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Rethinking Prejudice

Prejudice is a "resource system" that permits us to degrade others

This post is in response to
Pride and Prejudice

Why do we think, feel, and act as we do? No question in the human sciences is more basic. Nor is any more important, at least if one wishes to understand why people inflict misery on one another.

This essay explores one aspect of that misery-making process, our proclivity to pre-judge others and, on the basis of those judgments, to restrict the range of opportunities available to them. Readers of this series of writings will know this is my third attempt to address this theme, the first of those having focused on our being “suspicious characters” who willfully seek targets for our animosities and the second on the ways in which “pride and prejudice” entangle and reinforce one another, in novels and in ordinary living.

Prejudice is usually understood by behavioral scientists to be an “attitude,” some persistent orientation that people carry about in their minds and that disposes them to act in ways consistent with this. One of the great statements of this viewpoint was provided by Gordon Allport who, in The Nature of Prejudice defined his subject as “an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.”

Allport’s conception is notable because it stresses the qualities of overgeneralization and inflexibility which mark prejudice as a psychological pattern. As that scholar sees it, “prejudice” differs from “prejudgment” in the sense that prejudiced people resist information that would alter their perspective. To be sure, all of us draw conclusions based on limited evidence. We harbor ill-will, sometimes against those who have done little to deserve it. We overgeneralize. But prejudiced people cling to their animosities. They do not wish to broaden, or soften, their views.

Furthermore, prejudice is not just a matter of belief, some set of ideas – well-fashioned or not - about how the world and its inhabitants operate. Prejudice invokes feelings of liking and disliking, loving and hating. These feelings both support and energize cognition. Although we think of these tendencies – at base, dispositions to approach and avoid objects - as opposites, they are intimately related. To move toward something usually means to move away from something else. Comprehending our positive commitments means comprehending what those commitments are “not.” It is usual to emphasize prejudice only in its more virulent negative forms, as Allport does. But preferment is its other course. In both cases, feelings embolden people to make such judgments.

Most importantly, prejudice treats persons as categories rather than as individuals. Because someone is black, female, homosexual, and so forth, the prejudiced person needs no further information on which to base his evaluations and behavior. The nuances of the human being disappear. A summarizing, administrative spirit prevails. At worst, this means that individuals claimed to possess a defining trait are lumped together and socially quarantined. They are herded into neighborhoods with distinctive jobs, schools, and churches. Their mixing with the dominant group is rigidly controlled. It is the essence of prejudice that persons so labeled do not control the terms of that designation. And others respond to them, first and foremost, as members of that group.

Allport’s description merits its classic status. But I do not think his account of prejudice as an “attitude” – that is, as some ever-present urge to despoil – is entirely apt. Few people, or so I believe, look about a room filled with strangers thinking: “I like her but not him, those people but not those.” Who of us buzzes with such continuity of intent?

What I’m proposing here is that prejudice is conceived better as a “resource system,” an arsenal of weaponry – cultural, social, and personal – that remains in storage most of the time but that can be employed, quite strategically, when the possessor deems this useful. These resources are not assembled in a casual, haphazard, or spur-of-the-moment way but instead are systematically organized and readied for use. To call them “systems” is to stress that they are logically interrelated, in terms of their defining characteristics, guiding assumptions, and potential applications. They are reinforced by processes at each of the three levels just mentioned. And they function as elements of a much more far-reaching and broadly established whole, a problematic vision for living that people embrace as their own. In sum, prejudice exists as a pre-established societal template with its own dedicated events, groups and leading figures. We seek out and participate in these settings much as we enter a theme park, sports arena, or restaurant.

This view, I must emphasize, is quite different from saying prejudice is a “psychological” formation only. Rather, prejudice pre-exists as a repository or storehouse of possibilities, whose products can be directed toward persons disadvantaged enough to receive their effects without effectively countering them. Let us examine each of the three resources in turn.

