In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally, the Washington Post‘s William Wan and Sarah Kaplan set out to learn about the science behind racism and bias. Here’s an answer from one social psychologist they interviewed:
“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”
And here’s more from another psychology prof:
“An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in group.’”
But how we define those groups, and the tendency to draw divisions along racial lines, is social, not biological, he added. “We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” he said.
…“The most likely predictor of that is exposure to a kind of ideology,” Knowles said. Most if not all people carry implicit biases and unexamined prejudices, he said, and some may harbor feelings of fear or resentment that they don’t express in public.
These insights are important, and kudos to these reporters for presenting a scientific perspective on the racism that motivated this horrible event. As helpful as this research is, however, it only reaffirms what some folks have known for years: That bigotry and bias are taught and reinforced by society.
In fact, if you want a more pop culture approach to this basic postulate, go back to the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was later made into a movie in 1958. Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the show deals with serious issues of race and color and was considered quite controversial for its time. One of the numbers, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” is about how people learn racist beliefs and intolerance. Go here or click above for a snippet of the song from the movie version.
Related note: The Bloomberg/BNA Daily Labor Report interviewed me about the employment law implications of the Charlottesville rally in this piece, “Can You Fire Someone for Attending a Rally of Racists?”