The Political Psychology
of Race and Ethnicity
Racism and ethnocentrism are sources of intransigent political conflict worldwide. Racial prejudice and discrimination have been considered the “great American dilemma” (Myrdal, 1944) for decades. Racism was responsible for one of the most repressive regimes in modern history—the apartheid government of South Africa. Ethnic hatred has been held responsible for countless violent incidents globally, some involving genocide. Looking at these conflicts from a political psychological perspective can provide insights that other approaches cannot provide. First, explaining racial and ethnic conflicts as a consequence of competition for resources and power fails to explain why people would engage in these conflicts, when they result in the destruction of wealth and resources, indeed, of the very countries where power is distributed. Second, if there were no underlying psychological processes influencing ethnic and racial conflict, they could be settled once and for all, but, from the political psychological perspective, we can understand the intransigence of group conflict as the result of the continual human drive to form in-groups and out-groups and to compare their groups with others. Political psychology also enables us to understand how racial and ethnic groups can live together harmoniously for years, then erupt in horrific internecine violence. Identities can be manipulated by leaders, and emotions can rise to extremes of hatred and fear, when people are convinced by leaders and by rumors that their group is threatened by others. Political psychology also turns our attention to the ways in which issues can be framed to produce particular anxieties in the minds of citizens. Stereotypes can be subtly or openly manipulated to produce stereotype-driven behaviors and attitudes.
This chapter looks at the underlying causes of political conflicts produced by racism and ethnocentrism. We begin with some concepts and definitions—some introduced in earlier chapters, others new—that enable us to have a common understanding of the perceptions and behaviors involved in race and ethnicity. This chapter explores most of the Political Being's personality attitudes, cognition, emotions, and identities, in relation to us (in-groups) and them (out-groups). We look at race and politics in the United States, Brazil, and South Africa. The cases of ethnic conflict we examine include Nigeria, Bosnia, and Guatemala. The chapter concludes with an examination of conflict prevention and resolution in race and ethnic conflicts.
Race and ethnicity are social constructs, not scientific distinctions, and they are often confounded, as the history of racism in the United States shows. George Fredrickson (1999) notes:
Throughout its history, the United States has been inhabited by a variety of interacting racial or ethnic groups. In addition to the obvious “color line” structuring relationships between dominant Whites and lower-status Blacks, Indians, and Asians, there have at times been important social distinctions among those of White or European ancestry. Today we think of the differences between white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish Americans as purely cultural or religious, but in earlier times