Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 As Bias Crime Seems to Rise, Scientists Study Roots of Racism 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Daniel Goleman  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
As racial and ethnic violence erupts throughout the world, psychologists are striving
to understand what impels people to acts of hatred, particularly when they act in groups.
Researchers are focusing on who commits such crimes, what motivates them
and exactly why people who would not commit violent acts on their own express their hatred so freely in groups.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Scientists studying hate crimes have made these findings:

* They are far more lethal than other kinds of attacks, resulting in the hospitalization of their victims four times more often than is true for other assaults.

* They are crimes of youth: most of those who perpetrate them are in their teens or 20's. But they are not crimes of youthful rebellion: those who carry them out are venting feelings shared by their families, friends and community, researchers say.

* The large majority are committed by people in groups of four or more. And the more people in the group, the more vicious the crime.

* They reflect the primal emotions aroused by the love of one's own group; these deep feelings of group identity are particularly vivid in times of economic and political uncertainty and among people who suffered emotional neglect as children.
 

These factors are at play, experts say, as racial, religious and ethnic incidents erupt around the world, in riots between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, anti-Semitism in Russia, the racial killing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and the tensions in the borough between blacks and Koreans.

''Everyone who collects data reports a steady increase in hate crimes in the last year or two,'' said Howard Ehrlich, director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence in Baltimore.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, reported that last year its civil rights unit had a record number of cases. ''These crimes are certainly on the increase,'' said Mike Kortan, a bureau spokesman.

Although the figures may reflect increased reporting rather than an actual increase in crime, rates for what the police call ''bias crimes'' - acts of violence inspired by racism and other prejudice - are also rising. The Boston Police Department, which had recorded about 150 bias crimes each year from 1986 to 1988, had 202 cases in 1989.

In New York City, such crimes were up 14 percent for the first four months of 1990 compared with the same time last year, said Inspector Paul Sanderson of the Bias Incident Investigation Unit.

For 1989 the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith monitored a 12 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents from the previous year, including harassment, assaults, desecration and vandalism. ''It's the highest number we've recorded in 11 years,'' said Gail Gans, who works in the league's research office.

Particularly troubling to Ms. Gans and others who track such statistics is the activity on college campuses. In 1989 racial or ethnic incidents were reported on 115 American campuses.

''What's most distressing is that it's spreading,'' said Dr. Erlich. ''Of the 115 campuses, 52 were places where there hadn't been such trouble before.''
 
 
 
 

The Patterns:

Whos and Whys Of Bias:
Bias crimes vary widely, from a swastika daubed on a synagogue to the beating of a white youth waiting for a bus in a black neighborhood. Certain patterns are particularly common. ''Most hate crimes are matters of turf; the most frequent is an attack on someone who is just passing through a neighborhood where he's seen as out of place,'' said Jack McDevitt, a sociologist at Northeastern Unviversity.

Dr. McDevitt has analyzed 452 cases of bias crime that occurred in Boston from 1983 to 1987. He reported his findings last year at a conference of the American Society of Criminology in Reno, Nev.

Of all bias crimes, Dr. McDevitt found, 57 percent involved issues of turf; they were attacks on someone walking, driving through or working in a neighborhood, or on a family moving into the area or not wanted there.

Typical of those, he said, was what happened to an Asian family that moved into an all-white neighborhood in Boston. On the first night someone broke several windows with rocks; on the second night the walls were spray-painted with racist slurs. On the third night the family moved back to its old neighborhood, leaving an older son to guard its possessions. A mob of 20 youths taunted the son until he came out, then beat him.

Another common pattern is an attack on someone who has wandered into a neighborhood not realizing he or she is ''out of place.'' In one such incident, Dr. McDevitt said, a 12-year-old black girl took a shortcut from her school to a new convenience store nearby. As she was walking there, a group of white youths drove alongside and asked what she was doing in ''their'' neighborhood. They started taunting her, got out, pushed her down and kicked her, breaking a rib.

In Dr. McDevitt's study, most of the perpetrators of racist incidents were young white men, just under two-thirds; one-third were black. Of the total sample, two-thirds were 29 or younger. Virtually none of the perpetrators were women, but women accounted for 29 percent of the victims.

