October 1, 2007
An APA OpEd: Understanding and Preventing Hate Crimes
Research has indicated that while most people believe themselves to be free of prejudice, many also harbor attitudes that may lead to subtle discriminatory beliefs or behaviors. This contradiction between self-perception and actual behavior indicates that everyone needs to be vigilant about their own attitudes -- and what we might be inadvertently teaching others around us, particularly children and students.
by Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD
This week, another college campus was the scene of a noose carefully placed to threaten, intimidate and shock. On Tuesday, a faculty member found the meticulously tied rope on the office door of Dr. Madonna Constantine, a well-respected African-American psychologist at Columbia University's Teachers College.
This incident comes on the heels of nooses found outside the African-American cultural center at the University of Maryland, in the personal belongings of a black cadet and a white faculty member at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and, perhaps most notoriously in recent months, on the so-called “white tree” at a high school in Jena, La.
The people who employ these symbols are certainly aware of their power. For black Americans, the noose is a potent reminder of the nearly 5,000 African-American men and women who were hanged by whites from 1890 through the 1960s.
This spate of noose placements serves as confirmation of the findings of a significant body of psychological studies showing that discrimination and prejudice persist in significant and demonstrable ways in our country. Research has indicated that while most people believe themselves to be free of prejudice, many also harbor attitudes that may lead to subtle discriminatory beliefs or behaviors. This contradiction between self-perception and actual behavior indicates that everyone needs to be vigilant about their own attitudes -- and what we might be inadvertently teaching others around us, particularly children and students.
There is also widespread agreement among social scientists that the social categorization process -- making assumptions about people based on their race or ethnic group, including racial stereotyping -- is a virtually automatic and often unconscious process.
The strategic placement of a noose, however, involves forethought, planning and outright hostility. Indeed, these campus incidents are being investigated as hate crimes, and the perpetrators most certainly deserve strong sanctions that clearly condemn such despicable acts.
What does psychology tell us about the backgrounds and motivations of people who commit hate crimes? For one thing, they are not mentally ill in the traditional sense; according to psychological scientists, they're not diagnosably schizophrenic or manic depressive, for example. What those who engage in hate crimes do share, however, is a high level of aggression and antisocial behavior.
More than just a prank
People who commit hate crimes "are not psychotic, but they're consistently very troubled, very disturbed, very problematic members of our community who pose a huge risk for future violence," according to Dr. Edward Dunbar, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied hate crime perpetrators from a clinical and forensic perspective. Dunbar also notes that childhood histories of such offenders show high levels of parental or caretaker abuse and use of violence to solve family problems.
Alcohol and drugs sometimes help fuel these crimes, but the main determinant seems to be personal prejudice, which distorts people's judgment, blinding them to the immorality of what they are doing.
People who commit bias crimes are more likely to deliberate and plan their attacks than those who commit other types of crimes, Dunbar adds. In addition, those who commit hate crimes show a history of such actions, beginning with smaller incidents and moving up to more serious ones.
As for those who bear the brunt of these vicious acts, they tend to suffer emotional damage, often with the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Hate crimes can create intense feelings of vulnerability, anger and depression.
On a more positive note, research has demonstrated that stereotypical thinking may be reduced as a consequence of contact between people of different races. For example, research results indicate that interactions among students of different races can diminish racial stereotyping, contribute to building cross-cultural respect, and enhance social and communication skills. What's especially encouraging about these findings is that they are particularly strong among children in K-12 learning environments. Thus, early positive experiences of diversity prepare children for the diverse world they will inhabit.
The impact of diversity is indeed complex – but for most of us, it is not double-edged. Once we can overcome any initial discomfort with new experiences, we are prepared to derive many long-term personal, occupational and social benefits.
Violence and hate crimes can have serious consequences for the mental health and well-being of victims and communities. My colleague Dr. Constantine is particularly knowledgeable about the various experiences that produce an individual who engages in hate crimes. I hope that her many years of research, teaching and advocating for cultural competence can help her to withstand this unconscionable attack. But mostly, I hope these repugnant incidents will be a catalyst for us all to become more committed to eliminating racism and hate.
Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD was President of the American Psychological Association