The Psychology of Racism

Written by | Science, Society

“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are” (1). 

“To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity” (2). 

While racism is not unique to America, this country has continuously fueled the debate of racism. However, what are the underpinnings of racism? What causes a person to be racist? What causes people of one race to be prejudiced against another race? These questions did not begin with the founding of the United States, as a sense of superiority of one’s race and inferiority of other races has remained a challenge for humans since time immemorial. Even today, racism is rampant throughout the world. Some form of racism exists in every country on the globe. From apartheid in South Africa to the treatment of Romani people in Europe to the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, it is surprising that while mankind is at the forefront of technological advancements, it has progressed very little in the areas of social reform and equity towards each other. 

Some sociologists, and people in general, believe that racism is a social form of “survival of the fittest.” They believe that throughout history, early humans were forced to deprive other groups of resources in order to survive. These sociologists believed that the ancestors of certain races subjugated and oppressed other groups to increase their own access to resources. According to psychologists such as Pascal Boyer, racism is “a consequence of highly efficient economic strategies,” enabling us to “keep members of other groups in a lower-status position, with distinctly worse benefits” (3). Another related idea is that to see one’s own group as special or superior would have helped early humans survive by enhancing group cohesion. However, contemporary anthropologists do not support these theories. Their research does not show that one group of people viewed another tribe or group as competitors for the same food and resources. On the contrary, different groups have always interacted with each other often, regularly visiting each other, making marriage alliances, and sometimes switching members. 

Present-day psychologists agree that “racism is a symptom of psychological ill-health.” It is a sign of a lack of psychological integration, a lack of self-esteem, and inner security. 

“Psychologically healthy people with a stable sense of self and strong inner security are not racist because they have no need to strengthen their sense of self through group identity. They have no need to define themselves “in distinction to, and in conflict with, others” (4). 

Defining Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

To begin with, many confuse the terms “prejudice,” “discrimination,” and “racism.” Prejudice is a set of irrational or unjustifiable negative emotions or evalu-ations toward persons from other social groups (5). Discrimination, on the other hand, refers to the inappropriate treatment of people because of their actual or perceived group membership. This may include both overt and covert behaviors, including microag-gressions (indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination) that reflect negative attitudes or beliefs about a non-majority group. 

Racism refers to prejudice or discrimination against individuals or groups based on beliefs about one’s own racial superiority or the belief that race reflects inherent differences in attributes and capabilities. Racism is the basis for social stratiÿcation and differential treatment that advantage the dominant group. It can take many forms, including explicit racial prejudice and discrimination by individuals and institutions (e.g., Jim Crow laws after the Reconstruction) as well as structural or environmental racism in policies or practices that foster discrimination and mutually reinforcing social inequalities (e.g., attendance policies that favor a majority group) (6).

According to other psychologists such as Steven Roberts and Michael Rizzo, racism should be defined more broadly as “a system of advantage based on race that is created and maintained by an interplay between psychological factors (i.e., biased thoughts, feelings, and actions) and sociopolitical factors (i.e., biased laws, policies, and institutions).” People are not born racist, they say, people become racist (or antiracist) “via a culmination of factors that are deeply woven into the fabric of American society” (7).

However, if we analyze what causes a person to become racist, social experiments have shown that being placed in a particular group in itself affects individuals’ behaviors, i.e., people tend to identify with others in their own group. This is known as Minimal Groups Phenomenon (MGP). The MGP is rooted in two general motivations:

  • Firstly, people’s positive perceptions of themselves often extend to positive percep-tions of their group, which leads to an ingroup preference.
  • Secondly, because people care about cooperative alliances, they intuitively interpret the groups that they are assigned to as requiring their cooperation, trust, and support, which leads to behaving in ways that benefit the ingroup and are consistent with ingroup norms” (8). 

For example, research has shown that even in playing a game, after being randomly assigned to a group or team, both children and adults alike feel and express positivity toward their ingroup, associate with their ingroup, empathize with members of their ingroup, distribute resources in favor of their group, and are more forgiving of and loyal to group members (9). 

How Institutional Racism Promotes Fear and Prejudice 

Roberts & Rizzo conclude that similarly, Americans as a group promote racist views which affect all members in the group:

“Racism is not inborn; Americans become more or less inclined toward racism – or anti-racism – via a culmination of factors that are deeply woven into the fabric of U.S. society.”

Their view is that “American racism is reinforced by all Americans, though to varying degrees. Just as citizens of capitalistic societies reinforce capitalism, whether they identify as capitalist or not, and whether they want to or not, citizens of racist societies reinforce racism, whether they identify as racist or not, and whether they want to or not” (10). In cities across the U.S., there is a lower proportion of white individuals living in city centers than in the suburbs. Also, racial segregation tends to be higher in the U.S. than in Europe, which is a direct consequence of racist federal, state, and local policies (11). ‘Redlining’, for example, systematically denied communities of color access to real estate and set a precedent for a range of federal and state policies that continue to disadvantage communities of color today (12).

One result of these policies is racial segregation, which denies individuals the opportunities for interracial contact that could challenge racist perceptions, preferences, and beliefs. If a person is not able to be in contact with people of another race, they view them with trepidation and simply fear of the unknown. Therefore, when American society promotes implicit separation of races based on residential segregation, income, educational institutions, etc. it is no surprise that we witness daily examples of racism. The Minimal Group Phenomenon suggests that until segregation into groups is eliminated, the problem of racism cannot be overcome. 

