Racism and the Charleston Church Shooting: Strategies to Confront Prejudice


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

Beyond the hate crime binary: Implicit bias in the Chapel Hill shooting

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.