Us-versus-them is a powerful political dividing tool

Just how serious is racism in America?

A recent NBC poll reported that not only do 64 percent of Americans think it is a serious problem, 45 percent believe it is getting worse.

At a rally in Tennessee, President Trump spoke of “chain immigration” flooding the country with foreigners, of our trade deficit with Mexico, of the arrests at the border, and of the wall we will have.

And he didn’t stop there.

The president spoke of the MS-13 gang and prodded the crowd to respond “animals.” Over and over. “Animals.”

A “good news” story online provides a contrast. A white man stopped to help a black family, stranded on a freeway with a flat tire and no jack. Not just any white man — a young one wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt. He had passed them by, exited the freeway and doubled back to help.

An appreciative family member posted, “The Confederate flag obviously doesn’t mean to him what it does to me.”

Maybe we aren’t as divided as we fear.

A 1930s study indicated that. A Stanford sociologist traveled 10,000 miles with a young Chinese couple, stopping in 250 restaurants and hotels. Only one refused them.

Then he sent out questionnaires and got 150 returns. All but two said no, we do not serve Chinese (Stanford Magazine, Jan. 2017).

Faced with a real, live couple, people were more cordial than they wanted others — and perhaps even themselves — to believe.

That fits my own experience growing up. Idahoans would say, “he’s not like other Negroes.” They could could embrace both their friendship and their prejudice.

It’s great to learn that we are nicer than we think.

It’s not so great to realize that socially transmitted prejudice can override personal experience.

Apparently, humans are preprogrammed to need us-versus-them conflict and to believe that we are winning — or will be when everything is set right.

The need is so strong, it persists even when everyone knows the rivalry is a made-up one — like studies on dividing blue-eyed and brown-eyed students or Stanford’s infamous experiment giving some students the role of prisoner and others, of guard.

And people use this need to gain power.

During the Populist movement of the 1890s, blacks and whites united to battle the monopolies that kept farm income down. It was destroyed when those in power revived the Ku Klux Klan and passed Jim Crow laws. Whites who didn’t own shoes and couldn’t sign their own names abandoned their own cause to join a winning team invented by their oppressors.

Iranian women had centuries of participation in politics and education behind them and seemed poised to win the fight against Muslim extremists, but a war against Iraq demanded loyalty to country and undercut all opposition.

And while us-versus-them makes many disregard their own nature, it releases inhibitions against violence and dominance in others. All-American kids sent to Iraq not only tortured prisoners of war without orders, but proudly photographed themselves doing it.

So now we have a president — and a party — opposing refugees and undocumented aliens. Thousands supported Trump and joined in shouting “animals” when he spoke of a “them” few had heard of until a few weeks ago.

This is the question. How many of those supporters could take toddlers and frightened youngsters away from their parents day after day?

Or are they encouraging actions that contradict their own internal values?

Note this editorial published by Idaho Tribune May 31, 2018