Racism hurts | Science News for Students

Racism hurts

Science probes racism and what people can do to fight it
Dec 6, 2016 — 7:15 am EST
protester crying

People at this July 2016 Los Angeles rally were sad and angered by the lack of respect they said that local blacks were experiencing from police and others.


“Will we have to move again?” Nida asked her parents. She and her twin brother Noah are 10 years old. Their African-American family had recently moved to a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. Less than a week after the 2016 presidential election, however, a classmate had harassed Nida's brother at school.

“Trump’s going to kick you out of the country!” that other boy had told him. Noah walked away. The tormenter resumed his taunts at recess.

During this year’s presidential campaign, some candidates and their supporters spoke about sending immigrants back to the nation of their birth. Others talked about watching people closely if they came from certain foreign regions or practiced a specific religion. Other comments suggested building a wall to keep foreigners out of the United States. Noah’s mean classmate had echoed some of those ideas.

Noah felt horrible. “He felt like he couldn’t make it stop,” said his mom, Maggie. She is a surgeon.

No, the family would not move again, Maggie and her husband told their children. Noah’s dad spoke to the teacher and principal. In the end, the school disciplined the other boy.

But children have not been the only victims of such bigotry.

White Again
On November 9, 2016, vandals painted a racist message on a park dugout wall in Wellsville, N.Y.
Brian Quinn, Wellsville Daily

Christy is a graduate student in upstate New York who studies the immune system. She came to the United States from a Caribbean island nation. Three days after the 2016 election, Christy drove to New York City. On the way, she bought a beverage at a gas station. As she left, a man followed. He insulted her because she is black. Walking toward her, the man threatened Christy. He told her to leave town. “I was so scared,” she recalls.

A week later, Christy was with two friends in New Jersey. A family drove by in a convertible. Three white girls sat in the back seat. As their car passed, they made an obscene gesture at Christy’s group.

“Don’t stare,” Christy heard the girls’ mom say. But the woman did not reprimand the girls. She did not tell them their harassment had been wrong.

The names in these cases have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy. But their stories are real. Fortunately, these situations did not become violent. Yet harm was done. People were threatened because of their skin color or ethnic background.  

In short, Christy and Noah’s families were targets of racism. Simply stated, racist people “believe that because of their skin color, they are better than others,” explains Alex Pieterse. He’s a psychologist at the University at Albany in New York.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents in the 10 days following the 2016 U.S. election. Of that total, at least 648 were based on racism. The group’s data come from reports made to the organization, plus a review of news stories. Many more cases go unreported, the group said in a November 29 report.

Sadly, more than 180 of the total number of cases took place at children’s and teens’ grade schools. Another 140 happened at universities. That’s about three out of every eight cases.  

Story continues below image. 

Whites Only
Authorities are investigating the “whites only” defacement of a Spanish-language sign for church services as a hate crime.
Robert Harvey, Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Silver Spring, Md.

In Silver Spring, Md., for instance, someone spray-painted a “kill” message aimed at blacks in an elementary school bathroom. In North Bend, Ore., students shouted at an 11-year-old girl that she should “go back to Mexico!” She didn’t even come from there. She was an American of Colombian descent. In DeWitt, Mich., eighth-grade boys linked arms to block a seventh-grade girl from her locker. The boys chanted things such as “Let's build the wall.” Or “Let's make America great again. You need to go back to Mexico.” The girl felt “petrified” about returning to school the next day, her mom told the local newspaper.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also released a report on November 28. It gives the results of a nationwide survey of 10,000 teachers and other educators teaching elementary grades to high school. More than 2,500 described specific cases of bigotry and harassment. The report authors say the survey shows a recent “distinct uptick” in hate incidents. Eight out of 10 of the people who responded also saw heightened anxiety among students who belong to particular ethnic groups or are LGBT. (That stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual.)

“These dynamics are new and can be traced directly to the results of the [November 2016] election,” the report's authors say. For example: “The day after the election, I had a group of Hispanic girls in my homeroom targeted by a boy who told them Trump was going to deport their families,” reported one high school teacher in New Jersey. “A black student was blocked from entering his classroom by two white students chanting, ‘Trump, Trump,’” noted a high school teacher in Tennessee. A teacher in Colorado wrote that seventh-grade boys had been yelling, “Heil Trump!” 

Such racist incidents are ugly. And sadly, they’ve happened in every state. Read on to learn what racism is and how it hurts not only the people it targets but also others. Then see what you can do to respond.

