Race, prejudice and stereotypes: APA report on preventing discrimination and promoting diversity

Discrimination creates substantial harm, for individuals and for U.S. society as a whole

The shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida has ignited anger and concerns nationwide about bias, prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, gun laws and gun violence. Public outrage continues to grow in response to the shooting.

Race, racism, perceptions of threat, stereotypes and discrimination are issues that psychological research has examined extensively, particularly at the individual level of social and interpersonal dynamics. It is unquestionable that discrimination creates substantial harm, for individuals and for U.S. society as a whole. Diversity on the other hand builds our strength and empowerment.

2011 APA President Dr. Melba J.T. Vasquez convened the APA Presidential Task Force on Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity to examine these issues. In February, the Council of Representatives received the final report of the task force: "Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity."

Discrimination affects many individuals and groups and diversity is a broad and complex issue. Within the broad issues examined by this report, here are a few highlights and key points:   

Systematic bias, stereotypes and discrimination exact an enormous toll on human capital 
  • Noticing differences is natural — judging them or not judging them can be learned. Prejudice can be blatant (name calling, hate crimes, genocide) or hidden (microaggressions or everyday slights practiced by individuals who do not consciously endorse stereotypes). 

  • Prejudice is manifested at individual, family and societal levels — the attitudes individuals hold are in the context of history, sociocultural practices, economic forces and sociological trends. 

  • People can have prejudiced thoughts without deliberate intent. However, even unconscious prejudice can be harmful. 

  • The norms and “ground rules” for talking about race hinder an honest and open discussion. Codes of silence, politeness and constraint keep people from talking in an honest, meaningful way about race.  

Recognizing, embracing and valuing inclusion and diversity is a pathway to greater strength
  • Diversity is a complex concept, poorly defined. However, as Nobel Laureate biologist E. O. Wilson articulates in his book "The Diversity of Life" (Wilson, 1992), diversity is fundamental to and the foundation of the survival and evolution of our species. 

  • Research tells us that organizations and groups that integrate talents, experience, backgrounds and perspectives are more likely to generate creative solutions to complex problems. 

  • Increasing demographic diversity is a start, but not sufficient. Diversity must be perceived as fundamental to core values and goals and relevant to the goal at hand, and organizations must recognize that the benefits of diversity may be quite different for those who “diversify” a setting and those who reflect the setting’s status quo. 

  • Strategies that successfully help to overcome prejudice include: intergroup contact, cooperative interaction and cooperative learning, interpersonal friendships and cross-group friendships, recategorization, dual identity or mutual intergroup differentiation, dynamic versus static theories of human nature, cognitive retraining, motivating self-regulatio and empathy for targets of prejudice.

Constructive dialogues on race are possible

Consistent efforts to increase internal motivation against bias and to increase awareness of implicit biases support constructive dialogues and encourage individuals to acknowledge and self-disclose personal challenges and fears, acknowledge the possibility of biased social upbringing and condition, and recognize and understand the manifestation and dynamics of difficult dialogues.

"Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity" summarizes research addressing these complex issues and provides recommendations in the context of APA’s Strategic Plan for education and training, public information, research, clinical practice and advocacy.