Roots of Prejudice
to Prejudice and Punishment-]
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.
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
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
"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
Racial prejudice isn't a natural, instinctive trait, Alexander said.
Instead, it's learned. And studies have found that it's often rooted in
"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.