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date: 04 March 2021

Racial Stereotyping in Political Decision Makingfree

  • Ray Block Jr.Ray Block Jr.Departments of Political Science and African American Studies, Pennsylvania State University


Simply defined, stereotypes are commonly-held beliefs about groups of people. Racial stereotypes are the widely shared perceptions that people have about certain social groups and the individuals who are members of those groups. To understand the large and growing literature on racial stereotypes, it is useful to organize this body of research by whether stereotypes are being explored as dependent variables or as independent variables. When the focus is on dependent variables, scholars investigate why racial stereotypes exist and how they work. Conversely, the work on stereotypes as independent variables emphasizes their influence on both attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. Special attention should also be paid to the stereotypes that are often applied to people who exist at the intersections of multiple racial, ethnic, gender, and sexuality groups (for example, those attributed female and non-binary persons of color).


Because of its implications for understanding American race relations, social scientists have been studying racial stereotypes (and the practice of stereotyping) for centuries. While Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice (1954) is recognized by many as one of the seminal books on the topic, Walter Lippmann introduced the concept of stereotypes in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, and treatises on American race relations date as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (originally published in 1835; de Tocqueville, 2003) and Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944).

Stereotypes have been defined in many ways (Gardner, 1994; Hamilton & Sherman, 1994). However, for the purposes of this article, racial stereotypes are the widely shared perceptions that people have about certain social groups and the individuals who are members of those groups (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986, p. 133; Hogg & Vaughan, 2002, p. 483; MacDonald & Zanna, 1998). Contrary to popular belief, stereotypes need not be overgeneralizations or oversimplifications. In fact, they are often complex and can depend on contextual cues. For example, images of African American protesters might conjure up negative perceptions in the minds of some people, while images of Black athletes may trigger positive evaluations (Mitchell, Nosek, & Banaji, 2003). Moreover, stereotypes don’t necessarily have to be negative in connotation, and some of them can actually be positive (Condor, 1988). But it is important to remember that, while stereotypes themselves can be benign in nature, the practice of stereotyping can (and often does) have harmful consequences. This is especially true when talking about race, for stereotypes that elevate the status of one group while diminishing the standing of others can lay the foundation for future prejudice and discrimination (Blum, 2004).

The goal of this encyclopedia entry is to discuss the sociopolitical psychology of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Although much of the focus will be on stereotypes of African Americans, the entry will provide a broader overview of the topic by exploring the stereotypes that are also applied to people of Asian and Latinx ancestry. Special attention will also be paid to the stereotypes that are often applied to people who exist at the intersections of multiple racial, ethnic, gender, and sexuality groups (e.g., those attributed female and non-binary persons of color). In so doing, it is helpful to organize the vast literature on stereotypes into two parts: stereotypes as dependent variables (i.e., research on their origins, psychological mechanisms, and contributing factors), and stereotypes as independent variables (i.e., research about the influence of stereotyping on people’s attitudes and actions).

Racial Stereotypes as Dependent Variables

When studying racial stereotypes as dependent variables, the goal is to examine not only why stereotypes exist, but also how they work in our minds and in our societies. The literature on these and related topics is vast, for it has been studied extensively by social scientists and humanists across a host of disciplines. It is therefore useful to sort this growing literature into two the following sub-categories: stereotypes as “cognition” and stereotypes as “culture.”

