The word is rooted in the ancient Greek for stranger. Ancient man likely had good reason to suspect and fear the stranger… and the unknown in general. In modern times, considering the degree of human progress, I have to wonder why this fear remains… and why we spend so much time and energy seeking people to fear.
In 1967, in response to a simple student question about the holocaust, a California history teacher developed an experiment. Ron Jones wanted to demonstrate for his students the means dictatorship could be accomplished with the cooperation of the very people affected. Mr. Jones got much more than he expected. In a period of under two weeks, Jones demonstrated just how easy it is to turn ordinary school kids into unthinking automatons intent upon forcing all others into a particular behavior. The results of this experiment are well documented [HERE] [HERE] and [HERE]… and quite frightening.
The day following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, third grade teacher Jane Elliott of Riceville, Iowa modified a lesson intended to teach about American Indians to incorporate racism and racial hatred. Elliott’s simple exercise became known as the Brown eyes/Blue eyes experiment, and received national notoriety. See [HERE] [HERE] and [HERE]. The results were far different than anyone expected.
Elliott divided the 8-year olds, all whites, according to eye color. She purposely heaped praise on the blue-eyed children, while being more critical of those with brown eyes. The children with blue eyes were dubbed superior, and those with brown eyes inferior. The browns were segregated from the blues in many of the same ways blacks had historically been segregated (i.e. sitting in the back of the class, different drinking fountains, etc.) Over a period of time the blue-eyed children became bossy, arrogant and abusive to the brown-eyed subclass.
As in the Ron Jones experiment just the year before, the results were startling. In both cases it proved surprisingly simple to turn one “class” of children against another based solely upon arbitrary, cosmetic variations and bogus, pseudoscientific fabrication. Both experiments demonstrated how easily class and racial divisions are fostered in the young mind.
These experiments parallel the formation of life-long prejudices. Jane Elliott tells of how she discovered previously held biases of her all white class against American Indians (which was the reason she planned her original lesson,) as she listened to the children describe Indians as lazy and untrustworthy. She discovered that the kids had similar views of blacks and Hispanics. We see the same fears and prejudices in adults to this very day resulting in speculation that such prejudices are very easily learned at a young age… with lifelong effect.
Although prejudice is far from an American exclusive, we’ve seen far more than our fair share of violence perpetrated in the name of fear or bias. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, early speculation caused blame to be cast upon Muslim terrorists. Even after McVeigh was identified as the bomber, the FBI arrested a homeless man by the name of Hussain Al-Hussaini, because he was alleged to have been seen with McVeigh prior to the bombing. Al-Hussaini, a Muslim, was later released without charge.
Rabid Muslim hater Pam Geller speculated at the time that McVeigh did the dastardly deed because he was a Muslim sympathizer… a charge that continues to circulate on ultra-right wing websites, in much the same way the Obama/Muslim conspiracy theories circles.
Fast forward to 2001. Two weeks following the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Mesa, Arizona gas station attendant Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death at his work. His killer was found quickly and arrested. In explanation he claimed to be exacting revenge for the 9/11 attacks. As he was being arrested, the murderer shouted out, "I stand for America all the way." Sodhi was of the Sikh culture… wore a turban and was of south Asian ancestry. He was not Muslim…. But he was different. Sodhi was the first… but not the only victim of post-9/11 hate and hysteria.
Xenophobic fear, hatred and ignorance resulted in his death. Sodhi was every bit as much a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as any of the 3,000 who died in the Trade Centers … the Pentagon… or on United flight 93, yet Arizona legislators introduced and passed a bill that would eliminate Sodhi’s name from a planned 9/11 memorial for the state. To her credit, AZ Governor Brewer vetoed that bill.
Memorial designer Matthew Salenger said, "I think we overestimated how much respect people would have for each other and their views." Deluxe understatement.
The focus of American xenophobia has changed over the years. At one time or another we’ve targeted Catholics, the Irish, Italians, Chinese, American Indians, blacks, Japanese, the French, Hispanics… and others I can’t think of at the moment. Now the Muslims have become our fear du jour.
Humans strive mightily to divide the world into a competition between "us" and "them." We do this so quickly and so easily that the drive to do so must come from some deep-seated, innate need to fear. Humans have evolved into a higher level than our tree-dwelling ancestors, yet we still possess the innate fear of falling from those trees and becoming easy prey. This need to be afraid of something seems to have survived our evolutionary progress.
Humans may rationally understand that not all of any particular sub-set of society is evil simply because of the behavior of a minority of that sub-set, but we seem to resist translating that rationality into reality.
Must it remain this way? Just as we have evolved to overcome so many other challenges to our progress, we certainly can do the same with xenophobia. The amount of human resource and energy required to hate is simply too costly.
We can do better… and we must.