Long before last week's killings in Charleston, South Carolina, which appear to have been motivated by racial hatred, at least one expert in belief systems wrote that a person's prejudices can be changed.
"Bringing groups together under the right conditions (when the contact is sanctioned by authorities and when groups share common goals, have equal status and engage in cooperative activities) is one of the most effective means of reducing prejudice," wrote Timothy Wilson in "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change."
Last week's tragedy, in which nine people were murdered at Emanuel AME Church by a man described by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as a "hate-filled murderer," has heightened the national conversation and focus on race and relations. It has also provided a contrast in leadership -- between that of President Obama, who has ruminated on the past, labeling prejudice as part of who we are as a nation; and Gov. Haley, who is focused on working together with all Americans for a brighter future.
It would serve Obama well to ruminate over Haley's example and to consider her assertion that prejudice is not part of our country's DNA and that, by working together, we can create a bright future for all Americans.On Monday, standing in the South Carolina State House surrounded by Democrats and Republicans, Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the building.
"We have stared evil in the eye and watched good prayerful people killed in one of the most sacred of places," she said. "We were hurt and broken and we needed to heal. We were able to start that process, not by talking about issues that divide us, but by holding vigils, by hugging neighbors, by honoring those we lost and by falling to our knees in prayer.
"Our state's grieving, but we are also coming together."
Coming together, not pulling apart.
Haley noted that the people of her state had sought their own paths in response to previous crises. "In just the last few months, the nation watched our state go through another time of crisis when we dealt with the betrayal of one of our own and the tragic shooting of Walter Scott. South Carolina did not respond with rioting and violence, like other places have. We responded by talking to each other, by putting ourselves in other people's shoes and by finding common ground in the name of moving our state forward."Finding common ground, moving forward.
"The result: Both Republicans and Democrats, black and white, came together and passed the first body-camera bill in the country," she noted. "And I stand in front of you, a minority female governor, twice elected by the people of South Carolina. Behind me stands my friend, Senator Tim Scott, elected by those same people as one of just two African-American members of the United States Senate."
Across party, across race, together, same goal, equal status.
"The 21st century belongs to us because we have chosen to seize what's in front of us. To do what is right and do it together."
Do what's right -- together.
In stark contrast, in an interview released the same day for the podcast "WTF with Marc Maron," President Obama reflected on race relations and prejudice in America. His perspective was that race relations have improved -- but that prejudice is part of our country's DNA.
"I always tell young people in America, 'Do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s or 60s or 70s.' It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact," Obama began."What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives -- that casts a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on," Obama stated.
The presumption that prejudice is part of who we are as a nation conflicts with Haley's view as articulated in South Carolina.
Obama might do well to remember that a person's DNA cannot be changed, but that prejudice can be changed. It is not part of our country's DNA. Instead, he would do well to understand Wilson's thesis -- that prejudiced belief systems can change by bringing different groups together when the contact is sanctioned by authorities, and when groups share common goals, have equal status and engage in cooperative activities.