Cultural resources. These are ideas that have recognized social currency. They manifest themselves as beliefs, arguments, phrases, and gestures. Their effect, at least in the case of prejudice, is to put someone “down” or keep him “in his place.” Conceptions often include visual images of the degraded group and, frequently, renderings of their ways of speaking and acting. They extend to visceral matters – noises associated with the other, smells they give off, how they “feel” to the touch.

It is this total surround of conception – as the term “stereotype” implies – that captures others and restricts their ability to respond. To that degree the assault does not simply objectify those unfortunates and set them apart; it invades their deepest subjectivity.

I am not talking here about clever, privately-fashioned arguments, the ability of one person to disrespect another through jibes, antics, or rhetorical flourishes. Private accusations are not enough. Ideas must have a public currency so that the victim feels the full weight of the denunciation and so other people (both bystanders and those who will hear about this later) may appreciate what is being said and done. Name-calling must not only hurt but “stick.” Insinuations must linger, and then spread in their implications. Targeted persons must realize that they have been trapped in a pattern of publicly circulated conception, have been revealed to be an instance of a category. Successfully claiming that one is not this – especially when others are smirking, nodding in agreement, or simply withholding their support – is almost impossible.

There was a time when cultural resources resided almost entirely in the minds of persons. Nowadays, culture is to be found in artifacts. Contemporary people read books and magazines, stare at television and computer screens, and fiddle with smart phones. Ideas and images – art, advertising, and signage of every sort – dominate landscapes. Our cars, buildings, furniture, and air conditioning systems articulate a distinctive vision of life, one that makes plain our public ideals and commitments. When possessed or occupied, such artifacts also illustrate who stands closest, and who farthest away, from those ideals. So it matters what images of “others” – what they look like, how they act, what material elements they possess and what they do with these – are presented in newspapers, TV dramas and newscasts, movies, and video games.

“Information” from such sources is the fundamental consumer product of contemporary societies. Sadly, many people are reassured by representations of minorities and women as villains, cowards, loafers, and fools. Such on-screen characters seem realer, and more memorable, than the ordinary people who live down the street. Pornographically, such images linger in the mind, ready to be pulled out as examples of desired but forbidden alternatives to normalcy.

A “culture of prejudice” is one where it is easy to know of and to accept these ideas and images, to associate them with people unlike the viewer, and to refer to them – in jokes, gossip, declamations, and demurrals – all with the intent of keeping such people below and away.

Social Resources. Rhetorics, dressed up with images or not, are important locales for prejudice. Clearly, politicians exploit these publicly acknowledged visions of “good” and “bad” people and of the treatment each category should be accorded. Ministers and moralists occupy similar terrain.

Still – and any teacher can tell you this – ideas by themselves rarely have their desired effects. Ideas require confirmation from people the listener respects. They need real-world applications that test their implications for persons. That is to say, cultural forms are sustained by systems of social support: some “back up” of flesh-and-blood friends, family, and associates.

That supporting cast can be counted on to declare the rectitude of the belief in question and to reaffirm the ongoing positive identity of the prejudiced person. A pat on the back, avowing phrase, or even Facebook “like” will do. Such persons (to use sociological terminology, “significant others” or “reference groups”) also provide models for ideas and behaviors similar to one’s own. When we see supporters employ these models, we experience their successes and failures vicariously. By acclamation, we reinforce them as they do us. Most importantly perhaps, significant others make a place for us in their social communities. That wider group comprehends itself as the people who do not like, or associate with, “them.” And those who realize those ideals most ably are granted highest status.

Most of us find it difficult to debunk the political and religious beliefs of our closest friends. Indeed, a good portion of that closeness is based on the perception – and mutual reinforcement – of similarity. Prejudiced beliefs are no different than other beliefs in this regard. Practitioners want to feel themselves part of a sustaining community, and they relish the sense of exclusivity that prejudice prevails.