And while most of the crimes by blacks were against whites, Dr. McDevitt said that ''whites attack everybody: blacks, Hispanics, gays, Asians.'' He added that in Boston bias crimes by Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans were rare, though Vietnamese were the third most frequently victimized group.

Patterns vary, of course, in other cities. In Miami, for instance, tensions are greatest between Hispanic residents and blacks, said Dr. McDevitt.
 
 
 
 
 

The Ugly Crowd:

Viciousness In Numbers:
The viciousness of bias incidents is among Dr. McDevitt's most startling findings. Half involved assaults. Of these, the victims were injured in 74 percent of the cases; the national average for injury to an assault victim is 29 percent.

More telling, at least one victim required hospitalization in 30 percent of the prejudice-based assaults, while for other assaults the average rate of injuries that severe is 7 percent.

The usual number of perpetrators in such crimes, Dr. McDevitt found, is four or more. The most common number of victims is one.

''It's a coward's crime,'' said Detective Brian Flynn, who investigates such incidents for the Boston police. ''It takes just 10 seconds to break a window in the dead of night, but they have to get together in numbers to get their guts up.''

Sheer numbers encourage viciousness, new research shows. For instance, Brian Mullen, a psychologist at Syracuse University has analyzed newspaper accounts of 60 lynchings in the United States earlier in this century.

''The larger the mob, the more atrocious and savage the lynching, and the more likely to include burning or mutilating the victim,'' said Dr. Mullen.

One reason crowds draw out a viciousness that the individuals would not display on their own, psychologists say, is that there is a diffusion of responsibility. Being one among many means that no one person need take the blame for what happens.

Anonymity is also a force in unleashing the crowd's viciousness. The hoods and night meetings of the Ku Klux Klan have long taken advantage of this, said Dr. Steven Salmony, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina who has studied the dynamics of Klan violence by observing Klan rallies and by interviewing members, including one who shared secret documents.

But most bias crimes are anonymous in a larger sense: the crowd itself offers anonymity and, in most cases, its members do not know their victim. More than 85 percent of the crimes he analyzed were committed by strangers, Dr. McDevitt found.

Dr. Mullen said, ''The tragedy is that when people in the mob look back afterward, they almost always say they can't believe they did those things. It's like it was someone else doing it.''

That fact is telling, according to Dr. Mullen. ''In the moment that people get carried away by a crowd, they literally forget themselves,'' he said. ''They forget their own sense of what's right and wrong, of the normal limits to what they will do.'' In many cases, those who commit bias crimes have been primed for racist actions by the values expressed by family members. ''When they're sitting around the dinner table at home they hear this racist garbage from their mom and dad,'' said Detective Flynn. ''It makes them feel they have their family's approval.''
 
 
 
 
The Emotional Roots:
 
Primal Feelings Turned Loose:
Psychoanalysts see primal feelings at play when prejudice leads to acts of hatred. ''The excitement of a group encourages people to regress to the psychological level of early childhood,'' said Dr. Salmony.

Early childhood, Dr. Salmony said, is a time when the emotional world is split into sharp dichotomies of good and bad, love and hate. ''In adulthood, for some people that becomes an emotional split with intense love for your own group and an intense hatred for another group,'' he said.

That emotional dynamic means that the underside of pride in one's own group is dislike of another.

Most people harbor such feelings lightly, if at all, and can keep the impulse to act on them under control. While these attitudes are revealed, for instance, in ethnic jokes and slurs, they rarely lead to overt acts of bias in most people, Dr. Salmony said.

In fact, psychologists say, ethnic jokes can offer a kind of safety valve for hostilities.

''The racist remarks of stand-up comedians just reflect the fact that ethnic and racial mistrust always exists in the folk culture, and shows up in humor,'' said Dr. Vamık Volkan, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. ''But it's not bad: if you can laugh about it, you're not likely to act on it.''

Such humor can even form a positive bond to the ridiculed group. ''If you make the same kind of degrading remarks about yourself, your family and your own group, as many comedians do, then it forms an emotional link to the groups you attack,'' Dr. Volkan said.