Defining racism

Racism “is more than bullying,” says Terrence James Roberts. He’s a psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. Racism is a prejudice that persists because significant swaths of society either share this attitude, condone it or refuse to challenge it.

Little Rock
Back in 1957, soldiers escorted Terrence James Roberts and eight other black students into Little Rock High School in order to ensure their safety.
U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, at just 15 years old, Roberts learned firsthand just how ugly racism can be.

It was September 1957. The governor of Arkansas sent soldiers to stop Roberts and eight other black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in that state. Until then, only white students had been allowed to go to that school. But in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the nation’s Constitution does not allow separate schools based on race. Despite that, many whites had wanted black students kept out. 

President Dwight Eisenhower ordered soldiers to protect Roberts and the rest. With that, the “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be known, finally got into the school. Yet the students still received threats.

“My only way to survive” was to stay “as far as possible from those who would kill me on sight,” Roberts recalls. Beyond that, he had to deal with “others who were not as willing to kill me, but who [would] stand in the way of and prevent me from doing things, like going to school.”

Racism did not start there — nor end there. “Racism is literally part of the bone marrow of the nation,” Roberts observes. For centuries, people of color have had fewer privileges in the United States.

Colonists enslaved people from Africa and took over lands held by Native Americans. Slavery continued in the United States until the Civil War. After that, laws continued to restrict who could vote, where people could live, where they could go to school and what jobs they could have. Within the last 40 years, people of color still have often found it harder to get a good education, get a good job or live in a nice, safe neighborhood.

Even today, a smaller share of people of color hold top-paying jobs in many fields than their overall share of the population would suggest. In contrast, a somewhat greater share of people of color lives in poverty or are in prisons.

These are not just events in history nor snapshot statistics. More than that, they reflect systems in society — sets of rules or principles that say how things are done. And systems like those fuel prejudice and discrimination, says Roxanne Donovan. She’s a psychologist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

How discrimination may emerge

Those systems also can reinforce stereotypes. Those are views based on general ideas, rather than on individual people. Explains Donovan, “It’s not that far of a leap from stereotyping to treating people differently or discriminating based on our stereotypes.” And people are more likely to do that when they feel challenged or stressed.

Black Lives Matter
People of color may view the justice system differently from white people, as shown by this man in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016, who was protesting against incidents of police violence against black suspects.

For example, if someone in your own race or ethnic group does not have a job, you might see this as a sign that the economy is slow and that jobs are hard to find. But if someone from another social group has no job, you might view that person as stupid or lazy.

Some people will admit they have biases based on stereotypes. Other people may not. Some people may not even know they have a biased view. In those cases, psychologists describe them as having a hidden or implicit bias.

Racism has existed for thousands of years around the world. It’s been at work for hundreds of years in the United States. “I’ve never lived a day in this country without bumping into racism,” Roberts says. Many people had learned how to mask their prejudice, he says. And American laws now forbid certain bigoted behaviors, such as refusing to serve blacks in a restaurant or barring them from certain schools. But the recent political campaign seems to have “emboldened” people to commit acts that unleash a masked racism, Roberts says.

Before Donald Trump’s win, Donovan says, some people “may have been more undercover in how they behaved.” But the president-elect won after a campaign in which he uttered many questionable statements about various ethnic groups.

New Banner
A church in Silver Spring, Md. received this welcoming banner after a sign announcing Spanish-language services was defaced.
Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Silver Spring, Md.

For instance, a July 6, 2015 story in Business Insider quoted the then presidential candidate as saying: “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” Similarly bad elements, he said, are entering the United States “from all over South and Latin America, and … probably from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection ... And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.” Trump even proposed limiting immigration of Muslims and deporting millions of foreign immigrants already in the United States.

Such comments from people in the public eye and positions of authority up the likelihood that Americans with racist attitudes “will bring their behavior out of the shadows,” Donovan says. Sadly, she adds, racist acts cause serious harm.

The pain that racism causes

Racism directly touched Pieterse when he was a black child in South Africa. At the time, South Africa’s laws called for separation of white and black people. The experience led him, as a scientist, to study how racism affects people.

In one project, Pieterse and his colleagues reviewed 66 studies involving more than 18,000 black American adults. The team found that effects from experiencing racism were like those that trauma patients suffered. Among other things, people may develop a lot of anxiety. They think about the hurtful incidents often. They worry it will happen again. They feel they have little power to stop racist remarks or actions. That distress can interfere with relationships and other areas of their lives. The Journal of Counseling Psychology published this study’s findings in 2012.

