The Politics of the Pariah
Hate crimes are increasing. But more broadly, it's crucial to understand the behavioral, psychological, and social roots of ingroup/outgroup dynamics. A new study showcases astonishing results.
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A brief note: if you are based in London or nearby, I’ll be giving a talk about the 2024 US presidential election at University College London, titled “Will Trump Return to the White House?” on Thursday, November 2nd at 5pm. Sign-up here if you’d like to attend (it’s free). Come say hello! Alas, it won’t be streamed/recorded, so this is just for London-based readers. I’ll be announcing more Zoom lectures for all Garden of Forking Paths readers soon.
Fox News Reality is Wrong
The FBI released new data last week showing that violent crime is down in America, but that hate crimes are up. This is completely at odds with right-wing narratives about the United States, which portrays surging violence in lawless “Democrat-run” cities. Instead, the data show a different picture: violence is down, except against the very social groups that are targeted by right-wing tropes and the MAGA movement.
The majority of hate crimes target Black Americans, though there has been a significant number against Hispanic Americans, against members of the LGBTQ+ community, against Muslims, and against Jewish people. These crimes of hatred and prejudice are a stain on our collective identity, incited with a more aggressive hateful rhetoric on the political right, which is increasingly laced with overtly racist hate speech.
Much ink is rightly spilled about these dynamics, in which Donald Trump unleashed dark social forces that were previously dormant in American society, always there, but less open. (Charlottesville was a watershed. The modern Dollar Store reincarnations of the Klan, processing with Home Depot tiki torches, felt comfortable enough that they no longer believed they needed to hide their faces under white hoods).
The Irrationality of Ingroup/Outgroup Dynamics
I’ve written extensively about how Trump catalyzes hatred and political violence, so let’s set that aspect aside for now, and turn to a broader question that underlies all hate crimes: ingroup/outgroup dynamics. These ideas, originally coined by Henri Tajfel, showcase how humans innately split the social world into two parts: those who are part of our group, and those who are not. Much of the time, those judgments are absurd and irrational. Here’s my earlier take on how one study highlighted ingroup/outgroup idiocy with dystopian brilliance:
In one experiment, researchers in Britain recruited football (soccer) fans for a psychology experiment. Everyone who wasn’t a Manchester United fan was screened out of the participant pool, but participants didn’t know that’s why they’d been selected…The real experiment happened as participants moved from the first building to the second. Each person would encounter someone (an undercover member of the research team) who was visibly injured and needed assistance.
A third of the time, the supposedly injured person was wearing a Manchester United jersey. A third of the time, the person was wearing the jersey from Liverpool, a rival team. And a third of the time, the injured person was wearing a neutral shirt. The participants stopped to help those wearing Manchester United jerseys a whopping 92 percent of the time, compared to 35 percent for someone in a neutral shirt and just 30 percent for those wearing a rival-team shirt. The rates of assistance tripled, based only on a logo.
Now, in this study, there’s no variation or confusion over who is in the outgroup. It’s clear-cut: Manchester United fans are the ingroup, Liverpool supporters are the outgroup.
Our social lives are rarely so neat and tidy. Normally, when we encounter people, we make snap judgments about them, but usually not based on sporting allegiances. Instead, there are social biases, often unconscious ones, that skew our perceptions.
But recently, researchers wondered how static those perceptions really are—and how much they can be swayed by social dynamics and the relative size of various communities around us. They decided to test a specific hypothesis within the American political context. Academics have a knack for opaque and confused writing, but my translation of their research question boils down to this:
Do rising rates of Hispanic immigration in American communities make local white people less xenophobic toward Black community members?
To be clear, they’re talking about relative prevalence of prejudice, so it’s not the case that everyone will change their minds or their behavior. But some bigots will.
There are a few possible ways of thinking about this question.
Maybe it’s the case that rising immigration triggers a general rise in xenophobic attitudes, which extends to all non-white groups in the local population. We could call this “the hatred grows” hypothesis.
Alternatively, maybe there’s a displacement effect: as non-native immigrants enter a community, perhaps prejudice moves from targeting one group to another. We could call this “the hatred shifts” hypothesis.
So, which is it?
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