Torch-bearing white supremacists shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Protesters and counter protesters colliding with violence and chaos. A car driven by a known Nazi sympathizer mowing down a crowd of activists. Many Americans responded to this weekend's violence in Charlottesville with disbelieving horror. How could this happen in America, in 2017? “This is not who we are,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D). And yet, this is Amid our modern clashes, researchers in psychology, sociology and neurology have been studying the roots of racism. We draw on that research and asked two scientists to explain why we feel and act this way toward each other. What causes people to be racist? “In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.” Richeson compares children's instinctive formation of biases to a student at a new school. “When you arrive at a new high school. You are instinctively trying to figure out who’s cool, who’s not, who’s a nerd, who gets beat up? Kids quickly acquire these associations,” she said. To get a sense of just how pervasive and imperceptibly our environment can affect us, one study at Tufts University found that even with a TV show on mute displaying scenes with no explicit discrimination, the nonverbal body language of black and white actors interacting was enough to cause watchers to test higher for implicit bias afterward. “An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called 'in group.'” But how we define those groups, and the tendency to draw divisions along racial lines, is social, not biological, he added. “We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” he said.
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