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Chapter 9: Race and Ethnicity

9.3 Stereotypes, Prejudice and Racism

Let’s examine racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudice further and then turn to discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination are often confused, but the basic difference between them is this: prejudice is an attitude, while discrimination is a behavior. More specifically, racial and ethnic refers to a set of negative attitudes, beliefs, and judgments about groups, and about individual members of those groups, because of their race and/or ethnicity. A closely related concept is , or the belief that certain racial or ethnic groups are biologically or culturally inferior to one’s own. Prejudice and racism are often based on racial and ethnic , or simplified, mistaken generalizations about people because of their race and/or ethnicity, which are not tested against reality and which are learned second-hand. Stereotypes may be positive (usually about one’s in-group, such as when women suggest they are less likely to complain about physical pain) but are more often negative (usually toward out-groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinate racial group is less intelligent or lazy). In either case, the stereotype is a generalization that doesn’t take individual differences into account (and even positive stereotypes dismiss effort and individuality, i.e. all Asians are good at math.) The above indicates that stereotypes arise to disparage and justify the subordination of minority groups. New stereotypes are, in fact, rarely created; rather they are recycled from subordinate groups that have assimilated into society and are reused to describe newly subordinate groups, a phenomenon known as (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).


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Asian Americans certainly have been subject to their share of racial prejudice, despite the seemingly positive stereotype as the model minority currently applied. The stereotype is applied to a minority group that is seen as reaching significant educational, professional, and socioeconomic levels without challenging the existing establishment (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

What are some of the ways that stereotyping all Asian Americans as smart and successful lead to negative consequences for this group and its individual members?


An example of stereotype interchangeability can be seen in comparing stereotypes of East Asians in the 1800’s with stereotypes of Hispanic and Muslim Americans today. The term “Yellow Peril” from the late 1800’s was based upon the belief that East Asian immigrants were culturally and politically tied to their countries of origin and unable to assimilate, and thus their immigration in large numbers to the U.S. would not only result in cultural competition with Anglo-Americans but would inevitably destroy their way of life. As Asian Americans experienced upward mobility in the U.S., the perception of this group has changed. Rather than being perceived as threatening and unassimilable, Asian Americans are now stereotyped as a model minority, characterized by high levels of education and prominence in white-collar jobs. The old “Yellow Peril” stereotype has been recycled, and in the 2000’s we have seen a rise in similar stereotypes, such as the perception that Hispanic Americans are an invading force here to change the very nature of U.S. culture, and of Muslim Americans who are discussed as being closely tied to their countries of origin and working to impose their religious belief and political structures on unsuspecting U.S. communities.


Explaining Prejudice

Using Your Sociological Imagination

Before reading about the theories on prejudice, consider the following question:

What causes prejudice?

Once you’ve read through the following section, come back to your answer to determine which theory your answer reflects.


Where do racial and ethnic prejudices come from? Why are some people more prejudiced than others? Scholars have tried to answer these questions at least since the 1940s, when the horrors of Nazism were still fresh in people’s minds. Theories of prejudice fall into two camps, social-psychological and sociological. We will look at social-psychological explanations first and then turn to sociological explanations. We will also discuss distorted mass media treatment of various racial and ethnic groups.

Social-Psychological Explanations

One of the first social-psychological explanations of prejudice centered on the (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). According to this view, authoritarian personalities develop in childhood in response to parents who practice harsh discipline. Individuals with authoritarian personalities emphasize such things as obedience to authority, a rigid adherence to rules, and low acceptance of people (outgroups) not like oneself. Many studies find strong racial and ethnic prejudice among such individuals (Sibley & Duckitt, 2008). But whether their prejudice stems from their authoritarian personalities or instead from the fact that their parents were probably prejudiced themselves remains an important question.

