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Causes of Prejudice

Causes of Prejudice

The term prejudice means "prejudgment." A person is prejudiced when he has formed an attitude toward a particular social group of people before having enough information on which to form a knowledgeable opinion. A negative prejudice is when the attitude is hostile toward members of a group. A positive prejudice is when the attitude is unduly favorable toward a group. Groups that are the targets of prejudice may be distinguished by any one of several characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, language, social class, gender, physical abilities, age, or sexual orientation. Frequently they are distinguished by specific inherited physical characteristics such as skin color.

Prejudice is such a basic part of a person's complex thought process that any one of many causes may be a factor, such as a person's appearance, unfamiliar social customs of others, or even the type of motor vehicle a person drives. As noted by Gordon Allport in his landmark book, The Nature of Prejudice, it is more likely that multiple causes of prejudice may be involved at the same time. In addition, prejudice exists not only at the personal individual level, but also at the collective societal level. All human societies have prejudice in some form and to some degree. In fact many societies have multiple prejudices, such as gender prejudice against female members, racial prejudice against people of color, and religious prejudice against Catholics or Jews.

As there are many causes of prejudice, there can be many forms of prejudicial expression, the most common of which is discrimination. Discrimination is the unfair treatment of people simply because they are different from the dominant group in society. An example would be a person, group, or company favoring one person over another on some arbitrary basis, such as gender or social class (groups of people sharing similar wealth and social standing), rather than on individual merit. Prejudice and discrimination cause inequality, another phenomenon common to all societies, especially when minorities, such as people of color, including Hispanic and black Americans, may be readily identified. Racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism (hostility toward Jews as a religious or ethnic group) are all forms of prejudice and discrimination.

The first prejudices in human history perhaps resulted from a fear of strangers or feelings of superiority over others. As societies became more complex, due to an increase in population and in the ways to group people, such as through social classes and multiple ethnic groups, prejudices also became more complex. Because prejudice frequently involves multiple factors both at the individual and group levels, determining the cause of prejudice in any single person is difficult. Most people do not willingly reveal their prejudices or the reasons for them, if they are even aware of their prejudices at all. Some people may have become prejudiced through some traumatic event they experienced in their lives. Others are simply conforming to the society in which they live, expressing the same prejudices as parents, popular political leaders, or employers. Regardless of the cause of a person's prejudice, stereotypes, oversimplified opinions of others (see box), are usually involved.


A mental position regarding a particular fact or topic.
A personal judgment, often unreasoned and prejudiced outlook.
Unfair treatment based on arbitrary standards or criteria.
A strong mental reaction to something, often causing sudden behavioral changes.
An adverse opinion, often accompanied by irrational suspicion or hatred, formed towards a particular race, religion, or group.
The process by which a culture is learned, usually through the influences a youth experiences while growing up.

What prejudice means

To understand what causes prejudice, one must first have a grasp of the concept of prejudice. Prejudice has much the same meaning as bias. It is not just an emotion or feeling, a habit or personality trait. It is more an attitude that has been influenced by family, friends, church groups, and first-hand experiences. Humans are not born prejudiced, yet they often cultivate one form of it or another at a very early age. A prejudiced person assumes that one group, usually his own, is superior in some way to another group. A person often forms prejudices in his mind before ever meeting someone representing the group against which the person is prejudiced. In racial prejudice, the groups are defined solely by skin color. In social class prejudice, the groups are defined primarily by the part of town or area in which they live. As the person grows older, the prejudice often becomes a well-established part of his inner psychological self. It becomes an inflexible generalization about others that is difficult to change once established. These generalizations are normally hastily made. Any evidence that the assumptions about another group may be wrong, such as a female college student excelling in engineering studies, is simply considered an isolated exception.


Prejudice obscures the complexity of the human experience because the person with prejudices simplifies the diversity of life found in a single society or throughout the world. A major misleading notion of prejudice is that members of a group considered a minority in some way are also majorities in other ways. They may actually share more similarities than differences with the dominant group. These simplified prejudgments of people lead to the formation of stereotypes. Stereotypes are largely taught through the socialization process by family, schools, and media such as books, television, and newspapers.

