Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudice and discrimination have been prevalent throughout human history. Prejudice has to do with the inflexible and irrational attitudes and opinions held by members of one group about another, while discrimination refers to behaviors directed against another group. Being prejudiced usually means having preconceived beliefs about groups of people or cultural practices. Prejudices can either be positive or negative—both forms are usually preconceived and difficult to alter. The negative form of prejudice can lead to discrimination, although it is possible to be prejudiced and not act upon the attitudes. Those who practice discrimination do so to protect opportunities for themselves by denying access to those whom they believe do not deserve the same treatment as everyone else.

It is unfortunate that prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities exit, and continue to flourish, despite the “informed” modern mind. One well‐known example of discrimination based on prejudice involves the Jews, who have endured mistreatment and persecution for thousands of years. The largest scale attempt to destroy this group of people occurred during World War II, when millions of Jews were exterminated in German concentration camps in the name of Nazi ideals of “racial purity.” The story of the attempted genocide, or systematic killing, of the Jews—as well as many other examples of discrimination and oppression throughout human history—has led sociologists to examine and comment upon issues of race and ethnicity.

The sources of prejudice

Sociologists and psychologists hold that some of the emotionality in prejudice stems from subconscious attitudes that cause a person to ward off feelings of inadequacy by projecting them onto a target group. By using certain people as scapegoats—those without power who are unfairly blamed—anxiety and uncertainty are reduced by attributing complex problems to a simple cause: “Those people are the source of all my problems.” Social research across the globe has shown that prejudice is fundamentally related to low self‐esteem. By hating certain groups (in this case, minorities), people are able to enhance their sense of self‐worth and importance.

Social scientists have also identified some common social factors that may contribute to the presence of prejudice and discrimination:

  1. Socialization. Many prejudices seem to be passed along from parents to children. The media—including television, movies, and advertising—also perpetuate demeaning images and stereotypes about assorted groups, such as ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and the elderly.

  2. Conforming behaviors. Prejudices may bring support from significant others, so rejecting prejudices may lead to losing social support. The pressures to conform to the views of families, friends, and associates can be formidable.

  3. Economic benefits. Social studies have confirmed that prejudice especially rises when groups are in direct competition for jobs. This may help to explain why prejudice increases dramatically during times of economic and social stress.

  4. Authoritarian personality. In response to early socialization, some people are especially prone to stereotypical thinking and projection based on unconscious fears. People with an authoritarian personality rigidly conform, submit without question to their superiors, reject those they consider to be inferiors, and express intolerant sexual and religious opinions. The authoritarian personality may have its roots in parents who are unloving and aloof disciplinarians. The child then learns to control his or her anxieties via rigid attitudes.

  5. Ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to evaluate others' cultures by one's own cultural norms and values. It also includes a suspicion of outsiders. Most cultures have their ethnocentric tendencies, which usually involve stereotypical thinking.
  6. Group closure. Group closure is the process whereby groups keep clear boundaries between themselves and others. Refusing to marry outside an ethnic group is an example of how group closure is accomplished.

  7. Conflict theory. Under conflict theory, in order to hold onto their distinctive social status, power, and possessions, privileged groups are invested in seeing that no competition for resources arises from minority groups. The powerful may even be ready to resort to extreme acts of violence against others to protect their interests. As a result, members of underprivileged groups may retaliate with violence in an attempt to improve their circumstances.

Solutions to prejudice

For decades, sociologists have looked to ways of reducing and eliminating conflicts and prejudices between groups:
  • One theory, the self‐esteem hypothesis, is that when people have an appropriate education and higher self‐esteem, their prejudices will go away.

  • Another theory is the contact hypothesis, which states that the best answer to prejudice is to bring together members of different groups so they can learn to appreciate their common experiences and backgrounds.

  • A third theory, the cooperation hypothesis, holds that conflicting groups need to cooperate by laying aside their individual interests and learning to work together for shared goals.

  • A fourth theory, the legal hypothesis, is that prejudice can be eliminated by enforcing laws against discriminative behavior.

To date, solutions to prejudice that emphasize change at the individual level have not been successful. In contrast, research sadly shows that even unprejudiced people can, under specific conditions of war or economic competition, become highly prejudiced against their perceived “enemies.” Neither have attempts at desegregation in schools been successful. Instead, many integrated schools have witnessed the formation of ethnic cliques and gangs that battle other groups to defend their own identities.

Changes in the law have helped to alter some prejudiced attitudes. Without changes in the law, women might never have been allowed to vote, attend graduate school, or own property. And racial integration of public facilities in America might never have occurred. Still, laws do not necessarily change people's attitudes. In some cases, new laws can increase antagonism toward minority groups.

Finally, cooperative learning, or learning that involves collaborative interactions between students, while surely of positive value to students, does not assure reduction of hostility between conflicting groups. Cooperation is usually too limited and too brief to surmount all the influences in a person's life.

To conclude, most single efforts to eliminate prejudice are too simplistic to deal with such a complex phenomenon. Researchers, then, have focused on more holistic methods of reducing ethnocentrism and cultural conflicts. They have noted that certain conditions must be met before race relations will ever improve:

  • A desire to become better acquainted.

  • A desire to cooperate.

  • Equal economic standing and social status.

  • Equal support from society.

Sociologists speculate that one reason prejudice is still around is the fact that these conditions rarely coincide.