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Racism and Violence: Are They Actually Going Away?

It is hard to escape the impression that people are getting more violent and xenophobic. Here is a sample of the headlines for just today (Tuesday, April 10, 2012):

1) An update on the murder of Trayvon Martin (the unarmed black teenager shot by a vigilante in Florida),

2) two White men shot five Blacks as they drove their pickup through a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahama,

3) Syrian troops fired across the Lebanese border into a refugee camp, killing two people and wounding 23 others,

4) police in Tunisia attacked a crowd of protesters with batons and tear gas bombs, and

5) an FBI report documents a 25 percent increase in murders of American police officers.

And all this came from The New York Times, not the New York Daily News! (checking the News website, though, I find the additional headline “Psycho cop shooter had shield-piercing bullets, assault rifle.”)

Last week, I reported on a conference at which several well-known researchers discussed the Origins of Xenophobia. Despite the discussion of numerous findings indicating rampant violence against outsiders from human hunter-gatherer groups to chimpanzees, and even automatic prejudice in rhesus monkeys, I was surprised to find several of the participants somewhat optimistic!

Why? Because it appears that racism and violence are actually decreasing in modern times.

The decrease is documented in (shocking) detail in Steven Pinker’s latest book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Pinker observes that many people think he is kidding when he suggests that humans are becoming less violent, so in the book, he takes great care to document the case.

Below is a graph in which Pinker compares the war deaths from 20th century European and North American states (which encompass two World Wars and various campaigns of genocide) with those from a wide range of non-state societies (Native Americans during the 1840s, Fiji Islanders during the 1860s, Native Africans during the early 1800s, etc.). The dark bars at the bottom are the modern societies.

As a fatalistic Irishman who has cherished the idea that the world is getting bleaker and nastier with each passing year, I did a double-take on seeing that graph. But then I remembered what I’d recently read about the way they waged war back in the Genghis Khan era (which often involved slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the enemy's village after a victory, see Weatherford, 2004). So I thought: “Okay, maybe wars have gotten a bit more civilized, but what about everyday homicides?” Well, check out the next figure, which contrasts the probability someone would be a victim of homicide in Europe today as compared to some of the most peaceful societies studied by anthropologists (including the Inuit and the Bushmen). Not only are you much safer in Europe today, you’re also safer in the United States, even in those big American gang-infested cities where so many people are packing heat.

Well, OK, but at least we’re getting more racist, right? No, again. I did a quick check online and found the following statistics. Americans Blacks and Whites are now three times more likely to marry than in 1980. Fully 40 percent of U.S. born Asians marry Whites. And get this: Among residents of Hawaii, who get a lot of interracial contact, 55 percent of the 9,401 marriages recorded in 2007 were between people of different races.

You don’t have to go to Hawaii, just look around you. Both of my sons, one 34 and the other 8 (and both extremely white bread blonde boys) have had very close friends of Asian, African, and Hispanic ancestry. In our graduate social psychology program, we have students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds—and not because of any strong program of affirmative action—our very best applicants just happen to come from very diverse backgrounds. Last year, my older son shot a tongue-in-cheek ad for my social psychology textbook with Steve Neuberg and Bob Cialdini. It was a take-off on the classic Benetton “United Colors” ads (click on the picture to see an explanation, which isn't central to the point being made here). Our models were grad students in our program. Two things you can’t see in the photo are pertinent to the current issue: the woman on the left (Allecia Reid, who was born in Jamaica) is married to a Caucasian man, and the woman on the right (Jessica Li, who was born in Hong Kong) is going to marry a Caucasian man this summer. Marriage is the ultimate test of implicit attitudes, a pretty strong test of what you really feel. And it appears that young people are increasingly feeling pretty oblivious to race.

But then: Why does it seem like things are getting worse? One possible explanation is that the media (like today’s New York Times) keeps leading with the negative bloody stories they think will sell copy. After we read so many of those headlines, the availability heuristic takes over, it’s awfully easy to think of examples of homicidal violence, racial intolerance, and racially motivated violence, hence it must be quite common.

So should I stop being fatalistic, and should we all relax about the world going to hell? Not so fast, there’s still overpopulation. Sure, we’re all coming to love one another, now if we’d just use birth control when we express those warm and fuzzy positive feelings...

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature.

Related blogs

Origins of xenophobia: Why can't we all just get along?


Hawaii still leads U.S. with highest rate of mixed marriages. Honolulu Advertiser. May 27, 2010.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature. New York: Viking

Weatherford, J. (2004). Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. NY: Crown.