The origin of stereotyping often comes from stress. Stress causes people to view things simplistically in order to cope with the situation and seek attainable solutions. For example, in a border war between two nations, the people of one nation will view members of the other nation as strongly possessing negative traits in order to go into combat and try to kill them. Stereotyping can build a remarkable consensus in society through time. However once considered less acceptable by society, stereotypes through time may decline. Perhaps legislation is passed banning discrimination. This may lead to a decline in prejudice, but it may often occur with a long time-lag after the legislation is passed. Such change will likely lead to limits on socially acceptable behavior before actual mental attitudes change.

Stereotypes may derive from some actual aspect of the victim group such as differing typical social roles of men and women. This truth provides a starting point for the specific attribute to become exaggerated and eventually leads to a prejudice. Such stereotypes may be adopted to use in some way to justify some existing situation, such as maintaining dominance over an ethnic group.

Stereotypes may not only cause prejudice, but grow from prejudice as well. When a member of an undesired group does something not socially acceptable, the behavior may be projected to others in the group. For example, if a black person assaults another in a public setting, then a prejudiced person may associate aggressive behavior with skin color.

Not all prejudice involves negative attitudes. Some prejudices are favorable toward others, such as voting for people with similar backgrounds without knowing much about the individual person. However, even these prejudices are considered inappropriate because of the unjustified generalizations supporting them. Favorable prejudices have directly produced far less damaging consequences than negative prejudices. For this reason, they have drawn far less attention from researchers and social activists.

Persistence of prejudice

A prejudice often becomes a habit after having it for a time. Once formed, prejudices can have great persistence. The person comes to believe his opinion is well thought out, regardless of the amount of objective information provided to suggest otherwise. Prejudices become locked in a person's thought processes. Changing or eliminating these attitudes is difficult, and in many cases impossible, even when the person is presented with new information about the targeted group. This is not only true of prejudice against people. The same rigid adherence to prejudice occurs in other kinds of bias, such as prejudice against certain kinds of video games, reading material, or geographic locations.

A reason for this inflexibility is that people are prone to overgeneralize about the world around them when trying to categorize their observations. As a result, a prejudiced person thinks in terms of oversimplified images of groups. These generalized, oversimplified images are called stereotypes. The simplistic manner of viewing the world leads to the prejudice being considered "common sense." The prejudiced person likely will then accept only that information which confirms or supports his attitude, and ignore information that does not. Despite the misconceptions involved, prejudices in a person are frequently not considered abnormal thinking. In many people prejudice results from normal thought processes no matter how misguided. Prejudices become dangerous and abnormal when they lead to hostile or discriminating behavior.

That there are usually multiple causes of a person's prejudice contributes to the persistence of prejudice. Prejudice in people can be caused by psychological sources in addition to social sources, such as what is learned from parents and friends. Among psychological causes, prejudice can develop from a person's feelings of insecurity and inferiority. These feelings can stir deep emotions in people and these emotions can overwhelm other factors that might cause prejudices, such as learned social values. Because emotion is such a strong motivator of prejudice, it can be difficult to change once established.

Psychological explanations

As described by author John Duckitt in his 1992 book The Social Psychology of Prejudice, psychologists have concluded that many people have an underlying prejudiced personality that makes them less sympathetic to others who are different—for example, the disabled or people suffering from a disease such as AIDS. Psychological factors related to prejudice may include fear of the unknown, of something different, or the use of others to blame for one's own misfortunes.

A fear of diversity

Studies have shown that persons prone toward prejudice, particularly having well established prejudices, often share certain common psychological traits. Individuals with an extreme, unquestionable respect for authority figures are called authoritarians. Authoritarianism is considered an important personality factor in the development of prejudice and sustaining it. People with authoritarian personalities are considered predisposed to becoming prejudiced. Certain traits are commonly attributed to this personality type. Authoritarians typically have rigid beliefs, possess traditional values in the mainstream of society, do not tolerate weakness in themselves or others, are generally suspicious of others, believe in a strict system of punishments, and are highly respectful of authority. They have a very strong desire for conformity to society and a fear of diversity represented by others. The person reveres his own group of like-minded people while having anxieties about others. Therefore those with a particularly high level of authoritarianism are often prejudiced against all minorities. If a person does not like people of color, he probably does not like Jews or immigrants either. It is highly likely his parents were also very prejudiced against minorities. These other groups are always blamed, or made scapegoats, for the problems of prejudiced people. Scapegoating is the displacement of hostilities produced by frustrations.


