The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In a just-published History News Network article, I explain how political ignorance plays a major role in promoting racial and ethnic prejudice and xenophobia. The elementary school trope that prejudice is caused by ignorance is an oversimplification. But it has a lot more truth to it than you might think:
Many of us were told in elementary school that prejudice is caused by ignorance. When they grow up, many people cast aside such elementary school homilies as naïve at best, and actively misleading at worst. But it turns out that your elementary school teachers were wiser than you might have thought. Much racial, ethnic, and xenophobic prejudice is indeed the result of ignorance. It is a particularly pernicious part of the broader phenomenon of widespread public ignorance about political issues….
For as long as we have had modern public opinion polling, people with lower levels of education and political knowledge have, on average, shown less tolerance for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and have usually been more hostile to immigration and international trade. These relationships hold true even after controlling for other variables, such as income, gender, occupation, and race.
The connection between ignorance and various forms of prejudice is more than just a correlation. Often it is causation, as well. Most people who hate a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group, do not merely despise it for no reason at all. Instead, they often have a story in mind about how that group is harming society or poses a threat to their own group. And those stories are often the result of crude thinking, heavily influenced by ignorance and illogic.
The article builds on the analysis of political ignorance in the recently published new edition of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. I certainly would not claim that, absent political ignorance, racial and ethnic prejudice would just disappear. But it would be a lot less common and less virulent.