Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the difference between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism
  • Describe white privilege

The terms stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, and racism are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Let us explore the differences between these concepts. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation—almost any characteristic. They may be positive (usually about one’s own group, such as when women suggest they are less likely to complain about physical pain) but are often negative (usually toward other groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinate racial group is stupid or lazy). In either case, the stereotype is a sweeping overview that doesn’t take individual differences into account. Where do stereotypes come from? In fact new stereotypes are rarely created, but are instead recycled from earlier applications to subordinate groups that have since assimilated into society. They are then reused to describe newly subordinate groups. For example, many stereotypes that are currently used to characterize Black people were used earlier in American history to characterize Irish and Eastern European immigrants.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn about racism, prejudice, and discrimination in the United States. We’ll learn about each of these terms in more detail in the reading that follows.


Prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on personal experience; instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience. Recall from the chapter on Crime and Deviance that the criminalization of marijuana was based on anti-immigrant sentiment; proponents used fictional, fear-instilling stories of “reefer madness” and rampant immoral and illegal activities among Spanish-speaking people to justify new laws and harsh treatment of marijuana users. Many people who supported criminalizing marijuana had never met any of the new immigrants who were rumored to use it; the ideas were based in prejudice.

While prejudice is based in beliefs outside of experience, experience can lead people to feel that their prejudice is confirmed or justified. This is a type of confirmation bias. For example, if someone is taught to believe that a certain ethnic group has negative attributes, every negative act committed someone in that group can be seen as confirming the prejudice. Even a minor social offense committed by a member of the ethnic group, like crossing the street outside the crosswalk or talking too loudly on a bus, could confirm the prejudice.

While prejudice often originates outside experience, it isn’t instinctive. Prejudice—as well as the stereotypes that lead to it and the discrimination that stems from it—is most often taught and learned. The teaching arrives in many forms, from direct instruction or indoctrination, to observation and socialization. Movies, books, charismatic speakers, and even a desire to impress others can all support the development of prejudices.

A van and a car are involved in an accident in a parking lot. The van has a smashed front and a flat tire, and glass is on the ground.

Figure 1. Stereotypes and prejudices are persistent and apply to almost every category of people. They are also subject to confirmation bias, in which any bit of supporting evidence gives a person more confidence in their belief. For example, if you think older people are bad drivers, every time you see an accident involving an older driver, it’s likely to increase your confidence in your stereotype. Even if you hear the statistics that younger drivers cause more accidents than older drivers, the fulfillment of your stereotype is difficult to overcome. (Credit: Chris Freser/flickr)

Watch It

Watch this clip and consider how the media can shape the stories that are told and reaffirm stereotypes and prejudices. Note that this media coverage advances a prejudice that Black men (and even young boys) are violent and/or prone to aggression.

Whitewashing and the Academy Awards

The 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards brought attention to Hollywood’s practice of whitewashing, or casting white characters in historically non-white roles. Soon after the 2015 nominations were announced, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending, where a number of people pointed out that this was in fact the second time in 20 years that the nominations list featured exclusively white actors. But pull back the Academy’s plush red carpet a little further, and one finds it was the fifth time in 30 years this has happened.[1] Pull it back even further and one finds that in the years between 1927 and 2012, 99 percent of women who have won “Best Actress” have been white, and the same is true for 91 percent of men who have won “Best Actor.”

The charge leveled against the Oscars is of racism; that consciously or not, members of the Academy consistently fail to appreciate and honor the work of non-white actors. The basis for the charge is that there have been enough nominations and enough awards given to detect institutional discrimination or systemic biases that resulted in real consequences for minorities in film. That is, if Oscars were awarded like lottery winnings, by sheer chance alone non-white actors would take home a more proportionate share of the little statues, so there is cause to believe that somehow the creep of racial bias is contaminating the nomination process. The fact that 94 percent of voting members are white doesn’t exactly ease fears that the Academy is playing racial favorites.


While prejudice refers to biased thinking, discrimination consists of actions against a group of people. Discrimination can be based on race, ethnicity, age, religion, health, and other categories. For example, discrimination based on race or ethnicity can take many forms, from unfair housing practices such as redlining to biased hiring systems. Overt discrimination has long been part of U.S. history. In the late nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for business owners to hang signs that read, “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply.” And southern Jim Crow laws, with their “Whites Only” signs, exemplified overt discrimination that is not tolerated today.