Racism can hurt people in other ways, too. People may begin to “question their own worth,” Pieterse notes. They might become depressed. They can feel sad or worry about the future. “These are very strong mental health outcomes that really impact people’s lives,” he says.

Racism can even have physical impacts. For instance, black Americans have higher rates of heart disease than do white Americans. Stress triggered by racism may be one factor that increases those risks, Pieterse suggests.

Prejudice Puzzle
Prejudice based on stereotypes can exclude people from opportunities.

And, he adds, “Something doesn’t have to happen to you as an individual for you to be affected.” Nida and her parents, for example, felt hurt when Noah was harassed. Racism can make other members of ethnic groups feel anxious and worried, too.

Laws and public attitudes that support racism also can affect people’s self-worth. Stress from racism can even be passed down through generations — from grandparents to parents and then kids. One of Pieterse’s studies describes those broader impacts. His report is in a book published by the American Psychological Association in 2016.

Even stereotypes that sound positive can cause trouble. For instance, one common stereotype holds that black women are naturally strong. It says they will handle problems well. But do they really?

To find out, Donovan and a colleague conducted a study that asked black women whether they felt this was true. Those who did feel that way were more likely to suffer symptoms of depression from stress than did women who did not hold that view. The Journal of Black Psychology published these findings last year.

A follow-up study suggested several possible reasons. Women might be less likely to seek help if they think they are supposed to be strong, for instance. They may feel more pressure to be perfect. They might feel like failures if they do not appear strong. (Of course, other things might be stressing those women as well.) Donovan’s team reported its findings in the March issue of Women & Therapy.

Racism even hurts people outside its target group. Those who take part in racist acts develop a distorted view of their own worth, Pieterse notes. That can set them up for failure and disappointment in school, on the job or in relationships. And, he points out, people who do not believe racism is right can feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed when others act that way.

Moving ahead

No matter how racism affects you — as a direct target, as a witness or as a member of the broader community — don’t ignore it, says Donovan. A 2010 research project by her group looked at ways black women coped with their experiences of racism. Those who did best had adopted “problem-focused” approaches. They acted in ways that related to what they had experienced. Women who tried to ignore or avoid the problem fared worst. Some turned to unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking alcohol or overeating, for example.

SilverSpring RallyA
On November 20, people from diverse backgrounds gathered in Silver Spring, Md., to support diversity and take a stand against acts of racism.
K. M. Kowalski

It’s healthiest to just “address the problem,” Donovan concludes. For example, you might attend a peaceful rally at your school or in your town. Or, you might join a group of concerned citizens. Taking part in such group action “has been shown to be a really powerful reducer of stress,” she notes.

But even acting as an individual can help. “Define your sphere of influence,” Donovan says. No, one person can’t change everything about racism. But think about what you can do. Perhaps you can write a column for the school or local newspaper. Maybe you can call or email your elected state representatives. Perhaps you can help with a fundraiser for groups that have been targets of prejudice.

Take time, too, to reflect on what biases you might hold, Donovan suggests. Reflecting on that can help break the link between stereotypes and racist behavior, she says. Also get to know members of ethnic groups other than your own, she adds. Experiences like that can help you see people as individuals, not as stereotypes.

In any case, says Pieterse, the time for teens to think and do something about racism is now. Racism is real. But if people can understand how those in other groups see things, they can start to deal with inequities in society. Even before then, people can determine what types of speech and behaviors are never acceptable.

“In a sense, young people are in a better position of being able to identify racism and say something about it,” Pieterse finds. Indeed, he notes, for some adults who have developed prejudiced behaviors, “We have to kind of unlearn bad things.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

bias     The tendency to hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice.

bigotry    An attitude of intolerance — and often fear — of people who are different. It typically manifests as hatred and bullying of, or prejudice towards, people who belong to some particular group that is defined by their race, religion or ethnicity. Bigotry is not due to the actions or opinions of an individual, but to the prejudged expectations that the bigot has of anyone who belongs to the perceived “outsider” group.

bullying     (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors about someone, saying hurtful things to someone and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites or posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

civil war     A war fought between two or more opposing groups that are citizens of the same country. In the U.S. Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865, southern “Confederate” states that had supported slavery fought unsuccessfully to break from the United States and form a new country.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

depression     A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

develop     (as with towns) The conversion of wildland to host communities of people. This development can include the building of roads, homes, stores, schools and more. Usually, trees and grasslands are cut down and replaced with structures or landscaped yards and parks.

discrimination    (v. discriminate) In social science, an attitude of prejudice again people or things based on a bias about one or more of their attributes (such as race, sex, religion or age). It is not based on the actions of an individual but instead based on yet-unfounded expectations that are being applied broadly to a whole group.

economy    Term for the combined wealth and resources (people, jobs, land, forests and minerals, for instance) of a nation or region. It is often measured in terms of jobs and income or in terms of the production and use of goods (such as products) and services (for instance, nursing or internet access).

