Public Prejudice: The alt-right doesn’t think you’re white

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Image from Quartz

I’m a quarter Russian. That quarter Russian is also Jewish, but it was handed down by my maternal grandfather. According to how Judaism is passed down, that makes me not Jewish. Well…to Jewish people. I was absolutely Jewish enough for Hitler. I’m what Hitler would have called a mixed-blood, or a mischling, someone who has both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. So even though I am not Jewish, neither of my parents are Jewish, and I’ve never even so much as been invited to a Bar Mitzvah or set foot in a synagogue, in Hitler’s Germany, I’m a Jew.

As we watched neo-nazis and the KKK marching in Charlottesville earlier this month, they weren’t chanting about the removal of statues or the snowflake-y nature of our current society, but they were chanting about Jews. It isn’t that surprising. We know that hate crimes against Jewish people have skyrocketed since Trump’s election. Someone even drew a swastika on a fence here in Durham North Carolina, a place that went almost 80% to Hillary Clinton. Racism, prejudice and discrimination have always been here. Trump didn’t invent them, even if he doesn’t do much to discourage them.

But something has shifted within me since Trump’s election. When I see these people marching with their torches, yelling about how they won’t be replaced by Jews, forehead veins popping with anger, I now feel like they are talking about me. And that’s good in a way. Because research shows that people who are primed to think about the differences between their group and another group actually increase their outgroup derogation.1 Or, in other words, we are more likely to look down on outgroups when we think of them as distinctly different from us. Thinking of ourselves as part of those groups decreases prejudice.

The way that we identify has a lot to do with how much we stand up for causes. Black people are the most active members of Black Lives Matter, because they are the direct targets of the current racial injustices in the legal system. The most visible LGBTQ activists have traditionally identified as LGBTQ themselves. Women are the most involved in securing access to women’s healthcare services, because they are the ones most in need of those healthcare services. It isn’t shocking or surprising that we don’t invest as much in outgroups as we do in our ingroups. Ask your next door neighbor if they’d rather feed their kids or yours given the choice.

Identity is a tricky thing. We often engage in self-presentation efforts, for instance, not wearing your KKK robes to work so your coworkers don’t hate you.2 So the impressions that you receive from someone may not be indicative of the way they truly feel. It may be a reflection of what they want you to see. This is something that the “alt-right” has embraced. When they held the march on Charlottesville, they didn’t look like a group of racist rednecks from the trailer park. They looked neat, well-groomed and well-dressed. That kind of self-presentation is like magic. They want you looking at the right hand so you don’t know what the left hand is doing. Sterilizing a message of hate with polo shirts doesn’t make it any less hateful.

Beyond self-presentation, self-concepts may or may not integrate all parts of one’s identity. That is unfortunate, as our self-concepts help to regulate our behavior.3 When we identify information as self-relevant, it is more likely to motivate us to act.3 Even though I am undoubtedly Jewish enough to be considered Jewish by the “blood and soil” crowd, I had never integrated that piece of my identity into my self-concept. I check the box for white on demographics questions, I am treated as white by people out in the world (i.e. I have white privilege) and when I buy face makeup, I buy one of the 3 lightest shades offered. Ostensibly, I am white. But to neo-nazis and the KKK, I’m not just not white, I’m subhuman. In fact, if you are not a protestant male of pure Aryan descent, the “alt-right” probably thinks you’re subhuman too.

Identity is pretty stable after a point. I won’t wake up tomorrow and decide that my morals and values have totally shifted and no longer recognize myself. But we can grow and change, integrating new ideas and roles into our self-concepts. The concept of identity integration suggests that perceiving an increase in compatibility between two seemingly disparate identities can increase performance on a variety of tasks.4 If we can integrate more parts of our identities, and see them as compatible with one another, we may be able to increase the amount of compassion and empathy we show to the people of color in our community. After all, that community is one of our ingroups.

In the wake of Charlottesville, white Americans have a choice. We hear the “alt-right” talking about immigrants, Jews, people of color and Catholics, and we can decide what we do with that information. We can say we are not part of those groups, and that we abhor white supremacy, but acknowledge it doesn’t really affect us personally. Or we can reevaluate our identities and realize that most of us are at least partial targets of these hate groups, whether we feel that way or not. To the alt-right, you probably ain’t white.