Racial Stereotypes (and Stereotyping) as Cognitive Processing

Why “Cognition” Scholars Believe Racial Stereotypes Exist

Stereotypes are sometimes automatic in the sense that (mis)representations of individuals and groups can happen unconsciously (Strobe & Insko, 1989). Stereotypes can also be psychologically advantageous. Since people are “cognitive misers” whose brains tends to seek solutions to problems that take the least psychic effort, stereotypes can serve as mental shortcuts (Fiske & Taylor, 2013; Hamilton & Sherman, 1994; Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Yzerbyt, Schadron, Leyens, & Rocher, 1994). It is tempting to assume that all stereotypes contain kernels of truth in the sense that they contain factual, albeit exaggerated, characterizations of individuals and groups (Abate & Berrien, 1967; Campbell, 1967; Judd & Park, 1993; McCauley, Stitt, & Segal, 1980; Swim 1994). But Steele (2011) reminds us that the degree to which people/groups act in accordance with racialized beliefs often reflects “stereotype threat” rather than the truth. Research on stereotype threat demonstrates that stereotypes can affect both the self-esteem and the academic performance of students of color (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Croizet & Claire, 1998; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Schmader & Johns, 2003; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). For instance, the observation that Asian students excel in math and science classes (or that female students are better in humanities and fine arts courses) stems not only from teachers’ expectations about members of these respective groups but also from students’ desire to live up to (or disconfirm) certain stereotypes. Despite their seemingly hard-wired and self-evidential foundations, stereotypes can be altered. They are shaped by a person’s surroundings, which makes them potentially changeable—even if such change is difficult to achieve (Catellani, Alberici, & Milesi, 2004; Hegarty & Pratto, 2001, 2004).

One approach to studying why racial stereotypes exist is to consider the inner workings of the human mind. The research on this social-cognitive approach views stereotypes as the byproduct of how individuals process information. As Augoustinos and Walker (1998, p. 629) note, stereotypes provide people with mental frameworks (often called schemas), and the tendency to stereotype stems from “an inevitable consequence of the psychological and cognitive need to categorize and simplify the social world” (see also Dovidio, Evans, & Tyler 1986; Fiske & Taylor, 2013; Hamilton & Sherman, 1996; Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994; Oakes et al., 1994; Yzerbyt et al., 1994). Hilton and Hippel (1996) say it best when they note that stereotypes exist because humans need them to meet the various and many demands of their social contexts. Stereotypic thinking, therefore, serves multiple purposes that reflect a variety of cognitive and motivational processes. Sometimes, stereotyping emerges as a way of simplifying the demands on the perceiver (Bodenhausen, Kramer, & Süsser, 1994; Macrae et al., 1994). Specifically, stereotypes make information processing easier by allowing the perceiver to rely on previously stored knowledge in place of incoming evidence, and, in extreme cases, racial stereotypes can persist even in the face of disconfirming information (Kunda & Oleson, 1995; Prentice & Carranza, 2004). Stereotypes can also emerge in response to environmental factors, such as varying social roles (cf. Eagly, 1995), group conflicts (Robinson & Schwartz, 2004), and differences in power (Fiske, 1993). Other times, stereotypes may come about as a way of justifying the status quo (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Sidanius, 1993), or in response to a person’s need for social identity (Abrams & Hogg, 1988).

How “Cognition” Scholars Believe Racial Stereotypes Work

Psychologists interested in the mental underpinnings of racial stereotypes explore how they are acquired, maintained, applied, and spread from person to person. The view that stereotypes are energy-saving cognitive devices is also prevalent among those who approach the topic from the perspective of “social categorization” (i.e., a process by which individuals place others into social groups). A consequence of our natural tendency to sort things into categories is that the distinctions drawn between groups of people often lead to subjective assessments of the individuals occupying those groups. For example, ingroup–outgroup thinking can nurture the belief that racial and ethnic minorities are lazy, aggressive, unintelligent, hypersexual, amoral, and so on (Allport, 1954; Brewer, 1999; Crisp & Hewstone, 2007; Fiske, Haslam, & Fiske, 1991; Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002; Stangor, Lynch, Duan, & Glas, 1992; Taylor, Fiske, Etcoff, & Ruderman, 1978). Once such ideas take hold, it is difficult—but again, not impossible—to shed them. And racial stereotypes are easily perpetuated, especially if racialized representations of others make us feel better about ourselves (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004) or help those in power to maintain social inequalities (Hunzaker, 2014).

