Attribution Theory and Racism

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri show how important it is to solve America’s problem with racism. Racist attitudes and behavior are counter to American ideals, and our Constitutional principle of social equality. However, in order to stop the problem of racism, we must first understand what it is, and why it has been perpetuated for so long in our country.

In late November 2014, after a lengthy deliberation, a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict a white policeman for the murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown, a black man who had been killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during a police stop. The grand jury came to their decision based on evaluation of evidence, which they felt was insufficient to prove the police officer negligently killed the man.

On a daily basis prior to the grand jury decision, U.S. media outlets consistently reported the theme that Officer Wilson may have killed the man for racial reasons – in other words: simply because Brown was a black man. Various news stories hurled accusations of racism and police brutality, with very little reporting to counter those assertions. This type of biased reporting seems to be the rule in America. Because of this media bias, many legal scholars were surprised by the fairness of the grand-jury process, and the ultimate decision to not indict despite the seemingly overwhelming pressure to do so (Howell, 2014).

Ferguson Hands Up Photo Gallery

After the grand jury decision, angry black citizens took to the streets to protest and riot. Original stories suggested Brown had been gunned down while his hands were raised in surrender. So-called “civil rights” advocates like Rev. Al Sharpton, promoted this racist angle. However, subsequent information revealed “eyewitness” accounts of that version of the event were fabricated, and other evidence suggested Brown had attacked the officer (Lieb & Mohr, 2014). Despite the evidence that Wilson had not negligently gunned-down Brown, some protesters maintained the racial theme.

“This is not about one boy getting shot in the street, but about the hundreds just like him who have received the same callous and racially-influenced treatment,” said Oakland, California, protester Gabe Johnson, a middle school teacher. “So ultimately, no, it doesn’t matter at all if somehow we can say for sure whether this one young man really said these words [of surrender] or had his hands up” (Lieb & Mohr, 2014).

So why did these people continue to push a racial agenda, even when they were presented evidence to the contrary? Why did people continue to focus on racial differences despite the compelling social need to heal the racial divide? Are our thoughts about racism informed by inaccurate facts and media bias? The answers to those questions might reside in how people are taught to define and prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Additionally, research based on Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory might offer insights into why subscribe to negative racial themes, and unwittingly use biased information to make their judgments about others.

Defining the terms we would use in a social psychology intervention to reduce racism is very important to coming to a collective understanding of the race problem in America, so therefore I attempt to do that here. According to individual-rights advocate and author Walter Hudson (2012), prejudice, bigotry, and racism have distinct meanings, and should not be used interchangeably.

Prejudice – or pre-judgment – is something we all use to protect ourselves from harm and danger. We tend to make assumptions about people or situations based on our own limited (and sometimes flawed) experience or learning. For example we “rationally inculcate [prejudice] in our children” when we tell them to watch out for strangers. We know that all strangers aren’t bad, but we tell our children to watch out nonetheless because some strangers will hurt children. Hudson (who happens to be black) says, “[h]ow a person looks  is one of the first and most effective means by which we determine them to be strange.” Similarly, when a woman walks down a dark alley, and sees shifty looking men congregating there, she will undoubtedly use her prejudice to make a snap judgment as to whether those men might be dangerous or not. There is not necessarily a racial component to prejudice, and to say someone who is prejudiced is also racist is not accurate. The real lesson here is that we learn from a young age to discern differences. What we teach our children about those differences can be crucial to how they view their world vis-à-vis racism.


Further, bigotry can be defined as “the irrational maintenance of a prejudice in light of evidence to the contrary. Bigotry can be informed by a multitude of factors, of which race is only one. Racism is what we call bigotry informed by race” (Hudson, 2012). Hudson believes that “[t]hese distinctions are important in any intellectually honest discussion of race relations. When prejudice, bigotry, and racism are used interchangeably, it is evidence that the discussion is not honest” (Hudson, 2012). It is clear that the media and academia does not always engage in honest discussion with our society, and they often skew the facts to further an agenda. This is clearly evidenced in concepts such as “white privilege,” the suggestion that only whites can be racist, or the belief that a necessary component of racism requires a defined power structure. Certainly, a majority can discriminate against a minority, but Hudson contends, “[t]he notion of “white privilege” is itself a racist sentiment. To assume that all whites have an inherent leg up on the rest of society is as irrational as assuming all blacks are somehow inferior. Indeed, the sentiments are one and the same…” (Hudson, 2012).

How we view race is a matter of perception. Our belief of whether or not we are being judged based on our race can affect the way we feel about a situation. A study has shown that “[b]lacks were more likely to attribute negative feedback to prejudice than positive feedback and were more likely to attribute both types of feedback to prejudice when they could be seen by the [evaluator]” (Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, & Major, 1991). This study shows that black people do not attribute negative values to themselves because of their own skin color, but instead because of their belief that white people think badly of them. This cognition is unfortunately taught to children at an early age. I am not suggesting racism is a figment of a black person’s imagination only – I know white people have done bad things to blacks because of their skin color, and therefore there are some legitimate reasons to have prejudice against whites – I only suggest that a child who learns this bias early on may be substantially more prone to making faulty racial stereotypes than children who are not taught this bias.

Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory postulates that people have a need to make accurate evaluations of themselves, and inevitably compare themselves to other people in making those evaluations. Later work using Festinger’s theory found that people are greatly influenced by their social environment. Studies indicate that when people compare themselves with others of the same race, those comparisons have a greater impact on a person’s behavior and self-esteem than comparisons made with people of different races (Wood, 1989). This seems to show that people closely identify who they are by their own skin color. Once gain, the emphasis on skin color is learned.


People define themselves, and the world around them, based on what they see and learn. We do this initially as children when we compare ourselves to others. Some people are more or less intelligent than we are, and we notice. We perceive that others are stronger or prettier than we are. We notice that some people have different skin color than we have. We categorize all these attributes, and decide what those things mean based on our experience and learning. If we are taught that all white people think they are better than us, then what how does that affect us? If we are told that all white police officers shoot innocent black kids, then how does that affect our worldview, and our understanding of racism?

With this in mind, it seems the only way we can reduce racism is to deliberately re-frame our children’s understanding of the relative insignificance of skin color in defining who each of us are as individuals. This will mean we have to stop placing such an emphasis on race in every aspect of our society. We have to move towards a more “color-blind” society by removing racial tags and identifiers on official documents. We have to eliminate cultural segregation, and stop defining ourselves by homogenous racial groups. We have to stop using accusations of racism so loosely – not all discrimination is due to the color of a person’s skin. We have to stop treating others differently because they look differently than us. Until we do all these things (and more), and teach our children to do the same, racism will certainly continue to be a problem for decades to come.


Crocker, J., Voelkl, K., Testa, M., & Major, B. (1991). Social stigma: The affective consequences of attributional ambiguity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 218-228

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.

Howell, K. (2014). Legal scholars praise Ferguson grand jury for Retrieved from

Hudson, W. (2012). 8 Ways Blacks Perpetuate Racism and the Only Way to Thwart It. Retrieved from

Lieb, D.A. & Mohr, H. (2014). For some, location of Brown’s hands irrelevant. Associated Press. Retrieved from]

Wood, J. (1989). Theory and Research Concerning Social Comparisons of Personal Attributes. Psychological Bulletin. 106:2. 231-248.

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