Another early and still popular social-psychological explanation is called or (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). In this view, individuals who experience various kinds of problems become frustrated and blame their troubles on low status groups (e.g., racial, ethnic, and religious minorities). These minorities are thus scapegoats for the real sources of people’s misfortunes.

image of Vincent Chin

A prime example of scapegoating is the case of Vincent Jen Chin (1955-1982). He was a Chinese American man who was celebrating his bachelor’s party in Highland Park, Michigan, in the early summer of 1982. The party quickly became deadly when two white American auto workers began making anti-Japanese statements, blaming them for Detroit’s auto industry downturn. The taunting turned physical, which lead to Chin’s murder. After having beaten Chin to death with a baseball bat, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were convicted of manslaughter. Neither of the two ever served even a day in prison. Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

In the real world, scapegoating at a mass level has been quite common. In medieval Europe, Jews were commonly blamed and persecuted when economic conditions were bad or when war efforts were failing. After the bubonic plague broke out in 1348 and eventually killed more than one-third of all Europeans, Jews were blamed either for deliberately spreading the plague or for angering God because they were not Christian. When Germany suffered economic hardship after World War I, Jews again proved a convenient scapegoat, and anti-Semitism helped fuel the rise of Hitler and Nazism (Litvinoff, 1988). Similarly, in the U.S., nativism (anti-immigrant sentiment) and xenophobia (fear and hatred of outgroups) commonly arise during periods of significant social change and economic decline. Can you think of any scapegoating that has occurred in the U.S. in recent years?

Sociological Explanations

Sociological explanations of prejudice incorporate some of the principles and processes discussed in previous chapters. One popular explanation emphasizes conformity and socialization (also called ). In this view, people who are prejudiced are merely conforming to the culture in which they grow up, and prejudice is the result of socialization from agents of socialization. Supporting this view, studies have found that people tend to become more prejudiced when they move to areas where people are very prejudiced and less prejudiced when they move to locations where people are less prejudiced (Aronson, 2008).

A theory that piggybacks on social learning theory is . While social learning theory helps us to understand the relationship between socialization and prejudice, the view of contact theorists is that prejudice arises in societies where institutional segregation and social inequality are paired. Segregation in schools, workplaces and communities limit contact between members of diverse groups. Limited contact results in little to no opportunity to develop professional and personal relationships with members of other racial and ethnic groups, which means our chances of confronting and testing the stereotypes we hold is limited. Theorists who promote the contact theory argue that prejudice will be reduced when diverse groups are brought together within the social institutions of society (e.g., school desegregation or workplace integration). However, in order for this integration to effectively reduce prejudice, the groups being brought together must have equal status, otherwise power differentials will keep groups apart, even within integrated institutions, and only serve to perpetuate prejudice.


Think Like a Sociologist

Research on school integration has found that racial diversity in schools has numerous benefits including reduction in prejudice, improvements to academic outcomes for students of all races, and gains in long-term life outcomes, such as increased educational and occupational attainment, higher earnings in adulthood, lower rates of incarceration and better health (Ayscue, Frankenberg and Siegel-Hawley, 2017). Even so, students are highly likely to attend segregated schools; in fact, 40% of African American and Latinx students attend intensely segregated schools (defined as schools where 90% or more of students are people of color) (Frankenberg, et., al, 2019). The percentage of students attending intensely segregated schools has changed over time and varies by region of the country, as shown in Figure 9.2 “Percentage of African American Students Who Attend Intensely Segregated Schools, 1968-2016.” As desegregation plans were implemented due to the Brown V. Board of Education, Topeka, KS, Supreme Court decision in 1954, which found state laws mandating segregated public schools to be unconstitutional, the rate of public school segregation began to decline. By 1988, the rate of intense segregation in schools reached its lowest level at 32.1% nationally, at which point the trend began to reverse. Today, 36.4% of African American students in the south and 51.5% in the northeast attend intensely segregated schools, while in the midwest and west, this is the case for 42% and 37.7% of African American students, respectively.

Figure 9.2 Percentage of African American Students Who Attend Intensely Segregated Schools, 1968-2016

Graph showing Percentage of African American Students Who Attend Intensely Segregated Schools, 1968-2016, which shows in 1968, rates were highest in the south (almost 80%), but by 1988 they were lowest in the south (around 25%). Today, the rates are highest in the northeast at over 50% and lowest in the south, but increasing in all regions except for the midwest.

Source: data from Frankenberg, Erica, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Aysche and Gary Orfield. Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown. May 10, 2019. The Civil Rights Project, Center for Education and Civil Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown/Brown-65-050919v4-final.pdf

Given the discussion of the contact theory above, and the review of the benefits of school integration, what outcomes will likely result from increased school segregation (or resegregation)?

Given the potential for negative outcomes resulting from resegregation, suggest one structural solution that could help halt and/or reverse the resegregation process. How might this solution be achieved?


