The Psychology of American Racism

Steven O. Roberts and Michael Rizzo

American racism is alive and well. In this essay, we amass a large body of classic and contemporary research across multiple areas of psychology (e.g., cognitive, developmental, social), as well as the broader social sciences (e.g., sociology, communication studies, public policy), and humanities (e.g., critical race studies, history, philosophy), to outline seven factors that contribute to American racism: 1) Categories, which organize people into distinct groups by promoting essentialist and normative reasoning, 2) Factions, which trigger ingroup loyalty and intergroup competition and threat, 3) Segregation, which hardens racist perceptions, preferences, and beliefs through the denial of intergroup contact, 4) Hierarchy, which emboldens people to think, feel, and behave in racist ways, 5) Power, which legislates racism on both micro and macro levels, 6) Media, which legitimizes overrepresented and idealized representations of White Americans while marginalizing and minimizing people of color, and 7) Passivism, such that overlooking or denying the existence of racism obscures this reality, encouraging others to do the same and allowing racism to fester and persist. We argue that these and other factors support American racism, and conclude with suggestions for future research, particularly in the domain of identifying ways to promote anti-racism.