Foundations of Modern Prejudice

views updated

Foundations of Modern Prejudice

Prejudice is a negative attitude, emotion, or behavior toward individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience. Prejudice is a learned value or belief that causes a person to be biased for or against members of particular groups. The groups may be distinguished according to ethnicity (a group recognized by certain traits such as a unique culture, common national origin or ancestral history, or certain physical traits), race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, or some other identifying characteristic. Prejudices are commonly based on stereotyping. Stereotyping is assigning an individual or group with certain generalized characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every other member of that group. Once stereotypes are established, these generalizations can lead to not only prejudice, but discrimination and even violent, hostile behavior. Often these stereotyped groups are made scapegoats, blamed for problems suffered by the dominant group even though those made scapegoats in no way caused the problem. Although problematic and ineffective, this is a common way of selecting simple solutions to often complex problems.

Prejudice is a basic part of the human state of mind, maybe even a necessary part to make life's endlessly diverse experiences more understandable. Humans have the complex capacity to form opinions and project future consequences of their own or other people's actions. The expectations of these future conditions or consequences are normally based on past experiences and information provided by others. Processing many avenues of information in a person's mind requires some degree of simplification as well as generalizations as the person attempts to make order of the world around them. Prejudices play a key role in this simplifying and generalizing process.

Because of this basic role in a person's thought processes, prejudice has been a major influence on human relationships throughout the history of humankind. Not only has prejudice existed throughout the history of civilization, it has dominated certain historic periods and historical events, such as the invasion of Christian armies into the Muslim-held Holy Lands beginning at the end of the eleventh century, the sixteenth-century religious upheaval of the Reformation in Europe, and the Holocaust in World War II (1939–45) in the mid-twentieth century. Despite this influence of prejudice throughout history, the actual concept of what prejudice is did not develop until the twentieth century, when the study of prejudices gained recognition.

The consequences of prejudice are found throughout society. Some are more subtle (not readily apparent) than others. Perhaps the person acting in some prejudicial way is not aware at all of her prejudices and thus does not aggressively act out on them. Prejudice can also take the form of open hostility, such as abusive or hate language (verbal attack against a person or group because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or gender intended to cause anger), or even violence. The most horrible consequence is mass murder. Sometimes others force prejudicial behavior. For example, there always exists a great deal of pressure on individuals within groups to conform to the behaviors and beliefs of that group, including their prejudices. Often this conformity must be demonstrated for confirmation with their peers through discriminatory acts against persons of other groups, such as verbally abusing a minority person in front of the abuser's friends.


Large-scale immigration to a new land, bringing governmental controls from the distant nation of origin.
Recognizing a group by certain traits such as a unique culture, common national origin or ancestral history, or certain physical traits.
A belief that a particular nation is superior to other nations.
A negative attitude, emotion, or behavior toward individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience.
A socially defined group based on physical appearances, primarily skin color but may also include hair texture and eye shape.
An oversimplified prejudgment of others using physical or behavioral characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every member of that group.

People do not normally go through this mental process alone of using prejudices to simplify their experiences and understand the world around them. They do this with others in some defined social group, such as a nation, a region, a religious denomination, or an ethnic group. Social groups have formed throughout human history as people develop bonds with others based on shared traits or experiences; this includes shared prejudices. Primary types of groups in the early twenty-first century are ethnic groups, religious groups, and races.

Ethnic prejudice

People in ethnic groups share certain common origins and interests with others in the group. As a group, they continue to develop shared experiences. For many ethnic groups throughout history, this experience has been one of deprivation (forced to live without necessities), such as immigrants entering a new nation or an indigenous people whose homeland is being forcibly settled, or colonized, by foreigners from a distant country. Others are forcibly taken to another country or continent to become slaves, such as black Africans who were shipped to North America in the eighteenth century. These types of ethnic groups become marginal (not fully accepted) in mainstream society. They develop their own customs and beliefs and view others with disdain. A similar process of marginalization occurs with other groups that are victimized by prejudicial actions. For example, the disabled, or women, or a person of a particular religious sect may be marginalized from contributing to society because members of the dominant social group value them less.

