The Psychology Behind Racism
Attempts to understand the inexplicable
Posted Sep 06, 2017
To eradicate a global epidemic, one must first try to understand it. Even while it may seem an impossible task, when it comes to racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, it may be a necessary one if we are to be successful in the fight against hate.
Psychologists and sociologists have been trying to understand the psychology behind this type of hate for decades. While no singular cause has been identified, most theorists agree that there are consistent factors that may help to explain the epistemology of racism.
Is this just prejudice?
It is important to point out the difference between the terms prejudice and racism, as they are not interchangeable concepts. While all racists are prejudiced, not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice is a human phenomenon involving cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice against a particular group of people based on perceived differences, sometimes taken to the extreme. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred. The disturbing images of radical hate groups we’ve been seeing lately—which some describe as frighteningly reminiscent of early 20th-century Nazi Germany—do not represent all those with bigoted views. There still exists the less overt but more insidious incantation of racism, which may not be so visible but are no less destructive and crucial to understand. You cannot tackle one without acknowledging the other.
Not all hate appears the same
In his quest to understand and fight bigotry, psychologist Abraham Maslow urged, “Learn to hate meanness. Watch out for anybody who is mean or cruel. Watch out for people who delight in destruction.”
To hate is human, and can actually be a motivation for good. According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, LMHC, NCC, “Hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts … On the other hand,” she says, “hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes. It is the belief that other ‘groups’ are inherently flawed or inferior or are seen as a threat. Often these groups are dehumanized and de-legitimized, making it easier to hate.”
Any of a number of factors may lie behind extreme hate. The following are some perspectives based on theories as they’ve evolved and as we understand them today.
Attitudes of extreme hatred are usually based in fear. They come from primitive survival mechanisms—our instinct to avoid danger—to fear anything that appears to be different, which leads to fear of the other. “When one race of persons unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group—fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened—they will develop these defensive thoughts and behaviors,” says psychologist and political advisor Dr. Reneé Carr. “They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.”
The need to belong
Ironically, some members of extremist hate groups are motivated by the need for love and belonging—a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups such as neo-Nazis is one way to do so. “The us-versus-them mentality makes them feel closer to the group they identify with, which provides social support,” says psychologist Dr. John Paul Garrison. “That is a severely perverted version of healthy social support, but the longing to identify with and be close to others is a healthy desire.”
Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our own shortcomings by transferring—or projecting—them onto others. “The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron. “The idea here is, ‘I’m not terrible, you are.’ The individual holding the hate believes on some deep level that these things may be true about themselves.”
Loma K. Flowers, M.D. of nonprofit EQDynamics defines emotional competence as the integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action. This is more than think before you act—it is integrate before you act. It is understanding the origins of the negative emotions which, like all of our emotions, deserve respect and care as they are important to our sense of self. Flowers states:
This is where the bigots and haters lose their footing. It is easier to believe fallacies than it is to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues presented. They may find comfort in a belief in innate superiority and entitlement and be too terrified or satisfied with the status quo to surrender it without a safe alternative. Thinking takes work, lining up facts with feelings, and sorting out how much of your anger is about being laid off from your job and how much of it is about others objecting to Confederate statues erected in the 1920s to symbolize white supremacy. Or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life from bigger stronger family members, or worrying what could happen but may well never occur? These anachronistic feelings … cause an awful lot of trouble in life. The challenge is to link each part of every feeling to the right context. Whether these [beliefs] are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or are learned from teaching or modeling by members of their family and community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence.
Racism is not a mental illness
Some experts have questioned whether racism and other forms of bigotry can be classified as mental illnesses. To do this would not only be offensive to those who struggle with true mental illnesses, but would also absolve members of hate groups and other extremists of moral responsibility. “While racism is not a mental illness, the spectrum of racist attitudes is very broad,” says Garrison. “There are [personality] disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder, that are defined by a lack of empathy and may predispose individuals to be capable of extreme racist attitudes.”
However, no one is born racist. There is no gene that determines one’s predisposition to hate or bigotry. These are learned attitudes and behaviors. In their book Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity, historian Sander Gilman and sociologist James M. Thomas urge, “Let’s not avoid responsibility. Let’s make sure people who say evil things, who do evil things, who believe evil things have to take responsibility.”
Cultural and sociological factors
After the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a group of psychiatrists attempted to have extreme racism named as a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. This request was denied as racism was determined to be more of a cultural than psychological issue, an idea with which most psychologists today agree.
Why we hate is not as relevant as what we do with that hate, according to Silvia Dutchevici, LCSW, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center. “The question is perhaps why some people who feel feelings of hate decide to act upon them in such destructive ways. The answer to such a complex question,” she says, “lies not only in the psychological makeup of an individual, meaning, family history, [or] level of attachment to an Other, but also to a cultural and political history.”
Education and public dialogue
Social advocate and writer Kimberly Blaker stresses the importance of teaching children about diversity from a young age. “Unfortunately, prejudice beliefs often stem from the home. So advocates, teachers, and communities must take up the cause in teaching children to value diversity.”
More public dialogue among adults regarding racism and other forms of bigotry is also needed. “In order to fight this epidemic, we must engage faith-based communities, colleges and universities, nonprofits, and law enforcement,” says Dr. Richard Greggory Johnson, professor in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco. “It will take the intersection of allies, thought leaders and the like to eradicate racism on a global level. But even more important is the continued attention to the problem.”
Flowers suggests talking with people who hold different ideas, asking them to explain why they feel this way, which will lead to their explaining their thinking—or the absence of it. “Your job is not to convert them, but to listen to them and ask about contradictions in their thinking or errors in facts,” says Flowers. “Such calm conversations build relationships and teach tolerance. They can also encourage people to examine ideas they have swallowed whole without ever chewing them over.”
“It isn’t going to change overnight,” says Blaker. “But the more we fight against it and teach acceptance of others, the sooner people of all races and religions can live in peace with one another.”
Gilman, S. & Thomas, J.M. (2016). Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity. NYU Press.