Racial Stereotypes (and Stereotyping) as Cultural Phenomena

Why “Culture” Scholars Believe Racial Stereotypes Exist

Sociological approaches to studying racial stereotypes often attribute them to “culture” rather than “cognition.” A major sociological paradigm in this line of research is social learning theory, which posits that stereotypes are acquired either through the direct observation of group differences or from exposure to information that emphasize these differences (Bandura, 1977). Research confirms that some Whites view racial and ethnic minorities differently than they perceive members of their own group, regardless of whether the majority- and minority-group members deserve such assessments (Hutchings & Valentino, 2004; Krysan, 2000; Schuman, Steeh, & Bobo, 1985; Schuman, 1997). For example, scholars remarked upon the historical significance of having the first African American family in the White House (Block, 2011; Bobo & Dawson, 2009; Parker, Sawyer, & Towler, 2009), and it is hardly surprising that Barack and Michelle Obama were—and arguably still are—the targets of a host of negative racial stereotypes (Block & Haynes, 2015; Haynes & Block, 2019; Maxwell & Shields, 2014; Parker, 2016; Piston, 2010; Tesler, 2012, 2016; Tesler & Sears, 2010). Researchers chronicle instances in which the media and Obama’s opponents described him as being apelike (Puwar & Sharma, 2013), shiftless (O’Brien, 2013; Walker & Smithers, 2009), and ideologically extreme—the July 2008 cover of the magazine the New Yorker is perhaps the most egregious example (see Block & Onwunli, 2010; Caputi, 2008–2009).

The inverse of the “lazy” or “dangerous” Black man depictions were also prevalent during Obama (2008) campaign. Then-Senator Biden faced heavy scrutiny when referring to the president-elect as “articulate and bright,” and “clean and nice-looking”—terms often associated with the stereotype of the neatly coiffed, effete, and White-imitating “Black Dandy” (Cooper, 2008; Lewis, 2017; Sparks, 2009). Ellison (2008) recalls an exchange on the syndicated show, The McLaughlin Group, in which panelists debated the extent to which Barack Obama’s speaking style and international background compromised his racial authenticity. And Block (2017), notes in his personal reflection essay that it was Michelle Obama, who, because of her working-class upbringing and embeddedness within the nation’s racial culture, reassured African American voters that Barack Obama was indeed “Black enough.”

Speaking of Michelle Obama, the former First Lady recounts in her recent memoir some of the hyperpartisan and racially offensive rhetoric leveled against her (Obama, 2018). Three dominant and persistent characterizations of African American women are especially relevant: the obese, toadying, and kerchief-donning “Mammy” caregiver around whom White families feel safe; the “Sapphire,” who is overly loud and standoffish, particularly toward Black men; and the sexually alluring “Jezebel” who was lusted after by slave masters and resented by slave mistresses. These stereotypes existed long before Mrs. Obama moved into the White House (for in-depth discussions, see Collins, 1999, 2004; Green, 1998; Jewell, 1993; West, 2008), but they are nevertheless attributed to her—with varying degrees of success—by supporters and critics alike.

Sapphire stereotyping was common during the previous presidential administration, when the racial content in Michelle Obama’s undergraduate thesis and remarks she made on the campaign trail in 2008 raised concerns among pundits and voters about her patriotism (Madison, 2009). These concerns resurfaced when Kantor’s (2012) biography stoked rumors of dust-ups between the former First Lady and several members of the White House staff (Parks & Roberson, 2008), and journalists used innuendos (like Juan William’s description of Michelle Obama being “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress”) and satire (recall the front cover of the July 2008 issue of the New Yorker) to portray the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) as an angry and militant woman (Combs, 2013; Durr & Harvey Wingfield, 2011; Griffin, 2012; Joseph, 2011; McGinley, 2008; Williams, 2009). Stereotypes about Mrs. Obama’s physicality and sartorial choices stem from Jezebel-inspired narratives centered around the idea she did not look like the typical FLOTUS (Guererro, 2011), and are perhaps most apparent in a blog exchange between Kaplan (2008) and Peterson (2008) over the media’s fetishizing of the former First Lady’s body and fashion choices (see also Cooper, 2010; Fancy, 2014; Liwen, 2010; Quinlan, Bates, & Webb, 2012; Yermack, 2011).