Ethnic groups are often formed in reaction to some outside pressure posed by another group, such as indigenous peoples faced with domination by a foreign nation, known as colonialism. Ethnic groups become self-perpetuating (continuing the same practice or custom through time) as beliefs and customs are passed from generation to generation. They compete with other ethnic groups over control of lands and resources. Prejudice in the form of ethnocentrism has led to millions of deaths and much brutality worldwide. Ethnocentrism is when members of a group believe their values and living standards are superior and behaviors of other groups are less valued and offensive or strange.

Racial prejudice

Some groups formed on physical distinctions are called races. Prejudice based on the perceived race of a person is known as racism. Because of a person's skin color, hair type, head shape, or some other distinguishing trait, certain behavioral characteristics are assigned to that group, such as presumed lower intelligence or laziness. The concept of race is a culturally developed notion as the existence of races cannot be defended in science only by biological factors. People considered to be of different races may share common life styles, such as being members of the same ethnic group.

Racial prejudices came to the forefront with European exploration of the world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Stories of people and traditions very different from those in Europe came back to capture the imaginations of people. Given the military superiority of the sailing vessels and armed crews, a feeling of superiority built quickly over the indigenous peoples discovered. The European settlement of colonies around the world through the nineteenth century in Africa and Asia brought race relations to the forefront. Indigenous peoples, distinguished frequently by their skin color and other physical traits, were subjected to hard labor or extermination, or both, as racism defined the boundary between diverse cultures. Such relations contributed to the slave trade of the eighteenth century and continuation of slavery in the United States until the last half of the nineteenth century. Racism was the basis for immigration controversies through the twentieth century into the twenty-first.

Religious prejudices

Some of the oldest prejudices in the world are religious prejudices dating back thousands of years. For much of human history, religious affiliation has been a major means of distinguishing human groups. As a result, religious prejudice between groups promoted discrimination and open conflicts. Often religious groups also corresponded to certain ethnicities, such as European Christians and Arabian Muslims. Some of these religious biases continued into the twenty-first century, such as prejudices against Muslims in the United States and France in reaction to the activities of Islamic terrorists.

As religious crusades and other empire expansions occurred in early historic times, diverse populations came into contact with each other, including various European and Asian groups. Religious differences and prejudices were associated with physical differences among the diverse groups, such as Asian peoples associated with Buddhism.

Religious prejudices have been prominent among different branches of a single religious sect as well. For example, Sunni and Shiíte Muslim conflicts date back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad (571–632) in the seventh century. The two major Muslim groups each claimed allegiance to a separate successor to Muhammad. The Sunni chose Abu Bakr (c. 573–634), Muhammad's closest companion. The Shiites chose Ali (c. 598–661), Muhammad's son-in-law. Each assumed different names for their groups and prejudices grew. The differences are very fundamental (basic). For example, Shiites claimed the Sunni's hadiths (wise sayings of Muhammad) were biased against Shiites.

Another example of long-standing religious prejudice involved Islam and Hinduism. The religion of Hinduism can be traced back at least 3,500 years in India. The practices and traditions varied between regions and villages. Unlike Muslims who only worship one God, Hindus worship many gods thus forming the basis for prejudice and conflict. Conflict arose in northern India by the eleventh century and continued until the nineteenth century as Islamic leaders gained control of much of northern India. Hindu temples were destroyed and Hindus were forced to pay higher taxes by Muslim leaders. Conversion to Islam from Hinduism by many peoples occurred in the regions of the modern countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir to escape oppression.

Hindus suffered prejudice and discrimination from other directions as well. In southern India, Portuguese colonists settled the west coast of India at Goa beginning in 1498. At that time, numerous independent kingdoms governed India. The Portuguese brought with them Roman Catholic missionaries committed to converting Hindus to Catholicism. The situation of religious subjugation of Hindus changed through time. After more than a century of Portuguese rule, the British arrived in India in 1624 and by the nineteenth century had gained control over much of India through the British East India Company. The company, established to conduct trade with India and Eastern Asia, did not support missionaries for fear of antagonizing Indians and interfering with their business. However, by the early nineteenth century the fervor of Christian conversion back home in Britain caused the company policy to change. Protestant (a Christian religious denomination born in the sixteenth century in protest of Catholicism) missionaries came into the region eager to convert Hindus.

