Psychological Effects of Racism on Minority Groups Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2694 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Race

Psychological Effects of Racism

When the effects of contemporary racism are discussed, the conversation frequently revolves around the more tangible, practical effects of racism that are evident in large-scale trends, such as the dearth of minorities in political and corporate leadership positions, or the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated and executed by countries such as the United States (Bobo & Fox, 2003, p. 321). This discussion of society-wide trends, while important, runs the risk of diminishing the individual, psychological effects of racism on minority groups, not only because it abstracts an otherwise immediate and deeply personal issue, but because a discussion of large-scale trends without an accompanying investigation into the smaller-scale constituent factors behind those trends can actually perpetuate racist ideologies; for example, while the disproportionate number of incarcerated minorities is certainly the result of a variety of complex social, psychological, and structural factors which serve to disadvantage minorities, it can be easily marshaled by racist individuals and ideologies as evidence for the supposedly inherent criminality or inferiority of entire ethnic or racial groups. Thus, to better understand the effect of racism on minority groups and further undermine the ignorance that all racism depends on, one must examine the psychological effects of racism, because experiencing racist attitudes and actions can have a variety of detrimental effects that contribute to the larger-scale trends mentioned above. In particular, racism not only negatively effects individuals' sense of self, motivation, and stress level, but can actually influence interpersonal relationships to the point that the children of individuals affected by racism who lack a suitable outlet suffer from higher incidences of behavioral and learning problems.

To begin one must address certain theoretical difficulties inherent when discussing the effects of racism due to the fact that the actual study of racism as a social and psychological phenomenon is fairly recent (Li, 1994, p. 122). In the context of this study, the most important theoretical concept to discuss (and ultimately discard) is the perceived distinction between institutional and individual racism. In short, institutional racism refers to the "structural factors" in a society that result in racist policies and practices, as well as the "economic, political and other benefits of discrimination to the dominant group," while individual racism refers to racist attitudes and actions exhibited by individuals (Li, 1994, p. 122). In some respects this division is useful, because it allows one to understand how an institution might be racist even if its constituent members do not hold racist views, but this division also makes it too easy for both individuals and institutions to shirk responsibility; a racist individual can be written off as a "bad apple," while a racist institution can be allowed to continue due to the impression that changing it might simply be too large of a project. Furthermore, this distinction contributes to the aforementioned problems that arise from focusing on large-scale trends, which are the obvious result of institutional racism, at the expense of individual psychological experiences, which can arise from both institutional and individual racism.

As a result, recent research has attempted to bridge this theoretical gap with the understanding that "although structural arrangements and social practices determine attitude formation, the latter may in turn shape subsequent social practices" (Li, 1994, p. 122). In the context of this study, this means recognizing that a personal experience of racism, whether institutional or individual, is merely one point in a larger circle of self-reinforcing racist belief that transcends both the individual and the institution. For example, two areas in which the psychological effects of racism are fairly prevalent are schooling and the workplace, and the experience of racism in either of these arenas cannot be easily ascribed to either institutional or individual racism; someone might be denied a promotion due to a specific manager with racist beliefs, or simply because the "company culture" reinforces an implicit tendency to promote white men over minorities (Bobo & Fox, 2003, p. 321). In fact, empirical research demonstrates how the perceived distinction between individual and institutional racism dissolves in the context of employment, because, for example, "employers often express stereotypical views of blacks [and example of individual racism], rate black workers as having weaker hard and soft skills than white workers, and openly acknowledge their own use of discriminatory recruiting and screening procedures [examples of institutional racism]" (Kirschenman & Neckerman 1991; Wilson 1996; cited in Bobo & Fox, 2003, p. 321).

In the workplace racism such as this can seriously effect individuals psychologically, because even if an individual does not internalize the negative view of him or her self that a racist attitude or action might present, the individual is still forced to recognize and react to this racism, either by confronting it directly or adapting in order to remain professionally successful. For example, a study consisting of interviews with black and white professors revealed that racial stigmas affect "black professors' 'emotion work,'" meaning they were forced to cope with potential and sometimes actual racist assumptions and beliefs regarding their competency (Bobo & Fox, 2003, p. 322). Black professors are frequently forced to do "additional impression management work or, conversely, emotional labor that shields professors' self-concepts from negative perceptions by students" (Bobo & Fox, 2003, p. 322). Although the idea of "emotional labor" might sound like a fairly nebulous concept, it equates to very real stress and energy expenditure that detracts not only from a professor's work, but also every other part of his or her life. This is because "chronic social stressors, including racism, […] deplete the reserve capacity for coping by requiring greater use of tangible and psychological resources," to the point that experiencing racism can actually contribute to physical ailments (Brondolo et al., 2003, p. 151).

That the aforementioned study dealt specifically with college professors is somewhat telling, because it reveals the extent to which racism permeates nearly every area of the workplace; one would expect (rightly or wrongly) that academia would be one of the less racist areas, if only because it ostensibly focuses on critical thinking and legitimate argument and evidence, two things anathema to racist belief due to the fact that it depends on "categorical thinking that systematically misinterprets facts" (Li, 1994, p. 123). The effect is even more pronounced in less well-paid areas of the workforce, because individuals who simply have less "tangible resources" (namely money) to cope are much more likely to suffer from the negative affect associated with racism. As mentioned above, the negative affect that results from perceived racism diminishes an individuals emotional and mental reserves, and research has shown that a lower socioeconomic status exaggerates this negative affect and its longer-term effects (Brondolo et al., 2003, p. 168).

It is important to note that in practically any context, the negative effects of racism on an individual are exacerbated if that individual is a woman, because she is forced to cope with an additional form of discrimination that frequently compounds the negative effects of racism. The complex interconnection between different flavors of discrimination is beyond the scope of this study, but it suffices to acknowledge that, for example, "being an African-American and a woman bestows a unique experience, above and beyond being African-American or female," and that part of this unique experience includes confronting a combination of sexist and racist attitudes (Szymanski & Stewart, 2010, p. 227). This is particularly important when discussing the psychological effect of racism on minorities, because recent research suggests that African-American women are actually better at coping with sexist events than white women, such that it seems as if the experience of racism in some ways "immunizes" minority women to "oppressive cultural messages" (Szymanski & Stewart, 2010, p. 235). However, in the studies where this trend has appeared, it only occurred with individuals who experienced (relatively) low levels of racism, in seemingly the same way that a vaccine works precisely because it is a weakened version of the original disease ( (Szymanski & Stewart, 2010, p. 234-235). The vaccine analogy is actually fairly helpful, because racism functions much like a disease, with the only caveat being that the carriers themselves rarely experience the most damaging symptoms.

In this way racism can be considered not only a chronic social stressor, but actually a dangerously noxious one, because its ill effects are compounded over time and are in many ways self-reinforcing. While other chronic stressors may contribute to ill psychological and social health, racism is especially pernicious because the perception of racism can "contribute to both cognitive schemas about the potentially threatening nature of the world […] and shape dispositional tendencies to experience negative affect" (Brondolo et al., 2003, p. 169). In other words, perceiving racism can actual train individuals to act as if the world as a whole is more threatening or dangerous, and furthermore, prime them to react negatively in other situations, regardless of whether or not that situation was actually threatening or dangerous. Of course, in many respects the threat of danger felt by victims of racism may not be unwarranted (for example… [END OF PREVIEW]

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