Friday, April 1, 2022

John Dollard on "free-floating" aggression and racism

 [Note: I'm posting in this, in part, to keep John Dollard's name in my mind.]

Why do people need racism? John Dollard addressed this question in his classic 1937 study, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, which “redirected the study of southern race relations in general and lynching in particular.” The question implies that mistaken beliefs about others are symptoms of racism, not its cause. Racism has some useful function in the individual or collective lives of racists. What function could that be? Dollard’s answer was, in effect: to keep the peace.

Dollard observed that social life is often frustrating, generating aggressive impulses which cannot be always be satisfied. In Dollard’s view this leads to
a generalized or “free-floating” aggression . . . [that] can be thought of as a tendency to kick, hit, scorn or derogate someone or something if one could only find out what. A second necessity is that of a permissive social pattern. This must exist in order to lift the in-group taboos on hostility. The permissive pattern isolates a group within the society which may be disliked. Usually it is a defenseless group. . . The third essential in race prejudice is that the object must be uniformly identifiable. [pp. 445-446]
In other words, white racists are using blacks as scapegoats for the accumulated frustrations they experience in daily life. Aggressive impulses are being displaced from their real objects, which are appropriate targets, to substitute objects, toward whom one can act aggressively.

The idea has certain attractions. It is fairly simply and straightforward and seems applicable in other cases as well. Racism and ethnic scapegoating are certainly not uniquely American. Between the Japanese and the Koreans, the Hindus and Muslims of India, the English and the Irish, the Gypsies and half the world, the Jews and half the world, ethnic scapegoating is common. It almost seems that wherever you have three people, two will get together and blame their troubles on the third. With groups that think of themselves as a people, whether the Serbs or the Hutus or the Germans, it is easy to find other groups to blame and to hate. 
Thus in his study of nineteenth century European aggression, The Cultivation of Hatred, Peter Gay notes that “Ethnic pride and ethnic anxiety were, in many, indistinguishable” and suggests that ethnic scapegoating was the obverse side of the coin of nationalism. The identity a people creates for itself is, in part, the fact that we are most emphatically not them, who are primitive and inferior. He suggests that World War I was a tremendous release for a frustrated and repressed Europe for “the war released aggressive impulses of which people had been unconscious in calmer times.”
* * * * * 
I elaborate on this in a post that dates back to 2014, Blacks, Blues, and Soul Sickness: Lynching and Racism in the USofA.

Here's a post that discusses the Amazon series, The Underground Railroad, and then lists several posts about racial violence. I particularly recommend Empaths & Gangstas: On the psycho-sociology of race in America [Media notes, Star Trek S3 E12].

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