Discrimination also manifests in different ways. The scenarios above are examples of individual discrimination, but other types exist. Institutional discrimination occurs when a societal system has developed with embedded disenfranchisement of a group, such as the U.S. military’s historical nonacceptance of minority sexualities (the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy reflected this norm).

While the forms and severity of discrimination vary significantly, they are considered forms of oppression. Institutional discrimination can also include the promotion of a group’s status, such as in the case of privilege, which are the benefits people receive simply by being part of the dominant group.

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Most people have some level of privilege, whether it has to do with health, ability, race, or gender. When discussing race, the focus is often on White privilege, which are the benefits people receive by being a White person or being perceived to be a White person. Most White people are willing to admit that non-White people live with a set of disadvantages due to the color of their skin. But until individuals understand how their identities are advantaged by bias and privilege, it is difficult for them to understand how others who do not share the same identities may be disadvantaged. Why not? Some may feel it lessens their accomplishments, others may feel a degree of guilt, and still others may feel that admitting to privilege makes them seem like a bad or mean person. But White (or other dominant) privilege is an institutional condition, not a personal one. It exists whether the person asks for it or not. In fact, a pioneering thinker on the topic, Peggy McIntosh, noted that she didn’t recognize privilege because, in fact, it was not based in meanness. Instead, it was an “invisible weightless knapsack full of special provisions” that she didn’t ask for, yet from which she still benefitted (McIntosh 1989). As the reference indicates, McIntosh’s first major publication about White privilege was released in 1989; many people have only become familiar with the term in recent years.

Prejudice and discrimination can overlap and intersect in many ways. To illustrate, here are four examples of how prejudice and discrimination can occur. Unprejudiced nondiscriminators are open-minded, tolerant, and accepting individuals. Unprejudiced discriminators might be those who unthinkingly practice sexism in their workplace by not considering women or gender nonconforming people for certain positions that have traditionally been held by men. Prejudiced nondiscriminators are those who hold racist beliefs but don’t act on them, such as a racist store owner who serves minority customers. Prejudiced discriminators include those who actively make disparaging remarks about others or who perpetuate hate crimes.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about white privilege.

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Racism is a stronger type of prejudice and discrimination used to justify inequalities against individuals by maintaining that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others; it is a set of practices used by a racial dominant group to maximize advantages for itself by disadvantaging racial minority groups. Such practices have affected wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, infant mortality and much more (Race Forward 2021).

Broadly, individuals belonging to minority groups experience both individual racism and systemic racism during their lifetime. While reading the following some of the common forms of racism, ask yourself, “Am I a part of this racism?” “How can I contribute to stop racism?”

  • Individual or Interpersonal Racism refers to prejudice and discrimination executed by individuals consciously and unconsciously that occurs between individuals. Examples include telling a racist joke and believing in the superiority of White people.
  • Systemic Racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, is systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages racial minority groups. Systemic racism occurs in organizations as discriminatory treatments and unfair policies based on race that result in inequitable outcomes for White people over people of color. For example, a school system where students of color are distributed into underfunded schools and out of the higher-resourced schools.
  • Racial Profiling is a type of systemic racism that involves the singling out of racial minorities for differential treatment, usually harsher treatment. The disparate treatment of racial minorities by law enforcement officials is a common example of racial profiling in the United States. For example, a study on the Driver’s License Privilege to All Minnesota Residents from 2008 to 2010 found that the percentage of Latinos arrested was disproportionally high (Feist 2013). Similarly, the disproportionate number of Black men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes reflect racial profiling.
  • Historical Racism is economic inequality or social disparity caused by past racism. For example, African-Americans have had their opportunities in wealth, education and employment adversely affected due to the mistreatment of their ancestors during the slavery and post-slavery period (Wilson 2012).
  • Cultural Racism occurs when the assumption of inferiority of one or more races is built into the culture of a society. For example, the European culture is considered supposedly more mature, evolved and rational than other cultures (Blaut 1992). A study showed that White and Asian American students with high GPAs experience greater social acceptance while Black and Native American students with high GPAs are rejected by their peers (Fuller-Rowell and Doan 2010).
  • Colorism is a form of racism, in which someone believes one type of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group. For example, if an employer believes a Black employee with a darker skin tone is less capable than a Black employee with lighter skin tone, that is colorism. Studies suggest that darker skinned African Americans experience more discrimination than lighter skinned African Americans (Herring, Keith, and Horton 2004; Klonoff and Landrine 2000).
  • Color-Avoidance Racism (sometimes referred to as “colorblind racism”) is an avoidance of racial language by European-Americans that the racism is no longer an issue, which is generally professed as, “I don’t see race–I see everyone as equal.” The U.S. cultural narrative that typically focuses on individual racism fails to recognize systemic racism. It has arisen since the post-Civil Rights era and supports racism while avoiding any reference to race (Bonilla-Silva (2015). The vast majority of Americans (some sociologists suggest up to three-quarters) profess to be “color blind,” which sociologists see as deeply problematic because it fails to recognize the social reality of minority groups in the U.S.

