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Why Bush Had Better Luck Than Obama In Fighting Anti-Muslim Bigotry

In the White House, can a white conservative do more to restrain anti-Islamic bigotry than an African-American progressive? Writing on the anniversary of 9/11, a couple of writers Saturday argued that this is so. Studies on the psychology of prejudice suggest they’re right.

Chicken crusaders—Americans who have nothing to fear from Muslims, yet feel free to attack and insult them—are becoming a global problem, as their hatred provokes mirror-image rhetoric in the Muslim world. So more people are taking up the question I blogged about last month: Why is anti-Islamic bigotry in the U.S. rising now, when it didn’t flare up right after 9/11?

Certainly, President Bush deserves some credit for Americans’ widespread sanity in 2001. Not as much credit, though, as Nicholas Kristof gave him on Saturday. Americans back then didn’t plan to desecrate Korans or try to separate Muslims from their constitutional rights, Kristof wrote, because “President George W. Bush pushed back at his conservative ranks and repeatedly warned Americans not to confuse Al Qaeda with Islam.”

On the same day in the same paper, Porochista Khakpour’s op-ed piece went deeper. It wasn’t just Bush’s words that swayed people, she suggested. It was also the way he looked, and where his party stood: “Perhaps when Republicans held both the White House and Congress, conservatives weren’t sweating a thing; for them, people of color, along with all our white liberal friends, were lumped together in one misery-loves-company fringe. But now that the tables have turned, conservatives have positioned themselves as aggrieved victims.”

Khakpour was highlighting the profound difference between tolerance and assimilation. Tolerance is the notion that “we” must put up with “them.” Acceptance is the notion that we are them. Tolerance reinforces the boundaries, even as it exhorts everyone to be nice about them. Assimilation breaks boundaries down. A white conservative Christian President who tells the nation to reject bigotry is no threat to white conservatives who consider the United States to be a Christian nation.H is message of peace and tolerance can even subtly reinforce the subliminal feeling that true Americans are white and have names like George.

A President who isn’t white, whose name is Barack, is a different matter. He’s a living rebuke to once-familiar unconscious guidelines (which say that the country belongs to whites and others are guests). 

What sort of mind is bothered by this kind of social change? A couple of years ago, the social psychologist Jim Sidanius of Harvard proposed an answer, in a paper that, to my eye, foreshadowed this year’s split between regular Republicans and Tea Partiers.

Sidanius and his colleagues distinguished between two kinds of conservative: authoritarians and hierarchists (my term, not his). The authoritarians are most concerned with upholding rules, no matter the identity of those who obey them. The hierarchists (or people with “social dominance orientation,” in Sidanius’ theory) are more concerned with preserving identities—even if a few rules need to be broken, ignored or changed in the process.

That may sound like a hair-splitting difference, but if it’s valid, it could explain big differences in political behavior. In their attitudes toward immigrants, for instance, authoritarians ought to feel more kindly toward immigrants who assimilate into their new society—they’re playing by “our” rules, and meeting our standards. By contrast, hierarchists ought to prefer immigrants who don’t assimilate—people who know their place and don’t break down old distinctions.

To test that idea Sidanius et al. gave 153 university students this creepy scenario: “Imagine that some day in the future the US government decides to outlaw immigrant organizations and requests all citizens to do their best to make sure that the law has a successful effect.” Then each person indicated on a scale from 1 to 7 how much s/he agreed with statements that ranged from “I would tell my friends that it was a good law” through “I would help hunt down members of immigrant organizations” to ”I would support the execution of immigrant leaders.”

Before they’d filled out this survey, though, some of the students had read a story about an immigrant which emphasized assimilation (“Mohammed […] does his very best to adjust and fit in here, even if this means that he cannot completely hold onto the values and traditions of his home country”). Others had read the same story shifted in the other direction, to emphasize separation (“Carlos […] does his very best to hold onto the values and traditions of his home country even if this means he cannot completely adjust and fit in here.”) They’d also been given tests supposed to measure their degrees of both authoritarianism and “social dominance orientation.”

And it turned out that authoritarian students were indeed more hostile to immigrants after they’d read about people who didn’t assimilate, like Carlos. But the hierarchy-oriented people went the other way: They were more willing to hurt immigrants after hearing about one who did assimilate.

I can’t do justice in a single post to Sidanius elegant and interesting theory of social dominance psychology, which has implications neither conservatives nor liberals like very much. In this study in 1997(pdf), for instance, he and his colleagues found that patriotic feeling in a survey of 823 UCLA students was tied to whiteness: the more white students preferred their own race or opposed intermarriage, the greater their feelings of patriotic attachment to the United States. Among Asian, Latino and black students, patriotic answers were inversely correlated with preference for their own social group.

But the attitudes-to-immigration study is worth pondering this week, as anti-Muslim rhetoric heats up in this country. It might help explain how and why our current wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric has little to do with the real Muslim world and a lot to do with some people’s yearning to restore their feeling that the only true American faces are the one they see in their mirrors.

The paper on attitudes toward immigration:

Thomsen, L., Green, E., & Sidanius, J. (2008). We will hunt them down: How social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism fuel ethnic persecution of immigrants in fundamentally different ways☆ Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (6), 1455-1464 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.06.011

The paper on ethnicity and patriotism:

Sidanius, J., Feshbach, S., Levin, S., & Pratto, F. (1997). The Interface Between Ethnic and National Attachment: Ethnic Pluralism or Ethnic Dominance? Public Opinion Quarterly, 61 (1, Special Issue on Race) DOI: 10.1086/297789

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And a paper suggesting that, for some students, racism increases with education level:

Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., & Bobo, L. (1996). Racism, conservatism, Affirmative Action, and intellectual sophistication: A matter of principled conservatism or group dominance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (3), 476-490 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.476


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