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Combating Racism Through Shared Goals

A Skeptic's Guide to Racism

Stuart Vyse

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.1, January/February 2018


Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, holding Nazi, Confederate, and “Don't Tread on Me” flags.
Photo by: Anthony Crider

When my oldest child was in high school, the school encountered its first openly gay student. The young man in question was an exuberant thunderbolt of warmth and talent who, from the moment he entered kindergarten, was loved by all who knew him. When he hit high school, he came out in a big way. “I am gay—very gay,” he said, and he started attending school events with his boyfriend. Our small town had never seen anything like it before.

This story would not be particularly remarkable except that this young man was born into a family of Republicans. His father was a strong Second Amendment advocate who harbored government conspiracy theories, and his mother’s family were Catholics who had been central to local GOP politics for years. But more important to them than politics or religion was their unquestioned love for this boy. Almost overnight, his family became some of the strongest and most vocal advocates for gay rights our town had seen. They did not all become liberal Democrats, but to them the campaign for LBGTQ rights was an important and obvious cause. They were in.

Much of the last twenty years of my career has been spent championing evidence, reason, and critical thinking. I’ve taught the basics of logic and the pitfalls of fallacies. Unfortunately, as much as I continue to value rationality, experience tells me that argument is rarely an effective method of changing minds. As much as I value ideas and facts, these are not the things that mend the divisions between us. Rather the path to greater cooperation and understanding is both simpler and much more difficult.

In 1954, the Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif (1961) conducted the now-famous Robbers Cave Experiment. He and a team of researchers recruited twenty-two well-adjusted white Protestant fifth-grade boys to participate in a summer camp in Oklahoma. The boys were split into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles, and, during an initial period, the groups were kept apart. Then, after the members of each group had gotten to know each other, the counselor-researchers introduced the groups to each other and organized four days of competition between the Rattlers and the Eagles. The boys played football, softball, and had a tug-of-war, and before long, signs of intergroup prejudice and conflict emerged out of the competitions. The Eagles burned the Rattlers’ flag, and in retaliation the Rattler’s trashed the Eagles’ cabin.

The most remarkable part of the Robbers Cave Experiment was not the ease with which the researchers could instill prejudice in a group of young boys. It was that, once established, they were able to counteract the prejudice they had created. First, they tried merely putting the groups together, but simple contact failed. Fights broke out, and no progress was made. So the researchers rigged a number of situations that required the boys to cooperate across groups for common goals. A broken-down truck needed to be moved, and doing so required all the boys to pull together on the same rope they used for the tug-of-war. A movie night was organized, but paying for it required all the boys to contribute in a manner they devised together. As these contrived cooperative situations unfolded, conflict died out and friendships across groups emerged. Sherif’s simple conclusion was that competition for limited resources breeds prejudice and cooperation toward superordinate goals breeds inter-group harmony.

This seems like such a simple thing. Work together for common goals, and respect and affection will result, but how do we arrange for common goals? The integration of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948 was widely cited as a significant step forward in the civil rights movement (Conn 1952). The common goals of the military are obvious, and placing white and black soldiers side by side made interracial cooperation a necessity. But integrating the armed forces required an executive order from President Truman. It would not have happened without the right kind of leadership. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, today’s leaders appear to be creating greater competition between groups and fewer opportunities for cooperation toward superordinate goals. There are some unusual circumstances in which the bonds of cooperation are preexisting, such as in the family of the pioneering gay young man in our town. But far too often the bonds of cooperation have to come from somewhere else: our leaders or ourselves.

In the wake of the horrible events of Charlottesville, I came across an article with the unlikely title “We Need to Start Befriending Neo Nazis” (Mandel 2017), which was made even more unlikely because it appeared in a Jewish newspaper, The Forward. The article went on to describe a number of successful efforts to convert people from racist and bigoted organizations by listening to them, rather than arguing with them, and, in one case, by inviting an anti-Semite who had been shunned by the rest of his college community to come to a Shabbat dinner. People who have the extraordinary patience to reach out to those whose beliefs they find abhorrent have, on occasion, been able to forge the kinds of shared bonds that reduce conflict. This kind of work is not for everyone. Even the author of the article admitted that she might not be up to the task. But the message is clear: We do not solve our problems by demonizing our enemies. We do not change minds through argument or violence. We have to treat each other as equals and find new superordinate goals that we can all work toward together. And, of course, elect leaders who will do the same.



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Stuart Vyse

Stuart Vyse's photo

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.