A third sociological explanation emphasizes economic and political competition and is commonly called (Quillian, 2006; Hughes & Tuch, 2003). In this view prejudice arises from competition over jobs and other resources and from disagreement over various political issues. When groups vie with each other over these matters, they often become hostile toward each other. Amid such hostility, it is easy to become prejudiced toward the group that threatens your economic or political standing. A popular version of this basic explanation is Susan Olzak’s (1992) , which holds that ethnic prejudice and conflict increase when two or more ethnic groups find themselves competing for jobs, housing, and other goals.

As might be clear, the competition explanation is the macro or structural equivalent of the frustration/scapegoat theory already discussed. Much of the white mob violence discussed earlier stemmed from whites’ perception that the groups they attacked threatened their jobs and other aspects of their lives. Thus, lynchings of African Americans in the South increased when the Southern economy worsened and decreased when the economy improved (Tolnay & Beck, 1995). Similarly, white mob violence against Chinese immigrants in the 1870s began after the railroad construction that employed so many Chinese immigrants slowed and the Chinese began looking for work in other industries. Whites feared that the Chinese would take jobs away from white workers and that their large supply of labor would drive down wages. Their fear prompted the passage by Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that prohibited Chinese immigration (Dinnerstein & Reimers, 2009). Several nations today, including the United States, have experienced increased anti-immigrant prejudice because of the influx of immigrants and refugees onto their shores coupled with a growing gap between rich and poor and economic upheaval (Bauer, 2009). We return to anti-immigrant prejudice later in this chapter.

The Changing Nature of Prejudice

While prejudice is not necessarily specific to race, racism is a stronger type of prejudice used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others; it is also a set of practices used by the dominant group to disadvantage a racial minority. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of a racist organization; its members’ belief in white supremacy has encouraged over a century of hate crime and hate speech.

Although racial and ethnic prejudice still exists in the United States, its nature has changed during the past half-century. Studies of these changes focus on whites’ perceptions of African Americans. Back in the 1940’s and before, an era of overt racism prevailed. This racism involved blatant bigotry, firm beliefs in the need for segregation, and the view that African Americans were biologically inferior to whites. This form of racism is referred to as . In the early 1940’s, more than half of white people surveyed favored segregation in public transportation, more than two-thirds favored segregated schools and more than half thought whites should receive preference in employment hiring (Schuman, Steeh, Bobo & Krysan, 1997).

Since this time, the degree of overt racism has waned. Few believe today in the biological inferiority or superiority of racial or ethnic groups, and few favor legal segregation. As just one example, Figure 9.3 “Changes in Support by Whites for Segregated Housing, 1972 – 1996” shows that whites’ support for segregated housing declined dramatically from about 40% in the early 1970s to about 12% in 1996. So few whites now support legal segregation that the GSS stopped asking about segregated housing after 1996.

Figure 9.3 Changes in Support by Whites for Segregated Housing, 1972–1996

Graph shows Changes in Support by Whites for Segregated Housing, 1972–1996, with 40.1% in support of segregated housing in 1972 and 11.8% in support in 1996, which declines in each intervening year.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.

Another General Social Survey aimed at measuring attitudes on fair housing asked homeowners: Suppose there is a community-wide vote on the general housing issue. Which law would you vote for? The choices included (A) homeowner can decide for himself whom to sell his house to, even if he prefers not to sell it to Blacks and (B) homeowner cannot refuse to sell to someone because of their race or color. In 1973, 64% of the respondents selected choice A, and by 2014, that percentage dwindled to 28%. Conversely, in 1973, 34% selected choice B, and by 2014, that percentage more than doubled to 70% (GSS). This is yet another indication that racism has waned.

Despite these changes, several scholars say that overt racism has been replaced by a subtle form of racial prejudice, termed , that avoids notions of biological inferiority (Quillian, 2006; Bobo, Kluegel, & Smith, 1997, p. 15; Sears, 1988). Instead, it involves stereotypes about minority groups, a belief that their higher rates of poverty are due to their cultural inferiority, and opposition to government policies to help them. In effect, this new form of prejudice blames minorities themselves for their low socioeconomic standing and involves such beliefs that they simply do not want to work hard. As Lawrence Bobo and colleagues (Bobo, Kluegel, & Smith, 1997, p. 31) put it, “Blacks are still stereotyped and blamed as the architects of their own disadvantaged status.” They note that these views lead whites to oppose government efforts to help to alleviate the condition of poverty for minorities.

