The Significance of Social Cognition in Determining Racial Ideology

As I read the section entitled “The Birth and Death of Slavery” in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the key role social cognition played in creating racial ideologies became abundantly clear.  As Alexander explains in her historical analysis of the creation of race in colonial America, a fledgling country had certain capitalist needs for an increase in land and an increase in labor; in order for these demands to be met, Native Americans were killed and forced off their land and blacks were brutally enslaved and exploited as a free labor source.  While these could have been deemed as “necessary” atrocities in the creation of America and left as is, as human beings we cannot commit these kinds of atrocities without rationalizing our behavior.  In the social psychology field, a common thread among social cognition theories is the human need to understand the world and furthermore to understand it as consistent and just (Jones, Dovidio & Vietze, 2014).  When events take place that violate these fundamental needs to understand the world, we feel physical discomfort and anxiety.  In order to alleviate this discomfort, people create explanations that make the world manageable according to the aforementioned criteria.  To apply this with the birth of race as a construct, Alexander explains that America’s need for land and subsequent killing of Native Americans coincided with more negative portrayals of them because, as Alexander explains, “eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race…” (Alexander, p. 23, 2012).  This analysis perfectly aligns with human need to see the world as just and consistent.  If Native Americans were viewed as equal people to American settlers, killing them and removing them for their land is unjust and violates an understanding of how we treat those we view as equal.  Therefore, it was essential for the settlers to reduce Native Americans in a way that provided justification for committing immoral acts against them.  This reduction and subsequent violence does not violate the principles of a just world, of consistency and of understanding.  Seemingly, this period of racial construction was largely contingent on the processes of social cognition.

These processes of social cognition are not unique to colonial Americans but rather affect the way we process the world throughout all periods of time.  While race is now a cemented construct in contemporary times, the future of the role of race in America is malleable.  Our need to see the world as just and consistent, however, creates a barrier to fruitful and honest discussions on the state of racial inequality today.  As a white person, acknowledging racism and personal privilege violates the idea of the world as just and consistent which makes understanding difficult. This can cause discussions on race to be anxiety provoking. How can we push past this anxiety in order to engage more people in conversations about race?

1 thought on “The Significance of Social Cognition in Determining Racial Ideology

  1. I think a step to push people into conversations about race is by doing as one of our earlier readings discussed–making racism our issue as white individuals. Obviously by this I do not mean making a person of color’s experienced belittled by a white person who claims to understand what instances of racism the person of color has experienced. I believe that the major issue in having conversations about racism is that people are so afraid of being caught as being ignorant that they will shy away from the conversation. Race is an identity that when approached in an inappropriate manner can have serious consequences for all parties involved. Therefore, I believe the most helpful way to create an open atmosphere for conversation is to promote education on the topics of race, much like our class.

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