Racism and the Charleston Church Shooting: Strategies to Confront Prejudice

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Image from CNN

As details have surfaced about the Charleston church shooting, we now know that 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire during a prayer circle and killed 9 people in what can almost certainly be called a hate crime. Roof’s racist beliefs are well-established based on reports from his roommate and acquaintances, as well as the patches on his jacket and reports of what he said at the time of the shooting. Even though Roof told multiple people that he planned some sort of massacre, no one appears to have alerted the authorities, or his family.

I have seen a lot of debate today about whether or not these people had a legal obligation to report this hate speech, and I can’t speak to that. But as a human being, I believe we all have an ethical obligation to speak up if we hear someone planning violence toward another person or group of people. In addition, I believe we have a social obligation to attempt to address any kind of expressed prejudice with that person directly. Social influence is powerful, and we can harness findings from the psychology literature to help us confront prejudice in our everyday lives. Here are some strategies:

1. Express that you don’t share the person’s views– Consensus is a persuasive thing. It’s been demonstrated time and again that people are swayed by the opinions of others. Solomon Asch’s famous experiments on conformity showed that people will agree with an incorrect answer to a simple judgment if the group is unanimous, and Stanley Milgram’s experiments about obedience were conducted in part to address how German soldiers were convinced to commit unspeakable atrocities during World War II.1,2

Part of the reason Asch’s participants purposefully chose the wrong answer, and German soldiers went along with    Hitler’s evil plans, is because of established social norms and social pressures. Muzafer Sherif contended that social norms become internalized through life experience, and this can work to either challenge or enforce prejudice depending on one’s social environment.3 But, it’s important to voice your disagreement, whether or not cultural norms in your area allow for this prejudice. There’s something called the false consensus effect, which shows that people tend to believe that others agree with them.4,5 Don’t let this person think their words are acceptable by staying silent.

2. Make that prejudice more immediate for them– Milgram found that participants were more likely to defy the experimenter when told to continue to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to another person when the immediacy of the victim increased.6 Only 34% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in another room, while 60% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in the same room.6 Find a way to make that prejudice more salient for the person as a way of confronting it, whether it be pointing out that one of their favorite musicians is a member of the group they’re marginalizing, or challenging them to think about how they would feel if someone expressed similar views about a group they identify with.

3. Confront the prejudice-Many effective ways of decreasing prejudice have to do with exposure to members of the marginalized group. Findings on mere exposure suggest that just being exposed to something can increase liking of it.7 Indeed, researchers have found that merely being exposed to people of other races can increase liking of that racial group.8 The large body of research on the contact hypothesis supports this as well, with people having increasingly less bias toward marginalized groups as contact with group members increased.9 An added benefit of this approach is that familiarly can help to interrupt automatic attitudes toward a marginalized group, like stereotyping.10

Confronting prejudice should be done with care to the marginalized group, especially if you believe the person may pose a threat to that group. If you believe that may be the case, you will want to start by confronting their prejudice from afar. For instance, you could do something as small as highlight people from the marginalized group that defy stereotypes the person has, or share some information about the history of the person’s bias and its deleterious effects. Someone who has already expressed violent desires toward the group is automatically someone who poses a threat to the group.

Join us at SocialPsyQ by confronting prejudice in your community by educating yourselves and others. We can only succeed in bringing about real change if we establish new social norms, and challenge one another to grow. We have the power to show others that their beliefs are not universal or objectively superior by confronting them one-on-one. We also have the power to help potential victims of hate crimes. When you see something, say something. Helping to change a mind could help to save a life.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1.
  2. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.
  3. Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms.
  4. Mullen, B., Atkins, J. L., Champion, D. S., Edwards, C., Hardy, D., Story, J. E., & Vanderklok, M. (1985). The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis tests. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(3), 262-283.
  5. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology, 13(3), 279-301.
  6. Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
  7. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
  8. Zebrowitz, L. A., White, B., & Wieneke, K. (2008). Mere exposure and racial prejudice: Exposure to other-race faces increases liking for strangers of that race. Social cognition, 26(3), 259.
  9. Sigelman, L., & Welch, S. (1993). The contact hypothesis revisited: Black-white interaction and positive racial attitudes. Social forces, 781-795.
  10. Quinn, K. A., Mason, M. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2009). Familiarity and person construal: Individuating knowledge moderates the automaticity of category activation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(5), 852-861
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