While problematizing recent attempts by right-wing bloggers to liken the former First Lady to Aunt Jemima, the quintessential Mammy figure (see, e.g., Hobo1, 2011), Harris-Perry (2013) lauds Mrs. Obama’s allegedly anti-feminist decision to prioritize her family over her career as a testament to the former First Lady’s efforts to transcend the Mammy stereotype. Harris-Perry (2011) also appreciates the challenges Michelle Obama and other African Americans face while trying to meet the unrealistic and Mammy-related standard of the Strong Black Woman who bears in silence the role of parent, primary caregiver, and community leader (see also Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007, 2009).

How “Culture” Scholars Believe Racial Stereotypes Work

People learn from their social environments, acquiring ideas about themselves and others through repeated interactions with family members, personal and professional networks, educators, religious peers, the media, and so on. When considered from this “social learning” perspective, stereotypes are one of many components of a person’s socialization. Similarly, symbolic interactionists view society as the product of everyday interactions among individuals. According to this theory, people define their reality by attaching meaning and labels to everything, and the manner in which they make meaning in their social environment is shaped by the beliefs and actions of others (see Blumer, 1986; Snow, 2001). As Bandura (1977) notes, behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning (see also Bandura, 1969, 1978, 2001). Bandura and his colleagues apply this theory to their study of learned aggression in their famous “Bobo Doll” studies. In these studies, children were randomly assigned to experimental conditions in which adults either ignored, played nicely with, or hit an inflatable doll with a round and weighted bottom (which made the toy swing like a punching bag). The children who observed adults behaving violently were more likely to imitate that behavior later.

Perhaps more relevant to the study of racial stereotypes are the doll experiments done by Phillip and Mamie Clark. In these studies, children received two dolls that were identical except for their hair and skin color (one doll had “White” skin and blond hair, while the other had “Black” skin and dark hair). The experimenters asked the children a host of questions to gauge which doll the children believed was more appealing to play with. Not surprisingly, and regardless of the race of the child, White dolls were preferred over Black dolls (Clark & Clark, 1939, 1947, 1950). This pattern was so consistent that it not only provided a glimpse into how deeply rooted racial biases are among Whites, but it also helped to spark follow-up research on the negative impact of internalized negative racial perceptions on the self-esteem of African American children (see, e.g., Gray-Little & Hafdahl, 2000).

The sociological approaches complement the psychological ones, and, when combined, they bring the implications of racial stereotyping into sharper relief. We must therefore remind ourselves that the social dynamics of stereotypes, if allowed to go unchallenged, can coordinate the collective behaviors of individuals, and, ultimately, work to normalize a society’s power relations.

Racial Stereotypes as Independent Variables

As noted earlier, racial stereotypes are also studied as independent variables: the goal is not to explore why they exist and how they function; rather, this line of research seeks to assess the impact of racial stereotypes on a host of outcomes. It is beyond the scope of this encyclopedia entry to catalogue all the research on stereotypes as independent variables, but I will offer a handful of examples below. For simplicity’s sake, let’s organize them into attitudinal outcomes and behavioral outcomes.