Scapegoating is a prejudicial thought process that has been used by people throughout history. It can cause prejudice in situations where hardships lead people to strike out. In these cases the authority figures who might be responsible for their plight are distant and inaccessible. Therefore, harsh disciplinary measures can cause the targets of the discipline to display an aggressive reaction toward others. They find scapegoats for their plight. Scapegoating means someone is blamed for something they have no control over. The scapegoat is innocent. Nonetheless, the people subject to the harsh discipline lash out at others who are more accessible, identifiable, and perhaps safer to confront than a parent or governmental authority. This usually involves looking for easy targets who are outnumbered, such as ethnic minorities or gays, or who may be physically weaker, such as women. Through their prejudices they socially devalue their target groups. Scapegoating can ultimately lead to violence and death.

Psychologists have sketched out what they believe are causes for a person to be authoritarian. These personalities often result from strict, loveless parenting. The parents imposed strong discipline, including the use of conditional love (the child was not shown affection unless he behaved as expected). As a result the child develops insecurities with a strong respect for authority figures. He cannot tolerate ambiguities or uncertainty. While becoming highly dependent on his parents, he shows both outward affection and inward hostility. He eventually grows up to harbor much anger in adulthood. The anger coupled with insecurity can cause prejudice and spark aggression toward powerless groups in society. The person feels the need to project his fears onto an inferior group in order to feel more self-respect. In addition to needing inferior groups, he also seeks hero figures to show exaggerated respect.

When authoritarians become extreme in their attitudes and actions, psychologists consider them pathological (extreme or abnormal). Most people with prejudices would not be considered pathological.

Other psychological states of mind can also lead to prejudices. For example, a mood is a more general psychological condition than an emotion. An emotion is more of a quick, frequently negative, reaction to something. A mood is a longer lasting state of mind. Good and bad moods can greatly influence how a person views members of other groups. Good moods can lead to an appreciation of individuals in other groups. A bad mood can lead to viewing members of the other group negatively. Researchers have found that both heightened happiness and anger can lead to resorting to stereotypes in resolving issues. Feelings of frustration caused by a mood are often considered a cause of aggression as well as a cause of prejudice.

What has intrigued psychologists as well as sociologists is that two people may grow up under the same home conditions and influences, yet one may be susceptible to strong prejudices and the other not. Of course, psychological factors like authoritarianism are intertwined with a host of social, cultural, and historical factors, such as legally enforced segregation in schools in the twentieth-century American South, the rise of national border disputes with other ethnic groups in the neighboring country, and a rapid rise of an activist movement such as gay rights or women's rights.

Sociological causes

Sociological causes of prejudice can take many forms They range from the natural process of a child learning the norms of a society into which she is born to economic and religious causes or fear of threats, imagined or real.


Prejudice is taught and promoted by socialization. Socialization refers to influences a youth experiences while growing up. An individual experiences social attitudes around her from the time of birth. A family history of intolerance runs deep in a person's personality. Receptiveness to certain simplistic and rigid ideas is established as the family seeks conformity with conventional moral codes of the group with whom they identify. The personality of an individual is largely formed by age five. The child learns of prejudice largely unconsciously as part of general society. As time passes, she learns prejudices not only from family, but also schoolteachers, churches, and peer groups. In addition mass media such as movies, television, and music play a large role of at least reinforcing what the child learns from family.

By the age of five a youth has learned about categorizing people. Most people have learned some social categories by age three and almost all by age five. As described by Fiona Devine in the 1997 book Social Class in America and Britain, U.S. and British studies showed that ethnicity was the most influential factor in forming categories by youth, with gender second. Social or economic status was least important. Disabilities also had little influence on forming prejudices at early ages.

Pressures to conform to prejudicial thought and behavior become very strong when the prejudices are accepted as the social norm. Prejudice becomes perpetuated from generation to generation by blind imitation of past behavior, perhaps based on centuries of unequal relationships between certain groups. This tradition of prejudice occurred in U.S. race relations as black slavery in the nineteenth century gave way to legally enforced segregation in the twentieth century and continued discrimination based on social customs into the twenty-first century.

