In the wake of the shocking violence that erupted Saturday at the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus, racism and bigotry have returned to the national conversation in a way that this nation has not seen since the Civil Rights era more than half a century ago.
The alt-right — a fringe, neo-conservative group that helped elect Donald Trump to office — has a racist, Neo-Nazi platform, which was vividly displayed when they arrived in Charlottesville to protest the takedown of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with torches, shouting white supremacist slogans.
As one can imagine, the science of racism is far more complex than simply believing that people who don’t look like you (should you be white) are genetically and biologically below you in a stratified worldview.
But social psychology has repeatedly shown that racists are racist because they don’t look at minorities as human. In fact, they think that they’re sub-human, even ape-like.
Nour Kteily is an assistant professor of management and organization at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. His research focuses on social hierarchy and why certain people become more powerful in groups than others.
Kteily has pioneered an ingenious new way of measuring social hierarchy and racism using a sliding scale of the famous “march of progress” cartoon (the one depicting how humans evolved from apes, though scientists have repeatedly rebuked this portrayal of evolution) to measure dehumanization of a group. The cartoon acts as an apt visual metaphor for studying how groups dehumanize others, thinking of people who are not like them as somehow animalistic.
It’s simple: A participant is given a person of some background to consider (for example, Syrians). They are then asked to slide the scale — zero is ape, 100 is human — to where they believe the person exists.
Everyone — regardless of background — is human and scores a 100, right? Well, not quite: It’s not how the alt-right views those who are not white men, and in an upcoming study Kteily co-authored with social psychologist Patrick Forscher of the University of Arkansas, we’re only now realizing the deep seated, disturbing ways the group’s members see non-white men.
In perhaps the first study to investigate how the emerging faction of conservatism looks at race, Kteily and Forscher recruited 447 self-proclaimed alt-righters to take an extensive psychological survey on Amazon Mechanical Turk, then compared those results to 382 non-alt-right individuals. (Note: The study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, but it uses standard psychological and statistical practices and is available online for review.)
One of the most striking, disturbing results of the survey was the fact that alt-righters view minorities more like apes than human. Forscher and Kteily used the dehumanization sliding scale and asked participants how they viewed certain groups: Muslims, African Americans, Jews, Arabs, and more.
The results were startlingly clear: Those who identified as alt-right viewed people who were not white as animalistic. Muslims clocked in at 55.4 — walking chimp level. Blacks were like tool-carrying primates at 64.7. Jews were considered like protohumans, at 73.
White people? They were a 91.8.
The clarity of the patterns between race and dehumanization illustrates two key findings.
First, those who identify as the alt-right view people who are not white as lower than them socially, biologically, and intellectually. Second, they view minorities as inhuman and animal-like.
That last point is especially important, in that it explains a lot of the root of racism within the alt-right. Much of the post-Charlottesville coverage has centered around how white people who do not consider themselves alt-right should be calling out everyday acts of racism. But Forscher and Kteily’s data suggest that that strategy won’t necessarily work for alt-righters who truly believe that non-white people aren’t even human.
It’s not the first time that social psychology has pointed out the fact that dehumanization is the root cause of racism. In the last couple years alone, two key studies — one focused on African Americans, the other on Syrian refugees — have shown that implicit bias plays a huge role in how some people, alt-right or not, view those who are not like them. A 2015 study found that while the average black man was almost exactly the same height and weight and stature of the average white man, people tended to believe the black man was bigger and more threatening. In fact, with white men facing the majority of economic difficulty in a time of technological change, many have taken their hopelessness and transferred their frustrations at black men, who they view — surprise — as animalistic.
Finally, the implications of this study indicate that the violence of Charlottesville and its aftermath are explainable by this animalistic worldview. To the alt-right, the violence is justified because the groups they are inflicting it on are not human. To inflict pain and injury is not morally questionable when an individual is seen as animal-like.
And that’s what you see when Christopher Cantwell, the Unite the Right white nationalist organizer in Vice’s documentary on Charlottesville, reflects about the car that plowed through “our rivals … stupid animals”: “We didn’t aggress. We did not initiate force against anybody. We’re not nonviolent. We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.”
So when President Trump argues that the venn diagram of white supremacists does not overlap those who identify as alt-right, Forscher and Kteily’s study proves him wrong: The alt-right is racist. Science proves it.