Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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Teacher's Corner
College Classroom Activities

Racial Discrimination in the United States

Goal

To vividly illustrate that racial discrimination continues to be a widespread and serious problem in contemporary American society.

Preparation

Rent, buy, or borrow a copy of these two videos:

  1. True Colors (Primetime Live, Nov. 26, 1992; 18 minutes)

  2. America in Black & White: Health Care, the Great Divide (Nightline, Feb. 24, 1999; use the 16-minute segment entitled "Doctors and Patients")

Background

These videotapes dispel the myth that racial discrimination is rare in the United States. Using hidden cameras, the first video reveals discrimination in work, housing, and consumer affairs. Even more unsettling, the second video documents racial disparities in U.S. health care, including statistics such as these:

  • Compared with White babies, Black babies are two and a half times more likely to die before their first birthday.

  • Black people are 34% more likely than Whites to die from cancer.

  • Black people are twice as likely as Whites to die from heart disease.

  • Black people are 50% less likely to receive heart bypass surgery.

  • Black people have to wait twice as long for transplants.

  • Black people are twice as likely as Whites to have a leg amputated if they have circulatory problems.

  • Black people are 25% less likely are Blacks than Whites to receive pain medication.

The second video also discusses evidence that racial disparities in health care arise not only from institutionalized racism, but from personal biases held by physicians. This finding suggests that even people who are relatively well-educated and caring are prone to racial biases.

Activity

Show the two videotapes (combined runtime: 34 minutes), either back-to-back with a discussion afterward or pausing to discuss each one separately.

Introduction to True Colors:

This is an ABC news program comparing how two 28-year-old males (matched in education, income, and marital status) are treated across various walks in life. The camera crew followed two professional "testers" around St. Louis for 22 weeks (a Black man named Glenn, and a White man named John). During this time, the camera crew found instances of discrimination on a daily basis.

Introduction to Doctors and Patients:

This is a 1999 Nightline segment called "America in Black and White: Doctors and Patients." In this video, we'll see that Blacks and Whites are treated differently not only in jobs, housing, and retail sales, but in life and death medical care. Also, the video shows that this difference isn't simply a matter of institutionalized racism -- it comes directly from doctors themselves, which is somewhat surprising given the fact that prejudice usually declines with formal education. Let's watch, and then we'll have time for discussion.

Suggested discussion questions:

  • Do you think the discrimination shown in this film is typical?

  • Were you surprised by anything you saw?

  • How did you feel while you were watching?

  • Researchers can document discriminationn in laboratory and field experiments, but how do you know in daily life whether it's taking place?

  • If research suggests that racial discrimination is widespread, why do so many majority group members believe the playing field is level?

  • These videos focused on discrimination against Black people, but what about other racial and ethnic groups -- how much day-to-day discrimination do they face?

  • How do you think the level of discrimination in the United States compares with what might be found in other countries?

  • If the testers in the first video had been female and male rather than Black and White, do you think they would have encountered much gender discrimination?

Racial Profiling Discussion

In True Colors, a White store employee follows Glenn, the Black tester, to make sure he doesn't steal any merchandise. This episode can be used to discuss racial profiling by the police and airport security.

Many students are quick to see the injustice of racial profiling without realizing that they themselves may rely on category-based social judgments when assessing danger. By discussing some examples, instructors can explore the psychological underpinnings of racial profiling and provoke a lively debate. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • Is it racist for police officers to watch Black males more closely than White males?

  • Is it sexist for police officers to watch males more closely than females?

  • Is it sexist for a woman walking alone at night to avoid passing near male strangers?

  • If you say it's okay for women to avoid male strangers -- even though most men are not attackers -- is it okay for airport security guards to watch Arab male passengers more closely than other passengers?

    [Note: One key difference is that racial profiling is usually carried out by the group in power -- just the opposite of a woman avoiding male strangers. Still, the question is a challenging one to consider.]

  • If the average male driver has more car accidents than the average female driver, is it discriminatory for insurance companies to charge all men higher premiums?

    [Note: Insurance companies routinely charge males more than females for the same level of insurance, because equal premiums would force females to subsidize male accidents.]

  • If Blacks had more car accidents than Whites, would it be okay for insurance companies to charge Blacks more for insurance?

  • What if Whites had more car accidents than Blacks -- would it be okay in that case? Why or why not?

Notes

  1. This session is especially effective when followed by a later class period in which The Fairer Sex is shown and discussed.

  2. It is important to stress that the first videotape is meant to be illustrative and is not a substitute for carefully controlled studies of discrimination. At the same time, instructors might note that the videotape is consistent with studies documenting pervasive racial discrimination in the United States. For specific citations, please see the Reading Room.