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A powerful and destructive form of prejudice, racism is the belief that one racial category is innately superior or inferior to another. Racism has pervaded world history. The ancient Greeks, the peoples of India, and the Chinese despite their many notable achievements were all quick to consider people unlike themselves inferior. Racism has also been widespread in the United States, where notions about racial inferiority supported slavery. Today, overt racism in this country has declined because our more egalitarian culture urges us to evaluate people, in Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr.'s words,"not by the color of their skin but the content of their character." Even so, racism remains a serious problem everywhere, and people still contend that some racial and ethnic categories are "better" than others. Where does prejudice come from? Scientists have offered many answers to this question, focusing their attention on frustration, personality, culture and social conflict. There are four major theories that support the cause of the unsolvable hatred.
The Scapegoat theory holds that prejudice springs from frustration among people who are themselves disadvantaged. Take the case of a white woman frustrated by her low-paying job in a textile factory. Directing hostility at the powerful factory owners carries obvious risk; therefore, she may blame her low pay on the presence of minority co workers. Her prejudice may not improve her situation, but is a relatively safe way to vent anger, and it may give her the comforting feeling that at least she is superior to someone. A scapegoat, then, is a person or category of people, typically with little power, who people unfairly blame for their own troubles. Because they are usually "safe targets" minorities are often used as scapegoats.
Authoritarian personality theory considers extreme prejudice a personality trait of some individuals. The authoritarian personalities rigidly conform to conventional cultural values and see moral issues as clear0cut matters of right and wrong people with authoritarian personalities also look upon society as naturally competitive and hierarchical, with "better" people like themselves inevitably dominating those who are weaker. People tolerant toward one minority are likely to be accepting of all. They tend to be more flexible in their moral judgments and treat all people as equals. Researchers of the authoritarian personality theory thought that people with little schooling, especially those raised by cold and demanding parents, develop authoritarian personalities. Filled with anger and anxiety as children, they grow into hostile, aggressive adults, seeking scapegoats whom they consider inferior.
A third theory contends that although extreme prejudice may be found in some people, some prejudice is found in everyone. Why? Because prejudice is embedded inside the culture, and students across the country had mostly the same attitudes toward specific categories of the population, feeling closer to some and further from others. Moreover, social distance research shows that, by and large, attitudes stay the same over decades. Finally, we know prejudice is cultural because minorities express the same attitudes as white people toward categories other than their own. Such patterns suggest that individuals hold prejudices because they live in a "culture of prejudice," which teaches us to view certain categories of people as "better" or "worse" than others.
The last explanation proposes that prejudice helps powerful people oppress others. To the extent that people look down on illegal Latino immigrants in the Southwest, for example, employers can pay the immigrants low wages for hard work. Similarly, elites benefit from prejudice that divides workers along racial and ethnic lines, preventing them from working together to advance their common interests (Geschwender, 1978; Olzak, 1989). Another conflict-based argument is that minorities themselves cultivate a climate of race consciousness in order to win greater power and privileges. Minorities promote race consciousness, claiming they are victims who are entitled to special considerations. While this strategy may yield short-term gains, such thinking can spark a backlash from white people or others who oppose "special treatment" for anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Social Scientists describe patterns of interaction among racial and ethnic categories in a society in terms of pluralism, assimilation, segregation and genocide. All four patterns of minority-majority interaction have all been played out in the United States. While many people proudly point to patterns of pluralism and assimilation, it is also important to recognize the degree to which US society has been built on segregations of African Americans and genocide of the Native Americans. Many people think of the United States as a "melting pot" where different nationalities blend together. The United States has provided more of the "good life" to more immigrants than any other nation. But as the history of this nation's racial and ethnic minorities reveals, our country's golden door has opened more widely for some than for others.