Social distancing and the epidemic of prejudice
Although President Trump has tempered efforts to brand COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” he continues to allege that China caused the global pandemic. Recent claims suggest the original source of the human pathogen was a virology lab in Wuhan, though there is considerable debate whether such reports are based in fact. Such divisive rhetoric serves only to inflame racist sentiments, likely causing the recent spike in bias incidents against Asian Americans, and to stir up nativist hostilities toward “foreigners.” Unfortunately, this is all too common in our hyper-polarized world.
Rather than falling for such blatant attempts to pit the proverbial “us” against “them,” we might consider how this period of global upheaval serves as a reminder of our common humanity. In this current environment, as scientists and politicians urge people to avoid social contact, it is important to remember that in fighting another epidemic — prejudice — social distancing has been part of the problem and social contact part of the solution.
A century ago, the sociologist Emory Bogardus developed a pioneering “social distance scale” to study prejudice. Bogardus asked Americans if they would be willing to admit members of 40 different “races” to various types of social contact, ranging from the most intimate and personal — marrying into one’s family — to the most distant — being admitted as a “visitor” to one’s country. This long list of “races” reflected now-discredited “race science,” but responses to these questions about social distance revealed clear hierarchies in terms of majority attitudes toward minority groups.
In the post-World War II period, civil rights groups, social scientists, and universities showed an urgent interest in studying prejudice, using the language of “epidemic” and “social disease” to describe the problem of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice. They sought to understand the roots of prejudice and bigotry to find more effective ways to prevent them or reduce the “virulence” of the next outbreak. Unlike our present moment, their antidote to epidemic was not social distance, but social contact. In what is now called the intergroup contact hypothesis, social psychologist Gordon W. Allport, in his classic The Nature of Prejudice (1954), argued that equal status contact between majority and minority groups could reduce prejudice and stereotypes. For example, Allport found that the more “equal status” contacts white college students had in school, at work, in recreational activities, or as friends and neighbors with members of minority groups, the less prejudice they held toward such groups. Other examples involved white Americans who lived with African American neighbors in integrated public housing or white soldiers serving with African American soldiers.
When Allport wrote, pervasive racial discrimination prevented social contact on terms of equality in schools, workplaces, civic spaces, and, in many states, marriage and family life. It was not until 1967, with Loving v. Virginia, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws barring interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Like Gunnar Myrdal, Allport reported the tactic of the white supremacist using the specter of intermarriage — “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” — to oppose any step toward desegregation.
The legacy of segregation persists to this day through various forms of structural racism that reinforce disparities in healthcare, education, wealth, and other factors. Such disparities are now evident in the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color in the United States.
Allport published The Nature of Prejudice on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled the Supreme Court’s infamous endorsement — in Plessy v. Ferguson — of the “separate but equal” doctrine. He and other social scientists argued for robust civil rights laws and argued that one beneficial result of such laws would be social contact on terms of equality, which could reduce prejudice. Civil rights leaders made similar arguments in support of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964: Such laws aimed at ending discriminatory conduct, but could eventually change hearts and minds.
Decades later, the intergroup contact hypothesis remains a fixture in the scientific study of prejudice between groups and how to reduce it. Hundreds of studies have confirmed the hypothesis, including in areas beyond Allport’s original focus. Many believe that a crucial factor in the societal shift toward accepting same-sex marriage was social contact as people came out to their neighbors and parents. Other studies confirm a reduction in prejudice with respect to older people and people with disabilities.
Scientists caution that the future may bring new pandemics that spread even more quickly. As we practice social distancing in dealing with COVID-19 and future pandemics, we should remember the value of social contact for fighting the epidemic of prejudice — even if that contact takes virtual forms — and we must resist calls to stoke the flames of bigotry amidst this crisis.
It is imperative that prudent social distancing to fight a pandemic not bring a return to the kind of social distancing that grew out of and perpetuated prejudice.
Linda C. McClain is the Robert Kent Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law and author of “Who’s the Bigot? Learning from Conflicts over Marriage and Civil Rights Law.” Follow her on Twitter @ProfLMcClain