How Leadership Promotes Racial Bias

Was every German citizen living in Germany during World War II racist towards Jews? To what extent did the government and leadership of Germany at that time contribute to the psyche of the German population? Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, written in 1925, is littered with clear-cut categories, generics, and essentialism. As a leader, he bombarded Nazi Germany with the myths of an “Aryan race” with supposed “pure blood” and racial superiority that stemmed from “God’s will.” He systematically prevented interracial contact by sending German children to summer camps where they were indoctrinated with notions of Aryan supremacy, and by sending millions of Jewish people to concentration camps where they were forced into labor and killed. 

Similarly, in the present U.S. presidency, while the President himself cannot be blamed as causing American racism, his authoritarian, divisive, and racially prejudiced statements have corresponded with a resur-gent following of White supremacists (13). President Trump has vocally proposed that the U.S. accept more people from countries like Norway, a predominantly White nation, and fewer people from countries like Haiti, a predominantly Black-Latin nation. He looked the other way when Puerto Rico was in dire need of Federal assistance. He suspended immigration from Muslim majority countries and prevented Mexicans, whom he referred to as rapists and “bad hombre,” from entering the U.S. by funding a campaign to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (14).

As such, it is no surprise that individuals who were already inclined to bias were particularly likely to support Trump’s political platform. Only a few months after Trump’s presidential inauguration, a group of White supremacists marched upon the University of Virginia chanting Nazi slogans, including “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (15). Over the ÿrst three years of Trump’s presidency, nationwide hate crimes on the basis of race, religion, and sexual orientation all increased at a rapid rate. By normalizing various racist behaviors (e.g., publicly insulting entire nations of color), Trump has inspired Americans who already held prejudicial views to become outright racists. The likely outcome of having leadership that promotes division and segregation is a people who begin to exhibit racist behaviors in the open, as has been seen by local police authority throughout the U.S.

Conclusion: What Can Be Done, or How to Become an Antiracist

“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it” (16).

–Ibram X. Kendi

James Baldwin, a civil rights activist and writer, once said: 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced” (17). 

Perhaps the most insidious component of racism is to remain passive. In America, there exists an apathy towards systems of racial advantage or outright denial that racism even exists. The American psychologist, Beverly Tatum, characterized racism as a moving walkway at an airport. Individuals who are actively racist, she argued, “acknowledge racial hierarchy and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reinforce it, and choose to walk – or run – along with it. Individuals who are passively racist, on the other hand, simply stand still and are moved along by the walkway regardless. These individuals are not actively reinforcing racism, but they are nonetheless moving in the same direction as those who are” (18).

While there is much research and discussion on racism, the road to break the circle of racism is to understand what it is to be an antiracist. Anti-racism has typically been deÿned as a system of equity based on race that is created and maintained by equitable thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as laws and policies. Ibram Kendi, in his book, How to be an Anti-Racist, explains that “one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism” (19). He goes on to describe racism as an addiction: 

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

Therefore, if a country’s policies are creating equity among the people, then it is an antiracist. Perhaps one of the most important steps towards fixing the race problem is to focus on the contextual influences, psychological processes, and developmental mechanisms that help people become antiracist. While an individual’s own beliefs play some role, whether they are religious or just ethical, as is outlined above, such a large portion of the problem is with the society we live in, which subtly encourages racist thinking. Educators, as well as media, are two of the strongest platforms to influence these systems, beliefs, and outcomes.

Kendi summarizes the proper mindset that one must have to be antiracist: 

“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or, not representatives of whole races. To be anti-racist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do” (20).

To hold this attitude, that individual behavior should be attributed to the individual and not to a race, is the first step to being antiracist. However, to actively participate in policy change, whether it is in our educational system, housing system, financing institutions, etc., with the knowledge that many of our constructs are based on racist ideologies, is the much needed, yet far greater challenge in becoming antiracist.

This article appears in our Fall 2020 issue.


1. Kendi, Ibram X., “How to be an Anti-Racist” (2019)

2. “My Dungeon Shook,” James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time 294

3. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: Vintage, p. 299

4. Psychology Today, “The Psychology of Racism” Steve Taylor, PhD (January 19, 2018)

5. Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Gardner, L. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of social psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

6. Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Gardner, L. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of social psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

7. “Psychological Factors That Perpetuate Racism and Can Be Changed” Kim Marshall, cal-factors-that-perpetuate-racism-and-can-be-changed

8. “The Psychology of American Racism,” American Psychologist, (June 25, 2020) Steven O. Roberts & Michael T. Rizzo,

9. “The Psychology of American Racism,” American Psychologist, (June 25, 2020) Steven O. Roberts & Michael T. Rizzo,

10. “The Psychology of American Racism,” American Psychologist, (June 25, 2020) Steven O. Roberts & Michael T. Rizzo,

11. Kendi, Ibram X. (2016). Stamped from the Beginning: The deÿnitive history of racist ideas in America. Nation Books

12. Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law. New York: Liverlight Publishing

13. Pettigrew, T. F. (2017). Social psychological perspectives on Trump supported. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 5, 107-116

14. Wolf, Z. B. (2018, April 6). Trump basically called Mexicans rapists again. CNN Politics. ists/index.html

15. Rosenberg, Y. (2017, August 14). ‘Jews will not replace us’: Why white supremacists go after Jews. Washington Post. https://www.washing

16. Kendi, Ibram X., “How to be an Anti-Racist” (2019)

17. James Baldwin, Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953)

18. “The Psychology of American Racism,” The American Psychologist, Steven O. Roberts & Michael T. Rizzo

19. Kendi, Ibram X., “How to be an Anti-Racist” (2019)

20. Kendi, Ibram X., “How to be an Anti-Racist” (2019)

Last modified: December 2021

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