The Roots Of Prejudice

A commenter to the blog recently posted a frustration with colleagues at work who had a knee-jerk response to the word “Republican”.  The commenter was not necessarily a Republican, but was a person who was willing to listen to ideas regardless of the origin of those ideas.  That got me thinking about something which has been bothering me for a long time: although liberals have positioned themselves as champions of equality, they seem to have forgotten (or hypocritically are ignoring) the true roots of prejudice.

I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  -Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I consider the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to be a personal hero, as a lot of people do.  I am not alone among conservatives in my admiration of the “content of their character” quote, but I’m honestly beginning to wonder how many liberals revel in these words.  Maybe I’m being cynical, but over time I have used this quote less and less because I imagine that it leads not to a moment of agreement between a liberal and a conservative, but rather a moment of liberal eye-rolling.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Conservatives aren’t allowed to quote Martin Luther King.  The liberal’s suspicion is that we are taking this quote out of context, that we are cynically using Dr. King’s words to argue against affirmative action and to perpetuate systemic impediments to the advancement of black people.  That we are, in other words, using this quote to perpetuate our own prejudices.

I can’t speak with any certainty about what other people are intending when they quote Dr. King, I can only explain what I intend.  I think Dr. King not only understood very well the importance of treating human beings as individuals, he was also a social psychologist ahead of his time who understood very well the roots of prejudice.

So let’s back up a bit in our story and talk a little about human nature.  If we take the long view and look broadly at life on earth, one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings is that we are social creatures.  We are not the only social creatures on earth – the other primates, certain birds, bats, and rodents are also characterized as social – but we are almost certainly the most social creatures on the planet.  It’s probably part of the secret to our success.  Humans organize themselves into families, tribes, neighborhoods, and nations.

Our ability to identify with some group seems boundless.  I’m a passionate sports fan, but I sometimes wonder about the source of this passion.  I love the Minnesota Twins, because I grew up there, but why do I love them now, thirty years later, on the other side of the country?  The Twins are, after all, a bunch of individuals, born in various cities all over the Americas, some of whom played for a different team last year or will play for a different team next year.  They happen to play about 80 games a year in a ballpark located in a city that I happened to live in when I was a kid.  Pretty tenuous!

I might also say that the Twins are a small-market team that often outperforms expectations and I admire that – a better rationale – but does that mean if they increase their payroll or bring on board some underperforming players that I should stop liking them?  Would I have any basis for rooting for the Twins when they play the Brewers, or the A’s, or the Braves, or any other small-market teams that usually outperform expectations?

No, the roots of my identification with the Minnesota Twins are completely arbitrary and based exclusively on familiarity.  After all, if there were some really good reason for being a Twins fan over any other team, we’d all be Twins fans, and everyone would hate the White Sox – like they should.

So humans identify with groups, sometimes on the most arbitrary of bases.  This point was made effectively and shockingly by 60s anti-prejudice crusader and school teacher Jane Elliot.  Disgusted with the race riots of that decade and the slow pace of societal change on issues of equality, Elliot invented the now famous blue eyes/brown eyes demonstration.  Nothing beats watching the video of her demonstration, but I’ll summarize.  (The link has a full program from Frontline; the video embedded below, just a segment.)

Elliot divided her third grade class on the basis of eye color.  On the first day of her demonstration, she explained to the class that blue-eyed people were better and smarter than brown-eyed people.  As a result, they would have certain privileges – brown eyed people couldn’t use the water fountain or enjoy recess, for example.  Elliot also treated the brown-eyed kids dismissively, while positively reinforcing the behavior of the blue-eyed children.

The school day becomes quickly miserable for the brown-eyed kids, but the shocker is how quickly the children allow their group identities to define them.  Rather than rushing to the defense of their (former) friends and playmates, the blue-eyed children double-down on the new hierarchy.  Rather than rebelling and asserting their former stature, the brown-eyed children become either passive and withdrawn, or play into the stereotype of violent and boorish behavior.  The arbitrariness of the situation is further demonstrated when the characteristics of the blue-eyed and brown-eyed children are reversed on the next day.