Perhaps the most damaging form of racism is , which refers to the way in which racism is embedded in the fabric of society. For example, the disproportionate number of black men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes may reflect racial profiling, a form of institutional racism.


Think Like A Sociologist

In the large agricultural fields of California work thousands of farmworkers and their families. Adults and children alike live in poor, crowded conditions and do backbreaking work in the hot sun, day after day after day.

Because their parents are migrant workers, many children attend a specific school for only a few weeks or months at most before their parents move to another field in another town or even another state. At Sherwood Elementary School in Salinas, California, in the heart of the state’s agricultural sector, 97% of students live in or near poverty. With their Latinx backgrounds, more than three-fourths do not speak English well or at all, and many of their parents cannot read or write their own language, Spanish.

At Sherwood Elementary School, according to a news report, many students “sleep beneath carports and live in such cramped quarters that their parents take them to the local truck stop to wash up before school.” A local high school teacher said many of his students see little of their parents, who spend most of their waking hours working in the fields. “They have little brothers and sisters to take care of, maybe cook for. Yet they’re supposed to turn in a 10-page paper by tomorrow? I mean, it’s unreal.”

These conditions have grievous consequences for California’s migrant farmworker children, almost half of whom fail to complete high school. The principal of the Sherwood Elementary School said the key strategy for her faculty and school was “understanding where the students come from but also having high expectations.”

The plight of farmworkers’ children is just one aspect of the difficulties facing Latinx children around the country. Thanks to a much younger age structure than the national average, reproduction, and immigration, the number of Latinx children nationwide has grown significantly during the past few decades: in 2019, 28% of students enrolled in K-12 public schools in the U.S. were Latinx, compared to only 14% in 1995 (Krogstad, 2019). These growing numbers underscore the need to pay attention to the health and welfare of Latinx children.

Against this backdrop, it is distressing to note that their health and welfare is not very good at all. About one-third of Latinx children live in poverty. The average Latinx child grows up in a poor neighborhood where almost half of the residents do not speak English fluently, where the schools are substandard, and where the high school dropout and teen unemployment rates are high. A number of factors, including their ethnicity, poverty, language barriers, and the immigrant status of many of their parents, limit access to adequate health care and various kinds of social services.

Amid all these problems, however, the situation of California’s farmworker children stands out as a national embarrassment for a prosperous country like the United States. As the country struggles to end racial and ethnic inequality, it must not forget the children of Salinas who have to use a truck stop to wash up before school (Brown, 2011; Landale, McHale, & Booth, 2011; and Tavernise, 2011).

Children who work in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable laborers in our society, as they haven’t been protected by our federal labor laws since 1938. These children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Mexican or Mexican American (some even younger than twelve), can work on farms with parental consent, and often do so under less than hospitable conditions. Doing repetitive stoop labor under the blaring sun while exposed to the hazards of the trade, like toxic pesticides or dangerous machinery, is par for the course (National Farm Worker Ministry, 2018). Living and working conditions can be so severe that farm labor is often referred to as “modern-day slavery” or “close to slavery” (Bauer, Mary, 2013). In fact, in early December, 2021, it was reported that federal law enforcement agencies uncovered a modern-day slavery ring operating in the state of Georgia, that exploited the federal visa program for farmworkers. Over 100 Mexicans and Central Americans who were forced to work at gunpoint for next to nothing were freed (Silva and McCausland, 2021).

Many farmworker advocates accuse the US government of turning a blind eye to the abuses mentioned above because the workers are perceived to be undocumented immigrants; or, in other words, not really entitled to protection under the U.S. legal system. Other advocates argue that the US, by not offering farmworkers the protections given to other types of laborers, is willfully maintaining a system that legally allows for the exploitation of farmworkers and their children. Some even call this an example of institutional racism. Whether or not these arguments are valid, the fact remains that the children referenced above are placed at a huge disadvantage when it comes to their education.

From your perspective, is this an example of institutional racism? Why or why not?

How do you suppose that living and working under such conditions might affect a child’s performance in school?


is another kind of prejudice, in which someone believes one type of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group. Studies suggest that darker skinned African Americans experience more discrimination than lighter skinned African Americans (Herring and Horton 2004; Klonoff and Landrine 2000). For example, if a white employer believes a black employee with a darker skin tone is less capable than a black employee with lighter skin tone, that is colorism. At least one study suggested the colorism affected racial socialization, with darker-skinned black male adolescents receiving more warnings about the danger of interacting with members of other racial groups than did lighter- skinned black male adolescents (Landor et al. 2013; (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

Test Yourself


Section 9.3 References

Adorno, T. W., E. Frenkel-Brunswick, D. J.  Levinson and R. N. Sanford. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper. 