Be clear that “social life” is not only about groups or, even less formally, about interpersonal relations. These matters are important, but all of us – and increasingly so, in modern societies – are participants in vast, abstract collectivities. We are members of organizations, social institutions, and of course societies themselves. These impersonal structures profoundly direct our life-energies. It is they that pay us, educate us, save our souls, send us to the battlefield, and put us in jail.

Prejudice thrives in settings where individuals believe their valued placements in these social structures are in jeopardy. Although prejudicial beliefs routinely center on issues like skin color, character, and intelligence, these accusations are merely covers for the real contentions. Those disputed matters are wealth, power, prestige, and knowledge.

Individuals – and groups – seek access to these valued resources. They are the currencies by which we make our way through the world. Possessed of these, we obtain food, housing, clothing, healthcare, education, political expression, justice before the law, family stability, recreation, safety, security, and a productive sense of self. Seen in that light, prejudice is a social mechanism that hampers other people’s chances at what are generally thought to be the “good things” in life.

It is possible to think of society in ways that transcend this ethic of scarcity. But the prejudiced person finds this to be difficult. Other people are comprehended to be competitors, and thus antagonists. “As they succeed, so we fail.” In-groups and out-groups are envisioned on these terms. Groups high above are too powerful to bring down. Those below – and especially the permanently degraded categories – provide better opposition. Our group’s success is measured by the distance between us and them. We see the world – and our own possibilities - by standing on their shoulders.

Personal Resources. The reader may object, and with justice, that descriptions of broadly available social and cultural resources are not an adequate explanation of prejudice. After all, many of us occupy roughly similar social and cultural terrain; still we differ widely. Two children from the same family, ostensibly exposed to the same conditions, have contrary beliefs. A husband may be highly prejudiced, a wife not. Otherwise close friends or family members commonly agree to not discuss matters that, if displayed openly, would separate them.

One can say such people simply have different life-experiences, circles of association, and exposures to social expectations. No two persons, even twins, are identical in this regard. Everyone has his or her own history, filled with defining triumphs and tragedies. Each takes different lessons from the school-of-life. Each has a carefully constructed personal narrative and inhabits this fervidly.

That biographical – or psycho-historical – perspective is appealing. However, I believe that a better route to understanding prejudice is to emphasize people’s preoccupation with their own, present-time engagements in the world. All of us locate ourselves amidst the circumstances of our lives; indeed, that ceaseless self-reconnaissance is the principal commitment of every organism. Some of the placements that result from this activity are fairly stable (call them “statuses”); others are more momentary or fluid (“standings”). Whatever their stability, we find it helpful to take “stances,” postures that help us maintain our footing in a particular locale and that orient us to the forces that challenge us. Our ability to hold forth in this way depends on our possessing certain capabilities, which we rely on in the face of these challenges.

The general idea presented here – that people are committed to gathering and expending socially useful resources – is associated especially with the writing of French sociologist and social critic Pierre Bourdieu, who discussed it as the acquisition of different forms of “capital.” Generalizing from Marx’s concept of economic capital – essentially, kinds of property used to generate additional forms of wealth and influence - Bourdieu (and later interpreters) argue that there are also social, symbolic, cultural, political, and even physical forms of capital. The first of these terms refers to stationing in valued social networks whose human resources we can draw on for support. The second identifies placements of prestige, honored positions which confer further possibilities of respect and influence. Cultural capital denotes valued forms of knowledge, skill and moral authority, sometimes specialized for distinctive situations. Political capital, a possession identified ultimately with the use of force (legitimate or not) is yet another form. So is physical capital, capacities represented by health, strength, vigor, beauty, athleticism, and the like.

Most people have some sense of the resources they can draw on to get what they want. They tend to value the particular kinds of resources – perhaps physical strength rather than book-learning – they themselves possess. They rely on some resources in some settings and other types at other times. Bourdieu described that sense of placement, familiarity, and taste – essentially, how a person is connected to a particular social location and what they believe that can do from there – as a “habitus.”