 

  1. Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out‐group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology40(2), 159-172.
  2. Leary, M. R. (1995). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
  3. Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology38(1), 299-337.
  4. Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay‐Positive Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of religion39(3), 333-347.
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Good Germans: Authority and obedience make dangerous bedfellows

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Image of Eichmann’s trial from the Daily Beast

“I was just following orders.” It is these famous words of Adolf Eichmann’s, uttered during his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961, that made Stanley Milgram’s career. Eichmann had been a high level Nazi officer, and was responsible for carrying out Hitler’s final solution by deporting millions of Jews to concentration camps. The world was shocked by the extent of the atrocities of the Third Reich, that the Nazis killed untold millions of people in response to the orders of an unhinged authoritarian leader. Stanley Milgram, the American son of Jewish immigrants, was born in 1933, around the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. By the time 1961 rolled around, Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale, and he had devised and begun his famous Obedience experiments. Milgram posited that authority figures may elicit an uncomfortable level of obedience from their subordinates, as evidenced by the German people getting swept up in a demagogue’s maniacal vision. He sought to prove that completely normal people could commit unspeakable acts against other humans, simply because they were following orders from an authority figure.

Allow me to set the scene. You arrive at Yale University in response to an ad in the New Haven newspaper. You figure you’ll make $4.50 on what has been described as a learning experiment. After being introduced to another man, you are randomly assigned to be the teacher and he is randomly assigned to be the learner. You both move into adjacent rooms. In front of you, there’s a big shiny box with 30 marked switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. You come to find that the learner is hooked up to this machine in the other room. You are told to ask the learner a question and shock him if he gets the answer wrong. You are supposed to administer a higher voltage shock for each incorrect answer. You ask the first question. The learner is correct. You move on. But soon, he begins to be wrong quite a bit, and you are moving fast through the switches. 200 volts. Flick, buzz. 215 volts. Flick, buzz. Finally, you get to 300 volts. The learner is wrong. You flick the switch; you hear the buzz of the shock. Suddenly, you hear loud banging on the wall. The learner is trying to signal you. You look to the experimenter in the room with you. He seems unalarmed. He tells you to keep going.

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Image of Milgram with his shock generator from Aeon

You put your finger on the 315-volt switch and ask your question. The learner is wrong again. You flip the switch. Flick, buzz. The learner bangs on the wall again, trying to signal you. Again, you turn towards the experimenter. You are told that it is imperative to the experiment that you continue. You ask another question. The learner is silent. You look to the experimenter. He tells you that no answer is the same as an incorrect answer. You flip the 330-volt switch. Flick, buzz. Silence. You look at the experimenter. At this point you are getting nervous. You start to sweat profusely. You’re laughing for some reason even though this is not funny at all. You suspect that you may be hurting the other man. You suspect that the other man may no longer be able to respond. But the experimenter tells you that you must continue, that you have no choice. And you do. Question, silence, flick, buzz. Question, silence, flick, buzz. You get to the last switch. 450 volts. It clearly says “Danger-Severe Shock.” You are shaking, completely beside yourself. You ask your last question. Silence again. You put your finger on the last switch. You flick it. You hear the buzz of the shock. You are so relieved it’s over. You’ve never been more disturbed by your own actions in your life. In the other room, you still hear nothing but silence.

When people hear about this experiment, they swear that they would never do this. They would stop as soon as the other man alerted them that he wanted to stop. But 65% of participants shocked the learner all the way until the highest voltage, even though he had failed to respond to 10 questions in a row after banging on the wall. Even though many subjects showed severe signs of distress and expressed concern that they might have hurt the learner, only 14 out of 40 stopped in between the learner’s first protest and the end of the experiment. Most participants were experiencing serious discomfort, but continued to do something they thought was hurting someone else simply because they were told to keep going by an authority figure.

Milgram’s findings even surprised himself. People he had polled doubted that anyone would go all the way to the end, generally estimating that just a few people would actually administer the final shock. But two-thirds of the participants were willing to act outside of their own personal values not to hurt other people, simply because the experimenter asked them to. They were paid up front and told that they could leave at any time without penalty. They were all grown men, not college students. They had never met the other man, a confederate of the experimenter who was never actually shocked, and they had no reason to inflict harm on him. In fact, most participants rated the confederate as being pretty pleasant. Why would people continue to go on when they could have stopped? Milgram had his answer. People are shockingly malleable when authorities are involved. They will often go along with things with little to no explanation as to why they are doing it, and then rationalize their own actions to themselves once they become uncomfortable. Because we don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, we start to believe that what we are doing is okay. This is classic cognitive dissonance.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, he did so by appealing to disillusioned Germans who were struggling to feed their families and blaming their struggles on the “impurity” of the Jewish people. He combined hopeful rhetoric about the glory of Germany with hateful rhetoric about how the Jews were responsible for Germany’s challenges. Within 12 years, Hitler had ordered the extermination of up to 6,000,000 innocent Jews. Hitler’s populist, xenophobic talk led to World War II and the largest genocide in the history of the world. The power of a single authority is enough to bring the whole world to its knees. And the men and women who helped Hitler carry out his atrocities? Well, they were just following orders.

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Image from Pinterest

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.