Una Osili: Because no one is born hating another human being

August 24, 2018

Una OsiliIt has been a year since deadly violence, rage and anger gripped Charlottesville, Virginia, and our nation. Intense feelings continue today, and I still have far too many questions about how we bridge the divides that engulf our communities at home and abroad.

Today, hate crimes in the United States appear to be on the rise, reaching their highest level in more than a decade. The FBI defines a hate crime as any “criminal offense against a person or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

One underexplored question is how leaders within government, business and the not-for-profit sector in our state can address growing movements of intolerance and bigotry. Following the violence of 2017, the Chamber of Commerce in Charlottesville reported declines in sales tax revenue and tourism, and vast damage to the city’s image and morale.

When thinking about how we as Hoosiers can address long-standing issues of race and discrimination, economists are not the first people that come to mind to lead change. But looking back over the last 60 years, this has not been the case. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Nobel laureate Gary Becker broke new ground in economics by studying the determinants of discrimination and the racial divide.

A key insight from his work is the role that markets and institutions can play in weakening prejudice and intolerance. Although not a behavioral economist, Becker’s work suggested that market forces and public policy could influence preferences and attitudes.

Understanding the mechanisms that form preferences led economists such as Douglass North, another Nobel Prize recipient in economic sciences, to study the role of institutions. North defines institutions as “formal constraints—rules that human beings devise” and “informal constraints—such as conventions and rules of behavior.” In my own research, I have found that institutions, both formal and informal, shape economic outcomes.

On a recent trip to South Africa that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, I thought about how government and citizens can “bridge the chasms that divide us,” as Mandela put it at his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president.

His words and leadership for change have shaped my own life since grade school. One passage from his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” stays with me: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Turning Mandela’s powerful insights into practice in Indiana, one important policy tool we can use to address racially motivated crimes is to enact anti-hate-crime legislation. Given the high societal burden of racial violence, legal statutes might reduce the occurrence of hate crimes. However, policymakers face limits in their ability to legislate new outcomes or influence how attitudes are formed. Legal statutes can only change the way racial intolerance manifests itself.

The events of Charlottesville remind us of the high costs of racial prejudice and violence in our own communities. They also serve to remind us that, ultimately, how leaders across sectors—business, government and nonprofits—address hate crimes can have a lasting impact on our society’s ability to tackle the rising tide of racial intolerance.

Mandela’s example and words ring louder today: No one is born hating another human being.•

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Osili is professor of economics and associate dean for research and international programs at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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