Compassion and prejudice between U.S. minority groups

Compassion and prejudice between U.S. minority groups

On a procrastination break from writing the second year milestone paper required for my doctoral program, I came across a BuzzFeed quiz that asked, “Can You Guess if Black People are More Homophobic than White People?” The article detailed claims of increased homophobia among Black communities.

I scratched my head, thinking of an argument I’d recently witnessed about racism in the LGBTQ community. These accounts of prejudice among marginalized groups ran counter to the narratives I had grown up with of my Jewish relatives bussing across the country to march with African Americans in Selma for civil rights. I wondered which version of reality was more accurate. Were minority groups more likely to be extra prejudiced against, or extra supportive of, other minority groups? Remembering I had a milestone paper to write, I approached my advisor, Dr. Erin Godfrey, with an idea.

Interminority relations research is a relatively new field that examines social psychological dynamics among groups that are low in status, power, and/or number. To date, this research has focused mostly on racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and women. The field is characterized by contradicting assumptions that interminority relations are either more positive or more negative than more commonly studied relations between minority and majority groups (e.g. Blacks and Whites in the U.S.).

On the one hand, minority groups might have more positive relationships because they can empathize with prejudicial treatment at the hands of the majority. This explanation accounts for so-called “rainbow coalitions” among Blacks, Jews, Latinx, immigrants, and laborers, and is exemplified by my relatives’ solidarity with African Americans in Selma. The opposite idea is mirrored in media narratives that depict marginalized groups as hyper-prejudiced, citing, for example, violence between Black and Latinx communities, homophobia in Black families, or increased sexism and “machismo” among Latinx communities.

So, which is it? Are minority groups in the U.S. extra compassionate or extra prejudiced? I turned to data to find out. Through secondary data analysis and experimental research I conducted with my advisor, I found that minority groups are not hyper-prejudiced. While the rainbow coalition might not be a pervasive reality, in most cases, minority groups are slightly more positive than the majority group toward other minority groups. Our findings challenge media narratives of increased antipathy among marginalized groups, and shed light on circumstances that lead to increased compassion and sympathy.

First, we turned to the General Social Survey (GSS), a large, nationally-representative dataset that measures Americans’ social, political, and religious attitudes every two years, asking opinions on issues such as marriage equality and gun control. In-depth analysis of the 2014 GSS dataset revealed small but consistent differences between interminority and majority/minority attitudes.

On a variety of issues, minority respondents displayed increased positivity toward a minority outgroup. Women were consistently more supportive than men toward racial/ethnic minorities and sexual minorities. Sexual minorities were consistently more positive than heterosexuals toward women and racial/ethnic minorities. Racial/ethnic minorities were consistently more positive toward women and racial minority outgroups than were White respondents.

In a follow-up experiment, we asked some minority participants to read one of four stories. Stories in the experimental conditions either primed similarity by discussing shared values or similar experiences of discrimination among minority groups, or focused on experiences of discrimination. Participants in the final, control condition read a neutral story. Participants who read about similarity based on shared values or similar experiences of discrimination reported more support for other minority groups, suggesting that similarity played a large part in increased positivity among minority groups. Participants in the experimental conditions also reported feeling more competition with a minority outgroup than in the control condition.

Interestingly, reminders of similarity based on shared values were equally or more effective at generating solidarity than reminders of similarity based on experiences of stigma. This result runs counter to a burgeoning body of theory on stigma-based solidarity, which proposes that similar experiences with stigma can generate compassion and intergroup coalition building. More research is needed on the topic, but our findings suggest that strength-based solidarity is a more effective approach to real-world interventions and coalition building.

While we generally found increased positivity, we were able to identify one situation that generated negativity between minority groups: relative deprivation.

Imagine three groups of people. Everyone in the first group has the iPhone 6, and everyone in the second group has the iPhone 7. Group One is deprived relative to Group Two, even though both groups have iPhones (and both groups have outdated models). Relative deprivation is a matter of perspective.

In our study, we used points in a made up competitive online game, rather than Apple devices, to demonstrate this concept. We also added a relatively privileged group (think of these as the iPhone X group). The groups that amounted to iPhone X and iPhone 7 teams rated attitudes toward the relatively disadvantaged Group iPhone 6. But there was an even more disadvantaged group as well: think of these as the iPhone 5 owners. Interestingly, while the moderately disadvantaged groups displayed increased support for a disadvantaged outgroup, the most disadvantaged group displayed the lowest levels of support for the disadvantaged outgroup. In other words, Group iPhone 7 wanted to help Group iPhone 6 get ahead, while Group iPhone 5 doesn’t have sympathy to spare for those with a fancier model.

My study suggests that relative deprivation can lead to antagonism among minority groups. Past research has focused on the role of competition among minority groups for resources. I argue that salient relative disadvantage likely plays a larger role in minority antipathy than competition itself. This idea of relative disadvantage could drive the instances of interminority strife we see in the media.

Thinking about the implications of my research, I wonder how popular narratives of interminority antipathy actually perpetuate social inequality. These stories of conflict among marginalized groups redirect discussions of equal rights toward interminority strife, rather than focusing on minority efforts to gain equality with the majority group, such as affirmative action, feminism, or employment protections. Interminority coalitions challenge the status quo, a dangerous proposition for majority groups trying to maintain their status. The media narrative of interminority strife reinforces White supremacy, sexism, and homophobia by directing minority anger toward minority targets, instead of at the majority groups that hold the most power.

Next time you see a story about interminority strife, I hope you remember my research and question this narrative. My findings made me wonder why so many narratives focus on competition among the least advantaged, when a few people at the top hold so much power. Perhaps this version of the story allows majority group members to avoid confronting their own roles in the structural processes that keep minority groups marginalized.


Esther Burson a fifth-year doctoral student in Psychology and Social Intervention. Her research centers on sociopolitical development and relations among marginalized groups in the United States.