Prejudice and the Culture of Fear

It was an invitation I didn’t expect. A representative of the Georgia Psychological Association asked if I’d be willing to speak on a panel. The topic is similar to one I see in many places: police and community relationships after Ferguson. It turns out that the person who asked me to be part of the panel regularly reads my blog: e-merging.

A few days ago, I received a copy of the questions the panelists are asked to discuss. The questions are very specific. They address existing laws and pending legislation in Georgia as well as specific law enforcement practices in the Greater Atlanta area. Many of the questions are tied to perceptions of racism or other forms of inequity.

In preparing for the panel, I’ve thought about my own dealings with law enforcement since moving to Atlanta three years ago. I live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. That’s true for most of Atlanta. The city is located in two counties (Fulton and DeKalb) and both are over 60% African-American. When my neighborhood association has invited law enforcement personnel to our meetings, all representatives for the precinct have been African-American. About a half dozen police officers stopped in at our neighborhood block party last year. I recall one of the officers being white and the rest were African-American. My point is that the issues in Atlanta aren’t like most of the United States in terms of a racial divide. However, various forms of social division are part of life in Atlanta just as social divisions are present elsewhere.

Issues of race aren’t as simple as they once were. In the Civil Rights era, there were specific laws that enforced a racial divide. Those laws have been repealed. Yet, racism and other kinds of social division remain. Further, most people don’t see themselves as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Yet, these social ills remain evident in American life and are commonly expressed.

I think we need a different starting point in discussing social division today. Discussions about whether something is racist, sexist, or homophobic become circular. Many people are left with a sense that it’s okay for one person to say or do a certain thing but it’s not okay for another person to say or do that same thing. Instead, I think it’s more helpful to acknowledge that people around the world tend to make generalizations about the differences among people. Social differences are often the basis for division. For example, in one culture, the differences may be due to tribal affiliation while in another it may be skin color.

Generally, during periods of social change and uncertainty, prejudice based on differences becomes more common. Uncertainty often gives rise to fear and a sense of threat. Whether the threat is real (the lack of food, water, or other basic resources), or vague (the possibility of an unspecified threat from an unknown group of terrorists), people have a greater need for social control when societal fear increases. The need for social control can lead to increased suspicion, prejudice and violence toward those groups of people who are different from the majority. I believe that the increase in racism and other social phobias in the US are related to a generalized sense of fear, insecurity, and a lack of social stability.

Over the last two decades there has been a pervasive sense of fear in the United States. Some segments of the media, certain politicians, and various public figures have been very artful in using fear and the possibility of various threats to enhance themselves. The fear of home invasion, worries about the possibility of a global apocalypse, and suspicion about the activities of new immigrants have been very profitable for some businesses. Various political leaders use fear-based tactics to assure their re-election. Some members of the news media have also inspired fear of various officials to undermine their policies. Such pervasive fear builds on existing prejudice and ignorance. I believe that among the results of this culture of fear are increased racism and homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, and a desire to arm the nation with personal fire arms as well as increase military spending.

Changing the culture of fear in which we live is not a simple task. While it’s important to call on leaders and elected officials to end their fear-based tactics, what’s more critical is that we begin to take steps to build stronger communities. Following a number of burglaries in my neighborhood, the neighborhood association invited a number of police and security experts to help address our concerns. We organized a neighborhood patrol and worked closely with police. But what helped the most was having a block party that was well organized and attended by most of the neighbors. That became a turning point to be more involved with one another. As we got to know our neighbors and had a greater interest in them, the neighborhood crime rate also decreased. When we were simply afraid and focused on security, crime continued at a higher level. But when we intentionally became an engaged neighborhood and active community, the overall quality of life improved and crime decreased.

While I still need to be able to speak about specific legislation at the panel discussion, I think I have a different perspective to bring: fear breeds division; community and cooperation improve quality of life. It’s true for my neighborhood as well as for the city and country. Our personal actions do make a difference.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Prejudice and the Culture of Fear

  1. Diann Pfotenhauer says:

    I have observed that people fear what they don’t understand or have very little knowledge about. It also seems to me, that the world is linked together through mass media and personal technology. News travels quickly and news is accessed as soon as it happens, anywhere in the world. When people are bombarded with the horrific news stories, as they unfold world wide, the mind goes into survival mode. Fear becomes a common thing in our mind. It is not noticed but it’s there, it becomes a part of us. Politicians/rulers, have used fear for ever/over centuries, to control the masses. Put some fear into the people and they can be more easily kept in line, to do the bidding of their “rulers”. I believe we do live in an unsettled world. It is wise to be alert to our surroundings. It is prudent not to have our heads in the clouds and be aware of the time in which we live. One moment we are safe but the next moment could bring unthinkable disaster. It is happening every day, in Australia and overseas. It is a rare person, who can put everything into prospective and live in peace and security, in his own mind.

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