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The psychodynamics of white racism: An historical exploration of white racial pathology as elicited by prizefighters Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali

Michal Louise Beale, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The psychodynamics of white racism is not a well-theorized phenomenon. Traditional discourse on racism has primarily focused on “black doings and sufferings, not white anxieties and fear” (West, 1993). In other words, approaches to the study of white racism tend to emphasize the general ways in which people of color are adversely impacted by acts of prejudice committed by white people. Approaches that emphasize the victim's experience often obscure the particular ways in which the perpetrators of racism should be scrutinized and analyzed. This conceptual study is a departure from the traditional perspectives, focusing instead on the perpetrators of racism, white racists. Specifically, this dissertation will examine the psychodynamics of white racial attitudes and actions. In this study, I propose that white racial attitudes are the expression of anti-black feelings and emotions that lie at the core of white racists (Feagin & Vera, 1995). In this study, I explore these feelings and emotions as they relate to black upward mobility, in particular, blacks that are perceived to be a threat to the dominant social and economic power structures. Unlike the economic approach to examining white racism, which is not concerned with the emotional and psychological elements of racism, the psychological approach views racism in part as an extension of the emotional reactions whites exhibit when threatened by changes in patterns of white domination and black subordination (Schwartz & Disch, 1970). In other words, whites who are racists tend to view life as a zero-sum game in which black gains represent white losses (Feagin & Vera, 1995). This approach to the study of white racism also provides a plausible explanation for extreme manifestations of racism. This is illustrated through the case studies of heavyweight prizefighters Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. White reactions to these prizefighters and their behaviors both in and outside the ring are indicative of the psychological dimensions of white racism.

Subject Area

Cognitive therapy|Personality|Psychotherapy|Social psychology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Beale, Michal Louise, "The psychodynamics of white racism: An historical exploration of white racial pathology as elicited by prizefighters Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3163650.