Racism in America presents a significant challenge to national unity. Particularly now — as the US population becomes more polarized — leaders must take action to address our declining social cohesion. One solution is to expand national service opportunities and encourage all young Americans to take part. Large-scale service could prove instrumental in both dismantling prejudice and rebuilding a national identity.
Cultivating acceptance and tolerance throughout the American population requires a long-term plan. After all, the social and political polarization we see today did not appear overnight. This was a gradual process that began with the rise of identity politics throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In a sort of harmful feedback loop, political actors and the media became increasingly polarized to appeal to a polarizing public, further polarizing them in the process. This accelerated with the advent of the internet and the ability of like-minded people to insulate themselves within online “bubbles” of confirmation bias. Add to this the fact that technology has given malicious foreign actors an unprecedented capability to amplify these domestic divisions, and you have a recipe for disaster. While many in politics are guilty of contributing to this polarization, some are waking up to the reality that it poses a significant threat to national security.
A few politicians have suggested expanding service opportunities to improve national unity. Pete Buttigieg made this a part of his presidential campaign platform last year. Nine Democrats and seven Republicans in Congress co-sponsored a bill in February to increase service participation. Side note: I get excited whenever I see anything with bipartisan support in today’s political climate. Buttigieg and 14 of the above representatives share something in common. They are all military veterans.
As a veteran myself, their support for service comes as no surprise. Every veteran has experienced the unifying effect of service — where those from every background, race, and ethnicity come together for a cause greater than themselves. This dynamic is present in other forms of service as well.
Government-sponsored civilian service through various AmeriCorps programs can achieve much of the same unifying results. These programs tackle some of the nation’s most pressing issues, often partnering with nonprofit and private organizations to support our poorest communities. The Peace Corps — another option — provides support to communities abroad.
Each year, many of these service options have far more applicants than slots available. That is unfortunate, because enabling the majority of young Americans to serve could upend the concerning trend of polarization we see today.
Mending social divisions through service
America is still the land of opportunity. This is made clear by the fact that so many around the world want to be here. Yet the same opportunities are not necessarily available to all Americans. Prejudice continues to contribute to disparities in areas like employment, wages, social mobility, and policing.
The manner in which we approach this problem is critical. If we are tempted by proposed quick-fixes for these disparities — more diversity quotas, racial wealth redistribution, defunding police, etc.— we will drive the country further apart. If we instead look for ways to remedy the underlying cause of the disparities — prejudice — we can bring the country together like never before.
Unfortunately, the human brain is wired for prejudice. Negative preconceptions thrive in environments where interaction between different groups is limited. The solution is to create positive interactions between people of different identity groups to override the negative programming that may exist.
The key here is positive interactions. Certain conditions must be present to produce the desired outcomes of acceptance and tolerance. Psychologist Gordon Allport, in his seminal 1954 work The Nature of Prejudice, identified four conditions necessary for inter-group activity to result in a reduction in prejudice. These are equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support. In psychology, this is now referred to as the contact hypothesis. In my experience, these conditions provide the bedrock for effective teambuilding in nearly any environment.
The four conditions of equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support illustrate why service is capable of mending our social divisions.
Equal status means that all members of a team engage as equals in its endeavors. Similarities between members should be emphasized and differences minimized. It is important to negate any perception of a hierarchy among teammates.
For example, upon arrival to boot camp all military recruits get the same haircut, put on identical uniforms, and begin at the lowest rank. Civilian service participants typically wear team shirts and interact as equals, regardless of who they are or where they came from. This equality provides the foundation for cohesion within these groups.
Cooperation towards a Common Goal
A shared goal is critical for positive outcomes. The goal must also demand cooperation between members. This dynamic is prevalent in sports, where teammates form close bonds while striving to win a championship.
These conditions are also ever present within the military, especially during times of war. Few goals are more unifying than protecting and defending the interests of your country, and nothing has higher stakes for cooperation.
