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(Portside.com, April 17, 2020)
With all the talk about social distancing during the last two months, I can’t help thinking about my graduate school days when I learned about the Social Distance Scale developed almost a century ago by sociologist Emory Bogardus. Although the times and conceptions of social distance are quite different then and now, issues of racism, xenophobia, anxiety and fear connect the two.
Today, because of the COVID-19 threat, we are all encouraged to practice social distance, meaning keeping physical space from people to protect ourselves and others from the virus. This makes sense to slow the spread of the virus. Fortunately, the Trump administration is finally taking COVID-19 more seriously, sort of. Fear of getting sick and anxiety over staying healthy, but isolated, are rising.
In the 1920s, when Bogardus developed the Social Distance Scale, he was concerned with race and ethnic prejudice. It was a time of immigration restrictions and legalized Jim Crow segregation, especially in the South.
Respondents were given a list of different race and ethnic groups and were asked to indicate “the most intimate relationship that you are willing to accept with a member of each of the groups indicated — as close relatives by marriage, as close personal friends, as neighbors on the same street, as co-workers in the same occupation, as citizens in the country, as only visitors in the country, or by excluding them from the country.” A score of 1 was given if an individual would accept someone from another group as close relatives by marriage (i.e., low social distance/low prejudice). A score of 7 would be given if an individual would exclude someone from a different group from the country (i.e., high social distance/high prejudice).
In addition to measuring individual prejudice, Bogardus could also measure how different groups were seen by the general public. People of color were generally given high social distance/high prejudice scores by the rest of the population as were many non-protestant, white immigrants to the United States. They were seen as immoral, disease-carrying people who would disrupt American culture. This reflected the immigration restrictions against Chinese and Japanese in the 1920s and the institutionalized racism against blacks. Jews, Irish and Italians were seen as racially different and inferior to white Protestant Americans. Fear of the “other” escalated.
Today, some aspects of the current pandemic policy also reflect the original social-distance-as-prejudice concept. President Trump’s first response to the growing pandemic on January 21 was to ban travel from China where COVID-19 originated. At the time, public health experts were critical of the president, saying other policies like testing, self-quarantine, increasing hospital capacity and not shaking hands were more important. More recently, news outlets have shown that tens of thousands of people traveled to the United States from China, in spite of the ban.
President Trump announced the European travel ban March 12, although the United Kingdom and Ireland were inexplicably exempted from the ban in spite of the rising number of cases in these two countries. (The ban was extended to the UK and Ireland several days later). American citizens and legal residents traveling from Europe, who could also bring the virus to the United States, were also exempted from the ban. Later in the month, the Trump administration closed the border with Mexico and began deporting asylum-seekers who entered the country illegally without any due process. (Mexico had around 100 reported cases of COVID-19 on the time.) Trump’s actions were motivated by xenophobic, tough-on-immigrants policy, including the Muslim ban in addition to his public health concerns?
The President and some other conservatives, also frequently refer to COVID-19 as the “foreign” or “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus even though it exists around the world. This helps to stir up xenophobic prejudice and practice. Many Asian Americans, who have never been to China, are reporting being shunned on the streets or being accused of infecting white Americans. How much of this is due to the fact that COVID-19 originated in China and how much is due to historical anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination as well as the current U.S. – China trade war?
On April 14, Trump announced the freezing of funds for the World Health Organization for causing the spread of the virus. They were too cozy with China.
While we should continue to observe physical social distance to confront the pandemic, we should also be aware of how social-distance-as-prejudice creeps into the Trump administration’s public health policy and other “America First” policies. It’s unfortunate that the Bogardus Social Distance Scale can still be used to measure racist attitudes almost a century since its inception.
Fred L. Pincus
Emeritus Professor of Sociology
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Connection and kindness — over Cap’n Crunch French toast
We can’t give in to bigotry [Commentary]
Mark Cuban is right that we are all affected by cultural stereotypes, but he is wrong about simply accepting this as a fact of life
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban‘s controversial comments about walking across the street if he saw a young black man wearing a hoodie coming toward him late at night got me to thinking about an experience I had 30 years ago.
One night while walking from my Charles Village home to my car, I noticed two young black men walking toward me. It was very dark since the street light had blown out. Should I cross the street? I asked myself, concluding that such a move would be racist since they had just as much right to the sidewalk as I did. I continued walking.
“Give my your f***ing money,” he said.
“Ok, ok, take it,” I replied and gave him my wallet. They grabbed it and ran down the alley. It took about 15 seconds. Stunned, I just stood there and watched. They threw away my wallet after taking the cash, but I remained standing for several minutes. Finally, I walked down the alley and picked up my wallet. My credit card and driver’s license were intact. Since it was dark, I never saw their faces.
I started trembling, and my thoughts raced: I could have been shot, or killed! I’m lucky that I got my wallet back. What do I do now? I drove to my friend’s house, my original destination, and called the police. Since a weapon was involved, the police arrived in minutes, but I couldn’t provide a description of the perpetrators. I declined their request to go down to police headquarters to look a mug shots since it wouldn’t do any good.
Was I stupid for not crossing the street to prove I wasn’t a racist or just naive? I always teach my students that racial stereotypes (exaggerated and distorted beliefs about a particular racial group) always have a grain of truth. Unfortunately, I sampled the grain and it tasted awful.
For months afterward, I was too terrified to walk near that alley. I would look around, twice, before getting out of my car. When I would see a young black man walking toward me, I would start to tremble again. My body ached to walk in the other direction, but I would keep walking. I kept telling myself, over and over again: You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most young black men don’t rob people. Statistically, the likelihood of you getting robbed again is small. Don’t give into the stereotypes. If a young white guy had put a gun to your head, you wouldn’t be afraid of all young whites.
Repeating this mantra kept me going until the terror turned into fear and the fear turned into concern and the concern turned into caution. I’m not sure what I would have done if I weren’t certain that most young black men, with or without hoodies, were law-abiding citizens who were just trying to live their lives.
Mr. Cuban is right that we are all affected by cultural stereotypes (he also said he would cross the street to avoid a white, bald, tattooed man), but he is wrong about simply accepting this as a fact of life. We don’t have to let our behavior be governed by bigotry.
Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at UMBC. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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