The youth also learn by what they observe around them. Any form of treating groups differently in a society such as racial segregation in housing, church, or school adds further reinforcement to learned prejudices. Language can also create and reinforce prejudice with degrading terms such as "nigger" for blacks.

Socially learned prejudice commonly results from a young person forming ideas of other groups of people with which he has no real immediate contact. This happens in adults as well. Much less often does prejudice result through direct contact with other people. In fact, prejudice may be overcome through direct contact under certain circumstances, such as assistance when having a problem or being forced to work together as a team in school or at work. Therefore it is an imaginary process through which prejudice often forms. The person grows up comparing himself with various groups and identifying with at least one. It is likely the only one about which he has much personal knowledge. As he gets older usually he will marry a person in the group with whom he has grown to identify.

Discrimination and prejudice

Prejudice is far more than simply a negative attitude, it often involves action such as discrimination or violence. Prejudice is not the same as discrimination. Whereas prejudice is an attitude, discrimination is an action or behavior. Studies indicate that prejudice frequently leads to discrimination. Though prejudice is often and rightly considered a key cause of discrimination, discrimination can cause prejudice, too.

Discrimination means one group enjoys an undue or undeserved advantage over another group possessing the same qualifications based on arbitrary, or random, standards or criteria. As a result the disadvantaged group faces unjustified penalties or barriers. For example, discrimination driven by prejudice can lead to a group receiving fewer opportunities for education, jobs, and career advancement. These barriers to self-improvement result in low morale and the development of few skills among members of the disadvantaged group. These results of discrimination can cause further prejudice and discrimination. It becomes a vicious, endless cycle.

Despite this close tie between the two, prejudice and discrimination are somewhat independent of each other. As noted previously, prejudice can encourage discrimination and discrimination can cause prejudice. However, prejudice does not automatically lead to discrimination. Also, a person can discriminate without being prejudiced. For example, a non-prejudiced public servant could be responsible for enforcing a law or ordinance that is discriminatory in some way. Nonetheless, prejudice and discrimination are certainly related and often found existing simultaneously within an individual or group.

Discrimination can take many forms. Extreme forms of discrimination include genocide, the deliberate killing off of a racial, religious, political, or cultural group. More subtle forms include exclusion from social activities and consistently biased media portrayals in newspapers, movies, television programs, and radio talk shows. The media and public institutions, such as schools and government agencies, can give prejudice and discrimination a social legitimacy by promoting certain social customs and influencing laws that enforce discrimination, such as the segregationist Jim Crow laws of the American South in the twentieth century.

Another example of the connection between prejudice and discrimination has come from historical efforts to reduce discrimination, such as through laws and government policies. Such attempts to ban discrimination also can lead to a reduction in prejudice, though perhaps very slowly. This trend occurred in the United States in the late twentieth century as racial discrimination became prohibited in public facilities. Though some forms of discrimination largely disappeared, prejudice decreased to a lesser degree and still remains a major feature of U.S. society. The decline in prejudice may not involve everyone. Using laws to ban discrimination driven by prejudice may actually make some individuals more prejudiced.

Social status and ethnocentrism

Another social factor that contributes to the establishment of prejudices includes a need for maintaining or elevating one's social status. This desire can lead a person or group to form prejudices and discriminate against a minority. Perhaps the person or group is in a low socioeconomic position. Fearing competition over jobs and frustrated, they need to feel superior over someone. Often people prejudiced against blacks or Jews have held a low social status in their own society. A person with a low or declining social status is more likely to have prejudices than one who has a high social status. People experiencing a low social status (a person's social standing in a society determined primarily through the prestige of his occupation, a family name, education, or profession) frequently come from near the bottom of education, income, and occupational social levels. They are also most likely to be violent in acting out their prejudices.

The desire for improved social status by a group can lead to ethnocentrism (an environment in which a social group shares certain traits, such as a unique culture, common national origin, or ancestral history, and feels superior to other ethnic groups). A person feels that the ethnic group she associates herself with is superior to other ethnic groups. Usually the group is distinguished from other groups by their cultural differences or some physical characteristics such as skin color. In the latter case, ethnocentrism takes the form of racism. Usually the person is linked through marriage and kinship relations to the group she identifies with and members of the group live close to one another. As with other forms of prejudice, an ethnocentric person may blame others for undesired events or conditions. As the intensity of ethnocentrism grows, the possibility of conflict increases, and the ethnocentrism develops into a strong prejudice.

