Cause and Effect of Racism from the Perspective of the Personality Theory

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Racism is a pressing issue in society, and it has been an ongoing theme that has been discussed amongst researchers in the field of Social Psychology since the 1930’s. Due to the inherent complexity of the subject, multiple systems of ideas have been developed to facilitate the understanding of it and furthermore to place racism into context. These theories range from theories that focus on the personality traits and functioning of the individual to those that accentuate political and structural components of intergroup conflict. In order to fully grasp the concepts of prejudice and racism and the effect they have on modern day society, one must analyse the impact that these personality theories have on racism.

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In order to fully understand the effect of personality theories, it must be noted that whilst in the past there has been an inclination in psychology to utilize the words ‘prejudice’ and ‘racism’ uniformly. ‘Prejudice’ is ordinarily portrayed as an individual incident; however, racism occurs on a larger scale- one that connects individual confidence and behavior to social and institutional practices that ultimately place specific groups in an unfavorable position. Racism is still a deeply-rooted and omnipresent problem in contemporary society. As an ideology, it has changed over recent decades and attempts to rationalize and to some extent, justify the racial inequalities prevalent in current society.

The concept of ‘Personality’ refers summarily to an individual’s unique set of consistent behavioural traits. Traditionally, social psychological theories have tended to focus primarily on the individual when trying to explain the roots of racism. This viewpoint is portrayed through the idea that racism can be linked to a definite personality type. Freudian psychodynamic examples of prejudice and racism were prominent from the 1930’s to the 1960’s and pinpointed the cause of prejudice to the sub-conscious dissention of the individual. Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford developed the influential theory in the late 1940’s implying that there is a specific personality type that is pre-disposed to racial prejudice called the ‘authoritarian personality.’

The authoritarian personality theory is characterized by: a rigorous adherence to customary social values, an undoubtful submission to authority, aggression towards those who are different, a belief in power and toughness and superstition and stereotyping. Those with this personality also tended to be hostile to those with an inferior status, but obedient to those with a high status, as well as being rigid in their opinions and beliefs. This personality theory has its roots in early childhood, due to having strong, overly strict parents who are inconsistent disciplinarians and harsh punishers. Those who are exposed to such parenting techniques harbor excessive resentment and hostility which is later on targeted at those who are seen as inferior or weaker such as the minority ethnic groups. This theory does not lead directly to prejudice, but this specific type of personality predisposes an individual to prejudice. (Adorno et al., 1950) came to the conclusion that people with this personality type were more likely to categorize people into “us” and “them” groups.

Although the previously mentioned Authoritarian Personality theory is useful in helping us to understand racism in the present day, it is old fashioned, and a more modern personality theory is the ‘social domination orientation’ or SDO formulated by (Jim Sidanius & Felicia Pratto,1999). According to this theory, all human societies are oppressive by nature and constructed according to group hierarchies. The SDO theory states that groups compete for economic resources, and there is conflict over dominance in relationships between different social groups. Thus, the level of racism towards out-groups and discrimination against members of these groups is a result of SDO. The hierarchies in the SDO theory are adults having higher status than children, sex and ethnicity. According to this theory, these hierarchies affect how evenly resources are distributed across societies and how they affect the employment rate and availability of jobs. For example, in today’s day and age, the white male hierarchy is more dominant than any other minority racial groups – therefore as a result, the dominant hierarchy (white males) assign resources and jobs based on their own self-interest. Consequently, numerous studies indicate that the range of social dominance orientation (SDO) used to measure the hierarchy of inequality amongst social groups is a fairly accurate measure of social and political attitudes shown towards those individuals belonging to outgroups.

In conclusion, social psychologists have provided a wide range of explanations for prejudice, racism and discrimination – these have shifted over many years. The cause of these entities can be linked to the intra-psychic unconscious conflicts of the specific individual. Childhood experiences are detrimental in shaping an individual’s personality type which may predispose them to racism, discrimination and prejudice. In today’s social and political environment racism has been conceptualized into a system of social emotions, discourses and practices that are conveyed through hierarchies that advantage one group and diminish other social groups.

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