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 and Racism

Prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on experience. Instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience.

While prejudice is not necessarily specific to race, racism is a stronger type of prejudice used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others. It is also a set of practices used by a racial majority to disadvantage a racial minority. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of a racist organization. Its members’ belief in white supremacy has encouraged over a century of hate crime and hate speech.

Other types of racism are much more difficult to perceive. Institutional racism refers to the way in which racism is embedded in the fabric of society. For example, the disproportionate number of Black men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes may reflect racial profiling, a form of institutional racism in which the practice of law enforcement in determining whether to stop and detain someone is based on race alone. Color-blind racism refers to “contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics” (Bonilla-Silva, 2003), which is generally professed as, “I don’t see race–I see everyone as equal.” 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.

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.

Colorism is another kind of prejudice, in which someone believes one degree of skin tone is superior or inferior to another within a racial group. Studies suggest that darker-skinned African Americans experience more discrimination than lighter-skinned African Americans (Herring, Keith, and Horton 2004; Klonoff and Landrine 2000). At least one study suggested colorism affected racial socialization, with darker-skinned Black male adolescents receiving more warnings about the danger of interacting with members of other racial groups than did lighter-skinned Black male adolescents (Landor et al. 2013).

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 age, religion, health, and other indicators. Race-based laws against discrimination strive to address these social problems.

Discrimination based on race or ethnicity can take many forms, from unfair housing practices to biased hiring systems. Overt discrimination has long been a 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.

However, we cannot erase discrimination from our culture just by enacting laws to abolish it. Even if a magic pill managed to eradicate racism from each individual’s psyche, society itself would maintain it. Sociologist Émile Durkheim calls racism a social fact, meaning that it does not require the action of individuals to continue. The reasons for this are complex and relate to the educational, legal, economic, and political systems that exist in our society.

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For example, when a newspaper identifies by race 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.

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 females 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.

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).

Institutional discrimination can also include the promotion of a group’s status, as in the case of white privilege, which refers to the automatic benefits people receive simply by being part of a dominant group. While most white people are willing to admit that nonwhite people live with a set of disadvantages due to the color of their skin, very few are willing to acknowledge the benefits they receive.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about white privilege.

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Racial Tensions in the United States

A photo of golfer Tiger Woods holding his golf club up in the air on the golf course.
Figure 1. Golfer Tiger Woods has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage. Individuals with multiple ethnic backgrounds are becoming more common. (Photo courtesy of familymwr/flickr)

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 Johnson shot him repeatedly (Nobles and Bosman 2014). Three autopsies independently confirmed that Brown was shot six times (Lowery and Fears 2014).

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.

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, an unarmed 27-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by an Atlanta Police Department officer, Garrett Rolfe, while running away from the officers following a scuffle after a complaint about Brooks asleep in a car blocking a fast-food drive-through lane.

Multiple Identities

Prior to the twentieth century, racial intermarriage (referred to as miscegenation) was extremely rare, and in many places, illegal. In the later part of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century, attitudes have changed for the better. While the sexual subordination of slaves did result in children of mixed race, these children were usually considered Black, and therefore, property. There was no concept of multiple racial identities, with the possible exception of the Creole. Creole society developed in the port city of New Orleans, where a mixed-race culture grew from French and African inhabitants. Unlike in other parts of the country, “Creoles of color” had greater social, economic, and educational opportunities than most African Americans.

Increasingly during the modern era, the removal of miscegenation laws and a trend toward equal rights and legal protection against racism have steadily reduced the social stigma attached to racial exogamy (exogamy refers to marriage outside a person’s core social unit). It is now common for the children of racially mixed parents to acknowledge and celebrate their various ethnic identities. Golfer Tiger Woods, for instance, has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage; he jokingly refers to his ethnicity as “Cablinasian,” a term he coined to combine several of his ethnic backgrounds. While this is the trend, it is not yet evident in all aspects of our society. For example, the U.S. Census only recently added more nuanced additional categories such as non-white Hispanic. A growing number of people chose multiple races to describe themselves on the 2010 Census, paving the way for the 2020 Census to provide yet more choices.

The Confederate Flag vs. the First Amendment

A photo of the Confederate flag hanging on a flagpole
Figure 3. 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

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  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.


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