Threats and fear

Threats to a person or group can also lead to prejudice. The threat may be either real or imagined. Threats involve fear not only of physical violence, but the loss of material wealth or financial wellbeing. An example would be an economic threat from new immigrants arriving into a country where competition over jobs is high. Also if one group believes that another group is gaining in prestige, certain emotions such as anger or frustration may trigger prejudice toward that group. In these situations prejudice results from expectations that others could cause some kind of physical or financial harm. For example, in the nineteenth century, when thousands of immigrants came to America, xenophobia (the fear of strangers) was high. White protestant Americans hated the Chinese, Irish, Jews, and Catholics because they saw them as a threat to their livelihood and familiar way of life.

Imagined threats often also involve threats to closely held social values, symbols, traditions, or viewpoints, such as the redefinition of marriage by gay activists or burning of the American flag by protestors. Though those threats may only be imagined they still lead to prejudice, especially if some level of anxiety (fearful of some possible event) already exists. Such anxiety can result from previous interaction involving conflict, from stereotypes already established in people's minds, from very different levels of social or economic status between the groups, and from competition over natural resources. Anxiety often causes people to oversimplify a situation, such as increasing use of stereotypes, and can cause less than clear thinking.

Other factors, as always, can enter into raising threat fears. Stereotyped mass media portrayals of certain groups of people can heighten fear and threats. As a result movies or television programs can unknowingly promote prejudice. Such threats can spur authoritarian behavior in the dominant groups. They impose stiffer or mandatory criminal penalties for lawbreakers who are largely believed to be members of a minority group. Those in leadership roles such as heads of government may gain greater tolerance among the population for their oppressive government actions and support for discriminatory policies toward minorities.

Prejudice can also result from a person's fear that he may suffer some negative repercussions from his own group because he interacted with people in a subordinate group. The person could face embarrassment, ridicule, or even rejection by his own group for interacting with members of a minority.

Whatever the nature of the threat, fear is a major cause of prejudice. Fear often comes from the unknown, or ignorance (lack of knowledge) about something or some group. If ignorance causes fear and fear causes prejudice, then it may be assumed that increased knowledge or information, such as meeting the feared group, would lead to less fear and, as a result, less prejudice. However, this is not always the case. Certain conditions about the kind of contact between groups must be met for prejudice to actually decrease. For example, the contact must be positive between groups or individuals and they must be of relatively equal social status. They should share common goals and have little competition between them over resources. The contact should also be supported and encouraged by government authorities of some sort. Though prejudice is a deeply ingrained part of a person's character, it is a habit that can be broken.


An immigrant is a person who intends to reside permanently in another country. Immigration is a controversial issue throughout the world, and many people are uncomfortable with immigration. Xenophobia is fear of strangers, often leading to distrust and hatred. Prejudices build as people claim immigrants isolate themselves and do not blend into their new country, acquire jobs that others native to the country could have obtained, lower wage levels by working for less money, consume the nation's limited resources, and put a strain on social systems such as welfare and public schools. Immigrants are frequently used as scapegoats when unemployment rises, crime increases, or the quality of education declines. Often politicians take strong anti-immigrant positions to distract voters from real political or economic problems facing society.

In the United States anti-immigrant views existed throughout the twentieth century in different forms. Prejudices against Irish and Italians gave way to prejudices against Asian Americans, then Mexicans, and finally Arabs and Muslims. Illegal immigration across the U.S.—Mexico border became a major concern in the early twenty-first century. Several hundred volunteers patrolled the Mexican border to assist law authorities. Prejudices against immigrants led to various laws to restrict immigration, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 establishing crimes for companies hiring illegal immigrants (people in the country without proper approval).

Immigration was not a major cause of prejudice in Western Europe until the 1970s. With an increased arrival of Muslims from North Africa into France and other European countries fears and prejudices rose. Even new political parties were established with anti-immigration as their main political position. These include the New Britain Party, founded in Britain in 1977, the Republicans Party in Germany, and France's National Front Party, founded in 1972. Riots in France in November 2005 increased fears of continued high immigration levels.


