Humanity in 2020 stands at the pinnacle of social advancement. Since 1900, we dramatically increased average life expectancy, reduced global poverty, expanded democracy and citizenry empowerment, and created then proliferated technologies increasing our social connectedness across vast distances.
Yet despite the myriad of societal advances in the past 120 years, prejudice remains a blight on humankind. Prejudicial treatment of others serves as an obstacle and stumbling block to progress. Human prejudice, from a social cohesion perspective, brings real tangible problems for modern peaceful societies.
In a time when the world should come together to support each other during the Covid-19 pandemic, this past week saw the rearing of prejudice’s ugly head in Guangzhou in southern China, whereby people of African descent were kicked out of their homes, refused entry into restaurants, shunned on public transport, and lambasted in disgustingly racist terms on Chinese social media site Weibo with racist phrasing more similar to apartheid South Africa or the pre-civil rights-era American South than a modern society.
Researchers John Dovidio, Laurie Rudman, and Peter Glick show that racial prejudice stands as applying correct or incorrect generalisations of groups to all individuals in the group that can affect the individual favourably or, usually, harmfully.
From an evolutionary psychology perspective where ancient people lived in communities usually never bigger than 150 people in their entire orbit, prejudice served as a valuable survival technique of mental categorisation of objects, people, situations, and animals seen all around an individual.
Quick categorisation enabled the ancient human to quickly distinguish safety versus danger in a far more uncertain world than the modern era in which we live today. As an example, if out of the corner of one’s eye, they viewed a running lion, then instant categorisation ensued and labelled the creature a danger, created fear that could then lead to heightened attention given to the threat, and a subsequent thought-out solution found.
In building prejudice, psychologists Michael Hogg and Graham Vaughan delineate that people assign both central traits and peripheral traits to each person encountered through this quick categorisation. Humans categorise others’ traits based on whether they first see them as either good or bad from a social perspective and then second either good or bad from an intellectual perspective. So, we are constantly judging each other and sizing each other up on social and intellectual criteria.
Prejudice can lead to antisocial behaviours, discrimination, violence towards outgroup members, and lower social unity in times of crises like what is being seen in Guangzhou. In Guangzhou, many residents have categorised Africans as socially bad and intellectually bad. Once the brain makes this categorisation leap, individuals begin acting on their prejudices unless they intentionally stop.
But in the modern era, how do people stand to benefit from prejudicial opinions and actions against others? Humans can desire to dominate or control other people from an individual or group perspective. All societies have hierarchies comprised of ethnicity, religion, gender, age, among others.
From an individual perspective, utilising social dominance research, people can rank higher or lower on their social dominance orientation, called “SDO” in short. The higher their SDO score, the higher likelihood that an individual buys into prejudice stereotypes. Researchers Felicia Pratto, James Sidanius, Lisa Stallworth, and Bertram Malle developed famous SDO scales.
Please look at the following eight statements. Rate whether you feel each statement is a 1 for very negative or all the way up to 7 for very positive: Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups. In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups. It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.
To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups. If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems. It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom. Inferior groups should stay in their place. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.
Now, please total up all your numeric scores. If you scored 32 or higher, then you have a much higher likelihood of being prejudice, tribalist, or racist. If you scored 48 or above, then you classify as extreme on racist potential now or later in life if something triggers you to act on your prejudice.
The actions in Guangzhou seems to show that the residents moved rapidly up their individual SDO scores and began collectively acting out blatant racism.
Unfortunately, now that anti-African prejudice has swept the Chinese regional capital, it will take a lengthy time period to dissociate incorrect biases held by many of the area’s native residents.
The Chinese government must make even more explicit statements condemning such behaviour as not culturally appropriate, understand the influence of SDO on their citizens’ actions, enforce equality laws, and, in the absence of a free and fair press, instead promote pro-cultural and racial diversity through its massive propaganda machine.