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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Psychological Factors That Perpetuate Racism and Can Be Changed



Psychological Factors That Perpetuate Racism and Can Be Changed

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist


The article: “The Psychology of American Racism” by Steven Roberts and Michael Rizzo in American Psychologist, June 2020; Roberts can be reached at, Rizzo at

In this article in American Psychologist, Steven Roberts (Stanford University) and Michael Rizzo (New York University) disagree with the common definition of racism: disliking or mistreating others on the basis of race. Individual racist acts like those recently in the news are consequences of a larger system, say Roberts and Rizzo. Their definition of racism: “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)… so deeply embedded within U.S minds and U.S. society that it is virtually impossible to escape.” People are not born racist, they say; people become racist (or anti-racist) “via a culmination of factors that are deeply woven into the fabric of U.S. society.”

Roberts and Rizzo give three examples of how this plays out: “White students are perceived as more compliant than students of color, which decreases the likelihood of being expelled. White homeowners are perceived as cleaner and more responsible than homeowners of color, which increases their home equity. And white criminals are perceived as less blameworthy than criminals of color, which decreases their likelihood of being executed.” Beliefs like these are in the air, like smog, and we all breathe them and become part of the system. In the same way that citizens living in a capitalist country reinforce capitalism even if they don’t identify as capitalists, say Roberts and Rizzo, citizens in a racist society reinforce racism, “whether they identify as racist or not, and whether they want to or not.”

The result: in a capitalist society, people with wealth are advantaged and those without it are disadvantaged; and white Americans are advantaged and Americans of color are disadvantaged, even without overt acts of racism. “This is not an indictment of any individual white American, per se,” say Roberts and Rizzo. “Rather, it is to illuminate a widespread and longstanding system of advantage. If the system is to be eradicated, all Americans, irrespective of their race, must acknowledge and understand the psychological and sociopolitical forces that reinforce it.”

Based on a synthesis of 50 years of research in psychology, social sciences, and humanities, they suggest seven factors that contribute to racial inequity in the U.S.:

Categories – Racial groups have historically been constructed and associated with expected, stereotypical behaviors and traits. Sometimes there is negativity toward those who challenge expectations – like a black person who “acts white.”
Factions – There’s a common sense of one’s ingroup as distinct from various outgroups. “Critically,” say Roberts and Rizzo, “the desire to establish and maintain one’s position within a group can also lead individuals to prioritize ingroup loyalty and group norms over moral concerns for fairness and inclusion.”
Segregation – Residential patterns clustered by race are more pronounced in the U.S. than in many other countries. This hardens race-based perceptions, preferences, and beliefs through the reduction of intergroup contact.
Hierarchy – White Americans are the majority (77 percent in the last census) and disproportionately occupy positions of status and authority. Americans are bombarded by messages that suggest that high-status membership is the result of hard work, fixed at birth, or even given by God (who is usually portrayed as white). “Children are remarkably efficient at encoding and reinforcing social hierarchies,” say Roberts and Rizzo. “Doing so is adaptive; recognizing and supporting high-status individuals can increase one’s own social status and access to resources.”

Power – There is no question who controls resources, legislation, policing, societal norms, even what kind of English is “standard.” White parents often teach their children to be colorblind and are neutral on issues of power, while parents of color explicitly teach about power imbalances and how their children should relate to the outside world.

Media – Studies have shown how TV and the Internet have an idealized representation of white Americans – including standards of what is considered beautiful – while marginalizing and minimizing people of color. This includes children’s programming.

Passivism – There is a strong tendency to overlook or deny the existence of the factors listed above, which allows them to persist. Roberts and Rizzo give the analogy of a game of Monopoly in which some players collect $200 each time they pass Go and never draw Go to Jail cards, while other players don’t have those benefits. Continuing to play the game systematically disadvantages some players; to make the game fair, the rules need to be changed or the game needs to be stopped. The built-in unfairness could continue through players’ ignorance (Gee, those folks with all the money and houses and hotels are good!), denial (I don’t see any cheating), or going along with inaction by others (Nobody else is complaining). There’s a similar dynamic with racial issues in the U.S., among whites and people of color.

What is to be done? “One of the most important steps for future research,” conclude Roberts and Rizzo, “is to shift our attention away from how people become racist, and toward the contextual influences, psychological processes, and developmental mechanisms that help people become anti-racist.” Educators, they believe, have one of the strongest platforms to influence systems, beliefs, and outcomes.

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