Conformity is behaving within the traditions or norms of a society. By seeking acceptance in a society, conformity creates or perpetuates prejudice in a person. In this way, conformity to existing attitudes and traditions may be the cause of most prejudice. It is a very powerful motivator of prejudice. Studies have shown that people who move into areas where prejudice is the norm show increased prejudice in their behavior. In contrast, a person moving to an area of less prejudice shows a decline in his level of prejudice.

Some societies in which the dominant group gains economic or political advantage form prejudice against minorities and intentionally promote prejudice through laws and policy to gain a conformity in prejudice among its members. A key example was the Jim Crow laws of the American South that legally enforced racial segregation in the twentieth century. The laws sustained white dominance existing from the earlier days of slavery. Such laws create the appearance or illusion of inferiority of the minority such as black Americans.

Economic competition

Some groups create racial prejudice for personal gain. Economic factors can play a major role in fostering prejudices when one group or nation seeks to gain control of the resources of another group or nation. Growth of the British Empire in the seventeenth century is a prime example of economic domination based on prejudices. Britain colonized (settled and governed) major parts of several continents including Africa, India, Asia, Australia, and North America. Racist prejudice was established to spur this global expansion. In addition, the colonizers gained cheap, plentiful labor through racial dominance for their growing worldwide economy. In some cases British colonizers sought to eliminate the histories of the subordinate minorities such as the Aborigines of Australia. From history come traditions and norms and social institutions that perpetuate lifestyles and views of the world. The British sought to undermine Aborigine independence. One means of accomplishing this goal was to take Aborigine children from their homes and place them in foster homes of non-indigenous people. This effort proved devastating to the families involved, and was unsuccessful in terms of eliminating indigenous culture. Once prejudice is created to control access to goods or wealth, then it becomes self-perpetuating because of the disparities or inequalities created. Those in lower social classes, such as the working class, typically become characterized as uneducated and lazy and given few opportunities for economic improvement.

Sometimes financial greed leads to the formation of prejudice when a group feels as though another group is blocking its access to certain opportunities. The group forms prejudices to justify ways of overcoming the barriers such as through force or political dominance. One group often uses discrimination driven by prejudice to gain an economic advantage over others. History has shown that as the number of available jobs decreases, prejudice and discrimination increase. In this way, economic competition causes prejudice and discrimination.

When two social groups of relatively equal standing are economically competing, the chance of prejudice increases. Usually the economic competition is related to struggles over political control or power and social prestige. Economists believe that prejudice frequently grows from competition over access to wealth and resources. One group eventually gains economic dominance over other groups aided by prejudicial attitudes established toward those other groups. The other groups become portrayed as threats to the interests of the dominant group increasing fears among dominant group members.

To reinforce its prejudice, the dominant group demonizes the minority group by claiming that its social norms are deviant. The dominant group usually has the power to portray minorities as stereotypes in the media, such as in newspapers or movies. Such portrayals are offered as just plain common sense. The dominant group can also promote prejudice among its members through governmental laws and policies that affect religious practices, educational opportunities, and relations in the workplace. This group may also protect these stereotypes by admitting that exceptions can be found in the minority group, but those exceptions do not change the overall deficient character of the minority. In this way the stereotype persists despite evidence to the contrary.

As a result, minority groups lack equal access to certain natural resources, such as valuable timber stands or minerals, certain social privileges such as healthcare, and job opportunities enjoyed by others. Such inequality of power promotes prejudice, and prejudice leads to an even greater inequality of power. Sometimes the minority groups in these situations also develop prejudices; these are called reactive prejudices and are driven by envy as well as anger as the domination grows over the minorities.

Economists believe the economic causes of prejudice, even within a single society, outweigh political, religious, and cultural factors since money in the twenty-first century carries with it influence and political power. Prejudices fueled by economic factors lead to a society of different social classes (different groups distinguished by their degree of their wealth or prestige). According to these scholars, the concentrated control of property by the dominant group leads to prejudice in the dominant group over minorities. This dominance leads to the formation and perpetuation of social classes in which prejudice play a prominent role. Social classes are another form of social groups. Not only do the upper classes form prejudices against the lower classes, the lower classes also become prejudiced against members of the upper classes. Therefore the control of money and property (such as factories and natural resources) spurs prejudice among different classes of society. One group includes those who control the available capital (money to invest), business owners, and the large landowners. The other main group includes the workers themselves who sell their labor to factories and businesses to make a living.