Other major religions developed in Asia through time, causing more friction and prejudice. Tibet was a dominant power in central Asia from the seventh to ninth centuries. Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Guatama (563–483 bce), also known as the Buddha, became the principal religion of Tibetans. Buddhism grew to be the world's fourth largest

The Crusades

The Crusades were a series of military campaigns lasting from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. They were driven by religious prejudice, particularly in the early campaigns. The Crusades reflected early conflicts between Christians and Muslims that still influence world relations in the twenty-first century.

Arab Muslims conquered the area of Palestine on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea including taking Jerusalem from Christians in the seventh century. They also gained control of the former Christian lands of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. For centuries and despite Arab Muslim control, Christians were able to regularly visit holy sites in Jerusalem until 1009 when the caliph (Islamic spiritual leader) of Egypt destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a church built on the location where Jesus Christ had been crucified and initially buried. After that time, Christians were less welcomed and faced persecution on their pilgrimages, or journeys to sacred places.

Conflict between Christians and Muslims had already broken out in Spain in what was known as the Reconquista (718–1492). There Christian forces of northern Spain were trying to recapture southern Spain, known as the Iberian Peninsula, from Muslims who had gained control in 711. The Reconquista lasted for centuries until the Christians finally won permanent control in 1492.

In the late eleventh century, Arab Muslims were threatening the Byzantine Empire in the area of modern Turkey. The Byzantine leader sent for help from a fellow Christian leader, the Roman Catholic pope who held much power in Europe. In response, Pope Urban II (1042–1099) gathered a large force from many areas of Western Europe. However, they were instructed not only to defend the Byzantines, but to recapture Jerusalem as well. The First Crusade in 1095 was the first effort by Christians to recapture lost lands from their religious enemy, the Muslims. While the united Christian army from Europe marched toward Jerusalem, driven by their religious prejudices, they also massacred Jews and attacked Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire. In 1099, they captured Jerusalem and massacred the local Muslim population. The Crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other states that lasted for almost a century.

Other crusades were organized in the following centuries, but the religious fervor steadily declined. The Second Crusade came in the 1140s when a combined French and German army marched again to the region between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to gain back more lands from Muslims. However, they attacked the well-guarded Damascus in Syria with little success. In 1187, Jerusalem once again fell under Muslim control, triggering Pope Gregory VIII (1100–1187) to call for the Third Crusade. A large alliance including English forces marched once again around the coast of the Mediterranean Sea recapturing various places from Muslims. However, they failed to recapture Jerusalem when they ran short of supplies. Pope Innocent III (c. 1160–1216) launched the Fourth Crusade in 1202 to invade the Holy Land. However, this time the army was diverted by its leaders who became more interested in capturing the riches of Constantinople in Turkey. They captured the Byzantine center in 1204 but following the difficult battles for Constantinople were unable to push on to the Holy Lands.

These and later crusades left a major mark on world history and religious prejudice. Some benefits came from the Crusades. They opened up much commerce between Europe and the Middle East and led to the inclusion of advanced Islamic thought in the sciences and medicine in European circles. Though the crusaders were never permanently successful in controlling the Holy Lands, Muslim peoples forever regarded the Crusades as brutal attacks by Christian armies. The Crusades were also a major chapter in the history of anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) even though Jews were never the principal target. In the West the term crusade came to mean to fight for a just cause or a righteous campaign. To Muslims in the East, the term represented religious persecution and brutality.

religion by the first of the twenty-first century. Buddhism teaches that everything is constantly subject to change and suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to stop craving things of the world and live a virtuous life by doing no harm to living things and by never stealing, lying, bragging, and using drugs or alcohol.

