In the 1970’s Henri Tajfel a social psychologist at Bristol University conducted a series of amazing experiments about prejudice. What he learned was that ordinary people have an automatic bias toward “us” and against “them.” This applies even when the “us” is assigned randomly by the throw of a dice. Prejudice, he discovered, is cognitively deep-seated and is not a result of personality factors. Understanding this “in group” bias is helpful when devising strategies to counteract reflexive bias against immigrants who are almost always considered to be outsiders.
Since people almost automatically don’t like outsiders, telling them that they have to change their attitude probably won’t work. A more effective strategy could be to redefine the group to include the outsiders or even to create a new group that includes both groups. For example many Americans think of Mexicans as “them” and want to exclude them. It might be possible to create a new group of North Americans that included Canadians, Mexicans and Americans and the “them” that we exclude could be Europeans, Asians or Russians.
This strategy certainly isn’t Cosmopolitanism or open borders but it is a move in that direction. It appears to be beginning to work in Europe where with the EU they have now gone almost seventy years without a major war.
Within the USA using words like “neighbors”, “Christians” and “working people” to redefine the undocumented has already had a positive effect on acceptance of this group by what is now a plurality of Americans. Perhaps by defining the vocal minority that still opposes a pathway to citizenship as a “them.” Even an anti-American them of haters could have an effect.
The work of Henri Tajfel shines a new light on group dynamics, the acceptance of strangers and prejudice. Yes these feeling are deep-seated but once we understand how they work there are workarounds and progress toward a fairer more inclusive world can be made.