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Racial Tensions in the United States

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 illustrates racial tensions in the United States as well as the overlap between prejudice, discrimination, and institutional racism. On that day, Brown, a young unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. During the incident, Wilson directed Brown and his friend to walk on the sidewalk instead of in the street. While eyewitness accounts vary, they agree that an altercation occurred between Wilson and Brown. Wilson’s version has him shooting Brown in self-defense after Brown assaulted him, while Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown also present at the time, claimed that Brown first ran away, then turned with his hands in the air to surrender, after which officer Wilson shot him repeatedly (Nobles and Bosman 2014). Three autopsies independently confirmed that Brown was shot six times (Lowery and Fears 2014). In 2015, an investigation conducted by Eric Holder, the head of the Department of Justice under Barack Obama, concluded that there were no credible witness accounts to support that officer Wilson had shot Michael Brown while Brown was attempting to surrender[2].

The shooting focused attention on a number of race-related tensions in the United States. First, members of the predominantly Black community viewed Brown’s death as the result of a white police officer racially profiling a Black man (Nobles and Bosman 2014). In the days after, it was revealed that only three members of the town’s fifty-three-member police force were Black (Nobles and Bosman 2014). The national dialogue shifted during the next few weeks, with some commentators pointing to a nationwide sedimentation of racial inequality and identifying redlining in Ferguson as a cause of the unbalanced racial composition in the community, in local political establishments, and in the police force (Bouie 2014). Redlining is the practice of routinely refusing mortgages for households and businesses located in predominantly minority communities, while sedimentation of racial inequality describes the intergenerational impact of both practical and legalized racism that limits the abilities of Black people and other racial minorities to accumulate wealth.

Ferguson’s racial imbalance may explain in part why, even though in 2010 only about 63 percent of its population was Black, in 2013 Blacks were detained in 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests (Missouri Attorney General’s Office 2014). In addition, de facto segregation in Ferguson’s schools, a race-based wealth gap, urban sprawl, and a Black unemployment rate three times that of the white unemployment rate worsened existing racial tensions in Ferguson, while also reflecting nationwide racial inequalities (Bouie 2014).

TrayVon Martin

On the evening of February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancée in the Sanford, Florida gated community where his father’s fiancée lived. Trayvon left her home on foot to buy a snack from a nearby convenience store. As he was returning, George Zimmerman, the community’s neighborhood watch program coordinator, noticed him. In light of a recent rash of break-ins, Zimmerman called the police to report a person acting suspiciously, which he had done on many other occasions. The 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, but soon after Zimmerman and Martin had a physical confrontation. According to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, and in the ensuing scuffle Martin was shot and killed (CNN Library 2014).

Two photographs depict people holding signs at a rally in protest of the death of Trayvon Martin. An African American woman in the photograph on the left holds a sign with the text 'one million hoodie march for Trayvon Martin,' in one hand, and a bag of skittles in the other. A young African American girl in the photograph on the right holds a sign with the text 'My mother taught me that just like that bag of skittles, all colors should be able to co-exist!!'