Religious prejudice fueled conflict over lands along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. The area has variously been known as Palestine, Israel, or Judea, depending on what particular group held control. Hebrew tribes known as the Israelites had long controlled the region. However, beginning 2,500 years ago the region was overrun by a series of other peoples from various regions including the Romans. By the seventh century, Arab Muslims gained control of many areas in the region. For a time, the region fell under control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the end of the thirteenth century. Their primary religion was Eastern Orthodox, a Christian religion, and Arab Muslims inhabited the region thereafter into the twentieth century.

A long history of prejudice

Ethnic, religious, and racial prejudices have led to genocide throughout history and continue in the twenty-first century. Genocide is the deliberate destruction of a political or cultural human group. The Bible contains accounts of possible genocides: the Egyptians killing Israelites in mass numbers and the Israelites waging genocide on the Middle Eastern population of Canaanites on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, major conquests by Middle Eastern peoples led to mass murders by the empires of Babylon and Assyria. Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 bce) made reference to mass killings in the seventh century bce, in a broad area extending from the Caspian Sea westward to Romania and Turkey.

The Roman Empire carried out several campaigns that likely involved genocide. Julius Caesar (100–44 bce) led a military campaign in present-day Switzerland, killing about 60 percent of the Swiss tribe. His campaign against the Gauls of modern-day France resulted in over one million killed, or about one-fourth of the population. Approximately eight hundred cities were destroyed. The Romans similarly captured the cities of Carthage in North Africa and Jerusalem in the Middle East, killing and enslaving their populations.

Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227) built a powerful army from what was originally numerous nomadic tribes in Mongolia. Genghis Khan and later his sons greatly expanded Mongolian rule across much of Asia and Europe in the thirteenth century. They carried out genocides, systematically killing millions of civilians throughout much of Europe and Asia, from China in the East to Hungary in the West. This included the capture of Baghdad in 1258, one of the world's largest cities at the time. Approximately one million of Baghdad's 1.5 million residents were killed in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to conquer all Islamic peoples. Genghis Khan's conquests were built on his legendary ruthlessness across an extensive region. If a group resisted his advance, he exterminated them. This occurred to the Ismaili Muslims of the Middle East. However, if a people did not militarily resist his conquest, he allowed them to continue existing cultural practices. As a result, his Mongol Empire became remarkably ethnically and culturally diverse, keeping ethnic and religious prejudices in check. Genghis Khan always kept his troop units ethnically mixed to create a sense of unity and avoid conflict based on prejudices.

The most extreme act of genocide in the nineteenth century was the Russian onslaught against the Circassian peoples living in Southwest Russia, in the Caucasus Mountains that finally ended in the 1860s after several decades of conflict. Some 1.5 million were killed and over a million were exiled to the Middle East. This event represented the first extensive modern-day genocide. The surviving Circassian peoples were permanently scattered in other regions.

Early prejudices beyond Europe and Asia

The Western Hemisphere witnessed large population losses among its indigenous (native) peoples following the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in San Salvador in 1492. The mass killing lasted centuries as native peoples were steadily displaced from traditional homelands. The deaths of the indigenous populations occurred through military conquest, introduction of foreign diseases (for which native populations had no natural immunities) such as smallpox, and general hardships, such as loss of native foods. Some indigenous groups disappeared altogether. The entire indigenous population of the Caribbean was exterminated by European colonizers.

The scale of the population losses was staggering as the militarily superior Europeans dominated what they considered the ethnically inferior indigenous populations. The Europeans sought control of the lands and resources in hopes of finding gold and other riches. Ethnic prejudice led to mass murder. For example, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century, about twenty-five million people lived in Central Mexico. Only one million natives survived into the seventeenth century. Throughout Mexico, the population declined from thirty million to only three million in just the first four decades of Spanish rule.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, those Native Americans in North America who survived the spread of unfamiliar disease and violent conflict with prejudiced settlers faced the efforts of the U.S. government and missionaries to assimilate (absorb) them into the mainstream white society. Private landownership and a farming lifestyle, neither familiar to the traditional Native American way of life, were enforced by the dominant white culture, often with little success. From the white society viewpoint, men were meant to be farmers and plow the land, while the prevalent traditional perspective of Native Americans relied on men hunting and gathering native foods. The native population declined to less than 300,000 by 1900, down dramatically from the estimated ten million in the fifteenth century before the arrival of European colonists in the Western Hemisphere.

