Prejudice, discrimination and social norms

Race perceptions in America (CNN)
Race perceptions in America (CNN)

News: Donald Trump, the President of the United States, continues to make and post derogatory statements that are based on race, ethnicity, and gender (among other things).

The fact the the highest elected official in the United States, a position with immense influence in the U.S. and in other countries, makes these statements on a regular basis creates a norm–a standard, an “authoritative model” of behavior and conduct.

Human beings follow social norms. We particularly adhere to the norms of the groups we identify with. Many studies, as far back as the 1940’s and 1950’s, have shown how powerful this effect is. “Social norms are remarkably strong predictors of expressed prejudice. The acceptability of discriminatory acts and expressions of hostility also closely follow social norms.” “Social norms are strong predictors of expressions of prejudice-related attitudes.” “Individual tolerances [of racism, discrimination, etc.] solidly reflect group tolerances.”

So, does this mean that the U.S. especially is sinking back to a time when open expression of racial/gender/ethnic hostility was “normal” and was even codified by law?

Yes and no. “People reflect the social milieu in which they live.” Our world today is composed of many, many groups (political, ethnic, religious, business, academic, gender, and on and on)–each with their own social norms. The U.S. is not one big homogeneous set of “Americans” who all believe and act the same–it never has been. While there are certainly groups today who support the norms espoused by Mr. Trump, there are many other groups who adhere to norms that are very different, indeed, quite the opposite.

While a common American norm may always have been a myth, diversity in the United States has been a strength. In the absence of a unifying leader, it is even more important.

Learn more: Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization (Christian S. Crandall, et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002).

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