The Psychology of Racism


Verywell / Joshua Seong

The psychology of racism can be summed up in one word: evolving. What was true in the 19th century is not true anymore. How society thinks about race and racism has changed. However, things haven't changed as much as some might have thought.

Most Americans were complacent going into the year 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic started, the complacency started to wane and was replaced with fear and a sense of unrest. When George Floyd died on May 25, 2020, it spun the world into a state of waking up to an uncomfortable reality: racism was still alive and well in America.

Psychological History of Racism

Racism is an extreme form of derogatory stereotyping based on the attributes assigned to a particular group. For example, in the United States stereotypes exist that all Hispanic men are macho and that all Asian men are intelligent and hardworking.

Racism reduces a set of people to a group. No person in the group is seen as an individual.

Early Theories of Racism

Early theories of racism included the justification of the domination of one race over another because of the concept of survival of the fittest from Charles Darwin. It was theorized that there was some survival advantage to being racist. However, modern hunter-gatherer tribes were not found to exclude out-groups (people not included in a particular group), and this theory was rejected.

Then, race psychology theorized that there were brain differences between races and that intelligence tests and segregation were the answer.

Later in 1954, American psychologist Gordon Allport argued in his book, The Nature of Prejudice, that people use categories to understand their world better and that racism was simply an artifact of that process.

Whatever the psychological history of racism is in the United States, the actual history of racism is that white people are afforded benefits in society because of a system that was set up for their benefit. Racism is real regardless of whether white people recognize this to be true or accept this fact.

Prejudice vs. Racism

Many people misunderstand the definitions of racism and prejudice; however, they are different. While all racists are prejudiced, not all those with prejudice are racist.


Prejudice is usually learned early in life and affects behavior in a more subtle way. For example, a police officer with prejudice might assume that a person of color would be more likely to commit a crime. That belief would then affect the actions of the officer, even if it were in a subconscious way. Prejudice still persists today even if this kind of thinking is no longer deemed acceptable within some systems and organizations.


In contrast, racism is directed at a particular group and is generally more overt. An example of racism would be a shop refusing to serve patrons of a certain skin color. While most blatant racism toward BIPOC is no longer tolerated or viewed as acceptable in contemporary American society, we are not so far removed from the years of slavery and segregation. For this reason, it is the case that prejudice is able to persist even though outward racism is no longer seen as acceptable.

Harmful Ideas About Race

Are there ways that you think about racism that you don't realize are harmful? Most definitely the answer is "yes." Have you ever told someone that you are "color blind" or "don't see color?"

With that statement, you are shutting down conversations about race or the fact that racism exists and is a systemic problem. This is especially true if you are white and are speaking to a person of color who is trying to explain their experiences to you. It's the same as someone saying "Black Lives Matter" and you respond with "All Lives Matter."

While these statements are less overt, they are still hurtful because it invalidates other people's experiences. Statements like these are why your friends and family are posting black squares on Instagram and others are attending Black Lives Matter protests. They are telling you that there's still a problem, no matter how much some people believe that there is not.

Ignoring racism doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It just means that you have shut down the possibility of moving forward by having a conversation about what could be done.

Explanations for Racism

Many people across the U.S. are seeking explanations for racism and wondering what causes it. Is it survival of the fittest like Darwin suggested, or a psychological defense mechanism to help people identify with their primary group and feel more secure? Below is a list of reasons why racism exists.

Personal Insecurity

It's true that those who lack an identity of their own may seek out group membership. Consequently, after finding a clique, people start to alienate other people. Sometimes, hostility arises toward those groups that have been alienated.

While in a clique, people tend to begin to think and behave more like the people they surround themselves with. It becomes much easier to attack a group of people when you're among others who share the same viewpoint.

Two types of mental illness, paranoid personality disorder and narcissism, are both related to feeling insecure and may also make one more likely to engage in racism.

Lack of Compassion

Alienation of others eventually leads to less compassion for those who have been ostracized. People begin to only show compassion and empathy for those they regularly associate with.

An easy example is to think of television segments asking you to help feed starving children in Africa. It's easier to dismiss this group, because Africa seems so far away and you feel as though there isn't anything you, personally, can do about it. This may not be overt racism, but it's definitely a loss of empathy.

Projection of Flaws

Sometimes when people feel bad about themselves or recognize their shortcomings, instead of dealing with them and trying to fix them, some people project their self-loathing onto others.

