The government’s roundup and detention of U.S. citizens and immigrants perceived to be Arab, South Asian, or Muslim is likely fostering discrimination and prejudice above and beyond the impact of 9-11, say social psychologists.
The violent attacks of September 11 and their aftermath have created a real-world experiment for social scientists who usually develop their theories in university labs. Their research, much of which is still in progress, shows that the more positively people feel toward their country, the more likely they are to hold anti-Arab prejudices. Taken with statistical evidence of hate crimes and job discrimination, the new research suggests that while the shock of the attacks sparked bigotry against those associated in American minds with Islam, subsequent sweeping crackdowns, such as the government roundup and detention of Muslims, are sending “social signals” that are worsening the biases.
“I would hypothesize that the aftermath of 9-11—the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq—would do more to increase anti-Arab bias than 9-11 on its own,” said University of Virginia social psychologist Brian Nosek.
One of the new studies found that after 9-11 people thought better of politicians, firefighters, and Americans in general, but felt more negative toward U.S. citizens of Arab descent, new immigrants, Palestinians, and residents of Islamic or Middle Eastern countries. The findings, by social psychologist Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois at Chicago, to be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, dovetail with other, smaller studies in the wake of 9-11 that found that the more positively one felt about the U.S., the more likely one was to be anti-Arab.
“When you’re under threat, you tend to think of ‘who’s with me’ and ‘who’s against me,’ ” explained Colgate University psychologist Jack Dovidio, a specialist in the issues of prejudice and stereotyping.
Another ongoing research project, headed by Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, focuses on the subtler “implicit” feelings of 89 student participants and has found that the more they unconsciously favor the U.S. and even their university, the stronger their bias against Arab Americans. A similar study by researchers at Purdue and San Diego State University of 374 students, including 102 from NYU, identified the same link between patriotic feelings and prejudice against Arab Americans.
“We’re trying to figure out who we should be nervous about. We’re looking for social cues to tell us,” said David R. Harris, a racial demographer at the University of Michigan. “If the federal government has rules that tell us, or certain people get pulled off planes, that’s telling us pretty blatantly that this is the group to worry about.”
By requiring male immigrants from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and other Muslim countries to register with authorities, the government is signaling that all males from those countries are dangerous, Harris and others agree. A similar message was sent in the months after 9-11, when the Justice Department detained 750 immigrants, mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern, on minor immigration violations to look for terrorist ties. A recent Department of Justice internal report tells how the government held many people without any proof of terrorist links, often for long periods of time, effectively stigmatizing entire groups.
In turn, Linda Skitka’s study found that the more people reported feeling angry and threatened, the more willing they were to restrict civil liberties. The researchers did discover, however, that people who engaged in what the study termed “value affirmation,” including donating blood and even flying an American flag, in general became more politically tolerant after the attack.
The public may justify harsh government policies toward, say, Arab Americans, by misattributing guilt to the very people who are mistreated. Virginia psychologist Nosek called it the “just-world effect,” in which people rationalize that when bad things happen to a group, the group members must have deserved it. Such a reaction, he said, may explain a poll taken May 14-18 showing that 34 percent of Americans believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that 22 percent thought Iraq had recently used such weapons—though no such weapons have been found and there is no evidence any were used. Those erroneous beliefs were more common among those who supported the war, according to the poll, which was conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). A subsequent PIPA poll in late June indicated that fewer people incorrectly believed that the U.S. had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, the June poll also found that more than half incorrectly believed that the U.S. had found “clear evidence in Iraq” that Saddam Hussein was “working closely” with Al Qaeda.
Changes in the public’s perception of Muslims, Arabs, and related groups are manifesting on the streets and in offices. In the months immediately following 9-11, hate crimes against Muslims shot up to 34 times their pre-attack levels, according to FBI reports. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), based in Washington, D.C., reported that hate crimes against people believed to be of Middle Eastern descent increased 40 times before dropping to about double the former rate—and that rate has held steady.
Reports of workplace bias have stayed consistently high. Complaints to the U.S. Equal Opportun-ity Employment Commission of discrimination against Muslim workers have doubled. Reports to the ADC of employment discrimination against Arab Americans quadrupled in 2002.
The statistics and research, although grim, also point to factors that might quell growing prejudice. “One lesson you can take from 9-11 is that we seem to be hardwired to be suspicious of the other,” said Harris, the Michigan demographer. “What’s important is that this ‘other’ isn’t fixed over time.” In the past, for example, groups now classified as white—such as the Irish and Italians—were considered nonwhite and their immigration was restricted for decades.
Though New York has more hate crimes and discrimination than many other states, the spike in hate crimes here after 9-11 was below the national average. Increases in work-place discrimination have also been slightly lower.
“Because there are large percentages of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, there is greater interaction,” said Dalia Hashad of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And of course where there is greater interaction, there is more discrimination, but you also have greater understanding.”
Harris found some evidence of how familiarity with people of other races can change one’s perspective. In a study of 1,667 college freshmen, he found that whites with nonwhite roommates were less rigid in their racial classifications and more likely to classify photographs of multiracial individuals as mixed-race, rather than trying to fit them within categories such as white and Latino. It’s a reach to say that having less rigid classifications indicates less prejudice, Harris acknowledged, but the evidence did indicate that living with someone of another race can change how people perceive race.
“You need people to interact with each other to realize that the ‘other’ isn’t that different,” Harris said, citing the Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. “Most people know white guys, so after that bombing, no one said all white guys are terrorists.”