This post was co-written by Jen and guest blogger Cara, a city and regional planning student and social justice activist.
The recent triple murder of three Muslim Americans Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, and Razan Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night has rocked the Triangle, and its effects have reverberated across the globe. In addition to the devastating sadness and feelings of staggering unfairness precipitated by this horrific crime, the motive of the killer and whether the act was a hate crime is also being debated.
Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year old neighbor of Yusor, Deah, and Razan, has been charged with three counts of first degree murder after turning himself in to authorities. He and his lawyer claim that he killed them because of a parking dispute that escalated into violence, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. And neither are we.
Deah’s sister has asked that their murders be treated as a hate crime. Yusor and Razan’s brother believes the same. We also believe that this tragedy was motivated by anti-Muslim feelings and hate. This crime may not fit the legal definition of a hate crime, but that doesn’t preclude it from being one.
The debate over whether this fits the definition of a hate crime has to do with whether or not Hicks explicitly voiced his prejudice against Muslim people. His Facebook page has numerous posts where he mocks religion as an idea – Hicks is an adamant atheist – and a few where he calls out specific groups, such as a post calling Christians opposed to the building of a mosque near ground zero hypocritical, and another re-post that says if financial aid, mediation, and arms cannot bring peace to the Middle East, atheism can. But though he is a proud gun owner – he brags in one post about the weight of one of his loaded guns – he doesn’t seem to have expressed violent intentions toward Muslims specifically. The FBI is looking into it, but regardless of whether they find anything, the motivation seems to be clear.
Most people are more familiar with types of explicit prejudice or explicit bias. People who are explicitly prejudiced against Muslims, for example, know they are biased and may make statements to that effect or pointedly treat Muslim people differently than they would other people. This type of prejudice is also much less likely to be condoned in society. However, a deeper hidden kind of prejudice called implicit bias can guide people’s actions and thoughts even if they don’t consciously believe that they are biased.
Implicit bias is more likely what’s at play here. Implicit bias is an automatic stereotype or prejudice that someone maintains without necessarily being aware of it.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are so deeply ingrained and automatic that they often don’t reach the surface of consciousness, and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2
Hicks’s wife claims that in her husband’s eyes “everyone is equal.” The fact that our implicit biases run so deep that we often aren’t even aware of them makes them particularly insidious, because here’s the thing: Hicks can genuinely believe that he didn’t target Deah, Yusor, and Razan because of their religion, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if he wasn’t thinking about the fact that his victims were Muslims in the front of his mind, somewhere in his brain, the automatic part was looping a tape full of subtle but powerful beliefs and stereotypes that more likely than not allowed this disagreement to escalate dramatically.
Some evidence does exist to suggest that Hicks wasn’t simply a grumpy disgruntled neighbor but was actually targeting this family because of their religion. Namely, one of Razan’s best friends stated that Hicks didn’t bother Deah at all until his new wife and her sister came to live with him, two women who looked more traditionally Muslim with their hijabs than did Deah. Deah and Yusor’s relatives also offered previous incidents where Hicks threatened Deah and Yusor over their alleged noisiness while carrying his shotgun. Would he have approached these situations in the same way had Deah, Yusor, and Razan not been Muslim? Our guess is no.
There is no way to prove that implicit biases motivated or fed this crime, which feels incredibly frustrating. It also forebodes an increased misunderstanding if the families of the victims and the community at large see a hate crime here, but authorities cannot prove it. We believe that it is essential to get a discussion of not just explicit hate speech and discrimination but an understanding of implicit biases as well into the societal dialogue—implicit bias can also likely help to explain the Mike Brown shooting and other crimes across racial and cultural lines committed by people who swear they “see everyone equally.”
So, how does this directly affect you, and what can you do in your own life? Most implicit biases are on a smaller minor scale. They don’t result in a triple homicide, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Every implicit bias affects people’s daily interactions. If you’ve ever taken a social psychology class, you’ve likely learned about the Implicit Association Test (or the IAT). The IAT is a free online test that allows anyone to measure their own implicit biases for all different groups ranging from race to age to sexual orientation. I encourage all of you to take it here. Note that the IAT has its own flaws—it is not to be used as a diagnostic tool. If the test finds that you have a preference for white people over black people, you are not destined to be a racist. Rather, such a result indicates several possible outcomes: 1) you are implicitly biased against black people, 2) you are aware of the bias against black people in the society where you’ve grown up, which is reflected in your result, or 3) some combination of the two.
Despite the imperfection of the IAT, its results can offer some insight into your psyche. This awareness is just the beginning. Start by taking the IAT, see what comes up. Then get comfortable with the idea that your very own brain may harbor implicit biases toward one or more groups. Especially if you are a person who says you “see everyone equally” or some such platitude, question the meanings behind your snap reactions or judgments of others. Try to notice patterns or be more deliberate in your interactions with others. Research exists to support the idea that people can change their automatic beliefs3, so your efforts will likely not be in vain.
In no way whatsoever is this discussion intended to relieve Hicks of any guilt or to place blame on any of his victims. Rather, it’s to suggest that the current definition of a hate crime requiring explicit prejudicial statements is outdated and too simplistic given what we know about implicit biases. Furthermore, understanding implicit biases can help us get past the racist vs. not-racist narrative and understand that people do what they do for much more complicated reasons than they themselves might even realize.
1 Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.
2 Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.
3 Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp (2002). Putting the brakes on prejudice: On the development and operation of cues for control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1029-1050.