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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Prejudice, Racism and Perception

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 29th 2012

Prejudice, Racism and PerceptionLast week a man named, George Zimmerman, shot and killed an unarmed teenager named, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was part of a neighborhood watch in Florida that allowed him to carry a gun. In Florida, not only are people allowed to carry a gun, but are permitted to fire it if they are under attack. That is why Zimmerman was not held after his initial arrest. If he fired the gun in self defense he is innocent. In my opinion, that is an awful law that must be repealed.

Not only are many black and white citizens are outraged by the shooting but also because Zimmerman is free and has no charges against him. Now a young man is dead, his family grieving his senseless death and the community stretching from Florida to New York are infuriated by the entire tragedy. This even reached the White House and President Obama has publicly commented about it.

To make matters worse, there are now many people who are stating that, in their view, this was an act of racism. In other words, if Trayvon Martin had been a white boy this never would have happened. Perhaps this is true. However, the very real issue of racism is not clearly defined, in this case, because of a detail that clouds the entire tragedy. First, we need to define racism?

In the popular magazine, Psychology Today, Clay Routledge, PhD, discusses racism in an article entitled, "Exploring the Psychological Motives of Racism."  In it, he states that people, as social creatures, "identify themselves with groups that share their religious, political, social, and racial characteristics and traits." Unfortunately, for some individuals, people who are different in their thinking or appearance, are looked down upon while their own groups is perceived as important, significant and even superior.

With regard to racism in this story, a white individual, George Zimmerman, allegedly held a low and prejudicial opinion of Trayvon Martin, because he was black. Those who are protesting are saying that Zimmerman is another example of a white man attacking and killing a black man and with no consequences. According to the explanation of how people identify themselves, most black people would consider Martin as one of their racial group and Zimmerman as part of the white race.

Are we sure that white people consider Zimmerman as being white? This is an important question because it goes to the heart of how we define ourselves, others and the world. You see, at first glance, Zimmerman sounds like a white Jewish man. In point of fact, his father is Hispanic and his mother Jewish. Would racist white people include him into their group or into another racial group having to do with the population of other Hispanic groups? Some black people who are asserting that this death was caused by a white man may be overlooking the fact that others may not see Zimmerman as white. Why? Sadly, there are very prejudiced people who lump all minorities together, choosing to see all Hispanic peoples as black.

The fact is that racism and prejudice are hateful and destructive ways to be. It is a paranoid way of thinking that allows one to think of their group as superior but all other groups as inferior. 

How does Zimmerman view himself? There is no way to know but it's an interesting question because people have their perception of who they are or what group they belong to. Does he see himself as white, Hispanic, black, Jewish, etc? How do others see him? Is he viewed as white, black Hispanic, black and Hispanic? Who is to say what person belongs to a group they identify themselves as being part of?

The bottom line is that people are whomever they perceive themselves as being. The bottom line is that the world is diverse and all of us must accept that. The bottom line is that prejudice and hate harm ourselves and others by debasing our dignity and the dignity of others. As one black psychiatrist said to me many years ago, "Racism is psychotic." He didn't see himself as different. Well, maybe...he was part of the intellectually gifted group.

What are the origins or causes of prejudice? More later.

Should it matter what group a person comes from. I think not. What do you think?

What are your thought about racism? Your comments are strongly encouraged on this important topic.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD



Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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