October 1, 2007

How Do We Stop the Spreading Symbols of Hate and Intolerance?

An op-ed by Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD, former president of the APA, concerning hate crimes.

By Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD

Another psychologist at Columbia Teachers College has been the target of the most cowardly of hate crimes. This time, some disturbed and angry individual(s) spray-painted a swastika on the office door of a Jewish professor -- the second time in less than a month that a professor at the school has been the target of a bias incident.

Dr. Elizabeth Midlarsky, the latest victim, is a clinical psychologist who has studied the Holocaust. On Oct. 31, the school's associate provost called Dr. Midlarsky to inform her of the defacement.

On Oct. 10, a fellow Teachers College professor found a noose on the office door of Dr. Madonna G. Constantine, an African-American psychologist with expertise in multicultural studies.

What both these professors have in common is they are members of minority groups who have become renowned scholars on the history of prejudice. The person or persons who perpetrated these crimes chose their method to send the most hateful messages in their lexicon, knowing that they would reverberate beyond these two women to African-Americans and Jews everywhere. For that, after all, is the hallmark of a hate crime – that it goes beyond the immediate target in an attempt to hurt all people in a particular category.

For those of us whose professions center on understanding human behavior with the goal of helping to stop peoples' suffering and improve their lives, these incidents are troubling on many levels. While it's important, if not imperative, to decry these crimes in the strongest possible terms, doing so feeds the very pathology behind them.
Research tells us that the motivations for hate crimes include a desire for excitement and display of power. What could be more exciting and powerful than shaking up an entire university campus – even the whole of New York City – and seeing your handiwork covered by local and national media?

And yet, to remain silent does nothing to solve the problem, or to help us find and treat the perpetrators. Indeed, Dr. Midlarsky has said the incident Oct. 31 was actually the third time in recent weeks that she had been the target of bias. Research also tells us that people who commit hate crimes tend to ruminate on their prejudices as they plan their attacks. In addition, those who commit hate crimes show a history of such actions, beginning with smaller incidents and moving up to more serious ones.

So we are faced with a Hobson's choice: To remain silent and possibly encourage an escalation of incidents, or to speak out and risk sparking copy-cat crimes. And certainly, we are in a copy-cat phase right now, with nooses popping up on numerous college campuses around the country and anti-Semitic and racist graffiti appearing at public high schools, synagogues and homes around New York City.

The American Psychological Association, of which I am president, has for many years played a leadership role in speaking out against hate crimes. APA has adopted resolutions against racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and a host of other prejudices; it has supported expanding hate crimes laws and has issued position papers on the topic. The association's thinking has long been that it has a responsibility to recognize and deal with the profound psychological consequences of crimes motivated by bias. Many of the targets of hate crimes experience symptoms that bear the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, psychology has an important role to play in discovering methods for mitigating irrational prejudices in the hope of significantly reducing the incidence of hate crimes in our lifetimes. Psychological research has demonstrated that stereotypical thinking may decrease 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.
I support the intentions of Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, who has proclaimed that Nov. 29 will be that city's "Day Out Against Hate." Bringing together a broad cross-section of community and religious leaders in a public show of solidarity is one antidote to the poisonous behavior of those who are acting out their prejudices at Teachers College and elsewhere. However, we all have a responsibility to live every day as if it's a day out against hate – to be mindful of our own tendencies to stereotype or generalize; to treat everyone with respect and civility; to teach our young by example; and to speak out against intolerance wherever we see it.
Sharon Stephens Brehm was President of the American Psychological Association in 2007. 
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.