched factors in our society that promote racism. Understanding them can help us to move toward a more fair, equitable, and just society.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.