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March / April 2004

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UMaine Today Magazine

Roots of Prejudice
Back to Prejudice and Punishment-]

Roots of Prejudice

It's one thing to dislike someone because of something he or she has said or done. It's quite another to harbor ill feelings because of a physical characteristic, such as skin color. That's prejudice.

Of course, racial prejudice isn't really about skin color. It's about the values and character traits that people ascribe to members of other races.

Michele Alexander, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Maine until her death last December, did significant research on the relationship among personal values, stereotyping and prejudice. In an interview last fall, she discussed the theory she developed to explain the origins of stereotypes and the functions they serve. She called it the "image theory."

"The idea is that our relationship with other groups is based on our perception of their power, goals and social status relative to ours," she said. "If we see them as presenting a threat to our political or economic power, if we perceive their goals as being incompatible with ours, or if we think their culture is less sophisticated, then we develop a stereotyped image of them. We then use that stereotype to justify how we treat them."

Alexander said prejudice of some kind against women, the poor or certain religious groups, for example is found in almost every culture.

"That might be explained, in part, by what's called the social identity theory," she said. "It holds that it's not just our personal traits that make us who we are, it's also the groups we belong to. We all want to belong to groups that increase our self-esteem. The stronger we identify with one group, the more likely we are to feel prejudiced toward another."

Racial prejudice isn't a natural, instinctive trait, Alexander said. Instead, it's learned. And studies have found that it's often rooted in social history.

"In this country, race has always been a very important category of distinction, in large part because of slavery," Alexander said. "That whole dominance-submission perspective is so entrenched in our society that, unfortunately, too many of us are still learning that race is an important factor to use in judging people.

"Race is also an easy factor to use because it's so obvious," she said. "You can't tell a person's religion or occupation just by looking at them, but you can usually tell what racial group they belong to. That makes race an especially easy basis for prejudice."

Editor's note: Michele Alexander, UMaine associate professor of social psychology, was killed Dec. 16 in an automobile accident near her home. She was 37.


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