November 16, 2022

Psychology and Ethnic Violence


  • Psychology and Violence
  • Do threats to status lead to violence?
    • End of Slavery (Ramos-Toro)
    • Lynching and “Sexual Threat” (Smangs)
  • Are low status individuals more prone to violence?
    • Some case studies


Relational Models Theory

People are more likely to use violence to regulate relationship…

  • when the stakes are high (people believe this relationship is very important or essential)
  • when the moral relationships involve Communal Sharing and Authority Ranking morality
  • if there is a transgression that threatens the very existence (constitution) of the relationship (e.g. infidelity in marriage)
    • perceived threat to the existence/integrity of the ethnic group (no more group)
    • perceived threat to ‘natural’ dominant status of the ethnic group (no more hierarchy)

When is there violence?

When there are “precipitating events” or conditions that lead

  • in-groups to believe their existence is threatened
  • in-groups to believe there has been a moral transgression against their status

Who is doing violence?

  • People for whom social identity is more important / stakes of ethnic hierarchical relationship are higher:
    • who are ‘lower’ status along other dimensions of social identity (e.g. poor whites in the US South)
  • People who are persuaded that transgressions/threats against their group have occurred



Is there evidence in support of psychological explanations for ethnic violence?

Status threats induce violence:

  • End of slavery in the United States
  • Alleged interracial sexual assaults

End of Slavery

Slavery in the United States justified in terms of racial superiority

  • conditions of political equality among white men
  • “moral” position of white manhood citizenship depended on comparison against enslaved African Americans

End of slavery reduced the relative status of whites:

  • War diminished economy of the South
  • (legally) equal political and civil rights for freed Blacks
  • opportunities for Black social advancement
  • reduced social deference toward whites

End of Slavery

African American status increased more in some areas than in others:

Contraband Camps/Refugee Camps

  • self-emancipation, congregation within Union lines
  • freed people still faced difficulties, racism from white Northerners
  • protection by the Union Army, Freedmen’s Bureau
  • opportunity to build free Black communities

Contraband Camps

Diego Ramos-Toro shows that these camps

increased the status of African Americans

compared to similar counties in the same states, counties with camps…

  • had more and better funded schools for Black children
  • higher literacy, socioeconomic status
  • elected more Black officials
  • had stronger Black churches
  • greater Black voting power

Contraband Camps

These increases in the status of African Americans led to backlash when white Southerners regained power:

  • greater voter suppression of African Americans
  • more Confederate monuments
  • more lynching

“Sexual Threat”

‘Moral’ relationships of White supremacy in the South:

  • white men shared a Communal Sharing bond as equal citizens
  • the status of white men was given by their Authority Ranking
    • over female/child/slave dependents in their household (“masters”)
    • this entailed both mastery, but also obligations to provide and protect

“Sexual Threat”

  • end of slavery had challenged Authority Ranking status of white men as “masters” and as “superior race”
    • scientific racism emphasized the dangers of interracial sexual relations (‘erasure’/‘contamination’ of white race)
    • sexual assault of white women undermined status of white men as “protectors”

“Sexual Threat”

Alleged sexual assaults of white women common and widely accepted as justification for racial violence:

precipitating events because…

  • this challenged the dominance of white men within household and in racial hierarchy (Authority Ranking)
  • a threat to status of one white man a threat to all (Communal Sharing)

“Sexual Threat”

After the lynching of Tom Jones in 1902, coroner report stated the killing was done…

“by an outraged public acting in defense of their homes, wives, daughters and children. In view of the enormity of the crime committed by said Tom Jones . . . we think they would have been recreant to their duty as good citizens had they acted otherwise”

Smangs (2020)

Investigates whether counties with conditions that might intensify concerns about “sexual threat” saw more lynchings in response to alleged sexual assaults:

  • greater proportion of white female dependents
  • greater proportion of white female children in school
  • greater proportion of educated Black men

Smangs (2020)

Smangs (2020)

These factors predict lynchings in response to alleged sexual assaults, but NOT lynchings justified for other reasons.

Psychology and


Is there evidence in support of psychological explanations for ethnic violence?

Individuals with precarious status within dominant group have greater motive to participate in violence

A few examples

Anecdotally, lower status whites were key participants in many instances of racial violence

  • Memphis 1866 Riot
    • Irish immigrants
  • Klan Violence in Union County, SC
    • lower-class whites
  • Chicago 1919 Race Riot
    • Irish laborers/gangs


But this might also be explained through economic competition:

  • Memphis 1866 Riot
    • Irish immigrants competed with freed Black men for jobs
  • Klan Violence in Union County, SC
    • poor white whiskey runners threatened by Black political leaders trying to regulate trade
  • Chicago 1919 Race Riot
    • Irish workers competed with Black labor for jobs, supported rival political parties


Lynch mobs often lead by “leading men” in a community

  • not clear that this reflects greater participation of “lower-status” whites


Mixed evidence for psychological theories:

  • status threats connected to moral relationships in RMT are linked to racial violence
  • people facing greater status threats MAY be motivated to use violence

Next week:

  • do media messages that amplify perceptions of status threats, moral transgressions drive violence?