Aronson, E. (2008). The social animal (10th ed.). New York, NY: Worth. 

Ayscue, J., E. Frankenberg and G. Siegel-Hawley. (2017). The complementary benefits of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. Washington, DC: The National Coalition on School Diversity. Research Brief No. 10. Retrieved from https://www.school-diversity.org/research-briefs/.

Bauer, M. (2009). Under siege: Life for low-income Latinos in the South. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Bobo, L., J. R. Kluegel and R. A.  Smith.  (1997). Laissez-faire racism: The crystallization of a kinder, gentler, antiblack ideology. In S. A. Tuch & J. K. Martin (Eds.), Racial attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change (pp. 15–44). Westport, CT: Praeger. 

Brown, P. L. (2011, March 13). Itinerant life weighs on farmworkers’ children. New York Times, p. A18

Dinnerstein, L. and D. M. Reimers.  (2009). Ethnic Americans: A history of immigration. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 

Dollard, J., L. Doob, N. E. Miller, O. H. Mowrer and R. R. Sears. (1939).  Frustration and aggression.  New Haven, CT, US: Yale University Press. 

Frankenberg, E., J. Ee, J. B. Aysche and G. Orfield. (2019, May 10). Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown. The Civil Rights Project, Center for Education and Civil Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown/Brown-65-050919v4-final.pdf.

Herring, C., V. M. Keith and H. D. Horton. (2004). Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color- Blind” Era. (Ed.), Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hughes, M. and S. A. Tuch. (2003). Gender differences in whites’ racial attitudes: Are women’s attitudes really more favorable? Social Psychology Quarterly, 66, 384–401. 

Klonoff, E. and H. Landrine. (2000). Is Skin Color a Marker for Racial Discrimination? Explaining the Skin Color-Hypertension Relationship. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 329–338.

Krogstad, J. M. (2019, July 31).  A view of the nation’s future through kindergarten demographics. Pew Research Center.  Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/31/kindergarten-demographics-in-us/.

Landale, N. S., S. McHale and A. Booth. (Eds.).  (2011). Growing up Hispanic: Health and development of children of immigrants. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

Landor, A. M., L. G. Simons, R. L. Simmons, G. H. Brody, C. M. Bryant, F. X. Gibbons, E. L. Granberg and J. N. Melby.  (2013).  Exploring the impact of skin tone on family dynamics and race-related outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology. 27 (5), 817-826.

Litvinoff, B. (1988). The burning bush: Anti-Semitism and world history. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton.

National Farmworkers Ministry. (2018, June 20). Children in the Fields. Retrieved from https://nfwm.org/farm-workers/farm-worker-issues/children-in-the-fields/.

Olzak, S. (1992). The dynamics of ethnic competition and conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Quillian, L. (2006). New approaches to understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Annual Review of Sociology, 32, 299–328. 

Schuman, H., C. Steeh, L. Bobo, and M.  Krysan. (1997). Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sears, D. O. (1988). Symbolic racism. In P. A. Katz & D. A. Taylor (Eds.), Eliminating racism: Profiles in controversy (pp. 53–84). New York, NY: Plenum. 

Sibley, C. G. and J. Duckitt.  (2008). Personality and prejudice: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 248–279.

Silva, D. and P. McCausland.  (2021, December 9).  Feds bust ‘modern-day slavery’ ring amid new immigration enforcement effort.  ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/feds-bust-modern-day-slavery-ring-new-effort-immigration-enforcement-rcna8273.

Smith, T. W., P. Marsden, M. Hout, M. and J. Kim. . General Social Surveys, 1972-2014. [machine-readable data file] /Principal Investigator, Tom W. Smith; Co-Principal Investigator, Peter V. Marsden; Co-Principal Investigator, Michael Hout; Sponsored by National Science Foundation. -NORC ed.- Chicago: NORC at the University of Chicago [producer and distributor].

Tolnay, S. E. and E. M. Beck.  (1995). A festival of violence: An analysis of Southern lynchings, 1882–1930. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 

Tavernise, S. (2011, February 7). Among nation’s youngest, analysis finds fewer whites. New York Times, p. A14.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/us/08census.html.

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