Alienated groups can easily become scapegoats for those who ignore their own personal flaws.

Poor Mental Health

Is racism a sign of poor mental health? Not necessarily, because many people dealing with mental health issues might turn to other coping methods such as alcohol or drugs. In the case of racism, however, someone with poor mental health might be coping by excluding or mistreating others.


It's true that extreme hatred is almost always based on the fear of being in danger. People may feel threatened or fear losing power. Some people may identify with extreme groups so that they have social support while transferring their own shortcomings onto the groups they dislike.

In its most basic form, racism is the failure to stop, think, and consider before acting. It means going with the status quo instead of questioning.

Racism is not a mental illness, but it is certainly related to psychological adaptation.

Is Racism Inherent or Learned?

Do people learn to be racist or is it an inborn survival instinct for people to align themselves with people of their own race and push away other groups?

The general consensus is that racism is not inborn but learned through one's early environment. For example, a white child who grows up without ever seeing a BIPOC child may learn that they are not connected to people of color.

It is the responsibility of parents to explain to children that all races are connected in their humanity. Racism is in many ways a cultural phenomenon rather than an individual psychological occurrence.

7 Factors That Contribute To Racism

A paper published in June 2020, "The Psychology of American Racism," written by Steven O. Roberts, a Stanford psychologist, and Michael T. Rizzo, a New York University postdoctoral fellow, discusses what leads to racism. The authors' research leads them to the conclusion that there are seven contributing factors to racism, which are listed below.


Humans group people into categories based on race from a young age and this promotes stereotypes. This categorical grouping later leads to factions.


Categories lead to factions in which people are assigned to a group and expected to show loyalty to that group and compete against people from other groups. In the case of the United States, this plays out as white people creating disadvantages for BIPOC through decades-old laws that affect access to housing and economic policies.


Being segregated from another group tends to harden one's opinions about them. That is why segregation by race early in life can influence the development of racist attitudes. If you grew up only around people from your own race, it's worth pondering how that experience shaped your beliefs about other people.


A hierarchical system gives power to people. It assigns wealth and makes the dominant group (in this case white Americans) believe that they are superior to BIPOC.


Power allows white people to build a society that benefits them but not BIPOC. It also allows them to create what are considered to be culturally acceptable standards that relate to their race. They control resources and wield power, and are allowed to exploit others and assume dominance over others based on racial divides.


The media plays a role in sustaining racism when it portrays a mostly white cast of actors in magazines, television shows, and movies. People think about who they see on TV and whether they identify with them or not. Again, this makes the white race "dominant" or "normal."


The final factor is perhaps the most important. It is the overlooking of racism or being passive when talking about race, because of the false belief that racism is no longer a problem in the United States. This includes the bystander effect and ignorance in general.

Preventing Racism

Below are some ways in which racism can be prevented:

  • Build a system of equity in which all communities are equally engaged.
  • Direct attention to the problem of racism instead of sweeping it under the rug or pretending that it does not exist.
  • When you hear racist attitudes, ask people for the reason behind their thinking and encourage them to consider alternatives.
  • Remember that change does not occur overnight and be patient when it seems like the progress being made is slow. Even small changes can lead to big results when you are consistent in your actions.
  • Teach acceptance of other races from a young age so that children grow up to be adults who understand that racism is an issue that needs to be constantly targeted for improvement.
  • Conduct psychological research on how social norms change and how best to implement systems that result in the changing attitudes of people in the dominant group so that systems will also be affected.
  • Design a curriculum that addresses racism and teaches students how to be aware of their own inherent biases and how to go out into the world in a way that is not racist.
  • Engage in contact in favorable conditions with other groups such as working toward shared goals with people from different races.
  • Encourage friendships across racial lines so that you can start seeing people as individuals rather than as just part of a race.

A Word From Verywell

How do you think you can help to enact change with regard to racism in the United States? It must be clear by now that this is partly a psychological problem but also a cultural problem. It can't be solved at either the individual or societal level alone. Rather, it requires coordinated effort on the part of everyone to make sure that change happens.

What are you going to do on your own? The best thing you can do is to stay informed and stay open to new perspectives when they are brought up to you. Beyond that, you can donate your time or your money toward initiatives directed at ending racism.

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8 Sources
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