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

family     A taxonomic group consisting of at least one genus of organisms.

fault     In geology, a fracture along which there is movement of part of Earth’s lithosphere.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. 

gender     The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as being the norm. Behaviors that are incompatible with these expectations are described as non-conforming.

generation     A group of individuals born about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes or types of inanimate objects, such as electronics or automobiles.

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

high school     A designation for grades nine through twelve in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

immune     Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can mean to show no impacts from a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

implicit bias    To unknowingly hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice — or, conversely, holds some unrecognized prejudice against it.

journal     (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

link     A connection between two people or things.

marrow     (in physiology and medicine) Spongy tissue that develops inside of bones. Most red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and blood platelets all form within the marrow.

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

Native Americans     Tribal peoples that settled North America. In the United States, they are also known as Indians. In Canada they tend to be referred to as First Nations.

norms     The attitudes, behaviors or achievements that are considered normal or conventional within a society (or segment of society — such as teens) at the present time.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

prejudice   From the phrase "pre-judged," it is a usually negative attitude towards one or more people owing to their belonging to some group (typically defined by race, religion or ethnicity). Prejudice towards some particular race is known as racism. Prejudice against one gender (usually women) is termed sexism. Prejudice against the elderly is referred to as agism.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. 

psychology     (adj. psychological ) The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. To do this, some perform research using animals. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

standards     (in research) The values or materials used as benchmarks against which other things can be compared. For instance, clocks attempt to match the official standard benchmark of time — the second, as calculated by the official atomic clock. Similarly, scientists look to identify a chemical by matching its properties against a known standard for a particular chemical.

stereotype     A widely held view or explanation for something, which often may be wrong because it has been overly simplified.

stress     (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

Supreme Court    The highest U.S. court to deal with legal questions about how to interpret the Constitution (the document that spells out how the national government works and what basic rights are), federal laws and treaties, and maritime law. Most cases at the Supreme Court are appeals of the decisions of lower courts. Constitutional issues deal with the rights of individuals, states or others. A few cases can also start there (such as disputes between two states). The Supreme Court has a Chief Justice and eight other justices (they are not called “judges” in this court). The president nominates individuals to serve on the court. Those appointments must then be approved (confirmed) by the U.S. Senate. Justices on this court serve for life, which means as long as they choose and are not found guilty of certain serious offenses.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

therapy     (adj. therapeutic) Treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.

trauma     (adj. traumatic) Serious injury or damage to an individual’s body or mind.


Report: Ten days after: Harassment and intimidation in the aftermath of the election. Southern Poverty Law Center, November 29, 2016, 14 pp.

Report: The Trump Effect: The impact of the 2016 presidential election on our nation's schools. Southern Poverty Law Center, November 28, 2016, 22 pp.

Book chapter: A. Pieterse and S. Powell. A theoretical overview of the impact of racism on people of color. In A. Alvarez et al., eds. The cost of racism for people of color: Contextualizing experiences of discrimination. American Psychological Association, 2016, p. 11. doi: 10.1037/14852-002.

Journal: L. West et al. The price of strength: Black college women's perspectives on the strong black woman stereotype, Women and Therapy. Vol. 39, March 16, 2016, p. 390. doi: 10.1080/02703149.2016.1116871.

Journal: Y. Paradies et al. Racism as a determinant of health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS One, September 23, 2015. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0138511. 

Journal:  R. Donovan and L. West. Stress and mental health: Moderating role of the strong black woman stereotype. Journal of Black Psychology. Vol. 41, August 2015, p. 384. doi: 10.1177/0095798414543014.

H. Walker. “Donald Trump just released an epic statement raging against Mexican immigrants and 'disease.'Business Insider. July 6, 2015.

Journal: A Pieterse et al. Perceived racism and mental health among Black-American adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 59, 2012, p. 1. doi: 10.1037/a0026208.

Journal: L. West et al. Coping With racism: What works and doesn't work for black women? Journal of Black Psychology. Vol. 36, August 2010, p. 331. doi: 10.1177/0095798409353755.

Further Reading

Project Implicit.

Southern Poverty Law Center. “Teaching tolerance.”

Questions for "Racism Hurts"

Word Find (click here)