Figure 2. Do you think race played a role in Trayvon Martin’s death or in the public reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest George Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? (Photo courtesy of Ryan Vaarsi/flickr)

A public outcry followed Martin’s death. Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law immediately came into the center of a national debate on 2nd Amendment rights and self-defense. Zimmerman was not arrested until April 11, when he was charged with second-degree murder by special prosecutor Angela Corey. In the ensuing trial, he was found not guilty (CNN Library 2014).

The shooting, the public response, and the trial that followed offer a snapshot of the sociology of race. Do you think race played a role in Martin’s death or in the public’s reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male, or on his later acquittal? Does society fear Black men, leading to self-defense justifications with unarmed youth? What about the role of the media? Was there a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion? If you were a member of the jury, would you have convicted George Zimmerman?

In 2020, racial inequality and tensions again rose to the forefront of American lives and media attention following the deaths of several unarmed Black men and women. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. Arbery had been pursued, confronted, and killed by two white residents, a father and son.

On March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers knocked down the apartment door of 26-year old African American Breonna Taylor, serving a no-knock search warrant for drug suspicions. Police fired several shots during the encounter which led to her death. Her boyfriend who was present at the time had called 911 and said, “someone kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Protests were held in Louisville with calls for police reform.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, to which was later added second-degree murder; the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. On April 20, 2021, Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges.

Floyd’s death triggered demonstrations and protests in over 2,000 U.S. cities and around the world against police brutality, police racism, and lack of police accountability. In early June, the Minneapolis City Council took action to ban chokeholds and require police officers to intervene against the use of excessive force by other officers. Amidst protests to “defund to police” Minneapolis also voted for an intent to replace the police department with a “new community-based system of public safety.” Other cities announced similar plans to re-examine their police departments, such as the city of Atlanta, following the killing of Rayshard Brooks on June 12, 2020. Brooks had fallen asleep in a car, blocking a fast-food drive-through lane. After ensuring Brooks was not armed, the officers conducted about a 40-minute questioning and breathalyzer exam that led to an arrest attempt and scuffle using a taser. Brooks ran away and was shot twice in the back by Officer Garrett Rolfe. While Brooks was dying on the ground, Officer Rolfe kicked him, and Officer Brosnan, another officer on duty at that time, stepped on his shoulder. Neither officer provided immediate medical aid.[3][4]

How to Be an Antiracist

Almost all mainstream voices in the United States oppose racism. Despite this, racism is prevalent in several forms. For example, when a newspaper uses people’s race to identify individuals accused of a crime, it may enhance stereotypes of a certain minority. Another example of racist practices is racial steering, in which real estate agents direct prospective homeowners toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race.

Racist attitudes and beliefs are often more insidious and harder to pin down than specific racist practices. They become more complex due to implicit bias (also referred to as unconscious bias) which is the process of associating stereotypes or attitudes towards categories of people without conscious awareness – which can result in unfair actions and decisions that are at odds with one’s conscious beliefs about fairness and equality (Osta and Vasquez 2021). For example, in schools we often see “honors” and “gifted” classes quickly filled with White students while the majority of Black and Latino students are placed in the lower track classes. As a result, our mind consciously and unconsciously starts to associate Black and Latino students with being less intelligent, less capable. Osta and Vasquez (2021) argue that by placing the student of color on a lower and less rigorous track, we reproduce the inequity, and the vicious cycle of structural racism and implicit bias continues.

A cycle is depicted. At the center are implicit bias and structural racism, with arrows circling in order to show they connect. Around them are the three groups of words. The first is priming, associations and assumptions, and it is described by words saying that dominant narratives about race coupled with racialized structural arrangements by race all prime us to beelove that people of color are inferior to White people. The second is history, policies, practices, and its description is that race is created to justify enslaving people from Africa. Politics and practices that consolidate and protect power bestow unearned economic, cultural, and political advantage to people called White and disadvantage to people of color. The third is inequitable outcomes and racial disparities. Inequitable outcomes and experiences resulting from policy decisions in health, housing, employment, education, and life expectancy.

Figure 3. Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization (Osta and Vasquez 2021)

If everyone becomes antiracist, breaking the vicious cycle of structural racism and implicit bias may not be far away. To be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness (Kendi 2019). Proponents of anti-racism indicate that we must work collaboratively within ourselves, our institutions, and our networks to challenge racism at local, national, and global levels. The practice of anti-racism is everyone’s ongoing work that everyone should pursue at least the following (Carter and Snyder 2020):

  • Recognizing and understanding how bias, privilege, and racism work is important to creating a more equitable and anti-racist society.
  • Identify racist policies, practices, and procedures and replace them with antiracist policies, practices, and procedures.

