Understanding Racial Prejudice

Japanese Internees Under Guard, ca. 1944

Hulton Deutsch/Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Words such as racism, prejudice, and stereotype are often used interchangeably. While the definitions of these terms overlap, they actually mean different things. Racial prejudice, for instance, typically arises from race-based stereotypes. People of influence who prejudge others set the stage for institutional racism to occur. How does this happen? This articles provides an overview of what racial prejudice is, why it’s dangerous, and how to combat it.

Defining Prejudice

It’s difficult to discuss prejudice without clarifying what it is. The fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary provides four meanings for the term—from “an adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts” to “irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race or religion.” Both definitions apply to the experiences of people of color in Western society. Of course, the second definition sounds much more menacing than the first, but prejudice in either capacity has the potential to cause a great deal of damage.

Likely because of his skin color, English professor and writer Moustafa Bayoumi says that strangers often ask him, “Where are you from?” When he answers that he was born in Switzerland, grew up in Canada, and now lives in Brooklyn, he raises eyebrows. Why? Because the people doing the questioning have a preconceived idea about what Westerners generally and Americans particularly look like. They’re operating under the (erroneous) assumption that natives of the United States don’t have brown skin, black hair, or names that aren’t English in origin. Bayoumi acknowledges that the people suspicious of him typically don’t “have any real malice in mind.” Still, they allow prejudice to guide them. While Bayoumi, a successful author, has taken the questions about his identity in stride, others deeply resent being told that their ancestral origins make them less American than others. Prejudice of this nature may not only lead to psychological trauma but also to racial discrimination. Arguably no group demonstrates this more than Japanese Americans.

Prejudice Begets Institutional Racism

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. public viewed Americans of Japanese descent suspiciously. Although many Japanese Americans had never stepped foot in Japan and knew only of the country from their parents and grandparents, the notion spread that the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were more loyal to the Japanese empire than to their birthplace—the United States. Acting with this idea in mind, the federal government decided to round up more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and place them in internment camps for fear that they would team up with Japan to plot additional attacks against the United States. No evidence suggested that Japanese Americans would commit treason against the U.S. and join forces with Japan. Without trial or due process, the Nisei were stripped of their civil liberties and forced into detention camps. The case of Japanese-American internment is one of the most egregious cases of racial prejudice leading to institutional racism. In 1988, the U.S. government issued a formal apology to Japanese Americans for this shameful chapter in history.

Prejudice and Racial Profiling

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Japanese Americans worked to prevent Muslim Americans from being treated how the Nisei and Issei were during World War II. Despite their efforts, hate crimes against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim or Arab rose following the terrorist attacks. Muslims face particular scrutiny on airlines and airports. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, an Ohio housewife of Arab and Jewish background named Shoshanna Hebshi made international headlines after accusing Frontier Airlines of removing her from a flight simply because of her ethnicity and because she happened to be seated next to two South Asian men. She says that she never left her seat, spoke to other passengers or tinkered with suspicious devices during the flight. In other words, her removal from the plane was without warrant. She’d been racially profiled.

“I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes maybe–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress,” she stated in a blog post. “I admit to having fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. …The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion–even toward those who hate.”

The Link Between Racial Prejudice and Stereotypes

Prejudice and race-based stereotypes work hand in hand. Due to the pervasive stereotype that an all-American person is blonde and blue-eyed (or at the very least white), those who don’t fit the bill—such as Moustafa Bayoumi—are prejudged to be foreign or “other.” Never mind that this characterization of an all-American more aptly describes the Nordic population than individuals who are indigenous to the Americas or the diverse groups that make up the United States today.

Combating Prejudice

Unfortunately, racial stereotypes are so prevalent in Western society that even the very young exhibit signs of prejudice. Given this, it’s inevitable that the most open-minded of individuals will have a prejudiced thought on occasion. One needn’t act on prejudice, however. When President George W. Bush addressed the Republican National Convention in 2004, he called on schoolteachers not to give in to their preconceived ideas about students based on race and class. He singled out the principal of Gainesville Elementary School in Georgia for “challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Although poor Hispanic children made up most of the student body, 90 percent of pupils there passed state tests in reading and math.

“I believe every child can learn,” Bush said. Had school officials decided that the Gainesville students couldn’t learn because of their ethnic origin or socioeconomic status, institutional racism would have been the likely result. Administrators and teachers would not have worked to give the student body the best education possible, and Gainesville could’ve become yet another failing school. This is what makes prejudice such a threat.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Understanding Racial Prejudice." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-racial-prejudice-2834953. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, July 31). Understanding Racial Prejudice. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-racial-prejudice-2834953 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Understanding Racial Prejudice." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-racial-prejudice-2834953 (accessed June 10, 2023).