European settlements in other continents led to similar consequences. Almost the entire Aborigine population (group of people first known to have lived in a region) in the Tasmania region of Australia was exterminated in the early nineteenth century. The 1870s saw the beginning of a great rush by European countries to divide up Africa under their control. For example, German colonies were established in Southwest Africa, France conquered Algeria, Italy colonized Somaliland in Eastern Africa and later Ethiopia, and Britain gained control of Egypt and South Africa. In the African Congo region, populations of native Africans declined from thirty million in the mid-nineteenth century to less than nine million by the end of the century while under Belgian rule. They were murdered, starved, killed by disease, and worked to death.

These cases of colonialism (extending a nation's control beyond its existing borders) were accompanied with strong prejudices ranging from racial and ethnic prejudice to religious prejudice. Missionaries brought the Christian religion to indigenous peoples as a way to introduce major social change not just in religion, but in almost all aspects of indigenous society including adoption of European gender roles. Although the intentions may have been good in most cases, these missionaries actually prompted the destruction of numerous societies and cultures.

Colonialism and the spread of racism

When European explorers sailed the high seas during the Age of Exploration that lasted from the early fifteenth century to the early seventeenth century, racial prejudices were transported worldwide. The explorers came into contact with, or, as described by later Western society textbooks, "discovered," peoples of many physical types. With a growing interest in the sciences including human biology, Europeans began to categorize these peoples into groups called races. Unlike ethnic distinctions based to a large extent on cultural and social differences, these prejudices were based more over visible biological traits, such as skin color, size and form of head, hair type, nose shape, and body size.

It was apparent early on that the different ways of grouping peoples could be numerous depending on who was making the categories. Published categories ranged from three to more than thirty. Despite the lack of agreement on how races were defined or what races actually existed, racial prejudice became a major factor in world history as European countries colonized various regions of the world that had long been the homelands to diverse indigenous peoples. Skin color proved to be the major distinguishing factor reflected in such simplistic racial labels as white, red, black, and yellow. The notion of race became a major obsession of Western Europeans through the eighteenth century.

Through colonialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, racism spread across the globe along with other prejudices such as those based on religion and gender biases. Whereas religious prejudice was largely based on ideas, racial prejudices were based largely on economics. The conquistadors of Spain slaughtered millions of indigenous peoples in the New World (Western Hemisphere) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over the search for gold and other natural riches. As European colonies became established in the New World based on agricultural economies, the subordinated indigenous peoples provided cheap field labor; millions were thrust into slavery. They were viewed strictly as property and not as humans. Some indigenous groups, such as black Africans, were rounded up and shipped long distances to be used as slaves, servants, and housemaids. In the seventeenth century, black Africans became the largest ethnic group in the Caribbean. As late as the nineteenth century, local native populations in Argentina were being exterminated between 1829 and 1852 as part of the ongoing European conquest.

The prejudice toward indigenous peoples of color was reflected in the paternalistic (as parents to children) treatment of European employers and landowners toward them. Through this subjugation, the native populations became dependent on the dominant cultural groups for life's necessities, such as housing, food, and clothing. This dependence further fueled prejudices and feelings of inferiority. By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world was dominated by Western European culture, and racial prejudice spanned the globe.

The established dominance only reinforced racial and religious prejudices. By the end of the nineteenth century, many Westerners were convinced that various indigenous populations represented different stages of human evolution, still trapped in a lesser stage of cultural development. Some considered black Africans as a subhuman form. The British Empire was built on the notion that colonizers were bringing civilization to the foreign lands, like a gift, given in exchange for the use of their lands to extract valuable resources. This same idea fueled America's expansion into other territories throughout the twentieth century.

