Rosewood is a film particularly suitable and interesting for the application of social psychology. It concerns the story of a black community in early 20th-century Florida. The community was rather a-typical of the time, since black people were wealthy landowners. The neighboring company town of Sumner on the other hand, was occupied by poor white people, who were jealous of the wealth they observed in Rosewood. This setting provides a backdrop for social psychological analysis concerning ingroups and outgroups, and how racism leads to escalating tension.
Prejudice and Racism
Prejudice, according to Brehm, Kassin & Fein (147), can be unintentional. It also means the stereotyping of a certain group of people on the irrational grounds of a perceived threat, exacerbated by the fact that little personal information is available about the target of prejudice. In the film, prejudice against black people is a paradigm of the historical time. The likelihood of prejudice against the inhabitants of Rosewood is particularly strong, as a gap exists between the financial status of the whites in Sumner and the blacks in Rosewood. The blacks are thus perceived as a threat, "stealing" the financial resources available in the country.
Brehm, Kassin & Fein (151) further maintain that prejudice is not merely an emotional response, but also a cognitive one. The fact that the Rosewood landowners are wealthier than the Sumner inhabitants is obvious, and perceived accurately. This affects the feelings of the latter group, in that their self-esteem receives a blow. The cognitive process thus occurs prior to the emotional response. This emotional response is depicted by means of the psychology of "ingroups" and "outgroups."
Brehm, Kassin & Fein (147) distinguish between the phenomena of "ingroups" and "outgroups." Ingroups are groups that a person belongs to, classified by race, religion etc., while outgroups are groups to which a person does not belong. When applied to the film, two groups are distinguished, based on race: these are white, and living in Sumner, and black, living in Rosewood. The collection of persons in Sumner perceives an outgroup in Rosewood. Furthermore a variety of factors contribute to the fact that this group feels the necessity to maintain their superiority over the outgroup. This need for a boost to their self-esteem overrides all other considerations.
The opportunity to boost the self-esteem of the white ingroup presents itself in the form of a woman, known among her ingroup to be a tramp, falsely accuses a black man of beating her. The truth is much more likely: she was having an affair, and her lover was the one to beat her. She cannot however face her crime or its consequences, and takes the easy option of lying instead. The ingroup jumps at the opportunity for violence, instead of more logically trying to find out the truth. It must be taken into account that the 1920's was a time of extremist racism within the United States, and especially in the South. This social situation has a profound effect on the way in which the white ingroup perceives themselves and others. This is then why the inhabitants of Sumner set aside individual differences within their ingroup to jump to conclusions about the perceived threat of the outgroup.
Racism then manifests itself in a variety of ways in the film. Guilt is assumed based on skin color. There is no personal interest in the outgroup beyond attempting to exterminate the perceived threat. Any embarrassment or guilt felt as a result of the assumption of guilt is covered by the stronger force of social acceptance (Brehm, Kassin & Fein: 163). This force is used to rationalize actions based upon little more than lies.
Brehm, Kassin & Fein (165) make the distinction between blatant and subtle racism. Because of the social setting in the film, most of the racism displayed is blatant. Subtle racism is to a greater degree part of the modern culture, and it is more likely that people today would be unaware of it. Thus, while there is a strong likelihood that intergroup interaction would be successful today, the likelihood of this occurring at the time depicted in the film is practically non-existent, although certain characters do attempt to bridge the gap. There are four requirements for successful intergroup interaction that can be applied to the Rosewood situation: equal status; personal interaction; cooperative activities; and shared social norms (Brehm, Kassin & Fein:167).
Firstly the two groups portrayed in the film are not at all of equal status. The gap between rich black landowners and poor white workers forms the basis of the conflict. There is also internal conflict, as the white group feels the need to prove themselves superior, yet financially they are inferior. The only interaction that this provides for is conflict and violence, leaving no possibility of cooperative activities. The social norms of the time are rooted in racism, precluding the possibility of sharing.
The white shopkeeper portrayed by John Voight reflects the superior attitude of his ingroup. Yet he displays a more individualistic attitude towards the black outgroup, in that his shop is in a black town, and he is involved in the community. He is thus fairly successful in interacting with the outgroup, although social circumstances dictate certain barriers.
The main prejudicial focus of the film is racism; however, sexism also plays a somewhat interesting role. The two most prominent women of the film are the liar and her maid. The lying woman is perceived by her ingroup as a woman and therefore most likely a victim. Again, this is doubtlessly a convenient excuse for the subsequent events. Yet also the woman is using her gender to give credence to her story. Being a woman, she is afraid of her husband's wrath should he find out about the affair, and thus she turns her gender to her advantage in order to escape the foreseen conflict.
Brehm, Kassin & Fein (155) suggest that gender stereotypes tend to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. This means that there are certain pre-determined ways in which men and women are expected to behave. The lying woman behaves as the victim of male violence, although she tells only a half-truth about it. Her maid also adheres to prescriptive gender stereotypes by remaining silent about the lie. She also is a victim not only of racial stereotyping, but also of her own perception of the role of a black woman and how this role should be used to the benefit of her family. Even when the crisis appears to negate all of these notions, she remains silent, believing to the bitter end that this is best.
The social roles of men and women thus play a prominent role in the conflict depicted in the film. Two women stand at the center of the conflict, but the men take a more active role in the escalation and perpetuation of the violence. The women, having been passive victims at the beginning of the events, remain so until the tragic end. Social influence plays a large role both in gender and racial stereotyping.
From the above it can be seen that social influence plays a significant role in the events of Rosewood. Brehm, Kassin & Fein (220) define this phenomenon as people aligning with persons of common mind regarding certain matters. In the film then, the white group feels an extreme need to conform to the social paradigm of racism with little logical thought. Their feelings absolutely overtake their reason and violence erupts. There are various influences that may dictate the extent of the urge to conform.
One of these is real or even imagined pressures from others (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 220). The influence of the social situation at the time depicted in the film is extremely strong, but also subtle. The reflex is to assume guilt based on racism. Blatant racism is a paradigm of the time, and it is difficult to break this social norm. Brehm, Kassin & Fein (221) show this by means of the urge to laugh or yawn when people in one's vicinity are engaged in these actions. Social norms work in the same way, and studies have shown that breaching these norms are extremely difficult. The psychology of the white ingroup also appears to dictate a greater likelihood for conforming to the social norm in existence during the time.
According to Brehm, Kassin & Fein (224), there are two types of reasons for the difficulty of breaching the social norm. These are informational and normative reasons. Both of these play a significant role in the white ingroup psychology depicted in the film. An informational reason is for example the assumption that the majority is correct, whereas the normative relates to the fear of the consequences should the social norm be breached. One such consequence is that a person could be judged as deviant, and the likelihood of being accepted is smaller.
A large amount of the psychology attached to conforming then also has to do with the human wish…