Racism and Poor Education Contribute To Fear Of Terrorism
Mark, a regular Irregular Times reader, wrote yesterday about the general difficulty in accurately judging risk that contributes to dramatic exaggerations of the dangers of terrorism. He writes, “It’s well documented that humans are horrible judges of risk. They overestimate risks for situations in which they have little to no control, but underestimate risk for situations in which they have at least some control.
For example, people overestimate the risks associated with air travel, terrorism, natural disasters, random shootings, vaccinations, pesticides in foods, etc.
People underestimate risks associated with tobacco smoking, automobile driving, climate change, pollution, guns in homes, consumption of certain foods (fats, meats, sugars, processed foods), obesity, sedentary lifestyle. Often this is related to the psychological conflict of changing personal behaviors that are necessary to lessen the risk.”
Mark is right to take note of the general inaccuracy with which people judge the risks of harm in their lives. The results of a Pew poll released yesterday, however, suggest that the extent to which Americans are currently exaggerating the risk of terrorism has been heightened by some other disturbing social factors, among them poor education and racism.
It may seem weird to say that Americans’ overblown fear of terrorism has anything to do with racism, but the relationship is made plain in the results of the poll. 50 percent of poll respondents identifying themselves as “white” indicated that they believe the federal government is doing a poor job in reducing the threat of terrorism. Only 30 percent of poll respondents identifying themselves as “black” shared the same opinion.
It’s not as if African-Americans are less subject to terrorist attack than European-Americans. Neither do African-Americans have an innately superior biological ability to judge risk. The huge gap of fear of terrorism between “white” and “black” is an artifact of a racist culture.
Terrorism in the United States is an exceptionally rare event. Within the tiny number of terrorist attacks in recent history, however, a sizable number have been committed by Christians, rather than Muslims. We don’t need to go back to Timothy McVeigh and his Christian friends who organized the Oklahoma City bombing, an event that seems to have been wiped out of Americans’ collective memory. Consider, for example, the case of Dylan Roof, the young Christian who, emboldened by neo-Confederate ideology, killed nine African-Americans earlier this year.
When Americans think of terrorism, they think of terrorism by Muslims, and concoct plans to deprive all Muslim Americans of their civil rights as punishment. What does this have to do with racism? In the United States, African-Americans make up only about one tenth of the total population, but they make up one quarter of the Muslim population. Most of the other Muslim Americans are non-European in ancestry as well.
Racism is just one of the ugly contributors to out-of-proportion fear of terrorism in American culture. Poor education is another. The Pew poll shows that the less education an American has, the more likely that American is to believe that the government isn’t doing enough to prevent terrorist attacks. Only 40 percent of people with graduate degrees have this fear, while 55 percent of people with a high school degree or less do.
Formal education isn’t the only problem, though. The ongoing and inaccurate education that people receive from journalists contributes to the fear. Rreporters in print, on the radio, on the Internet and on TV spin regularly wild stories about how the threat of terrorism is constantly around us, and on the rise, although the evidence suggests that the opposite is the case.
It isn’t just Fox News that’s the problem. Recently, we noted how the New York Times allowed Liam Stack to write a long story, without any effort at critical verification, filled with Americans’ fears that terrorist “mass shooters” were a likely threat in their own lives. In November, 8 of the daily episodes of NPR’s Diane Rehm Show had to do with efforts to combat Muslim terrorists, though the risk of death by Muslim terrorist attack in the United States is almost non-existent.
Fear of terrorism is a political tool in the United States, used to advance an extremist right wing agenda. It’s time for people who disagree with that agenda to get smart, acquaint themselves with the facts, and start talking loudly and often about the hoax of a substantial Muslim terrorist threat.