Social class prejudice

Social class (groups of people sharing similar wealth and social standing) has also been a primary means of dividing society into groups. Social class prejudice is known as classism. These groups are usually distinguished at different levels of social status (the social standing in a society determined primarily through the prestige of occupations, education, or professions). Economic systems such as capitalism are based on the exploitation (making use of people without appropriate compensation) of segments of society based on social classes.

Capitalism is an economic system in which production of goods and services is privately owned, financed through private investments, and the demand for those goods and services is established through an open market system largely free of government involvement. The upper class owns the factories and businesses while the working-class members earn wages working for the company owners, performing such tasks as working on assembly lines. Prejudices are held by members of each group against the other group. The owners consider the wage earners as less cultured, meaning less worldly and educated. The wage earners consider owners as inept at working with their hands and actually producing something of quality. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution (1878–1900), when America's economy switched from one rooted in agriculture to one based on industry, a middle class emerged composed of managers who supervised the workers.

Social classes can form independently of ethnic distinctions. For example, social class distinctions and prejudices can occur within an ethnic group, or ethnic groups may be largely associated with certain social classes. By the early twenty-first century, ethnic distinctions became more prominent than social class as a major way of dividing of society.

Other forms of prejudice

In addition to major long-term ethnic, racial, and religious prejudices, other forms of prejudicial influences have played key roles over time.

The prejudice of nationalism

Another major means of distinguishing large groups of people began to appear in the mid-seventeenth century in Europe with the rise of nation-states (countries having full political independence or sovereignty). They quickly became the means of drawing the allegiance of large populations. Economies, educational systems, publications, and of course governments became centered on national loyalties. Boundary disputes between nations became a major source of conflict as prejudices against peoples of other nationalities grew.

Nationalism led to separatism when groups of people, usually drawn together by ethnic ties, wanted to form their own nations separate from their current national affiliations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the division of much of the world into nation-states had occurred. Nationalism would be major driving force in large-scale conflict through the twentieth century.

Gender prejudice

Gender prejudice had long been woven into the fabric of most societies. It was driven by a universal belief that women were the weaker of the sexes emotionally as well as physically and must be protected from the world outside the home. Normally, males were expected to be the provider and dominated in family matters, particularly those relating to the outside world in commerce and politics. Females were expected to assume domestic chores, cook and bake, spin yarn, sew, and make soap and candles and other needed household goods. At the same time, it was their responsibility to bear children and raise them according to the values and morals of the society in which they lived. In a farming economy, males cleared land, plowed, planted and harvested fields, hunted, chopped wood, built structures, and constructed fences. Wives were sheltered from most relations outside the family and not allowed to take part in business or politics. Similarly, sons in families enjoyed more freedoms than daughters in just about every known society.

Emerging industrialization brought major changes to gender roles and prejudices. Industrialization was a major economic change in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which large quantities of goods became produced by wage-earning workers operating machines located in factories. Home became the woman's world even more than before, as men were away much of the time at wage-earning jobs. Throughout history, men in farming societies were in charge of children, particularly boys, after they grew into adolescence and worked with their fathers in the fields. Now women guided the children through adolescence and into adulthood. By the 1860s, the U.S. courts began recognizing mothers as the primary custodial (having legal responsibility) parent of minor children, a status previously reserved for men. When families no longer needed children to help in the fields, the birth rates of white women fell by half from seven in 1800 to less than four in 1900.

The separate spheres of sexes were demonstrated in other aspects of life, such as religious practice. Orthodox Jews directed women to worship in separate sections of synagogues. Some masses in Roman Catholic churches were for men only. In addition, some activities were considered as appropriate for men only, such as debating current events at public gathering places like taverns.