One might argue that the demonstration is only effective because Elliot is dealing with 9-year old children, who are used to following the rules established by a teacher.  But this demonstration has been run countless times with populations of all ages, with the same distressing effects.  People adopt group identities on the most arbitrary bases, and worse, those identities become a filter through which people view members of their own group and people who are not members of their group.

Social psychologists invented the term in-group to represent one’s own group, and out-group to refer to people who are not members of the group.  The vagueness of the word “group” is by design, emphasizing that certain social grouping characteristics are independent of the particular characteristic that serves to define the group.  This is the main insight that inspired this essay – there is a deep structure to human behavior in groups which is far more important than the surface details defining the particular groups in question.

To be more specific:  the roots of prejudice do not lie in our racial identities.  Contra some modern theories about prejudice, black people can be prejudiced – and so can Minnesota Twins fans.  Prejudice is a function of having a group identity, not the particular nature of the group identity.  The group can certainly be a race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but it might also be a political philosophy, a sports team allegiance, or, in extreme circumstances, an eye color.

Regardless, then, of the particularities of the group, social psychologists have identified some basic features of our proclivity to identify with groups.  One of the most interesting effects – and the one that prompted this essay as I thought about my commenter’s contribution – is the out-group homogeneity effect.

In a nutshell, this is our predisposition to viewing the members of the out-group as being more similar to one another than are members of the in-group.  We see our own group as diverse – individuals who vary in intelligence, work ethic, sophistication, background, goals, drive, personality.  But we see the members of the out-group as monolithic, and frequently as inheriting all of the qualities of our stereotype of the out-group.  We don’t see the individuals of the out-group as diverse – or indeed, as individuals.  And so when I learn that someone is a White Sox fan, I may assume that, like all White Sox fans, the person is boorish, crass, unintelligent, and of low morals.  Jane Elliot’s blue-eyed children – even having grown up with their brown-eyed colleagues – can quickly come to view their brown-eyed classmates as having less intelligence, poorer manners, and lower drive.

And notice how this fundamental insight is captured in Martin Luther King’s quote.  He longs for the day when his children are seen as individuals, judged on their own merits, weighed by the contents of their characters.

Notice how this fundamental insight is captured by my blog commenter friend, who longs for the day when his co-workers will give equal credence to an idea from the right as from the left, a day when Republicans are seen as individuals and not as automatically inheriting some stereotype – such as extremist, bigot, zealot, simpleton.

But the fact that this observation about in-group and out-group behavior processes is so fundamental, what’s most alarming is how quickly this understanding is being abandoned by liberals!  I don’t think there’s any question that Jane Elliot was a liberal.  Whether or not Martin Luther King was a Republican is a matter of some controversy, but regardless his dream speech and his life’s work clearly reflect a classical liberal philosophy.  These social psychological insights were gestated in the 60s and 70s, when liberal thinkers finally pushed society forward from the despicable prejudices of the past.

Why then, not press the advantage?  Why is Dr. King’s quote now seen as a perversion of the message, rather than the fundamental insight of the 60s?  Why the modern liberal’s impulse to shout about bigotry, to accuse others of hatred, to label everyone and everything?  (I am aware of the irony of titling my blog with two labels and an occupation, but if you’ll read the About section of my blog you’ll see that this entire enterprise is driven by my confusion about the way we gravitate to these labels in the first place.)

It is the conservative, now, who wants to wipe away labels.  Who argues that the first part of a hyphenated American’s identity (Italian-American, Mexican-American, African-American) is less important than the second.  It is the conservative, now, who recoils at the extent to which race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation has come to define us and to determine how we interact with our government through laws, courts, and bureaucracy.  Binders full of women aside, it is conservatives who appoint a black male and then black female Secretary of State, or nominate a Mormon-Catholic Presidential ticket, and shrug their shoulders about it, while liberals brag about the third Hispanic woman to ever run for city council in Anywheresville, Georgia.  It’s liberals who insist on the multicultural ethos that we all recognize and celebrate each other’s differences, and then react with offense at any racial or ethnic variability occupationally.

Our liberal friends have forgotten their own fundamental insight, and are taking us in exactly the opposite direction.

Next they’ll be checking the colors of our eyes.



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