This placement-in-the-world is never entirely stable. Statuses rise and fall. People know that over-spending any of the above resources may damage their reserves. And expenditures – like a parent’s noisy reprimands or a teacher’s continually high grades – tend to be inflationary. That is, increasing inputs are required to achieve the same effects.

How is a strategy of resource attainment, possession and use – and the broader vision of life that attends it – developed and stabilized? I would claim that there is another form of “capital” beyond the ones just discussed. Let us call it psychological or “identity” capital. It is a quality of self-estimation, a carefully assembled and emotionally buttressed comprehension that the possessor is socially competent, that is, that they can overcome substantial difficulties to accomplish what they desire.

However important access to publicly available resources may be, by itself it is not enough to produce these feelings of competence. People must first know of these resources and know that they, personally, have access to them. Secondly, they must know how to employ these resources should they obtain them. Finally, there must be the will to use them.

After all, one can be physically attractive without realizing such – or realize this and be uninterested in exploiting its effects. They can be from an “old, distinguished family” and have all the perquisites associated with that. The full measure of benefit arrives only with the psychological commitment to recognize and use what one has.

This is not to say that feelings of self-confidence – some satisfied reflection about personal standing and the “can-do” optimism that results from this – are sufficient to realize the above effects. Pointedly, assets like beauty or family prominence already exist, as latent powers, for the persons in question. To that degree the possessors are quite different from those who lack such “prospects.” Persons so favored can join the club of the similarly-advantaged whenever they decide. The truly disadvantaged have little chance of this admission.

Most people, or so I argue, wish to build, display, and employ resources of the above types. They want to have feelings of competence. But just as there are different ways of thinking about capital – as wealth for myself or for a wider circle of others, as something to acquire or to expend, as something to share freely or to concentrate privately, and so forth – so there are different strategies of identity creation.

I believe that identity-making is served better when we are open and accepting in our judgments of others. Such a view emphasizes the role of other people as potential sources of support rather than of injury, as benefactors instead of debtors. A person who affirms the human community broadly is more likely to have that generosity reciprocated.

Against that “positive” trajectory of self-construction, prejudiced people choose a negative path. People preoccupy themselves with social competition. Life-strategies center on victory and defeat, offense and defense. Resources are comprehended as difficult-to-attain prizes, awarded to individuals and their allies. And it is crucial for such people to believe that they possess – and desire – things that are scarce, what others also want but must never have.

This combative spirit, with its supporting ethic of scarcity, exists in culture and in social groups as well as in the individuals who bear these commitments. The intersection of these elements – cultural rhetorics spelling out the importance of hierarchy and aggression, social groups who feel threatened by their ability to secure their proper placements in a society organized on such terms, and individuals with similar status-insecurities – creates the conditions within which prejudice thrives.

In a society so constituted, many of us feel we are not quite good enough. That feeling is based on our sense that we have not done enough and, because of that, do not have enough currently in our possession. Self-acceptance – comprehended in these competitive, invidious terms – is difficult to acquire. Prejudiced people – and again, all of us when we give in to these impulses – choose the strategy of finding status by degrading others. However unsatisfying our own lives may be, we take comfort in deeming ourselves better than “them,” or at least the version of them that society helps us create in our minds.

This is not, I insist, the best strategy for self-realization. Nor is it the most effective route to a prospering civil society. We must recognize prejudice for what it is, a readily available set of resources that affects every person – victims, offenders, and “bystanders” alike. We are all tempted to avail ourselves of the false benefit prejudice provides – boosting self-esteem by condemning others. That impulse is to be resisted. Affirmation is the surer route to what we desire, both for ourselves and for our communities.


Allport, Gordon (1958). The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1986). The Forms of Capital. In John Richardson, Ed. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press, pp. 241-258.