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Theories of Prejudice

In 1939, psychologist John Dollard suggested that prejudice is the result of frustration. People who are unable to strike out at the real source of their frustration look for someone to blame.

They unfairly blame their troubles on a scapegoat often a racial–ethnic or religious minority and this person or group becomes a target on which they vent their frustrations. Gender and age are also common targets of scapegoating. According to Adorno the highly prejudiced people are insecure conformists. They have deep respect for authority and are submissive to authority figures. He termed this the authoritarian personality. These people believe that things are either right or wrong. Ambiguity disturbs them, especially in matters of religion or sex. They become anxious when they confront norms and values that are different from their own. To view people who differ from themselves as inferior assures them that their own positions are right.

Sociologists find psychological explanations inadequate. They stress that the key to understanding prejudice cannot be found by looking inside people, but rather by examining conditions outside them. For this reason, sociologists focus on how social environments influence prejudice. Prejudice becomes practically irresistible when state machinery is used to advance the cause of hatred. For example to produce prejudice, the Nazis harnessed government agencies, the schools, police, courts, and mass media.

Conflict theorists also analyze how groups are pitted against one another. Their focus is on how this arrangement benefits those with power. They begin by noting that workers want better food, health care, housing, education, and leisure. To attain these goals, workers need jobs that pay well. If workers are united, they can demand higher wages and better working conditions. Divisions in contrast weaken them and prevent united action. To divide them and keep wages down business owners use two main tactics. The first tactic is to keep workers insecure. Fear of unemployment works especially well. The unemployed serve as a reserve labor force. Business owners draw on the unemployed to expand production during economic booms and when the economy contracts they release these workers to rejoin the ranks of the unemployed. Divisions among workers deflect anger and hostility away from the power elite and direct these powerful emotions toward other racial and ethnic groups. Instead of recognizing their common class interests and working for their mutual welfare, workers learn to fear and distrust one another.

While conflict theorists focus on the role of the owner (or capitalist) class in exploiting racial and ethnic divisions, symbolic interactionists examine how labels affect perception and create prejudice. Symbolic interactionists stress that the labels we learn affect the way we perceive people. Labels cause selective perception; that is, they lead us to see certain things while they blind us to others. If we apply a label to a group, we tend to perceive its members as all alike. Racial and ethnic labels are especially powerful.