But, he said, ''when a comedian's humor is only derisive of the other group, and the comedian is hate-filled, then it adds to the hatred,'' said Dr. Volkan.

Such hostility carries the most emotional intensity, Dr. Salmony said, in people whose parents ignored their basic emotional needs as children.

For such people, said Dr. Salmony, ''being in a crowd where hostile feelings toward a group are being expressed triggers a regression to a primitive level of mental activity. They fall prey to an emotional contagion where they see their own group as they source of all that is good, and those in an opposing group as equally bad. It intensifies their hatred toward those seen as outsiders.''

At that moment, striking out against the hated group has a paradoxical effect: it makes the one who hates feel good about himself. ''The aggression enhances their own sense of identity with a group they love,'' said Dr. Salmony. ''It's a malignant kind of narcissism that fills them with a heightened feeling of their own value.''
 
 
 
 
 
Economic Factors:
 
Shifting Blame In Troubled Times
The ethnic tensions that are shattering Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have a similar basis, said Ervin Staub, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who is the author of ''The Roots of Evil'' (Cambridge University Press). Of course, the removal of political repression has allowed long-smoldering ethnic resentments to surface. But they have erupted with such intensity for other reasons, Dr. Staub said.

''In times of great economic insecurity and political turmoil, people need to affirm a sense of their own value,'' he said. ''These things shake your identity. You need to recreate a positive view of yourself and the group you are rooted in. But the very definition of yourself as a member of one group includes enmity towards another group.''

Dr. Volkan said: ''Who you are implies, at an emotional level, who you are not, and stress makes you cling all the more stubbornly to your ethnic identity.''

Dr. Staub, who is from Hungary, added, ''In Romania it was the Romanians against the Hungarians, in Czechoslovakia it was the Czechs against the Slovaks, and everyone was against the Jews.''

''These enmities are ancient, but they surface whenever life is in turmoil,'' Dr. Staub said. ''Devaluing the other elevates the self: this feeling that I am good is all the more important when you feel your world is out of control.''

Hatred of another group ''shifts responsibility for your problems to someone else and gives the appearance that life can be controlled if you just can do away with this enemy,'' Dr. Staub said. ''A shared enemy strengthens the group.''
 
That is why the protection of territory, whether a neighborhood or a province, is so common in ethnic tensions, said Dr. Volkan, who has studied ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks on his native Cyprus, as well as similar friction in other parts of the world.

''The group's boundaries make each person inside the group feel closer,'' said Dr. Volkan. ''An outsider who pierces that boundary attacks the identity it defines.''

The recent increase in bias incidents in America, social scientists say, is spurred by economic worries. The last such increase, according to many of those interviewed, was during the recession of the late 1970's. However no one has precise figures from that period; widespread tracking of bias crimes began only the mid-1980's.

Nevertheless, those who study hate crimes say shaky economic periods heighten intergroup tensions. ''The last rise in hate crimes in America was during the last economic recession,'' said Ivan Light, a sociologist at University of California at Los Angeles. ''The roots of intergroup conflict are as much in economic competition as it is in negative stereotypes.''

Dr. Salmony said: ''Economic and political uncertainties lead to personal insecurities. For the most vulnerable people, it's a short step to ethnic violence.''

A case in point is the tension between blacks and Koreans, currently so prominent in New York City. According to Dr. Light, who has been studying relations between blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles since 1980, there is an economic undertone to the friction.

''Many blacks see non-black merchants in their communities in a way that heightens tensions,'' said Dr. Light. ''Their theory is that if you spend money with a Korean grocer on the corner, then your money leaves the black community. And that merchant's store blocks the upward mobility of some black who might have had a store of his own there.''

The same economic worries are fueling other intergroup tensions, said Detective Flynn of the Boston police. As part of his duties with the unit that investigates bias crimes, he lectures to high school students. Most of those who commit the crimes are from working-class backgrounds.

''You talk to white kids who feel they can't get any jobs because there's a quota that favors minorities,'' said Detective Flynn. ''You find it just fuels their prejudice and resentment. Then you talk to black kids who feel they're left out of the job market because of their race and you find they have the same animosity toward whites.''

Dr. Light added, ''People get along fine when they have money in their pocket and can pay the rent.''
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
 
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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016