Prejudice, bigotry and racism

June 22nd, 2015

Think of prejudice as a pre-judgment, staking claim to a point of view that is judgment without sufficient data or knowledge. But prejudice is typically misjudgment as well. As Gordon Allport used to say, it is “being down on what you are not up on.”

Bigotry occurs when a host of misjudgments takes on a pattern of interrelated reinforcements that shapes the attitudes, the dispositions, the structure of feelings, the concepts and thoughts and the practices of a person or people. In bigotry these patterns usually are born in a community so that they are formed early and reinforced in the close relations of a primary form of life.

Furthermore, this bigotry has an obsessive and compulsive energy that consumes people, relentless in its focus of their attention and engagement. The language of hate and the practices of denigration and distortion pervade a people, holding them captive to a mindless and crazed ideology that seeks expression in avenues of discrimination, segregation, oppression and often destructive and violent action.

Racism is prejudice and bigotry plus power, meaning by that that these misjudgments and bigoted expressions are backed up in the laws, policies and institutions of a society. In these terms racism is systemic and structural, built into the culture, the infrastructure and the economic and political arrangements of a society.

But racism can be subtle in its vocabulary and descriptions. It can use language that sounds neutral in terms of bigotry but is understood by people as conveying, for example, messages about classes, races, women, and gays and lesbians. Prejudiced and bigoted people have an acute capacity to hear these messages, but meanwhile a wider society can also hear these communications as ways to advance its own privilege without taking an explicit prejudicial appearance, at least in their more overt and bigoted expressions.

It is in a setting like this that a 21-year-old man can go into a church and — after sitting for an hour in a Bible study and prayer group — shoot and kill nine people and still have the presence of mind to allow one person to live so that she might tell others what occurred. This does not happen as simply the work of a prejudiced and bigoted individual. Such a young man is not relieved of responsibility for such a terrorist act, but he operates in a far wider and more profound systemic context of prejudice, bigotry and racism.


Tex Sample is the author of " A Christian Justice for the Common Good," coming in spring 2016 from Abingdon Press.

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