Civilian service has an endless list of possible shared goals. These might include rebuilding a community after a disaster, working on critical infrastructure projects, or developing local solutions to fight poverty, to name a few. And of course, cooperation plays a huge role in all these efforts.
Institutional support refers to support for positive inter-group interactions by those in charge. This support might be expressed through an institution’s policies, laws, or customs. Organizational leaders should enforce measures that ensure equal treatment and condemn comparisons between identity groups.
Leadership within the military and civilian service organizations have continually demonstrated a commitment to ensuring equal treatment and equal opportunities for all their members.
The four conditions of equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support illustrate why service is capable of mending our social divisions. Most diversity efforts in America today fall short because they fail at fulfilling one or more of these necessary conditions.
Why current diversity efforts fall short
If we are willing to take a hard look at the state of prejudice in America today, a few concerns emerge.
First, using diversity as selection criteria is an example of treating the symptoms — lack of diversity and inequality — rather than the underlying cause — prejudice. While there are benefits to having a diverse workforce, hiring or promoting for the sake of diversity and at the expense of qualifications can deepen prejudice. This is because it gives the appearance that there are differences in capabilities between identity groups, failing the condition of equal status. In almost all cases, qualified diverse candidates are out there. Yet all too often employers do not engage in the necessary outreach efforts to find them.
Second, there is a lack of cooperative environments for inter-group interactions. While Allport observed that inter-group cooperation leads to a reduction in prejudice, he also noted that competition exacerbates it. Competition — not cooperation — defines the majority of interactions between identity groups today. Online sparring on platforms like Twitter probably comprise the worst of it. But competitive work environments where personal goals override organizational goals can also contribute to prejudice. A two-year service commitment dodges this competition pitfall, as it is a temporary experience where performance among peers is not tied to metrics of societal success and recognition.
Competition — not cooperation — defines the majority of interactions between identity groups today.
Finally, the band-aid approach known as diversity and inclusion training has proven to be woefully ineffective. One study found that asking white Americans to think about the concept of white privilege led to more racial resentment in later surveys. Telling people they should not be racist will never have the impact of showing them their racist beliefs are unfounded through positive interactions with others.
A lesson from one of America’s greatest leaders
Allport’s theory on inter-group contact represents the academic argument for why large-scale national service would be effective at improving social cohesion. Yet even before Allport’s work, great leaders have applied these concepts to great effect. After all, these are observations of human nature, which has not changed much over time.
One famous example is Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership during the Spanish-American War. In 1898, then Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt wanted his regiment — which would become known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders — to represent a diverse mix of the American population at the time. To that end, he recruited Ivy League graduates, athletes, police officers, and other easterners to join the unit which already consisted of a diverse group of westerners, including — but not limited to — Texas Rangers, cowboys, Native Americans, hunters, and miners.
Roosevelt took a few steps to encourage camaraderie within the group. He arranged tents during training to ensure westerners and easterners slept side by side to one another. He organized mixed teams to work together to complete daily tasks. He expressed no favoritism of any kind to any person or group. Money, education, and social status meant nothing to the work at hand. This was equal status in action.
The Spanish-American War provided the Rough Riders with a strong shared purpose. Cooperation was not only required in training and fighting, but in many aspects of their daily lives. Roosevelt’s understanding of human nature and the importance of equal treatment fulfilled the condition of institutional support.
The Rough Riders emerged as the most talked about unit of the war and are now regarded as one of the most famous regiments in American history. The all-volunteer force demonstrated what was possible when very different people work together as equals for a cause greater than themselves.
America is experiencing a crisis of character. We must find ways to come together and we need to start treating each other with more compassion and respect.
War is not required to achieve our desired outcomes. Large-scale service participation can succeed at reducing prejudice and improving national unity as long as those in charge understand and adhere to the principles discussed.
America is experiencing a crisis of character. We must find ways to come together and we need to start treating each other with more compassion and respect. An expansion of national service opportunities would be a powerful step in the right direction.