The distinction of these basic social classes is maintained in certain ways, with prejudices playing a key role. For example, the government can use police powers or legislation to maintain order and class separation. Prejudices are built directly into these governmental policies and actions. Another means of maintaining separation and domination is development of ideology, or myths, that maintain the legitimacy of those in power. Those in power control information and even religion that supports their grip over resources and capital. The lower classes come to view their situation as inevitable in life, something they cannot change. It becomes difficult for workers to resist or rebel due to lack of money and the political control exerted over them. In addition, state-sponsored social reforms such as welfare are spurred by those in power to help to maintain the status quo (existing situation) by undercutting efforts by the poor and powerless to rebel. Force is used when needed to maintain the order.

The gap in distribution of money and wealth within the United States between the upper and lower classes has continued to grow wider into the twenty-first century. Consequently, prejudices between rich and poor carry on. A key part of this trend through time has been the increased concentration of corporate power. Many believe that for the economic system to survive and grow, inequality must be maintained. Restricted educational and job promotion opportunities maintain lower classes while the privileged maintain their control and position. Prejudice in the dominant groups creates lesser valued groups referred to as "Others," who do not measure up to the privileged. As a result, people grow up learning their position in society. Notions become set among the poor and minorities that they are that way due to their own fault, not because of the barriers placed in front of them that inhibit their improvement in social position. Some economists claim that inequalities, maintained through prejudices, are necessary for a society to function. They believe that societies need minority groups to serve as a working class.

Political and religious causes

The social restrictions of governmental systems and religious organizations have also caused prejudices. Not only does political control, including police powers, keep minority groups in check, but nationalism does as well. Nationalism is the favoring of one's own country over others. Nationalism can create political unity through identification with commonly held traits such as language, religion, or some physical trait. Solidarity in striving toward a common national goal is established such as expansion of political or economic control by taking over other countries.

The strength of nationalism, another social cause of prejudice, also works against efforts by dominated groups, such as the working class, to rebel. People's strong affiliation to the nation in which they live inhibits them from combating the prejudice and discrimination of those in power. The dominant group constructs a society with symbols, such as flags and stately capitols, and words, such as allegiance and patriotism, to perpetuate these nationalistic prejudices and maintain the desired social order.

Religion can serve to combat prejudice, but it also promotes prejudice by promoting the ideas that certain people are the "chosen" people and others are not. Religion can preach that unity is the natural order of humankind and that unity is characterized by diversity, not prejudice and discrimination.

Rationalizing prejudice

Acting out a prejudice in some discriminatory way or even causing a prejudice can involve the mental process of rationalization. Rationalization means making something seem reasonable even when it is not to most people. A person persuades himself that discriminating against some group is for the good of society. During World War II (1939–45), Nazi Germans became convinced that ridding society of Jews and others considered genetically or behaviorally undesirable would improve the German race. Perhaps the discrimination is supposedly necessary for religious reasons. Conquest or murder can be carried out for religious reasons based on a person's or group's rationalization toward prejudice.

Various forms of rationalization may come into play. A dominant group may keep a minority group in an inferior status by rationalizing that it was in the minority's best interest. The prejudicial action may likely be considered noble in character. The fatherly, or paternal, treatment of Native Americans and blacks in America owes to this type of rationalization. Through its own prejudice, the dominant group believes it needs to guide and protect the dominated group. Even the worst atrocities inflicted by people against fellow humans—including genocide—have been rationalized.

For More Information


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1979.

Baird, Robert M., and Stuart E. Rosenbaum, eds. Bigotry, Prejudice, and Hatred: Definitions, Causes and Solutions. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992.

Brown, Rupert. Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

Devine, Fiona. Social Class in America and Britain. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Domhoff, G. William. Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Dovidio, John F., Peter Glick, and Laurie A. Rudman, eds. On the Nature of Prejudice: Fifty Years after Allport. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Duckitt, John. The Social Psychology of Prejudice. New York: Praeger, 1992.


The Prejudice Institute. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

Understanding Prejudice. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

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