With the exception of gay rights, America doesn’t seem to be moving in an inclusive direction.
Quite the contrary.
As I write this, I’ve just looked at a lengthy strand of twitter comments about the new Miss America. She’s of Indian ancestry, and that fact unleashed some truly despicable comments about what it means to be both beautiful and a “real” American.
In the wake of President Obama’s election, overt racism has mushroomed; the sort of sentiments that simply weren’t made in polite company have become commonplace. Blatantly racist emails circulate among the like-minded and (occasionally) other appalled recipients , and racist blogs and Facebook posts are daily occurrences.
It’s not just race. The past few years have seen us take giant steps backward with respect to women’s rights. Bigotry against people who appear to be from the Middle East has hardened, and “Muslim” has become an insult, rather than a description of someone’s religious identity. Immigration reform? Forget it. Anti-immigrant sentiment has stalled even modest Congressional action.
And of course, legal and social progress notwithstanding, gay slurs continue to be thrown around with abandon.
So what are we to make of this ugly time we are going through? Are we just going through a particularly pissy phase, made worse by economic insecurity and rapid social change? Or is the nastiness a permanent part of the American landscape—one that has always been here, but (thanks to the Internet) is suddenly “in our face” in a way it never was before?
Over fifty years ago, a social scientist named Gordon Allport wrote a seminal book, The Nature of Prejudice. The book was written right after President Truman integrated the Armed Forces, while Americans were coming to terms with the presence of “colored” soldiers bunking down with the white ones. Then as now, other social shifts were intruding on “the way things have always been.”
Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.
The other category was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were the individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education would have no effect at all on their attitudes.
The question we face today, of course, is: into which group do today’s haters fall? And which category will define America going forward?