Racial Stereotypes as Predictors of Political Attitudes

There is a wealth of scholarship showing that racial stereotypes can trigger, change, or amplify people’s policy perceptions, and, by extension, their policy expressions. Studies in criminal justice show that racial stereotypes influence how much crime people think is taking place in their communities (Quillian & Pager, 2001). Moreover, stereotypes about the criminality of African Americans and Latinos can contribute to negative biases in Whites’ attitudes about criminal justice policy (Gilliam, Valentino, & Beckmann, 2002; Graham & Lowrey, 2004; Hurwitz & Peffley, 1997). In addition to the topics of crime and punishment, negative racial stereotypes can make a person more inclined to express anti-minority attitudes when it comes to immigration (Burns & Gimpel, 2000; Lu & Nicholson-Crotty, 2010; Reyna, Dobria, & Wetherell, 2013) and social welfare policy (Feagin, 1972; Gans, 1995; Henry, Reyna, & Weiner, 2004; Hurwitz & Peffley, 1997; Johnson, Olivo, Gibson, Reed, & Ashburn-Nardo, 2009; Monahan, Shtrulis, & Givens, 2005; Peffley & Hurwitz, 2002; Peffley, Hurwitz, & Sniderman, 1997).

Another literature explores the role that racial stereotypes play on candidate evaluations. In addition to viewing candidates of color as being more ideologically liberal than White candidates, voters tend to assume that minority candidates care more than their White colleagues about racial issues (McDermott, 1998). Moreover, research on racial priming (see Iyengar, Hahn, Messing, & Bailenson, 2010; Valentino, Hutchings, & White, 2002; White, 2007) demonstrates that racial stereotypes can influence the extent to which exposure to racial imagery in campaign advertisements alters Whites’ attitudes toward candidates.

Racial Stereotypes as Predictors of Political Behaviors

Racial stereotypes have also been linked to a host of political outcomes. Since the work of V. O. Key (1949) on southern politics, scholars have explored what is often called the “racial threat” hypothesis: the argument that racially conservative Whites view increases in the size of the African American population in their communities as threatening, and, as a result, those Whites take action to reduce this perceived threat. In the area of politics, concerns among Whites about Black people making political gains can then inspire racially conservative Whites to “turn out” to vote in higher numbers (see Enos, 2016; Giles & Buckner, 1993; Orey, 2001; Rocha & Epino, 2009; Tolbert & Gummel, 2003; but see Voss, 1996). And a related literature explores the influence of racial stereotypes on the candidates (Hajnal, 2001, 2006; Orey, 2001; Sigelman et al., 1995; Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993) and political causes (Knuckey & Orey, 2000; Orey, Overby, Hatemi, & Liu, 2011) that voters support. One notable exception to this line of reasoning is the research on Asian candidates. Rather than putting minority candidates at a political disadvantage, Visalvanich (2017) finds that voters who harbor stereotypes about Asians in general—and the belief that Chinese people constitute a “model minority group” in particular—are more likely to cast votes for and have positive perception of Asian candidates.

Concluding Remarks

The literature on racial stereotypes is vast and spans several disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences. The goal of this encyclopedia entry is to give readers a panoramic view of the study of racial stereotypes. To do so, it was useful to divide the research on racial stereotypes thematically, namely by distinguishing the people who study the causes of stereotypes from those who are concerned with the consequences of them. To discuss the causes (i.e., stereotypes as “dependent variables”) this essay traced the psychological and sociological origins of racial stereotypic thinking. When summarizing the research on their consequences (i.e., stereotypes as “independent variables”) it helps to explore the impact of racial stereotypes on people’s attitudes and actions. Hopefully, this tour of this large and important literature will guide readers as they further acquaint themselves with, and ultimately contribute to, this field of study.

Further Reading

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  • Collins, P. H. (1999). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
  • Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
  • Harris-Lacewell, M. (2001). No place to rest: African American political attitudes and the myth of Black women’s strength. Women & Politics, 23(3), 1–33.
  • Harris-Perry, M. V. (2011). Sister citizen: Shame, stereotypes, and Black women in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Harris-Perry, M. V. (2013). Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare”? Please.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). “Who you callin’ nappy-headed?” A critical race theory look at the construction of Black women. Race Ethnicity and Education, 12(1), 87–99.


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