Racial, Ethnic, and Homophobic Violence: Killing in the Name of Otherness

By Michel Prum; Bénédicte Deschamps et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
The impact of interdependence
on racial hostility
The American experience

Jack Levin and Gordana Rabrenovic


THE IMPACT OF INTER-GROUP CONTACT
ON PREJUDICE

Social psychologists have long suggested that prejudice was largely a result of ignorance – a lack of knowledge about another group of people.1 From this standpoint, the members of hostile groups need to engage together in activities that allow them to gain mutual understanding. This explanation became commonly known as the contact theory of prejudice, whereby increased interaction between the members of different groups is expected to decrease the antagonism between them.

We realise, of course, that not every form of contact leads to improved inter-group relations. Indeed, there are numerous examples that support the opposite conclusion: that physical proximity can lead to an escalation of conflict and violence. This was made abundantly clear in the escalation of hostility between black and Jewish residents of the Crown Heights neighbourhood of New York City. In August 1991, following a long history of mutual resentment, a seven-year-old black child, Gavin Cato, was killed in an accident involving an Orthodox Jewish motorist, whose car had jumped the curb.2 To retaliate, black youngsters ran through the streets of Crown Heights, shouting anti-Semitic epithets and threats. Shortly thereafter, a twenty-nine-year-old rabbinical student from Australia who was totally unrelated to the accident was stabbed to death. For almost a week, Blacks and Jews exchanged insults, broke windows in homes and cars, and threw bottles and rocks at one another. Before the violent confrontation finally ended, dozens more were injured.3

In Crown Heights, mistrust and suspicion were palpable on both sides. Many black residents were convinced that the motorist who hit the black child would be completely exonerated, because of the perception that Jewish residents had an unfair advantage in the way they were treated by city officials. At the same time, the Jewish residents of Crown Heights were equally certain that the black mayor of New York City would never bring the murderer of the Australian rabbinical student to justice.

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