Anti-racism need not be confrontational in the sense of engaging in direct arguments with people, feeling terrible about your privilege, or denying your own needs or success. In fact, many people who are a part of a minority group acknowledge the need for allies from the dominant group (Melaku 2020). It is important to recognize and understand how bias and privilege work in order to better understand one another.

We cannot erase racism simply by enacting laws to abolish it, because it is embedded in our complex reality that relates to educational, economic, criminal, political, and other social systems. Importantly, everyone can become antiracist by making conscious choices daily. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do (Carter and Snyder 2020).

What does it mean to you to be an “anti-racist”? How do you see the recent events or protests in your community, country, or somewhere else? Are they making any desired changes?

The Confederate Flag vs. the First Amendment

A photo of the Confederate flag hanging on a flagpole

Figure 4. To some, the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride in Southern history. To others, it is a grim reminder of a degrading period of the United States’ past. (Photo courtesy of Eyeliam/flickr)

In January 2006, two girls walked into Burleson High School in Texas carrying purses that displayed large images of Confederate flags. School administrators told the girls that they were in violation of the dress code, which prohibited apparel with inappropriate symbolism or clothing that discriminated based on race. To stay in school, they’d have to have someone pick up their purses or leave them in the office. The girls chose to go home for the day but then challenged the school’s decision, appealing first to the principal, then to the district superintendent, then to the U.S. District Court, and finally to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Why did the school ban the purses, and why did it stand behind that ban, even when being sued? Why did the girls, identified anonymously in court documents as A.M. and A.T., pursue such strong legal measures for their right to carry the purses? The issue, of course, is not the purses; it is the Confederate flag that adorns them. The parties in this case join a long line of people and institutions that have fought for their right to display it, saying such a display is covered by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. In the end, the court sided with the district and noted that the Confederate flag carried symbolism significant enough to disrupt normal school activities.

While many young people in the United States like to believe that racism is mostly in the country’s past, this case illustrates that the symbols and iconography associated with the history of slavery are still potently meaningful. If the Confederate flag is synonymous with slavery, is there any place for its display in modern society? Those who fight for their right to display the flag say such a display should be covered by the First Amendment: the right to free speech. But others say the flag is equivalent to hate speech, which is not covered by the First Amendment. Do you think that displaying the Confederate flag should be considered free speech or hate speech?

Further Research

Think It Over

  • How do redlining and racial steering contribute to institutionalized racism?
  • Give an example of stereotyping that you see in everyday life. Explain what would need to happen for this to be eliminated.
  • Consider this video example “Why I’m Not Buying Adele’s 25” of why some say that white soul singers have an unfair advantage over Black singers. Give three examples of white privilege. Do you agree or disagree with the argument? Can you give any other examples of white privilege?


a form of prejudice based on the belief that one type of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group
color-blind racism:
the belief that one doesn’t “see” race
prejudiced action against a group of people
institutional racism:
racism embedded in social institutions
biased thought based on flawed assumptions about a group of people
racial steering:
the act of real estate agents directing prospective homeowners toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race
racial profiling:
the use by law enforcement by looking at race alone when determining whether to stop and detain
a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that are used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others
the practice of routinely refusing mortgages for households and business located in predominately minority communities
sedimentation of racial inequality:
the intergenerational impact of de facto (a matter of custom) and de jure (a matter of law) racism that limits the abilities of Black people to accumulate wealth
oversimplified generalizations about groups of people
white privilege:
the benefits people automatically receive simply by being part of the dominant group

  1. Griffiths, Kadeen. "The 2015 Oscar Nominees are the Whitest in 17 Years & We're to Blame." Bustle. January 15, 2015. Accessed October 9, 2019.
  3. Ortiz, Aimee. "What to Know About the Death of Rayshard Brooks." New York Times. May 6, 2021.
  4. Browne, Malachy; Kelso, Christina; and Marcolini, Barbara. "How Rayshard Brooks Was Fatally Shot by the Atlanta Police." New York Times. May 5, 2021.