Women in racial or ethnic minorities faced the complexities of both gender and racial prejudices. Following the end of slavery in the nineteenth century, black men enjoyed even fewer job opportunities than black women since black women enjoyed an extra advantage over men by being able to do laundry for others at home and provide childcare for others, a traditional female gender role. Men were limited to work as domestic servants and unskilled laborers. They were frequently unemployed. Though employed, the women routinely faced sexual harassment and racial prejudice. Nonetheless, black women often had greater influences over their families than white women over theirs. These gender roles and prejudices continued into the twenty-first century despite gains against gender prejudice, such as the right to vote

Other longstanding prejudices

Prejudices and discrimination against those with sexual orientations not conforming to heterosexual and transgender lifestyles have a long history. Laws have banned homosexual relationships at least dating back to Biblical times over two thousand years ago. Sometimes these laws imposed death penalties for violators. Activists proposing acceptance of homosexuality in society first appeared in the late eighteenth century in Western society. The first nation to repeal laws banning homosexuality was France in 1791 as part of the new personal freedoms brought by the French Revolution. Reform movements to combat sexual orientation prejudice grew in Europe through the nineteenth century. An example of the attitudes still prevalent, famous playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was arrested on charges of indecency in April 1895 for his homosexual relations with other men. He was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor. He died not long after his release, suffering from health problems that came from his imprisonment. Transgendered individuals are those who have sexual orientation identities not conforming to normal gender roles in societies. Transgendered conditions come in a wide range of forms, such as persons physically being of one sex, but psychologically identifying with the other sex. Some transgendered individuals may not identify with either gender and are referred to as androgynous. Transgender people have faced considerable prejudice around the world throughout time, even with sex-change operations and hormone replacement therapy that became more available in the twentieth century.

For centuries attitudes and actions toward persons with mental or physical disabilities included rejection, removal from society, and neglect. By the nineteenth century the disabled were often relegated to institutions for the insane known as asylums. They were considered worthless to society. The institutions kept the disabled isolated from family and mainstream society. In public schools principals could deny entrance to any child they did not believe had the ability to enter the school. Negative labels, such as imbecile, were applied to persons with disabilities for centuries. By the end of the twentieth century major strides had been made to incorporate persons with disabilities into mainstream society. Access to workplaces was greatly improved and new technologies expanded the capabilities of people with physical disabilities. Accommodation of disabled persons in housing and public places also saw great advances in Western societies.

On the threshold of the twentieth century

By the twentieth century prejudice took many forms around the world. Religious prejudice had greatly influenced the course of world history for thousands of years. The effects of religious prejudice declined in some regions of the world with the rise of nationalism. A national allegiance often began to carry more influence than religious differences within a nation. With its beginnings in the seventeenth century, nationalism spread extensively around the world in the twentieth century.

Racial prejudice became a cornerstone of Western European expansion through the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was also a hallmark of the U.S. march westward in the nineteenth century that displaced Native Americans from their homelands. Another major form of prejudice was ethnic prejudice. Ethnic prejudice steadily grew in importance over time, perhaps becoming the prejudice of greatest consequence in the twentieth century. Other forms of prejudice persisted throughout much of history as well. These included gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, and social class prejudice. Though social class distinctions were highly influential in medieval Europe between landlords and peasants, they took on new and highly consequential meaning in the nineteenth century with the rise to prominence of industrialization, nationalism, and capitalism. There were now upper and lower classes.

These different forms of prejudice are explored in the following eleven chapters, as are the causes and consequences of prejudice. These general overview chapters are followed by twelve chapters providing case examples of prejudice in the world since the beginning of the twentieth century. The cases involve numerous regions of the world including Rwanda and South Africa in Africa, the Middle East, Northern Ireland in Great Britain, Yugoslavia and Germany in Europe, and the Hispanic, Native American, and Japanese populations of the United States in North America.

The case studies highlight the complexity of prejudice. Normally, people both as a group and individually are acting out multiple forms of prejudice at any one time. One group of people may hold prejudices and discriminate against another group because of combined religious and ethnic prejudices, racial and social class prejudices, or gender and disability prejudices. Similarly, any multiple combinations of prejudices are possible and may even occur in different combinations in the same individual over time. No matter the complexity of prejudice, one simple fact exists—prejudice has long been one of the greatest barriers and most destructive forces in human history.

For More Information


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

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

Pincus, Fred L., and Howard J. Ehrlich, eds. Race and Ethnic Conflict: Contending Views on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Ethnoviolence. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Plous, Scott, ed. Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.


Anti-Defamation League. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

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

About this article

Foundations of Modern Prejudice

Updated About content Print Article