What is racism?
Individual racism is a personal belief in the superiority of one’s race over another. It is linked to racial prejudice and discriminatory behaviors, which can be an expression of implicit and explicit bias.
Institutionalized racism is a system of assigning value and allocating opportunity based on skin color. It unfairly privileges some individuals and groups over others and influences social institutions in our legal, educational, and governmental systems. It is reflected in disparities in, but not limited to, wealth, income, justice, employment, housing, medicine, education, and voting. It can be expressed implicitly or explicitly and occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based on race.
Discrimination continues to be a source of stress for the majority of Black Americans. Two in 3 Black adults (67%) cite discrimination as a significant source of stress in their life, compared with 55% of Black adults who cited this in May–June. More than 3 in 4 Black adults (78%) agree that being their race is difficult in today’s society
Working together against racism:
When psychologist Milo Dodson, PhD, traveled to Wisconsin to direct hip-hop artist Common’s Dreamers & Believers Summer Camp for youth in 2013, he was still scrambling to finish his dissertation. But after a few late nights of writing, Dodson realized his doctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—on race-related stress, the N-word and racial identity development—was highly relevant to his campers, black youth from Chicago. So he began weaving it into their nightly fireside chats.
Dodson led conversations among 30 or so boys about what it means to be black and how race-related barriers and values shape their experience—for instance, their interactions with law enforcement officers.
“It quickly became clear how critical it is to use research and how applicable research is when brought straight into the community,” he says.
Historically, psychological research has been used both to fight and to perpetuate racism. In 1954, a “friend of the court” brief highlighting the damaging effects of segregation, including the seminal doll study by psychologists Kenneth B. Clark, PhD, and Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, was a key piece of evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education case that ultimately led to the desegregation of public schools. Yet psychological research has also been exploited to promote racist ideologies, for instance, through efforts to tie race to intelligence (Neisser, U., et al., American Psychologist, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1996).
“When it comes to racism, psychologists have moved the needle both in very positive ways and unfortunately also in some harmful ways,” says Shawn Jones, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies racism-related stress. “We as a field now have a responsibility to be on the right side more often than not.”
“Racism can be a nefarious stressor that impacts us individually, interpersonally, institutionally and structurally,” Jones says, “which is why addressing it requires psychologists to work at a variety of levels.”
The work involves partnering with experts from other disciplines, including public health professionals, sociologists and psychiatrists, all of whom bring specialized knowledge to the table.